Just after World War II, Hollywood's top stars came up with what they thought was a highly original scheme to lower their taxes and raise their incomes: they incorporated themselves, made their own pictures, pocketed the lion's share of the profits, and congratulated themselves on their astute maneuver. They would undoubtedly be chagrined to learn that in the United Arab Republic, Egyptian actors had perfected that money-making technique nearly 20 years before. They might be even more vexed to discover that the pioneers in the fang-and-claw field of do-it-yourself film financing were the supposedly weaker sex. The first serious motion picture made anywhere in the Arab world, in fact, was the silent film "Leila," produced by Egyptian actress 'Aziza Amir and released to a skeptical public in 1927. Its immediate success spurred Mrs. Asia Dagher to found the still-flourishing Lotus Films and Mrs. Bahiga Hafiz to follow suit with the Fanar Film Corporation.
The feminine influence that has pervaded Egyptian films ever since possibly accounts for the content of the average successful Egyptian film, a 100-minute mixture of sweetness, song and Victorian melodrama seemingly compounded of equal parts of "Little Women," "Wuthering Heights" and "The Big Broadcast of 1933," but with a flavor that is unmistakably, if naturally, Egyptian.
The Arab film industry has traditionally been synonymous with the Egyptian film industry, and the themes favored by Egyptian producers, have overwhelmingly been related to that country's city and countryside. Arab countries, with the one exception of Lebanon, produce few films of their own and have had to rely almost entirely on the U.A.R. to supply their Arabic-language film requirements, and in so doing have become accustomed to both the somewhat foreign subject matter and to the Egyptian dialect. Those themes, of course, have limited appeal and although Egyptian films have found audiences in Greece, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Malaya, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, Iran, Brazil, Venezuela and Brooklyn, New York, they were made up mostly of nostalgic expatriates aching for a reminder of home. The limitations of content and language have had a restrictive effect and Arab films have yet to seize any noticeable proportion of the world's film markets. Consequently, the main market for Egyptian films remains the U.A.R. itself.
Egyptians have been avid moviegoers ever since the first film was shown in their country. That was in 1896 when all movies were silent and dialogue was flashed on the screen between scenes. By 1905 there were 12 theaters and by the end of World War I the total had increased to 80, all of which were showing pictures imported from France and Italy. In those early days translation of the dialogue was not superimposed on the bottom of the film, so the management thoughtfully provided a translator or explicateur who stood beside the screen and gave a blow-by-blow account of the action, booming out in Arabic a running commentary as the sentences appeared on the screen. Cairo's Olympia Cinema improved on the system by installing near the picture screen a smaller screen, on which was flashed an Arabic translation of the subtitles. Though it gave viewers a slight case of tennis neck, it was probably better than the system used in some places in Iran today, where at two-minute intervals the screen goes blank and a handwritten synopsis of the preceding action is projected in two or three successive frames. In 1940, the Egyptian Government issued an order forbidding the projection of any foreign film not superimposed with Arabic translations of the dialogue; fast readers are thus now able to get the drift of the plot.
The early popularity of films found the owners of movie houses already exercising their ingenuity to lure customers away from the competition. The following advertisement is typical of the means they employed: "The Pathe Cinema shows only decent social films—all being shown for the first time. The projector in operation does not vibrate as in other cinemas. Save your eyes and avoid headaches by seeing our films projected on our firm and steady screen."
To provide films for those "firm and steady" screens and to get a share of the film markets then monopolized by foreign producers, a Mr. A. Orfanelli established the nation's first studio in Alexandria. Unfortunately the two-reel comedies he and his imitators cranked out were not sufficiently popular to establish a foothold for the industry in that city and, with the appearance of "Leila," the center of gravity of the motion picture industry shifted to Cairo—where it has remained ever since. At that point of course, Egyptian bankers, like American bankers before them, awoke to the profits to be made from movies and began to invest in what had previously been almost the private preserve of the star producers. Bank Misr, for example, formed the Société Misr pour le Théâtre et le Cinéma and built the Misr Studio, still considered the largest and best-equipped studio in the Middle East. The new entrepreneurs also sought to improve the indifferent technical quality of Egyptian films by sending promising young men to study film-making in France and Germany.
