Egyptian Cinema and the Revolution of 1952
Egyptian Revolution of 1952 is one of the most remarkable events in the Egyptian history of the 20th century. The revolution had a profound impact on all spheres of life: politics, economy, social sphere, and culture. The movie industry as a part of Egyptian culture was also significantly affected by the Revolution. Today, in the era of dominance of American and European movies, it may sound surprising that there were days when Egyptian movies were extremely popular. Indeed, the period between 1930s and 1950s is often referred to as the golden age of Egyptian cinema. One may observe that this period preceded the revolution of 1952. This paper is an attempt to find out how the revolution of 1952 changed the character of Egyptian cinema and the entire film industry. The paper consists of two major parts. The first part describes the golden age of Egyptian cinema. The part is introduced in order to make a comparison with the post-revolutionary period. The second part is devoted to the discussion of the development of Egyptian cinema during post-revolutionary years.
The Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema
The golden age of Egyptian cinema began in 1930s. Darwish (2008) writes that “Egyptian cinema at this time, according to Bernard Lewis in his book The Middle East, was the third largest in the world, after the United States and India”. Thus, one may observe that it was, indeed, the golden age.
So how did the golden age begin? In 1935, banker and investor Talaat Harb founded in Cairo the first fully equipped studio in Egypt, Studio Misr. Harb’s bank provided financing for movie production in the country. In 1936, Studio Misr produced the first feature film entitled Widad. Widad was an extremely successful musical movie. Osman (2011) writes that the movie “went on to become the first Egyptian entry in an international film festival in London”. The success of the movie inspired Egyptian cinematographs. One may assume that it was Widad’s success that became a starting point for the golden age. Studio Misr played an important role in the development of Egyptian cinema industry. Armbrust (2004) points out that “Studio Misr is inevitably described as an engine of the early Egyptian film industry”.
Studio Misr was not the only studio founded in Egypt during 1930s
There were also two other studios – the Lama Studio and the Wahbi Studio. Thus, 1930s were marked by the development of cinema infrastructure. To provide a successful development of any industry, one should first take care of infrastructure. Once the infrastructure is set up, the success becomes more plausible. One may assume that development of cinema infrastructure in 1930s became one of the key factors contributing to the prosperity of Egyptian cinema.
As far as movie genres are concerned, in the earliest period of the golden age, the 1930s, musicals were especially popular in Egypt. El –Sabban (2008) writes that “[e]arly Egyptian cinema used musicals reach people’s hearts”. Along with the Widad, another popular musical was The White Rose, which was produced in 1936. Also, comedy became a popular genre. The comedies were full of romance: they often portrayed a commoner, who fought against corruption of Egyptian society. Such comedies outlined problems of class differences and, at the same time, emphasized the value of a strong will.
The end of 1930s and the beginning of 1940s was marked by a dramatic change in movie themes. The 1939 movie, Determination, “encouraged the young to liberate themselves from the constraints of authority and government employment” (El-Sabban, 2008). Determination is a story about a young Egyptian, who decides to start his own business. At this point, it is important to note that at the time concerned, it was quite unusual for Egyptians to run a business. Normally, majority of businessmen in Egypt were foreigners. The main character of Determination faces plenty of obstacles in pursuing his dream. In other words, Determination was permeated by rebellious tones: persistence to the existed order of things. Determination was followed by Life of Darkness (1940) and The Straight Path (1943) outlined then-existing dogmatic constraints in Egyptian society. For instance, Life of Darkness is a story about a young lawyer, whose career and entire future are under the threat of destruction. The threat emerged as a consequence of his involvement with a prostitute. The Straight Path presents a quite similar storyline: a bank manager has been seduced by a prostitute and for this reason he was to lose his family and career.
