Chapter Two – Historicising Egyptian Cinema
Egyptian cinema is the largest and oldest film industry in the Arab region, established in the 1920s. It has strongly shaped the region’s cultural preferences and has helped to disseminate Egyptian dialects throughout the Arab World. Film scholars have periodised the history of Egyptian cinema according to the distinctive political periods defined by the regimes of the colonial period, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The periodisation of film history reveals the relationship between Egyptian films and politics along social, economic and political shifts. The distinctive political ideologies of each ruler have influenced film production. Regimes controlled film content through gihaz al-riqaba ‘ala al-musanafat al-fanniya or Censorship of Artistic Works according to their political ideologies. However, films have attempted to engage with politics and represent social critiques. The examination of the Egyptian film history in relation to political events and regimes contextualises and provides an understanding of the current political film practices.
This chapter sits within other studies that examined Egyptian cinema in relation to political events. It reveals the history of Egyptian cinema in relation to politics, as well as explains its status in the pre-revolution period (2006-2011). I examine the literature of Egyptian film history since its initiation during the 1920s until the 2011 Revolution. Similar to studies that focused on the relationship between film and politics in other contexts (discussed in the previous chapter), Egyptian film scholars have examined the engagement between film and politics. They have studied the influence of the distinctive economic and political practices of each political period on the film industry, content and style. The structure of the chapter follows many Egyptian film scholars in dividing the major political periods in Egyptian history, including the colonial period (1920-1952), Nasser’s period (1953-1970), Sadat’s period (1970-1981), and Mubarak’s period (1981-2011) of three decades – the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Each of these periods is examined in terms of the developments that took place within the film industry, film text and film culture. This structure unfolds the relationship between Egyptian cinema and politics through examining the influence of political and social changes on cinematic representations. In the next few chapters, I build on this structure to understand how the 2011 Revolution impacted the film industry and how films engaged with the uprising.
The history of Egyptian cinema reveals the continuity of film in avoiding the criticism of present political regimes. Censorship of Artistic Works, the state censorship body, has only allowed films to engage critically with preceding political regimes. The history of the censorship department dates back to 1914 when the colonial regime issued regulations of films to eliminate oppositional ideologies. The Ministry of Interior was in control of the censorship department until 1938 when the Ministry of Social Affairs was formed. After the 1952 Coup, Law 430/1955 was issued to regulate censorship of cinema, theatre and musical works. The law defines the role of the censorship department to protect public morals, public order and the higher interest of the state and public security (Mumtaz, 1985). Censorship of Artistic Works still operates under Law 430/1955 as a part of the Ministry of Culture. These elastic rules have allowed censors to reject films that criticise current regimes and approve films that maintain the status quo. Egyptian cinema also continues to witness the initiation of new film waves that resist the mainstream filmmaking styles. In the 1960s and 1980s, groups of filmmakers sought to reflect ‘Egyptian realities’. This trend continues even after the 2011 Revolution as recent technological developments have facilitated the growth of ‘independent filmmaking’ and supported the production of various film styles.
The examination of the Egyptian film literature shows the contrast in government support for cinema after the 1952 Coup and the 2011 Revolution. Following the 1952 Coup, President Gamal Abdel Nasser realised the significance of film in supporting the ‘revolution’ and developing national culture. He nationalised the film industry, which encouraged the production of more socio-politically conscious films. In contrast, the post-2011 Revolution governments have neglected the problems of the film industry and viewed film as a less important cultural product. However, Egyptian films continue to challenge regimes through engaging with relevant social matters of each period and depicting the impact of political ideologies of rulers on social life.
The chapter also reviews the ways in which various Egyptian film scholars have both interpreted and understood the history of Egyptian cinema. Egyptian film scholars have observed changes within the industry alongside broader historical, political, and societal ones. An important study conducted by Schochat (1983), examined the consequences of the 1952 Coup d’état on both the structure of the film industry and the content of films. Samak (1977) adopted a broader approach, by highlighting the development of the film industry according to the ruling periods, including the colonial period (1923-1952), the Nasserist Period (1952–1970), and the Sadat era (1970–1981). Using a similar historical approach, Gaffney (1987) explored the changes in Egyptian cinema both as an industry and as an art, from the inception of cinema in Egypt, until the early years of Mubarak’s era. Malkmus (1988) studied the adaptation of Egyptian cinema to changes in society, focusing specifically on the ‘new’ Egyptian cinema of the 1980s. She suggested the new wave of films attempted to show real Egyptian streets and villages and to discuss contemporary issues such as returning to the land, and family disintegration. However, these studies have focused more on, and valued films that directly engage with politics, while giving minor attention to popular films. They conceived of popular films as less political for their traditional genres and clichés, and dependency on film stars. In contrast, Shafik (2007b) has analysed popular films in relation to social themes, including nationalism, gender roles, and class issues. Armbrust (2011) noted that films represented political issues in Egyptian society within the context of romantic, musical and dramatic narratives.
