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date: 19 February 2020

Egypt, film in

A Dictionary of Film Studies

Annette Kuhn,

Guy Westwell

Egypt, film in 

Egypt's earliest moving-image screening—of the Lumières' Cinematograph in Alexandria on 5 November 1896—was organized for foreign (that is, European) residents rather than for Egyptians; and the first films shot in Egypt—scenes of Alexandria in 1912—were made by a Frenchman. From cinema's earliest years, in fact, Egypt has figured as a setting for films made by outsiders. Many of these betray an obsession with Ancient Egypt in general and—from a mummy film dated as early as 1909 through Karl Freund's classic The Mummy (US, 1933) and the 1999 US remake directed by Stephen Sommers—a particular fascination with the figure of the mummy.

Although the Egyptian film industry is the oldest, largest, and most influential in the Arab world (see arab cinema), local production remained negligible until the coming of synchronized sound. The earliest known film made by an Egyptian is a 1922 short, Al bash kateb/The Civil Servant (Mohamed Bayoumi), and it is said that only thirteen Egyptian features were made in the years between 1926 and 1932, the best known among them being Zeinab (Mohammed Karim, 1930) and Leila (Istafan Rosti and Wedad Orfi, 1932). Despite competition from films imported from the West, the 1930s saw the beginnings of a relatively successful domestic film industry, helped by substantial backing from Bank Misr: the sophisticated Misr studio opened in 1935. Over the following decade, Egypt became the linchpin for Arab cinema, its films dominating screens throughout the Arab world and Africa. By around 1945, Egypt was producing some 25 features a year, and after the end of World War II Egyptian film studios—Cairo was dubbed ‘Hollywood on the Nile’—were releasing more than 50 films a year; a figure that was maintained, and indeed increased, into the 1990s. Most of these films were popular musicals, melodramas, and farces, but after the 1950 socialist revolution led by Abdul Gamel Nasser there were ventures into a more serious, realist, cinema. Key directors and films of this movement include Salah Abou Seif (Shaba imra/A Woman's Youth, 1955), Youssef Chahine (Sira' fil-wadi/Struggle in the Valley, 1955), and Tewfik Saleh (Darb al-mahabil/Fools' Alley, 1955). Of this group Chahine, with his radically personal films, including the award-winning semi-autobiographical Iskandariyya Lih?/Alexandria Why? (1978), is widely regarded as Egypt's foremost filmmaker and considered an auteur by film scholars and critics (see authorship).

Between 1961 and 1972 the General Organization of Egyptian Cinema, under whose auspices the film industry was more or less nationalized, supported serious filmmaking. However, some have argued that this initiative was over-controlling, failed to nurture new talent, and even prompted established filmmakers (like Chahine, who went to Lebanon) to move abroad to work. After 1970 and the election of Anwar Sadat, the film industry began to lose the protection it had previously enjoyed, becoming increasingly vulnerable to competition from foreign imports, especially from the US. At the same time censorship was stepped up, with religion, sexuality, and politics the key targets for regulation. These developments brought about a drive towards greater commercialization and a return to ‘safe’ popular genres, predominant among these being the Egyptian musical, which draws on both local and Western forms of music and dance and is traditionally associated with melodrama: the genre was successfully revisited in Sherif Arafa's box-office hit, Sama Huss/Silence (1991). Domestic production now stands at around 40 films per year; and with co-production becoming an increasingly important means of raising finance, some Egyptian films, among them Marwan Hamed's 2006 Maret Yacoubian/The Yacoubian Building, have begun to attract international attention. See also north africa, film in.

Further Reading:

Ibrahim, Farwal Youssef Chahine (2001).Find this resource:

Lant, Antonia ‘The Curse of the Pharaoh, or How Cinema Contracted Egyptomania’, in Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (eds.), Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film 69–98, (1997).Find this resource:

Nicholas, Joe Egyptian Cinema (1994).Find this resource: