By May Telmissany

The story of how the state supported the production of some of the most progressive and innovative films in the Egyptian film cannon.

Once upon a time, there was a state apparatus in Egypt that supported and promoted cinema. Between 1963 and 1971, the cinematic public sector in Egypt produced 153 films, almost 30% of Egyptian film production during those eight years. As the Nasser regime declined following the 1967 defeat, the state withdrew steadily from the sponsorship of film production. The iconic films produced by the state during that period out-lived the regime, however, and have become classics of Egyptian cinema. These remarkable films, released in the 1960s–70s, are omnipresent on most lists of the top 100 Egyptian films, usually occupying more than a third of any list. Some have won international awards and represented Egypt in festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Moscow or Venice; others disappeared from memory only to be rediscovered several generations later through satellite channels and YouTube.

Defining ‘Alternative’

The role of the Egyptian public sector in the cinema industry has stirred considerable debate about the sector’s aspirations, policies and failures. Critics, film historians, filmmakers, cultural practitioners, decision-makers and high officials either celebrated or attacked the cinematic public sector based on their individual political beliefs, their ideological views and the extent of their support of or disagreement with the Nasser era as a whole. To revive the discussion about the role of the state in film production, beyond the limits of taxation and censorship, can be seen in the context of the current state of film production in Egypt as an attempt to sustain and encourage alternative forms of cinematic expression, be they produced by the public or the private sectors.

Al-Momya is considered Shadi Abdel Salam’s masterpiece. The intellectual experiment did not receive much commercial success but is considered the critical pinnacle of Egyptian cinema. The film is set in Upper Egypt in 1871 and revolves around a family that lives off looting ancient tombs. The film presents an uncommon topic and remains a rare example of a work that tackles the complex identity crisis of Egyptians, torn between their Pharaonic past, their Arab-Islamic present and the lure of the secular West.

Film stills from 'Al-Momya' (The Mummy/The Night of Counting the Years, 1969). C./ OF HUSSEIN BAKR

Traditionally speaking, alternative cinema is a committed form of film production that struggles against state control on the one hand and mainstream commercialism on the other hand. Paradoxically, the case of Egypt presents an interesting subversion of this rule. Until the 1960s and even beyond, the Hollywood-on-the-Nile type of commercial film production prevailed in Egypt and left very little space for alternative forms of cinematic expression to grow and thrive. In the 1960s, while both public and private sectors worked hand in hand to make some of the major successes of Egyptian cinema to this day, the experience of the public sector as a form of resistance to mainstream commercialism remains relatively under-documented and uncelebrated. Some might even claim that state intervention brought life to an ailing film industry as film production as a whole was subject to high taxes and often relied on bank loans.

In July 1957, Nasser established the Cinema Support Organization which became in 1963 the Egyptian General Film Organization (EGFO) with its objectives shifting from a vague form of support for cinema to the production and distribution of films. The EGFO has gone through several stages in its short history, during which the public sector has been administratively inefficient as a result of increased employment, debt accumulation, administrative confusion and lack of planning. Moreover, the production by the sector of commercial films (dubbed category B) did not live up to its cultural and pedagogical ambitions. Finally, for those eight years, the Egyptian public sector was at the heart of an ongoing conflict—both hidden and declared—between the politics of quantity and those of quality represented respectively by the ministers of culture Mohamed Abdelkader Hatem (1962–66) and Tharwat Okasha (1958 –62 and 1966–71).

Despite these and other problems, numerous public-sector films were capable of overcoming the imposition of demands for large profit margins on the one hand and the fears of losing the wider public by presenting ‘serious’ dramas on the other hand. Many were economically and aesthetically successful in addition to attracting the attention of the general public. Topics deemed too intellectual or too ‘difficult’ by mainstream producers were tackled by the public sector. Some were light-hearted but extremely progressive such as Merati Mudir Am

Starring Shadia and Salah Zulfikar, this film typifies the light-hearted but socially progressive films of the era. It explores the themes of ingrained prejudice against women in the workforce through the story of a government engineer who suddenly finds that his wife has become his boss after a promotion.

Stills from 'Merati Mudir ‘Am' (My Wife is a General Manager, 1966). C/ HUSSEIN BAKR

 (My Wife is a General Manager, 1965), while others were too experimental to attract larger audiences such al-Momya (The Mummy or The Night of Counting the Years, 1969), and in between, several shaped the identity of the middle classes and the collective memory of Egyptians at large. The intellectual and pedagogical mandate of the public sector was also fulfilled through other forms of high culture: literature, for instance, was considered a source of cinematic narratives in films produced by the sector. Sixty-eight films were based on literary works by 39 writers including Tewfiq al-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, Yehia Haqy, Ihsan Abdel Quddous, Youssef Idris, Fathi Ghanem, Salah Hafez, Ali Salem, and Lutfi al-Khouli.

