Egypt: Hollywood of the Middle East
Updated: Aug 2, 2020
By: Kholood M. Al-Kholy
Before we delve into the deep historical background of Egyptian cinema, it is important to clarify how cinema and filmmaking affected societies all around the world. Long before computer-generated imagery (CGI effects) were a thing, films were a mere reflection of society. Films usually communicated stories and ideas of the public in which people related to. Through film, a variety of cultures, history, and politics were delivered to different audiences in diverse parts of the world.
Egypt was one of the few countries that successfully developed its own flourishing film industry. Egypt had a film audience, long before it established a filmmaking industry. It had 11 movie theatres as early as 1908. By 1917, Egypt had around 80 movie theaters. However, most of the films often shown during that time were foreign movies: European or American. As a result, Egyptians lost interest quickly. Attempts at making an Egyptian film increased between 1917-1926 (Elnaccash, 1968). The Egyptian audience reacted enthusiastically to Egyptian films that reflected traditions and the realities of their lives. However, the first few Egyptian movies were nothing more than adaptations from foreign plays that did not connect to the ideas and traditions of simple Egyptians. During that time, eighty percent of Egyptian villagers lived in hunger, unemployment, and disease during the British occupation. Egyptians were emotionally charged with plenty of frustrations, yet films only showed Westernized ideals through local faces (Elnaccash, 1968).
That was not until 1934, when Talat Harb- founder of Misr Bank- started Misr Studios (Egypt’s Studios). These studios were the most equipped for a proper quality film (Schochat, 1983). They based their policy on hiring foreign experts in different specializations of cinema and appointing Egyptian assistants who can learn from them and learn different cinematic techniques. It also sent Egyptians to study cinema abroad long before the studio itself was created. The first mission was in 1933, in which some studied film direction in France while others studied photography in Germany. The success of Studio Misr acted as a major incentive that got other studios to take the initiative.
The upset of 1952 caused substantial changes to the film business and also affected film content. Before the revolution, politics stayed outside the focal point of Egyptian films ( Schochat, 1983). However, everything changed after 1952. The post-progressive period was set apart by the rise and further advancement of nationalism in Egyptian motion pictures. Anti-colonialism was the main theme adamantly transferred into cultural life and eventually embraced by the film business. When Egyptian life, politics, and society were reflected through cinema and film, Egypt became known as the Hollywood of the Middle East to where in the 1950s, Egypt's cinema industry was the world's third largest. (Darwish, 1998)
After you have formed an idea about the history of Egyptian cinema, it is about time I start telling you about the best black and white Egyptian movies that are worth watching!
The Nightingale’s Prayer 1959 ( Du’a Al Karawan) is a tragic story told by Amna portrayed by the lovely Faten Hamama. Amna is an illiterate youthful woman from a tiny village in the rural area of Egypt. The film uncovers the brutal reality of Egypt's landscape in the early years of the twentieth century. It briefly shows a strict male-centric or patriarchal society in which men control families and women are stripped of all rights. This excellent story is one of the country’s cinematic and true to life movies as it is not tied to a specific time. It is a film that will cause you to examine your own life, your relationships with others, and the kind of humans that we truly are.
Cairo Station or Bab Al Hadid (1958) was another brilliant movie selected as Egypt’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 31st Academy Awards. This film- directed by Youssef Chahine- delivers a story about a faltering newsstand owner who is helplessly unfortunate in love and is disregarded by all women. Despite that, he is not discouraged and becomes obsessed with Hannuma, a beautiful cold drink vendor. When she refuses his proposal, his obsession becomes absolute madness. In this melodrama, we get acquainted with different themes of social injustice and cultural abyss that accompany love, suffering, and, most importantly, all-inclusive human experience.
The Sin or Al-Haram (1965) is a compelling social drama about the journey of a poor woman who turns into a symbol of the oppression of workers. Aziza- Faten Hamama- got exposed to ruthless assault when she was collecting potatoes for her sick husband. This simple yet powerful story reflects the kind of struggles workers have to face and battle. Without a doubt, this is generally one of the most significant movies to watch in Egyptian film. The film was nominated for the Palme d'Or prize for the 1965 Cannes Film Festival, and after its screening at the festival, it impressed critics and viewers and most newspapers reported it.
The Leech or Shabab Imra’a is an Egyptian drama film produced in 1956 starring Tahiyyah Karioka and Shokry Sarhan. The film participated in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956 and was ranked sixth in the top 100 films in the history of Egyptian cinema in a critical referendum. The film revolves around Imam Beltagi Hassanein (Shokry Sarhan), a young man from the countryside who leaves home to study in Cairo. He rents one of the rooms in an area owned by an authoritarian woman called Shafa’at (Tahiyyah Karioka) who admires his youth and carries out different attempts to seduce him. The story unfolds and shows us how this young man has forgotten all his obligations to his family, his studies, and even his connection to God. He relentlessly tries to disregard her forwardness as she attempts to force him to forget and give up everything he once believed in. This film highlights the fragility and vulnerability of humans because, in a moment of weakness, a person can overlook all their responsibilities and faith for the sake of an instantaneous experience that would not necessarily last.
The period from 1940 to 1960 has consistently been considered as the brilliant era of Egyptian cinema. Before, it was hard to differentiate between Egyptian and foreign movies. Because of the nationalization of the film business by Gamal Abdel Nasser's system, enormous film creations became possible. The 1952 Revolution made space for big directors and unknown talents to blossom. The public sector could produce films that were not only nationally recognized but also internationally. Even though these films might not have made a lot of money back then, they withheld their ground throughout time. It is in these decades that Egypt became a reliable source and exporter of films in the region.
Tahiyya Karioka wearing an Egyptian local costume at Cannes Film Festival in 1956
Darwish, M. (1998). Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait of Egyptian Cinema. Amer Univ in Cairo Press.
Elnaccash, A. (1968). Egyptian Cinema: A Historical Outline. African Arts, 2(1), 52-71. doi:10.2307/3334315
Schochat, E. (1983). Egypt: Cinema and revolution. Critical Arts, 2(4), 22-32.