In light of these studies, this chapter will analyse the major transformations that have taken place within the Egyptian film industry both between and within the above periods, alongside an analysis of the content of films and social changes that took place during the same time period. I examine these aspects to understand the continuities and the discontinuities of the relationship between Egyptian cinema and politics. The continuities include the struggle between filmmakers and the state’s censorship. While Censorship of Artistic Works has consistently rejected films that criticise current leaders, films continued to challenge regimes through metaphorical representations. However, in contrast to the nationalisation of the film industry in the 1960s, the current regime neglects the film industry crisis. Before examining the political periods, I provide a brief history of the three main aspects of the analysis: film industry, film texts and film culture.
Film Industry: From Inception to the Current Crisis
Throughout the history of Egyptian cinema, governments have always had a direct impact on the film industry. Various foreign investments vehicles, such as the Italo-Egyptian Film Company established in 1917, started film production in Egypt through some short silent films. Following Hollywood’s lead, the studio system (established in Egypt during the 1930s) included studios such as al-Ahram, Nahhas, and Galal and at that time, foreign investors owned these studios. Most of these studios still exist, but have changed their operating functions, or are operating with reduced capabilities, such as outdated film laboratories. Amongst the major studios was Studio Masr, financed by the Egyptian economist Tal‘at Harb, which established the currently existing Egyptian ‘star system’. During this period, state intervention was limited to censorship, which has been consistent since then in preventing criticism of the contemporary ruling system. However, throughout Nasser’s period (1952-1970), the film industry was nationalised and the government managed film studios. The state supported the film industry through financing films and establishing film institutions, such as the Higher Cinema Institute to educate filmmakers. The film industry’s denationalisation during Sadat’s period (1970-1981), led to the domination of mediocre films produced for purely commercial objectives. Independent investors continued to produce these films during the 1980s (Mubarak’s period 1981-2011) and distribute them on VHS in order to fulfil Arab region demands. By the late 1990s more independent companies and individuals invested in a vertically integrated supply chain, through producing, distributing, and exhibiting films (such as al-‘Arabiya, al-Nasr wa-l-Masa wa-Auskar). These companies dominated film production and distribution in Egypt until the 2008 global financial crisis, which led to dramatic decrease in film funding. Since the 2011 Revolution, a few film producers, such as Muhammad Hifzi and Muhammad al-Subki, and production companies, such as New Century, have produced films; while the majority of producers migrated to television series production for a guaranteed return on investment.
Film Texts: Reinforcing the Dominant Political Ideologies
The state’s direct intervention in film texts, through the Censorship of Artistic Works since 1914, has meant that mainstream films followed dominant political ideologies and favoured ruling regimes, whilst a few films opposed current governments. Censorship of Artistic Works issues shooting permissions after they approve a film’s script.8 A committee also watches the final cut of the film (and promotional material) and approve/reject it before its release. This process gives the censorship department control over the content released in film theatres.
Egyptian film scholars with a focus on politics tended to highlight the lack of examination of socio-political life in films during the colonial period (Schochat, 1983; Baker, 1974). They considered films to have only focused on the social problems of upper-classes, such as the most commonly used plot of portraying love barriers that exist between couples of different social class. Schochat (1983), Samak (1977) and Elnaccash (1968) mentioned a few exceptions, such as al-‘Azima (The Will, Kamal Silim, 1939), which have resisted the domination of the foreign control on trade and depicted an Egyptian entrepreneur. Shafik
A film may not be shot without these permissions. The censorship committee may reject specific scene(s) or plot line(s), in which case the script is rewritten and submitted for approval. El Khachab (2017) provides a detailed description of the process of issuing permits. (2007b, p. 256-258) also noted the use of metaphors such as seduction and rape to represent differences of social class and colonial oppression in films including Fatma (Ahmad Badrakhan, 1947) and Darbit al-Qadar (The Fate’s Stroke, Yusif Wahbi, 1947).
