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Topic of the Issue
The Egyptian Movie Industry: Dreaming of the Golden Years
Thursday, January 1 (Issue 10)
by Raymon Kondos

CAIRO ( - Since 1908, the Egyptian film industry has dominated the Middle East, producing more than 4,000 movies over eight decades. The first full-length silent movie from the early years is Layla, produced in 1927; this was followed quickly by the advent of sound films. In 1935, the film Awlad Al-Zawat (Upper Class) premiered, starring Yussef Wahbi and Amina Rezq.

1935 marks the real start of the Egyptian film industry. In that year, Talaat Harb, a leading Egyptian economist, founded Studio Misr (Egypt Studio). While the studio buildings were being constructed, Harb sent representatives to Europe to study new filming techniques. Because Egypt was then a residence for many foreign professionals, the interest in the industry skyrocketed, and Studio Misr went on to finance, produce, and distribute a number of remarkable movies.

Several other studios were founded over the next twenty years, inspired by the success of Studio Misr. The 1930s and 1940s saw the emergence of remarkably fine actors and dramatists in the region: one example is Naguib Al-Rihani, who became known as a master of black comedy, and who produced many of his own theater shows. A prolific playwright, Al-Rihani was most notable for his use of characters suffering misfortune in their lives.

The actor Yussef Wahbi, later nicknamed “the Arab theater dean,” had established the prestigious Ramsis Theater in 1922. He and Rihani became rivals in the theater business, with Wahbi producing and starring in well-known plays like Rasputin. Representing two different genres – classic and comedic – both competed to attract Cairo audiences. Wahbi also made his own movies, with great success.

In 1949, Gazal Al-Banat (The Flirtation of Girls), featuring both Rihani and Wahbi, was released, and became a great box office hit. The movie was unique in that it featured representatives of each of the different acting schools: the famous movie stars Layla Murad, a leading singer of Jewish descent; Mahmoud El-Meligui, a stereotypical villain; Farid Shawki, the standard gallant hero; Anwar Wagdy, the Egyptian Clark Gable; Zenat Sedki, one of the early female comedians; Soleiman Naguib, a classics actor; and Mohamed Abdel Wahhab, whose legendary song “Soul Lover” contributed to the memorable finale. Wahhab, a singer and composer who took the responsibility of modernizing Egyptian music, also later starred in his own films.

In 1952, a coup d’etat toppled the Egyptian monarchy and brought about a new junta regime. Studio tycoons shifted allegiance to the regime, known as “the revolution,” and made several movies made to praise the change. The most notable film was the 1957 production Rodd Qalbi (Return My Heart), featuring a story about a Pacha who finds himself deprived of his wealth by the advent of “the revolution.” He resists the change at the beginning of the movie, but by the end he ultimately concedes to the wisdom of the new regime, and decides to be a model citizen and a member of the working class.

The 1950s and 1960s were the golden years of the Egyptian film industry, and in other show business arenas as well. Huge numbers of movies were produced each year, in a wide range of genres. The movies also became a forum for the leading male and female romantic singers of the time, ushering an era of great musical movies. The singers included Farid Al-Attrache, a young composer from the Levant who immigrated to Egypt earlier in the century; Abdel Halim Hafez, a soft-voiced singer who captured the minds and souls of young lovers; and Mohamed Fawzi, a comedian-singer. On the female side, there was Shadia, who played a pampered girl in her early movies; Soad Hosni, dubbed “The Cinderella of the Arab Screen” because of her many talents; and Sabbah, a Lebanese singer-actress who partnered with Farid Al-Attrache and Abdel Halim in several movies.

Ismail Yassin, a popular standup comedian, made numerous movies, all light comedies. Although he was not held in as high regard as black comedian Naguib Al-Rihani, he proved mostly popular, keeping audiencings laughing during his two-hour shows. Another actor, Farid Shawki, became a macho icon, known for his portrayal of gallant Egyptians of the poor working class in several movies, in which he was frequently pitted against the evil Meligui.

The Nile Valley
Adel Imam starring in Terrorism and Kebab
In the 1970s, the bulk of the Egyptian movie industry moved to Lebanon, and the quality of the movies began to decline. However, several good-quality movies were produced, including Karnak, which came out in 1975, and dealt with the negative aspects of the 1952 revolution. Other movies built on the Egyptians’ jubilantion after the progress made in the 1973 October war against Israel, with movies featuring the young Mahmoud Yassin as a war hero. One of the most well-known movies of this type, Bodour, opened in movie theaters in 1974.

The next quarter century saw another decline in the quality of films as producers focused on quick financial gains. Many of them seemed reluctant to invest in new actors or new stories, leading to the emergence of what movie critics called “contract films,” or ones made with money, rather than quality, in mind. Despite that, a number of very good movies made their way to the screen and into people’s hearts. The most popular film was Terrorism and Kebab by Adel Imam, a comedian who made many other well-produced movies. The movie is centered on a citizen who gets stuck in the labyrinth of Egyptian bureaucracy when trying to move his children to a school closer to his house. While resisting a armed soldier-guard at the building, he ends up with the guard’s weapon in his hands. The people in the building – like the soldiers outside – assume that he is a terrorist and have taken them hostage. While befriending his would-be hostages, he is approached by the Egyptian police, who ask him what his demands are. Having no real demands, he asks for the most expensive meal available, and he and his “hostages” enjoy a delicious dinner from a 5-star restaurant.

The Egyptian movie industry today is striving to rise above its recent history of lower-quality productions. It is still a major industry in the Middle East, which seeks to regain the fame it held for almost 80 years, dazzling the Arab world, and making the Egyptian dialect the most widely-known in the Arabic-speaking population.

. Food Habits in Egyptian Key Events (issue 1)
. Egyptian Matrimony: Man Got to Do it All (issue 2)
. The Egyptian Identity: Pharoahs, Moslems, Arabs, Africans, Middle Easterners or Mediterranean People? (issue 3)
. Egypt . Glimpse over its Society, Language and Religion (issue 4)
. Egyptian Traits - Part I: Inshallah (God Willing) (issue 5)
. Om Kalsoum: Legendary Singer and Mother of the Egyptian Nation (issue 6)
. Egyptian Traits - Part II: Greetings and Hospitality (issue 7)
. The Egyptian Oriental Belly-Dance: Beauty Expressed in Movement (issue 8)
. Egyptian Traits - Part III: Sense of Family (issue 9)

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