Making a Statement

Two generations of filmmakers collaborated with the public sector: the generation of the 1940s and 1950s; and that of the 1960s, which grew up in the shadow of the institution and under its auspices. The first generation includes Salah Abu Seif, Henri Barakat, Tewfiq Saleh, Kamal al-Sheikh, Fateen Abdel Wahab and Youssef Chahine, among others; the second is represented by Hussein Kamal, Atef Salem and Shady Abdel Salam. Both groups positioned themselves against commercial cinema and viewed the patronage of the public sector as an opportunity to overcome the profit-seeking values imposed by private producers. Their films addressed a number of important social issues, all of which fall within the context of resistance against oppression through the denunciation of corruption and bureaucracy, the call for women’s rights and the critique of state paternalism and social patriarchy under the monarchy/colonial powers prior to the 1952 revolution—al-Ard (The Land, 1970), Ghuroub wa Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970), al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 1930, 1969), Muzzakerat Naib fi-l-Ariaf (The Diary of a Deputy in the Countryside, 1969), al-Zawga al-Thaniya (The Second Wife, 1967)—as well as in the post-revolutionary era, especially at the peak of its decline between 1968 and 1970 (al-Mutamaredoon (The Rebels, 1968), Miramar (1969), Shei min al-Khouf (A Glimpse of Fear, 1969).

Up until the 1960s, the Egyptian countryside had either been ignored by private sector film producers or painted in romantic, folkloric tones by the bourgeois filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s. The most prominent director of the 1960s, director Hussein Kamal, chose the rural space as a setting for two of his most important films: al-Bostagi (The Postman, 1968) and Shei’ min al-Khouf in which he deliberately criticizes male dominance and violence against women.

Still from of 'Shei’ min al-Khouf' (A Glimpse of Fear, 1969). C./ROTANA

The countryside, which was largely ignored by the private sector or hastily brushed in folkloric tones by bourgeois filmmakers of the 1930s and the 1940s, occupied a prominent place in public sector film production within the larger context of promoting resistance. Hussein Kamal, the most prominent directors of the 1960s generation, chose the rural space as a subject for two of his most important films: al-Bostagi (The Postman, 1968) and Shei min al-Khouf in which he purposely criticizes male dominance and violence against women. The events of great films such as al-Haram (The Sin, 1965), Gaffat al-Amtar (The Rain has Dried, 1967), al-Ard, The Diary of a Deputy in the Countryside and The Second Wife take place in the countryside where the conflict over property between landowners and their toadies with the peasant farmers is highlighted and deplored, and where poverty, ignorance, disease, superstition and oppression of the weak are denounced.

The role of Egyptian intellectuals and their action within their privileged space, the city, was addressed and problematized in numerous productions following the 1967 defeat. Some, such as Shadi Abdel Salam’s al-Momya, Said Marzouq’s Zawgaty wa-l-Kalb (My Wife and the Dog, 1971) and Sobhi Shafiq’s al-Talaqi (The Encounter, 1977), focus from an experimental viewpoint on the role of the intellectual and the obsessions and prejudices associated with male/female relationships. Others, such as Tewfiq Saleh’s iconic al-Motamaredoon and Kamal al-Sheikh’s Miramar, link state corruption represented by middle class educated young protagonists to female social and sexual oppression in the urban space. Archetypes of failed intellectuals and officials were also targeted and ridiculed by several filmmakers as a form of countering the official discourse on national modernization and progress. The cowardly school teacher in Youssef Chahine’s al-Ard, the unscrupulous judge in Tewfiq Saleh’s Muzzakerat Naib fi-l-Ariaf, the lawyer sabotaging the case of the people in Salah Abu Seif’s al-Qaddiya 68 (Case Number 68, 1968) are symbols of middle-class degeneration and the increase, despite harsh censorship, of social and political awareness among filmmakers. Perhaps the critique addressed to the failures of the 1960s was subtle but it was not unnoticed. We still refer to this period as ‘the glorious sixties’ because of the significance of the cultural production on the one hand and because censorship over culture loosened somewhat to allow writers, filmmakers and media practitioners to vent their frustrations instead of forcing every dissident voice into complete silence.

Our brief assessment of these and many other great films produced by the cinematic public sector is an invitation to reflect on film production supported and promoted by a progressive state as a form of alternative cinema. Today’s non-mainstream films are flooded in a sea of superficial commercial productions; they depend solely on private companies which provide limited support to independent filmmaking and, to a certain extent, co-production. It is true that commercialism has swept not only the Egyptian market but the Arab markets at large; it is equally true that the state decided over the past forty years to limit its cultural functions to censorship and even more taxation. The ‘glorious sixties’, despite their shortcomings, provide us with an interesting roadmap for the future, if only the decision-making were to be claimed by film lovers and filmmakers instead of being highjacked by pencil pushers.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 9, 2018