The increasingly professional approach to film production resulted in the release in 1930 of "Zaynab," a new departure in Egyptian films in that the locale was, for the first time, the Egyptian countryside and all the characters peasants. Based on a story by the famed Egyptian author Dr. Muhammad Hussayn Haykal and directed by Muhammad Karim, a student and collaborator of the eminent German director Fritz Lang, "Zaynab" featured peasants in the roles of peasants, and focused on the authentic landscape and daily life of the Nile. It was without question the best film made in Egypt up to that time, and it was a sensation.
The same year—1930—saw the first Egyptian "talking picture," called "In the Moonlight." The sound was on records synchronized with the film, and included both voice and music. The first sound track film in Arabic was produced, however, not in Egypt but in Paris. Titled "Fils à Papa," the film was produced by Muhammad Karim in 1932, and featured the great Egyptian actor Yusif Wahbi. The bemused first-night Parisian audience didn't understand a single word of the Arabic dialogue, but the novelty of the Oriental tongue in a French theater brought down the house, and the film netted a record income.
With the introduction of the sound track it was inevitable that the much loved Egyptian love ballads, so popular in cabarets and on the stage, would be transplanted to the screen, and so they were. The popular singers of the time were among the first to realize how liberally the new medium could line their pockets and one after another they plunged into movie production, with themselves, naturally, as stars. Munira al-Mahdiyah, Fatmah Rushdi, Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahab and the great Umm Kulthum—all appeared in a succession of pictures that made their names household words throughout the Arab countries.
Balancing the diet of full-length musical features produced by independents, Studio Misr turned out large numbers of one and two-reel shorts. Another development was the establishment of the first Arabic newsreel, called "Egypt's Talking Newspaper." It has never ceased to be a regular feature of Egyptian film fare, although now it is being released as the "Arab Motion Picture Newsreel."
In 1927-28, the total production of the Egyptian film industry was a modest five full-length features. By 1936-37, this had nearly tripled and in 1952 the production reached 70 films annually. Today the output averages 40 to 50 features per year.
The considerable expansion of the Egyptian film industry over the years has been paralleled by a commensurate increase in the number of movie outlets in Egypt itself. The nation now has some 400 movie houses, of which 76 are in Cairo and 45 in Alexandria. A project is underway to construct 4,000 additional houses, a large number of which will be for the projection of 16-mm films in Egyptian villages. This project is part of a large plan of the Ministry of Education to revitalize the entire Egyptian film industry. Already, under the plan, the ministry has inaugurated a Motion Picture Institute (at university level) offering a four-year curriculum which includes courses in acting, production, cinematography, sound, set-design and scenario-writing. Since the government has nationalized film production, the ministry in charge has broken ground for an ultra-modern "Cinema City," which will eventually house nine huge sound stages, laboratories for processing both black-and-white and color film, as well as a host of auxiliary buildings.
The fruit of this activity—hopefully, films of vastly superior quality—is designed to give the U.A.R. a larger share of the international market. The tricky business of feeling the pulse of this lucrative market goes on, in a test tube atmosphere, at the various film festivals to many of which the U.A.R. has sent entrants: Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Moscow and Prague, and once, in an optimistic moment, even to the Academy Award contest in Hollywood. But so far, kudos have been few: prizes for best film (al-Bab al-Maftuh—"The Open Door") and best actress (Fatin Hamamah) at an Indonesian film festival. Having learned the hard way that most of their films are not yet up to the artistic standards of American and European movie-makers, the Egyptians have nevertheless worked toward maximum exposure of their products by organizing festivals of U.A.R. pictures abroad. Within the past two years, such exhibitions have been held in Moscow, Belgrade, Peking, Prague, Warsaw, Rome and Madrid.
Part of the problem of standards is, naturally, related to the amount of money spent on films. Currently movie budgets average 20,000 to 30,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $40,000-$60,000), as compared to Hollywood's budgets of 1300,000 and up for the cheapest productions. Screenplays are depressingly low-priced by American standards, too, the very highest selling for $8,000 to $10,000—even such top-flight novels as those of Ihsan Abd al-Quddoos. And ordinarily script-writers can hope for no more than about $3,000 for first-class scenarios adapted from stories or novels, or possibly $4,000 if the script is an original screenplay.