To emphasise the influence of the 1952 Coup d’état on cinema, scholars recognised the increasing socially engaged productions that came with Nasser’s period (post-1952 Coup). Among these films is al-Ard (The Land, Yusif Shahin, 1969) which shows the oppression of landlords on peasants during the 1930s in rural Egypt (Samak, 1977; and Schochat 1983). Only a few studies, such as Baker (1974), have argued for the lack of post-revolutionary cinema during Nasser’s period. Although censors permitted films to criticise the colonial regime, they banned films criticising Nasser. Film scholars came to a consensus that the ‘artistic values’ of films decreased, and were highly commercialised during Sadat’s era and through to the 1980s, as a result of increasing regional Arab demands on Egyptian films. Most of the films of the 1970s were characterised by their poorly adapted romantic and melodramatic scripts, while the 1980s was popular for its gangster films, such as al-Batniya (Husam al-Din Mustafa, 1980). However, there were several attempts during the 1980s by directors such as Muhammad Khan and Khairi Bishara to portray contemporary social issues such as the ‘return to land’ theme, which emerged after the immigration of many Egyptians to Arab countries (during the oil boom) in search of jobs.
Starting in the late 1990s a new wave of comedy and action films were produced using younger generation actors such as Muhammad Hiniydi and Ahmad al-Sa’a. Using similar storylines – love, class, conflict – these films were produced using a westernised style of interior art direction, visual effects, and fast editing pace. At the same time, ‘digital films’ such as al-Madina (The City, Yusri Nasrallah, 1999) and documentaries such as Four Women of Egypt (Tahani Rashid, 1997) were produced using emerging digital technologies. These films are still growing in number – even after the 2011 Revolution. They are known for their resistance to mainstream filmmaking styles and production modes. These films use non-traditional narrative techniques, since they are not subject to commercial considerations, to represent social and political issues. However, Censorship of Artistic Works has limited the criticism of the post-2011 conditions and in some instances allowed the depiction of corruption during Mubarak’s era.
A few scholars, such as Samak (1977, p. 15) and Malkmus (1988, p. 33), alongside Egyptian film critics, including Farid (1988, p. 12), and filmmakers and audiences classified Egyptian films into two major types: commercial cinema, and art cinema. They referred to the introduction of commercial cinema during the Second World War, and its expansion during the 1970s and 1980s (known as āflām āl-mu’āwlāt or Contractors’ Films at that time), when Arab demands on Egyptian films increased, and investors sought to profit through the production of films. The simplistic division between ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ film and the consistent use of the term ‘commercial cinema’ reduced the significance of these films. Some of the connotations of commercial cinema include popular types of films, where a well-known star performs a mixture of clichéd romantic, comedy, and action scenes with a happy ending. These stars included Anwar Wagdi in the 1940s, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz and Isma‘il Yasin in the 1950s, ‘Adil Imam and Samir Ghanim in the 1970s, and Muhammad Hiniydi in the noughties. Usually, these films depicted middle- to lower-class person who falls in love with a girl from a rich family. The hero chased his dream and succeeded over the villain (usually a rich person) by proving his nobility to the girl’s family. Although these films engaged with class struggles, many scholars and critics detached them from their political representations. These popular films were framed as less significant texts for their classical Hollywood filmmaking style, in contrast to other attempts that approached social and political critiques realistically. However, mass audiences appreciated these popular films and their formulaic genres.
Since the 2011 Revolution, a new trend among ‘commercial films’ has emerged. These films maintained a package of comedy, romantic, and action scenes, with special attention to drug dealing and violence. This trend included films such as ‘Abdu Muta (Isma‘il Faru’, 2012), and al-Almani (‘Ala’ Shirif, 2012) starring Muhammad Ramadan – a young film star known for this type of films. Both films narrate the story of a thug, who intercepts and bullies people. Journalists and film critics such as Sabri (2012), ‘Abd al-Min‘im (2013) and ‘Abd al-Shakur (2015) labelled these films as āflām āl-balṭagiya (thug films) and some have described the films as shallow and encouraging violence (‘Ukiyl, 2015). Producers mainly depended on promoting these films by using a popular song and a belly dancer and released them during peak seasons, such as during ‘īd al-Fiṭr or ‘īd al-Aḍḥā (Holy Muslim Feasts).
