Egyptian cinema owes its beginnings to a group of intrepid Alexandrians who turned their fascination with a modern technology into a thriving industry.
In the late nineteenth century, Alexandria was a bustling Mediterranean port, home to a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities. From poets and writers to architects, merchants and industrialists, all manner of people found inspiration and opportunity in this fascinating city. For many entrepreneurs, cosmopolitan Alexandria was the gateway to the lucrative and sophisticated Egyptian market and it is not surprising that it is in this city that the Egyptian cinema industry was born.
The Cinématographe Lumière
On 28 December 1895, the Lumière brothers unveiled the Cinématographe—a three-in-one device that could record, develop and project motion pictures—in their first public screening at the Grand Café on Paris’s Boulevard de Capucines. In early 1896, they would open Cinématographe theatres in London, Brussels, Belgium and New York. Egypt was not far behind. On Thursday, 5 November 1896, less than a year after their Paris premiere, the Lumière brothers screened their first films to an excited audience at Café Zavani in the Tousson Pasha Stock Exchange area in Alexandria. Such was the charm of Alexandria that the Lumière cameraman, Alexandre Promio, announced that he would film authentic Egyptian scenes to display all over the world as well as to promote the new films in Egypt. Promio shot Egypt’s first film in 1897 in Alexandria depicting scenery at the Place de Consuls, the tram station at Schutz and the arrival of a train at San Stephano before traveling on to Cairo to film further scenes there.
In 1906, the Lumière brothers sent a second mission to Egypt headed by the French-Algerian photographer Félix Mesguich to film more scenes portraying the customs and traditions of the Egyptian people as well as popular locations such as the Pyramids, the Nile and the Sphinx. Throughout their one-year sojourn in Egypt, travelling from Alexandria, to Cairo and then on to Upper Egypt, Wadi Halfa and finally Khartoum, the Lumière representatives rented and sold cinematic equipment and films.
A Technological Leap of Faith
Egyptian cinema owes its birth mostly to a group of Alexandria’s foreign residents who called the city home. The Italian Umberto Dorès and his Turkish partner Aziz Bandarli owned a photography studio and shop where they also traded in records and gramophones as well as photographic paraphernalia. They established themselves as photographers of the upper classes, eventually becoming the photographers to Khedive Abbas Helmi II and the royal family. When the Lumière brothers held their first screenings in Alexandria, Aziz and Dorès followed with avid interest and an eye on the opportunities presented. On 5 November 1906, they announced the opening of a cinematic showroom at al-Raml station—where Cinema Strand now stands—named Cinémaphon Aziz and Dorès as mentioned by historian Ahmed al-Hadary in his seminal research on the history of Egyptian cinema. It is important to note that the date coincides with the arrival of the second Lumière mission to Egypt which aimed to promote the company’s equipment as well as its films, indicating that the duo were intent on staying abreast of the latest technological developments. That first cinema hall in Alexandra showed films accompanied by musical themes managed by a narrator or mefahemati who would simultaneously translate the foreign intertitles into Arabic for the audience.
A few short months later, Aziz and Dorès attempted to produce the first film made in Egypt. It was a documentary short entitled Ziyarat al-Khidiwi li-Masjid al-Mursi Abu al-Abbas bil-Iskandariyya (The Khedive’s Visit to the Mursi Abu al-Abbas Mosque in Alexandria, 1907). The two partners went on to make a series of films during the years to follow. Some were of national events like the arrival of the sultan at Alexandria Station and the royal procession to Ras al-Teen Palace or the reception of popular politician Aziz al-Masri in Alexandria. Others were of social events—such as the opening of the Empire Cinema which was attended by the elites of Alexandrian and Egyptian society—or sporting events at schools including the Frères School at Saint Catherine’s Church and the Collège Saint Marc in Shatby.
Pleasing the Audience
Aziz and Dorès worked together for the next decade, showing both their own and imported films at their theatre. The name of Aziz Bandarli disappears from all sources by 1917 when Umberto Dorès along with a group of mostly Italian cinematographers set up the short-lived Italian-Egyptian Cinematograph Company (SITCIA) in partnership with the Banco di Roma. SICTCIA established a studio in the Nozha area and produced three shorts with Stelio Chiarini as director of photography. The films—Nahw al-Hawiya (Towards the Abyss, 1917), Sharaf al-Badawi (The Bedouin’s Honour, 1917), and al-Zohour al-Katela (Mortal Flowers, 1918)—were considered too foreign and incoherent by the local audience. The company suffered heavy losses and was forced to liquidate. Dorès continued to consult on films until the 1930s, leaving a legacy of mentorship to the second generation of filmmakers, most prominent of which was Alvise Orfanelli.
Born in Alexandria of Italian parents, Alvise Orfanelli started out as an apprentice working for Aziz and Dorès at their studio. He continued to work for Dorès at SITCIA, soon becoming an assistant photographer. When the company went bankrupt, he was owed financial dues. Instead of cash, he opted for the laboratories as well as camera and lighting equipment. In a villa on al-Qa’ed Gohar Street that he used as a residence and small photography studio, Orfanelli established a cinema studio, using the ground floor as a set, the second floor as dressing rooms for the cast, and the third as an administrative area.
Orfanelli had both ambition, tenacity and the experience gained with Aziz and Dorès. He was soon producing his own films as well as providing services to other filmmakers in Alexandria such as Togo Mizrahi and the Lama brothers. Much as Aziz and Dorès had mentored Orfanelli and others such as Stelio Chiarini, Studio Alvise introduced the likes of Achille Primavera, Giulio di Luca, David Cornell, Bruno Salvi, Kar Kasen, Clelio Cicivelli, and other prominent cinematographers of the era. Brothers Abdel Halim and Mahmoud Nasr, pioneers of Egyptian cinematography, were among the Egyptians who also got their start at Studio Alvise.