As in Hollywood, actors' salaries take the biggest bite out of the budget and at the top of the celluloid heap is the singing actor, who may make as much as §30,000 per picture; in this category belong Sabah, Abd al-Halim Hafiz, Farid al-Atrash and Muhammad Abd al-Wahab. Nonsinging actors receive about half the pay made by the singers, providing a good rule of thumb of the popularity of the two categories of actors among ticket buyers. Far and away the most popular nonsinging actress in Egypt is Fatin Hamamah, who gets a flat $14,000 per picture and is unique among Egyptian stars in that she can demand and get the right to choose script, producer and, sometimes, even the male lead in films in which she appears. (Her husband, incidentally, known as Omar Sharif in the West, is the first Egyptian star to graduate to Hollywood. He was an instant success in "Lawrence of Arabia," receiving a nomination for an "Oscar" as Best Supporting Actor, and went on to repeat his triumph with major roles in last year's "Behold a Pale Horse" and "The Fall of the Roman Empire." With the title role in "Dr. Zhivago" Sharif is expected to establish himself as a major star.)
France and Italy have exerted a steady influence on Egyptian pictures from the beginning and the United States has had an impact since World War II. From France, through the French-speaking Egyptians who once formed the higher strata of society and commerce, came the taste for melodrama and the derivitive dramatic themes which dominate the Egyptian screen. From Italy came the enthusiastically embraced techniques of inexpensive film making—developed and polished during Italy's impoverished postwar years. From the United States has come many techniques and most recently, the trend toward color extravaganzas, with casts of thousands, based loosely on historical incidents, and incorporating into single films, scenes that are often dramatically illogical, but financially profitable. As Cecil B. De Mille demonstrated, such films are inclined to be longish and "Saladin," the U.A.R.'s first step in this direction, ran a muscle-cramping three hours and 15 minutes. If successful, "Saladin," produced by U. S.-trained Yusif Shaheen, may open a new chapter in Egyptian film-making and lead to more emphasis on historical or truly dramatic themes. Up to now, it cannot be said that the subject matter of Egyptian films is fraught with significance for, as a thoughtful Arab critic has pointed out, "The themes of Egyptian pictures are invariably 'safe' themes. Most producers try to stick to the same old, tired but profitable, formula, which combines a lukewarm melodrama—liberally interlarded with long and doleful songs—about such unarguable propositions as, for example, landlords have stony hearts and young women fall in love with heels."
The same critic went on to say that after melodrama, the best box office films are comedies, generally broad, pratfall, custard-pie humor, and what might be termed the "Eastern-Western," in which heroes dispatch their enemies and win their heroines at a fast gallop and with fists, agility and convenient coincidence, after doling out satisfying rations of mayhem throughout the picture.
The challenge of outside competition will probably do much to bring about revolutionary changes in Egyptian pictures. Although only Lebanon and Iraq, of all the Middle East nations, have ever made movies—and Iraq's ambitions in that direction are now dormant—Lebanon is beginning to emerge as a competitor. With variety of landscape for the location-shooting of any type of picture, plus the financing provided by a free-wheeling, free-enterprising economy, Lebanon has begun to produce feature-length films at the rate of 8 to 12 annually, 80 per cent of them in color (U.A.R. produces about 10 per cent of its films in color), and is going after the markets with its traditional aggressiveness. The physical beauty of Lebanon is even drawing film makers from abroad. Last year, for example, David Niven, Mickey Rooney and Lex Barker were all in Beirut working on films. Thus a competitor for the U.A.R.'s major market has arisen even while foreign films, mostly American and French, continue to dominate the market and walk off with pictures grosses with which the earnings of Arabic-language films simply can't compare.
The U.A.R., however, is making a vigorous effort. Its gleaming new studios in "Cinema City," which in technical equipment rank with world's best, can be the springboard. Its plan to introduce international stars such as Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Trevor Howard, Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck in Egyptian-made joint productions, is an example of the audacious kind of thinking that might recapture former markets and even penetrate as yet virgin territory. And if it takes imagination to conceive of an Arabic-language film, even beautifully subtitled or dubbed into English, playing at New York's Radio City Music Hall, who ever heard of a movie producer who didn't have a stupendous, earthshaking, super-colossal imagination?
Saad ed-Din Tewfic, journalist, radio commentator and critic, is the chief editor of al-Kawakib magazine, one of the Arab world's more important film publications, and an instructor at Cairo's Cinema Institute.