Egyptian Cinema

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May 3, 2013
Isaac Friesen and Wanda Wall-Bergen |

This post first appeared on Isaac and Wanda's blog, Life in Egypt

We are currently on holiday after a wonderful MCC retreat in Barcelona, Spain! It has been a wonderful and enriching time. We will be sure to write about our experiences once we are back in a few days.

One little tidbit of excitement- while waiting for our flight in the Cairo airport, we were passed by the famous Egyptian actress Youssra. In honour of this celebrity sighting, we have a short essay on Egyptian cinema.

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A key component in our language acquisition has been watching Arabic films and television. Egyptian films from numerous eras can be found on television day and night. Beyond teaching us the Egyptian Arabic dialect, they provide us with a fascinating window into Egyptian culture.

Cairo is the media center of the Arab world, and has historically been equivalent to Hollywood in terms of film production in the region. The first full length Egyptian film Layla was released in 1927, though production did not really take off until Talaat Harb, founder of The Bank of Egypt, created Studio Egypt in 1936. This innovation ushered in the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema.

The Cinematic Golden Age in Egypt largely coincided with that in the West. Films in the 1940s and 1950s were marked by classic narratives and happy endings. Musicals were common, and literary adaptations soon rose to prominence as well. Watching these black and white films today, we are always struck by how calm, clean and quiet Egypt is portrayed. Oh, to have seen Cairo in the 1950s!

In the years following the 1952 Revolution Egyptian society would change fundamentally, as Directors began to create realist films which confronted social ills and taboos. The energetic and ambitious President Gamal Abdul Nasser saw what a powerful tool film could be, and nationalized Egyptian cinema in 1964. In the eyes of many this spelled the end of the Golden Age, and the beginning of censorship and repression. That said, the following years were marked by many new developments in artistic style.

Nasser passed away in 1970, and his relatively unheralded vice-president Anwar Sadat came to power. Sadat's rule was marked by an opening to the West both economically and culturally. This change was reflected in film, as sex and violence became the norm. Watching the short skirts and liberal affection in Egyptian films from the 1970s, Wanda and I can barely believe our eyes. Is that really Egypt? The discrepancy between then and now is truly incredible.

Egyptian film experienced a real decline during the remaining decades of the twentieth century. The spread of television and influx of American films torpedoed budgets and profits. While over 100 films a year were produced in the Golden Age, by 1995 that number had shrunk to 12.

In recent years Egyptian cinema has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. A number of films, such as The Yacoubian Building and Two Girls from Egypt, have tackled contemporary issues. The main box office draw, however, remains comedies. The beloved Adel Imam, Ahmed Helmy and Mohamed Henedi are all good for a few laughs. Then there is the regrettably popular Mohamed Saad, whose films are about as witty as your average American slapstick comedy.

Over the years the Egyptian film industry has exported far more than just movies. Egyptian films made Egyptian Arabic the most famous dialect in the region, easily understood across the Middle East. Moreover, this soft power has helped Egypt to enjoy an unparalleled voice on other issues in the region. Thus for all of the Gulf's Dinars and Dollars, Cairo will likely remain a cultural center in the Arab world.

An ongoing question in Egyptian cinema relates to what sectors of society are represented in cinema, and how they are portrayed. Historically stories have focused on the upper class (this is hardly unique to Egypt). The cultural divide between Egyptian classes has long been a stark one. Thus even today Egyptian actresses are rarely covered- unless one takes makeup into account. Contrast that to your average Egyptian neighbourhood, where nearly every Muslim woman wears a higab.

The Egyptian economist Galal Amin highlights how the dualist discourse in Egyptian cinema has changed markedly in recent decades. Whereas the upper class used to regard rural Egyptians as an integral part of the Egyptian state and economy, the lower classes are now seen more as an embarrassment or burden. Indeed rural Egyptians are often disparaged in film, that is, if they show up at all.

Now in the shadow of another revolution, the interaction between the state, the media and Egypt's many classes will be fascinating to watch. Hopefully new voices will be heard from, and perhaps old influences will return. Ultimately the history of Egyptian film reveals much about a society in constant flux.

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