At the same time, the golden age movies did not avoid foreign influence
One should bear in mind that earlier age of Egyptian movie industry was characterized by the dominance of foreign-made films. In the first quarter of the 20th century Egyptian movies were produced mainly by foreigners. Although in the following years there was an Egyptianization of the movie industry, foreign filmmakers still retained a significant influence. The foreign influence determined major themes of the movies. Thus, Schochat (1983) describes that “the European producers and filmmakers, unconcerned with Egyptian problems, avoided subjects that critically addressed the political situation”. Even movies that were produced by Egyptians avoided political themes. They were rather focused on the Western culture. In the aftermath of the WWII many Egyptians, who served to the Allies, became incredibly rich. Thus, a new class of Egyptians emerged, the nouveaux riches class. These new riches followed the Western lifestyle, although they resented the Western domination. This paradox can be explained by the fact that new riches experienced inferiority complex, when it came to the Westerners. These feelings found their reflection in the post-WWII movies. Thus, new movies portrayed western-style clothes, music, and furniture and so on. Casual French phrases could be frequently introduced in order to give some glamorous air to movie characters. The Egyptian moviemakers also frequently made adaption of Western movies and novels. Schochat (1983) describes that the adaption were “sometimes amounting to plagiarism”. Seifechine Shawkat was a notorious adaptor. For instance, he presented Pygmalion to the Egyptian public as The Apple Vendor, Waterloo Bridge as Always in My Heart (1945). In a word, despite the Egyptianization of the cinema, the western influence remained very strong in the pre-revolutionary period.
The absence of political themes can be explained not only by the predominant western influence but also by then-existing censorship. Officially, censorship in the country had been established since 1914. It was censorship that usually banned the pro-Egyptian patriotic themes. For instance, in Misr Studon produced the movie Lasheen, which was permeated by historical and patriotic motives. However, the movie was banned by censorship. Lila, the Daughter of Desert, the movie telling the story of the struggle of the Arabs against Persians was also prohibited. Overall, censorship did not allow nationalistic and patriotic tone.
The Revolution and Egyptian Cinema
The year of 1952 became a turning point in Egyptian history of the 20th century. Revolution and its legacy is still a very sensitive issue. There cannot be an unequivocal attitude towards it. Leila Ahmed (1999), an Egyptian-American writer, describes the revolution of 1952 as follows:
Democracy was abolished and Egypt was declared a socialist state, drawing its political inspiration now not from the democracies of the West but from the Soviet Union. The revolution had inaugurated a new and fiercer type of anti-imperialist, anti-Western rhetoric, which would become the dominant rhetoric of the postrevolutionary age.
The revolution of 1952 brought dramatic changes into the movie industry and influenced the movie content. As it has been mentioned earlier in this paper, in the pre-revolutionary period, politics remained outside the focus of Egyptian movies. However, everything has changed after 1952. The post-revolutionary period was marked by the emergence and further development of the nationalistic tone in Egyptian movies. Anti-colonial and anti-western language of the revolution was transferred into cultural life. Therefore, it is not surprising that such language was also adopted by the movie industry.
After the revolution, the government supported production of movies with patriotic themes. The content of post-revolutionary movies became politically oriented and full of patriotic and historical motives. For instance, there were movies about the 1948 war in Palestine. Also, movies outlined the struggle for independence of Algerian people. Another popular topic was nationalization of the Suez Canal and the Suez War. The films were now full of anti-colonial and anti-western rhetoric. The Nasser regime offered its own interpretation of western culture and reflected in the movies.
Not only the themes of movies changed, but also the character of censorship
Censorship, naturally, was not abolished. As it has been described earlier in this paper, the revolution of 1952 was not a democratic revolution but rather a shift from imperialism to national dictatorship. Therefore, it is not surprising that censorship, as a phenomenon, remained. However, its character was changed completely. Thus, if during the colonial era censorship banned movies with nationalistic and pro-Arab themes, in post-revolutionary period these themes were, by contrast, encouraged. What was banned was the criticism of the Nasser regime. The scripts of films were subject to the approval of the Censorship Department. Censorship banned many movies of foreign production, especially those with political messages. For instance, the movies propagating communism were banned. Ironically, the regime that implemented policies similar to those ones existing in the Soviet Union (such as nationalization, censorship and so on) was not comfortable with the spread of communist ideas among Egyptians. Also, censorship did not allow the release of movies mocking Islam and Arab prestige. The movies that portrayed Afro-Asian people as inferior were banned. In addition, the movies about Jews and Israel were not released in Egypt. The anti-Israel feeling was so strong that the censorship even banned the movies with foreign stars, known for their support to Israel. For instance, Egyptian censorship prohibited movies with famous American star Elisabeth Taylor, who after converting to Judaism, became one of the most notorious supporters of Israel.