On the other hand, art cinema in Egypt referred to the distinctive use of film language and visual storytelling techniques. For this category, filmmakers did not conform to popular film styles. Instead, they used alternative dramatic structures and production modes to engage with social and political issues in-depth and in a more authentic manner. Only a narrow segment of the audience, mainly film critics and intellectuals, value these films. Mass audiences do not appreciate the metaphorical portrayals and differentiated narrative structures of these films and popular film producers and distributors marginalise these films by classifying them as independent in nature. The common characteristics they share include operating on a low-budget, the use of cost-efficient technology, and the casting of new actors. However, as Armbrust (1995, p. 83) argued, “There is a language of Egyptian cinema common to both commercial and art film”. Most of the popular films contain social portrayal even if it is not the main concern of the filmmakers. Recently, some filmmakers have attempted to produce ‘artistic films’ that meet the interests of the public and some of these films are produced with medium budgets such as Ahmad ‘Abd Allah’s Dikaur (Décor, 2014) and Muhammad Khan’s Fatat al-Masna‘ (The Factory Girl, 2013). These films have blurred the distinction between art and commercial films.
Film Culture: The Social Hierarchy of Theatres and Writing About Egyptian Cinema
During the early years of cinema in Egypt, films addressed particular social groups, such as bourgeoisie and the urban population, since they were the main cinemagoers. Through major changes in Egypt’s political and social life in the 1970s, a restructuring of social classes took place, resulting in purchasing power shifting towards the lower-classes. As a result, films started addressing this new class of audience by changing the style of the hero and the topics of the films. Since the 1990s, filmgoing has been considered a leisure activity for most Egyptians, especially among middle- and higher-class youth. Film theatres are mainly located in Cairo and Alexandria, while a few others are scattered amongst the remaining cities. A study by Walter Armbrust (1998) titled When the lights go down in Cairo: Cinema as secular ritual, examined movie going in downtown Cairo, by breaking down theatre hierarchy (cheap theatres and expensive theatres) and exploring filmgoing as a leisure activity. Armbrust (1998) assumed that the approach Egyptian audiences take toward watching movies is “ambiguous” (p. 431). This conclusion is a result of the different motives Armbrust found behind both moviegoing, and the contradictions that lie between the audience motives and actions; as he stated: “Establishment culture ponderously proclaims the civilizing influence of ‘the seventh art’, but behaviour ‘when the lights go down’ is often anything but solemn” (Armbrust, 1998, p. 431). Shafik (2007b, p. 211) examined the “shopping mall films” which are tailored towards the middle- and higher-class cinemagoers located in modern shopping malls.
Film culture in Egypt has always been popular, but recent technological developments (internet, portable projectors, and digital cameras) have allowed the expansion of film societies. Film reviews are now available on YouTube and through homemade videos and online blogs. Special film screenings (not shown in mainstream cinemas) have moved away from cultural centres and university events, towards specialised venues that screen and discuss films, such as Zawya, which hosts the European Film Panorama. These venues offer more filmmaking workshops since the only film institute in Egypt accepts a mere three percent of applicants. Local film festivals are organised to show the increasing number of short films created by amateurs using new technology. Several film magazines were issued in Egypt throughout its cinematic history, however, none of them was able to sustain itself due to financial issues. Entertainment magazines, newspapers, and websites also include film reviews as well as celebrity news. Almost every newspaper has a section or a column for Egyptian cinema, usually written by one of the famous critics such as Samir Farid, Ali abu Shadi or Tari’ al-Shinnawi. Although their film reviews are reputable, they are not widely influential, since many viewers depend on word of mouth (opinions of family members and friends) as a major factor in their decision to watch a film.