Perhaps the most important of Alvise Orfanelli’s many achievements was producing films that appealed to his predominantly Egyptian audience. Capitalizing on the popularity of theatre stars, he collaborated with actors such as Fawzi and Ihsan al-Gazayerli, Ali al-Kassar, Bishara Wakim, and Leon Angel—popularly known as Shalom—in films that were more culturally sensitive. Orfanelli continued to work in Alexandria until 1939 when he moved to Cairo. There, he worked with leading filmmakers such as Niazi Mustafa (Rasseef Nimra Khamssa/Quay Number 5, 1956), Youssef Chahine (Ibn al-Nil/Son of the Nile, 1951, and Bab al-Hadid, 1958), Henri Barakat (Hassan we Naima/Hassan and Naima, 1959), and others until his death in 1961.
An Egyptian Pioneer
Mohamed Bayoumi was not only considered a pioneer in the field of Egyptian cinema, but he was also a poet, a painter, a writer, a caricaturist, a photographer and an art critic. He started out as a lieutenant in the Egyptian army but became fascinated by photography and cinematography and resigned his commission to focus on filmmaking. He immersed himself in the vibrant cultural scene of Alexandria, founding artistic and cultural societies that included artists such as brothers Seif and Adham Wanly and Mohamed Naghi. He also established a short-lived film school and was known to build cinematic equipment from scratch.
Bayoumi travelled to Europe to learn filmmaking and shot his first film in 1923, a documentary short of the people’s reception of popular leader Saad Zaghloul’s return from exile. He went on to make several other documentaries and short films including Barsoum Yabhath ‘an Wazeefa (Barsoum in Search of a Job, 1923) and al-Khateeb Raqam 13 (Fiancé Number 13, 1933). He also founded his own newsreel, Jaridat Amun (Amun Newsreel) and reportedly was the first to suggest the establishment of an Egyptian film studio to Talaat Harb who would go on to found the Misr Company for Acting and Cinema (MCAC), the precursor to Studio Misr.
A Cosmopolitan Hub
As the filmmaking industry grew in Alexandria, it became an attractive destination for filmmakers from as far away as Latin America. Pedro and Abraham Lamas arrived in Alexandria from Chile—some say they were en route to Palestine where they were originally from—with experience in acting, directing and producing. In 1927, they established a photography and film company named Condor Film in the Victoria area using the facilities at Studio Alvise for filming, developing and printing. Changing their names to the more Egyptian-sounding Badr and Ibrahim Lama, they produced several important films both in Alexandria as well as later in Cairo where they eventually moved their studio. Their first film was Qubla fi al-Sahara’ (A Kiss in the Desert, 1927), followed by al-Dahaya (The Victims, 1932), Nofouss Ha’era (Confused Souls,1938), Qais we Laila (Qais and Laila, 1939), Ibn al-Sahara’ (Son of the Desert,1942), and al-Qafila Tasseer (The Travelling Caravan, 1951). All in all, the Lama Brothers produced over 30 films before their untimely deaths. Sadly, neither brother lived very long. Badr died first, most likely of a heart attack. Ibrahim died a few years later in 1953 when, following a period of estrangement from his wife, he went to plead with her to return and ended up shooting both her and himself in a fit of jealousy. His gruesome photograph made the front page the next morning.
By the mid-1920s, Alexandria had become a filmmaking hub, attracting artists and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. For Togo Mizrahi, scion of a wealthy Italian family of Alexandrian textile manufacturers, the cinema exerted an irresistible pull. After completing a graduate degree in economics in Europe, Mizrahi returned to Egypt but resisted all attempts to convince him to join the family business. Rather, he established the fourth cinematic studio in Alexandria where cinematographers Abdel Halim and Mahmoud Nasr joined him from Studio Alvise.
Mizrahi was a pioneer in terms of directing and cinematic technology and directed films of excellent quality starring the dulcet-toned singer Laila Murad in a series of eponymous films such as Laila, Bint al-Reef (Laila, Daughter of the Countryside, 1941), Laila Bint al-Madaress (Laila, the Schoolgirl, 1941), and so on. He also directed and produced films starring one of the era’s foremost theatrical comedians of the time, Ali al-Kassar, including popular hits such as Mit Alf Gineih (A Hundred Thousand Pounds, 1936), Salefny Talata Gineih (Lend Me Three Pounds, 1939), Ali Baba wa-l-Arba‘een Harami (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, 1942) and Noureldin wa-l-Baharra al-Thalatha (Noureldin and the Three Sailors, 1944). Mizrahi later moved to Cairo where he continued to direct and produce exceptional films, most notably Sallama (1945) with superstar singer Um Kulthum.
Upon the outbreak of the Second World War, most of Alexandria’s studios were forced to move their operations to Cairo ahead of Rommel’s advancing forces and it is there that Egyptian Cinema came into its own. To this day, however, Alexandria remains the city where the magic all began.
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Samy Helmy is a film critic and historian focusing on the early years of the Egyptian cinema industry in Alexandria. He is a member of the Egyptian Film Critics Association and has authored several publications on cinema-related subjects, including Bidayat al-Cinema Al Misriyya (General Organization of Cultural Palaces, 2013) and Madrasat al-Iskandariyya lel-Tasweer al-Cinema’i (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2013) which he co-authored with fellow film historian Ibrahim El Dessouky.