Rasha Shokr outlines the conditions that favoured the golden era of Egyptian cinema and proposes a solution for restoring Egypt to its past glory.
Egypt was hailed as the centre of Arab cinema in the mid-’90s, but production has dipped in recent years. In fact, it is no longer on the list of the top feature film producing countries, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Rasha Shokr outlines the conditions that favoured the golden era of Egyptian cinema and proposes a solution for restoring Egypt to its past glory.
The Egyptian movie industry was born in the first wave of cinema at the end of the 19th century. The first silent Egyptian film was produced in the beginning of 1896, and a full-length feature was released in 1927. Egypt’s geographical location played a key role in ensuring that Cairo remained a hub for the movie industry, and it continued to evolve and flourish.
Cairo and Alexandria were two Mediterranean cultural melting pots, among the few cities in the region considered cities of enlightenment. The openness of Egyptian society at the time led to the acquisition of art, artistic education and skills, as well as the development of a movie-making culture.
The golden era of Egypt’s movie industry lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s, when Egyptian productions mimicked Hollywood movies. In fact, if you mute and watch Egyptian movies from the golden era, they look like their Hollywood counterparts. It was the era of well-known directors Youssef Chahine and Niazy Mostafa, and actors like Omar El-Sharif. Egyptian films like Shabab Emra’a, El Leila el Akhaira and El Arad shone at the Cannes Film Festival. The trilogy of Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel prize winner in 1956, and the artistic boom of the 1960s took place while Egypt was ravaged by war. Almost all the renowned actors and actresses of the Arab world emerged in that period.
The Egyptian movie industry model during the ’40s and ’50s was close to the French model. It attracted talented artists from across the Middle East. Cairo and Alexandria were cult cities. Their lifestyle made them cultural hubs for Egyptians as well as non-Egyptians. That went hand in hand with a certain lifestyle. Families thought it prestigious to send their children abroad, especially to Europe, for an education. That served as a magnet for attracting emerging arts. Upper-middle-class educational exchange trips made it easy for the movie industry to find its way to Egypt, for an easy landing in a culturally open society.
The French model relies on attracting directors, writers and artists from all over Europe, and maintains that role successfully even today. Many well-known Polish directors, for instance, found their way to France and made it their home. The concept of having culturally sophisticated downtown areas is European. This became part of Egypt’s own profile for art and movie communities.
Egypt adopted the concept of elite art centres and had movie theatres in every major city’s downtown area as far back as the early 19th century. Those areas were considered a window to the outer world and beacons of cultural trends, instantly attracting anyone who worked in the creative fields. It was also considered part of raising awareness and building an open society. The urban movie theatres led to the popularity of the movie industry in Egypt.
The European film industry model survived, flourished and merged with other markets worldwide. Unfortunately, this was not the case in Egypt. The golden era for feature movie productions was tied to a certain cultural lifestyle. With political shake-up in the country over the years and subsequent changes to society, the movie industry faltered. The formula was not the same.
As the cultural hub of the Arab world with its rich history and know-how, Egypt should have reached the 250m Arabic-speakers in the Middle East. But it fell from grace, slipping out of the top 15 feature film producing countries, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
No doubt there have been isolated cases of success, but they do not fulfil the goal of creating a successful market. The commercial viability of any film market depends on managing the entire ecosystem and infrastructure within a country, not just individual projects.
What Egypt needs now, therefore, is a reset button; it needs to reposition itself in the market for the new rising Arabic-speaking generations who are also avid fans of American movies. It needs to set a target of 100 movie productions and co-productions each year, to become one of the top 10 feature film producers in the world.
I believe the answer to that challenge lies in drawing on the successes of the Chinese, South Korean and Japanese markets.
These markets have similar challenges, including cultural and linguistic barriers, yet their reach has been incredible. Their audiences are also recipients of Hollywood movies, as are young Arabic-speakers. These markets are challenged to create content that stays close to the hearts of local people while also being as attractive as global productions.
The Chinese model especially, of bringing all the mega movie producers under one business umbrella, may be a potential solution to help revive the Egyptian movie market. Otherwise, we may continue to have sporadic productions that give voice to individual Egyptian productions in Arab movie theatres but fail to lift the whole movie market. These individuals or isolated projects are to be applauded, but they are not large or prolific enough to create a thriving commercial market or produce a slate of feature films for big screens.
The challenge in Egypt is that many will have to shake themselves out of living in the legacy of the past. The past is now an impediment, because the communities that created the Egyptian movie industry in the early 20th century, along with the glamorous downtown mentality, no longer exist and won’t again. We have a great heritage, but it’s now time to create a greater future by bringing a fragmented industry together and creating a commercially viable ecosystem.
Rasha Shokr is a writer, film critic and vlogger based in Egypt.