The literature on Egyptian film dates back to the introduction of cinema in Egypt. Examples include the memoirs of Muhammad Karim – one of the earliest Egyptian directors – and magazines such as The Moving Picture Magazine, which a group of intellectuals formed between 1917 and 1926. As Elnaccash (1968) notes, “Not only the audience but the journalists of the time showed a great interest in the new form. Their writings discussed the technicalities of making films, and the response of the intellectual minority gave birth to film clubs and film magazines” (p. 52). The literature has then developed to embrace a wide range of forms, including textbooks and academic papers in different languages (Arabic, English, and French), theses, and newspaper articles. Studies have considered a variety of topics, including the history of Egyptian cinema, feminism, audiences and classes, social engagement of filmmakers, and cultural identity. While some scholars, such as Viola Shafik, have engaged critically with these topics, other studies historicised film practices according to political periods (Samak, 1977; Schochat, 1983; and Gaffney, 1987). The latter studies have focused upon facts and trends in film texts and in the industry, such as the commercialisation of cinema, and have highlighted them as key aspects that distinguish particular periods. Gordon (2001) has criticised Egyptian film scholars with a political focus for having examined socio-political films regardless of their popularity among audiences. He has also questioned the political periodisation of film history, which disregarded artistic attempts and the agency of filmmakers during the transitions between these periods. However, the periodisation approach has helped to define political practices of filmmakers in relation to the political, economic and social changes. The political periods are not used to separate filmmaking practices but they are visible moments where we can understand and recognise rising trends and shifts in styles.
Studies about the Arab and African film, media, and cultural studies have dedicated special attention towards Egyptian films (Malkmus and Armes, 1991; Shohat and Stam, 1994; Shafik, 2007a; and Armbrust 2011). Only a limited number of studies have examined Egyptian cinema in relation to the 2011 Revolution. Tabishat (2012), Tartoussieh (2012), Armbrust (2012) and Dickinson (2012) have examined Egyptian films in relation to the 2011 Revolution, while the majority have focused on digital media and television. Due to the short time period between the revolution and the publication of these studies, they have focused on the depiction of dissent in films released before the 2011 Revolution and discussed them in relation to the revolution. Gordon (2013) explored labour policies in Egyptian and Syrian film industries after the 2011 uprisings. Recent studies, such as Armes (2015) and Gugler (2015) have also focused on a few filmmakers and their projects as new filmmaking style that represents political dissent in the Arab world. These studies have profiled some filmmakers and highlighted their filmmaking attempts on an individual basis rather than examining their film styles collectively. Until today, the crisis of the Egyptian film industry is absent from the academic literature and Egyptian film literature continues to link film practices to their historical and political contexts due to their inseparable correlation.
Table of Contents
Notes on Transliteration
Table of Contents
List of Figures
Why Cinema and Revolution?
Articulating the Relationship between Egyptian Cinema and the 2011 Revolution
Research Questions and Argument
Structure of the Thesis
Chapter One – Cinema and Revolution
1.1 The Political Significance of Popular Culture
1.2 Revolutionary Film Form and Content
1.3 World Cinemas and Revolutions: A Reciprocal Relationship
Chapter Two – Historicising Egyptian Cinema
2.1 Colonial Period (1920-1952): Initiating the Industry
2.2 Nasser’s Era (1952-1970): The ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian Cinema
2.3 Sadat’s Era (1970-1981): Denationalising the Industry
2.4 Mubarak’s Era (1981-2011): The Growth of ‘Commercial Cinema’
Chapter Three – The Crisis of the Egyptian Film Industry
3.1 The Pre-Revolution Crisis: A Small Film Market
3.2 The Aftermath of 2011 Revolution: Insecurity and Curfews Exacerbating the Crisis
3.3 Television and Extended Piracy of Films
3.4 Calls for State Support: Inconsistent Intervention and Censorship
3.5 Post-Revolution Films: al-Subki’s Films and a Limited Recovery
Chapter Four – Representing the National Crisis: Films before the Revolution 2006-2010
4.1 Popular Films: Socially Conscious High-Budget Dramas 2006-2010
4.2 Political Satire: Using Comedy to Circumvent Censorship
4.3 Independent Representations: Alternative Aesthetics and Resistance
Chapter Five – Constructing Cultural Memory: Fiction and Documentary Films that Represent the Revolution
5.1 Within and Beyond Tahrir Square: The Experiences of Filmmakers in Fictions
5.2 Documenting the 2011 Revolution: Voicing Multiple Perspectives
Chapter Six – Technology and Revolution: The Continuity of ‘Independent’ Films
6.1 What is Independent Cinema in Egypt?
6.2 Technological Developments: Inexpensive Production and Screening Mediums
6.3 Independent Art and the 2011 Revolution: Representing Resistance
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Egyptian Cinema and the 2011 Revolution