The Nasser government regarded cinema as a great instrument of the nationalistic propaganda. The government sought to diffuse the nationalistic ideas among Egyptians. Considering cinema as a powerful propagandist tool, the government, naturally, put efforts to maintain control over the movie industry. It decided to do so by means of nationalization. Nationalization meant that the movie industry was transferred from the private hands to the government control. The government indeed maintained the total control over the movie industry. Armbrust (2004) describes that “…the state undermined its own film industry by building a television infrastructure without ever enabling the owners of film archives to rent their product to television stations at a fair market value”. In a word, the state established its monopoly in the movie industry.
In 1957, Nasser’s government founded the Organization of Consolidation of Cinema. The mission of the organization was to raise industry standards and strengthen the industry. The standards became indeed high. Armbrust (2004) notes that at the time concerned “the entire industry achieves a fairly high standard of production values – often just a notch or two below mainstream Hollywood films in terms of craft”. The organization also promoted Egyptian movies inside the country and abroad. In a word, the Organization of Consolidation of Cinema was concerned with popularization of Egyptian films. Also, the organization offered financial support in the form of bank guarantees and investments. Furthermore, it built movie theaters all over the country. In addition, the organization cooperated with foreign filmmakers. For instance, it became a co-producer of the Japanese-Egyptian movie On the Nile Bank.
Two years later, in 1952, the government instituted the Higher Institute of Cinema. The Institute’s mission was to provide training to filmmakers and technicians. The legacy of the institute cannot be underestimated: today, Egypt remains the only country of the Arab world, which provides education and training for movie technicians.
In 1963, the government finalized the nationalization of Egyptian cinema industry: it created the Egyptian General Organization took control over the major Egyptian studios, Jalal, Nahhas, Misr and Arabic. Interestingly, the nationalization of the industry caused a second rise of Egyptian cinema. Thus, according to Armbrust (2004) “a quarter of the one hundred best films are from this era”. However, with end of governmental funding in 1971, Egyptian cinema once again entered a decline phase. One may think that nationalization of cinema industry changed the way it operates in commercial terms. While the impact was, indeed, profound, the nature of business remained the same. Thus, Shafik (2007) points out that “the nationalization of the Egyptian film industry during the Nasser era could not change its basic commercial structure”. For instance, in order to market Egyptian films abroad the state resorted to the same commercial means as the private sector. It introduced stars and popular features in movies. Schochat (1983) also finds that “concepts from the private sector still controlled the cinema in the public sector, but under a new organization”. In a word, despite the nationalization of the film industry, it still operated on a commercial basis and still adopted the concepts of private sector. To sum up, the nationalization was rather formal than real.
Although nationalization initially had a positive impact on the movie industry, in term of standards, it also had a negative impact on the industry. Thus, the nationalization caused emigration of some notorious figures of the Egyptian filmmaking. Indeed, Egyptian film directors and producers attempted to realize their potential in other countries. For instance, some Egyptian moviemakers produced Egyptian movies in Lebanon.
In 1971, the government stopped funding the cinema. Also the new Sadat government initiated the partial re-privatization of the cinema industry: studios and laboratories remained in state’s ownership and control. In a word, the 1970s were marked by the revival of commercial film production in Egypt.
Shortly before the revolution of 1952 Egyptian movie industry experienced its golden age. The size of movie production was comparable to the size of the Hollywood movie industry and Indian movie industry. Partially, the golden age became the reality due to the development of the infrastructure. Several large studios appeared during the golden age. As far as the content of movies is concerned, the golden age era offered such genres as comedies and musicals. Also, the golden age was marked by a significant influence of the western culture. Political and historical themes were avoided. However, after the revolution of 1952 the situation changed to the diametrically opposite one. The post-revolutionary movies were full of anti-western rhetoric. Patriotic and nationalistic themes permeated Egyptian cinema. The movie industry was nationalized and transferred to the governmental control. At the same time, the government continued to operate the industry relying of some commercial ways. The nationalization had both positive and negative effects. On one hand, it provided the film industry with high standard. On the other one, it deprived some directors and producers of realization of their ideas. Therefore, they were forced to emigrate. The 1970s were marked by another shift: the cinema industry was partially re-privatized. Another new development was the seizure of the government funding of cinema. The end of funding marked the decline of Egyptian cinema.