Arab unity on the silver screen

Film critics say Nasser shaped Egyptian – and Arab – cinema for better or for worse.

Film graphic

People attend a March screening of French film “La Reine Soleil” in Cairo. Egyptian
filmmakers first collaborated with other countries during Nasser’s rule [GALLO/GETTY]

The ebb and flow of Egypt’s cinematic accomplishments has much to do with the politics of the time. The industry’s “golden age” is widely believed to have taken place between 1952 and 1970 – during the reign of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Some blame Nasser’s death in 1970 for the downward spiral of Egyptian cinema, and almost four decades later, the debate continues. But all agree that during his rule over Egypt, Nasser wielded considerable influence over the content of local films and the industry in general.

As in most developing countries, Egyptian cinema was first established and controlled by foreign groups, primarily Italians, who treated cinema as a lucrative investment, and based early films on the Hollywood commercial model.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of Egyptian films in the first half of the 20th century revolved around melodramas, musicals and comedies that steered clear of the turbulent political and social conditions of the times.

Injecting realism

Critics say Egypt’s former president
influenced the nation’s film industry [AP]

Egyptian investors soon entered the industry. Misr Company for Acting and Cinema, established by Talaat Harb in 1927, Lama Studio in 1936 and Wahby Studio in 1939 became major players in the film scene, injecting local productions with a much-needed realism in films like El Azima (1939).

As Egypt’s 1923 constitution limited the liberty of the press and cinema “for the protection of social order,” filmmakers disguised their political critiques in the form of allegories – a technique that subsequent filmmakers heavily employed following the 1967 Arab defeat to Israel.

But even the allegoric method didn’t stop censors from banning Layla al-Badawiya (Layla, the Bedouin) in 1937 and Lasheen in 1938, both films portraying the struggle against tyrannical monarchies.

Perceiving Lasheen and other similar films as threats to the government, censors pushed against the nationalisation of independent Egyptian cinema for more than two decades.

Burgeoning industry

The 1952 Revolution, in which the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown, was accompanied by cultural changes instigated by Nasser, who recognised the importance of cinema both as a propaganda tool and a source of national income.

“Cinema became part of the initial stages of nation-building, whose ideology criticised colonial attitudes,” wrote Ella Schochat in the journal Critical Arts.

“The nationalist ideology, as conveyed by the cinema, aimed to provide the people with an interpretation of reality that claimed to transform them from traditional subjects to active citizens.”

In 1957, the state established the Organisation of Consolidation of Cinema to raise the standard of Egyptian movies and encourage filmmakers to direct works that reflect the Egyptian spirit and target new foreign markets outside the Arab world.

During this time, more theaters were established, foreign co-productions deals made and annual prizes given. Taxes imposed on imported films and the increased number of local productions cemented the reputation of Egyptian cinema as the largest, most prosperous film industry in the Middle East.

Propaganda tool

Themes of solidarity, Arab unity and condemnation of the previous monarchies under the thumb of colonial powers dominated a large number of films produced between 1953 and 1962.

Produced shortly after the revolution, the films were characterised by their over-romanticism, excessive patriotism and naïve idealism. But succeeding films were more mature, thoughtful and accomplished.

Critic Rafiq el-Sabban credited the revolution for Egyptian cinema’s adaption of foreign and Arab literary works.

“Before the revolution, Egyptian cinema was confined to well-made entertainment fares,” el-Sabban told Al Jazeera.

“It was a different story after the revolution. The cinematic adaptation of novels by Yousef Edris, Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq el-Hakim and Taha Hussein among others redefined Egyptian cinema. These were Egyptians that reflected the problems and challenges of contemporary Egyptian life.”

The post-revolution films also stressed religion, traditions and ethics as a part of Nasser’s scheme to build a strong national identity and shun Western traditions responsible for the schisms plaguing Egyptian society.

State maintains control

Whatever your stance against Nasser might be, one cannot deny that Egyptian cinema under his rule was exceedingly thriving, more than any other age”

Rafiq el-Sabban, film critic

But the nationalisation of cinema did not eliminate censorship. On the contrary, the state maintained total control over every domain of the film industry and no criticism of the government was permitted.

And despite his massive popularity, Nasser was never directly depicted in films released during his reign.

The one character that came close to embodying the spirit and essence of Nasser was Saladin in Yousef Chahine’s epic Al Nasser Salahuddin (Victorious Saladin) in 1963.

The film lacked historical accuracy, downplaying Saladin’s Kurdish origins and highlighting his Muslim and Arab identity, said Viola Shafik in her book Popular Egyptian Cinema: Gender, Class and Nation.

It instead “offered a rather apologetic nationalist statement, depicting the Kurdish warlord Saladin al-Ayyubi as a pan-Arab national hero defeating the crusaders, not simply by means of his military skills, but by his high moral standing, most notably his righteousness and wisdom,” she said.

Industry enters decline

Even today, many Egyptian productions, like
“Mariam’s Grief,” are filmed in Lebanon [EPA]

By the mid-1960s, the renaissance of Egyptian cinema came to a standstill, further declining with the 1967 defeat during the Six-Day War with Israel.

During this period, corruption became the norm and badly produced films caused the industry to fall apart, critic Ahmed Ra’fat Bahgat told Al Jazeera.

“The 30 films the state co-produced with other countries flopped,” he said.

“Shady deals became an epidemic disease spread in every branch of the industry. All opposition was curbed and many filmmakers fled to Lebanon to create their films. In fact, it looked like the entire Egyptian film industry moved altogether to Lebanon.”

Films that harshly condemned Nasser’s governance and unveiled post-revolution corruption and oppression were banned. These films, released after Nasser’s death, include Miramar (1969) and al-Qadiya 68 (The Process 68, 1968).

Nasser as a ‘bully’

One film attacking Nasser via the use of allegory was initially banned by censors, but later released after Nasser interfered.

Hussein Kamal’s 1969 film Shay’un min al-khawf (Some Kind of Fear), depicted a merciless, tyrannical gang leader kidnaps and forces the village beauty Fuada to marry him. Atris, the gang leader, was widely regarded as a depiction of Nasser.

When Nasser overruled the ban, he asked the censors if they regarded him as a thug and a bully. After the censors denied this charge, Nasser responded “if we were like that, we really would deserve to be burned.”

“The fact that Nasser released Fear proves that Nasser did allow the voices that opposed him to be heard,” critic el-Sabban said.

“Whatever your stance against Nasser might be, one cannot deny that Egyptian cinema, under his rule, was exceedingly thriving, more than any other age.”

But not all critics are in el-Sabban’s camp, however.

“I think Nasser was clever in releasing a film like Fear,” said Bahgat. “It was a political tactic. People wanted some kind of release after the defeat and it would have been unwise for him to suppress it.”

He added that while some of Egyptian cinema’s greatest films were produced under Nasser, pre-revolution films were also noteworthy.

“Ultimately, the grave consequences inflicted by the revolution on the film industry outweigh its merits,” he said.

Joseph Fahim is an Egyptian film critic and writer.

Source: Al Jazeera