A tour of Egyptian film archives—or lack thereof—given by the archivist of Cairo’s Cimatheque, an alternative film centre in Downtown Cairo dedicated to celebrating the diversity, beauty and power of film from Egypt and beyond.
In the late 1920s, Fatma Rushdi, a beloved early star of Egyptian theatre, decided to make the leap to the silver screen. Just as she was about to release her second film, Taht Sama’ Misr (Under the Sky of Egypt, 1928), critics and audiences universally panned her previous work, Fage‘a Fawq al-Haram (Tragedy at the Pyramids), also produced in early 1928. Humiliated, the actress—who also happened to be the film’s producer—hastily burned all existing copies. In this instance, personal vanity was the culprit in the loss of a valuable part of Egyptian cinema history, but the reasons why Egypt does not possess a comprehensive archive of its cinematic past are much more varied and complex.
The Loss of an Artform
The birth of the Egyptian film industry is rooted in the apocryphal tale of the first Lumière Brothers screening at the Café Zavani in the Tousson Pasha Stock Exchange area in November 1896. Before an audience of the crème de la crème of Alexandrian society, Alexandre Promio (one the Lumière company’s most notable representatives) is said to have run film through a projector, hand-cranking images onto the screen and transfixing the elite audience. It was as though a sorcerer had magically transported the factories and gardens of Lyon, France across thousands of kilometres to Alexandria, Egypt.
Soon after that first screening in Alexandria, a similar one took place in Cairo, planting the seeds for the country’s first wave of production and distribution companies. A few silent films were produced, but Egyptian cinema arguably only gained prominence with the advent of sound. Between 1930 and 1936 alone, more than 44 films were made. And yet, the question that plagues any cinephile, archivist or practitioner working in the film industry today is: What happened to these works?
The sad reality is that most Egyptian films produced during the first half of the industry’s golden age are now lost or irrevocably damaged. Researchers hunting for treasure in a souq may stumble on a positive print for an Ismail Yassin film buried under a heap of broken clocks and radios but negative prints—the coveted crown jewel for film preservationists—are few and far between. Local merchants were maddeningly given to melting down the reels of celluloid to extract silver. The few that survived have either made their way to Cairo’s underground network of collectors or are housed in foreign (mostly European) archives.
Gatekeepers of Dust
The history of why Egypt possesses no cohesive archival collection of its rich cinematic history is more complicated than it seems. While vanity such as Fatma Rushdi’s may have occasionally played a role, negligence and a lack of imagination are more often to blame.
To properly understand the dire state of film archives in Egypt, one should examine them within the larger context of state-run archival efforts. The country possesses two major repositories of historical material: The National Archives (Dar al-Watha’iq) and the National Library (Dar al-Kuttub). The Bibliotheca Alexandrina complements their activities and has better facilities, but all three are plagued by similar organizational and financial problems. A general misunderstanding regarding the utility of the archives mars their operations. The focus is more on controlling access to the material than on proper cataloguing, storage and preservation. Who is allowed to view an archive, and in what capacity, are questions that force potential researchers into a maze of bureaucratic clearances sometimes leading to dead ends when artefacts are nowhere to be found. Whether they are lost, or the state prohibits their availability remains unclear. Archives are primarily defined by the ways in which they help shape national identity. In turn, controlling how they are interpreted is a matter of national interest.
Each of these major institutions has built an audience for their respective archives, with varying degrees of success. While their holdings are undoubtedly of remarkable value, preservation practices often leave a lot to be desired. Dust is a recurring motif when discussing archives virtually anywhere on the planet, but perhaps no more so than in Egypt. Whether talking about the invaluable papers of Ottoman-era history housed in the National Library, films found in the Egyptian Cinema Centre, or labyrinthine markets in popular areas, dust is a common enemy. As is a tendency towards the chaotic: while a few items are properly indexed and catalogued, this happens to be the exception rather than the rule.
As frustrating as this can be, it is also understandable, given the lack of funding and proper training. On a human level, the job of an archivist or librarian is looked down upon: the position, amin al-maktaba, which is used to mean something akin to a warehouse manager, is popularly conflated with the role of an archivist. It is often used as a slur, a job that requires no professionalism and only the most basic form of literacy. While there is a university programme—an undergraduate degree called wath’eq wa maktabat (documents and libraries) offered at Ain Shams University—that should help challenge this misperception, archiving and preservation remain irrelevant concerns, especially in a country beset by financial troubles and in a constant struggle to define its cultural heritage.
Pieces of a Puzzle
Within this broad framework lie different entities that have historically attempted to preserve cinema for future generations. Perhaps the earliest and most notable development is when Studio Misr opened in 1935. Founded by notable economic and industrial pioneer Talaat Harb, the company maintained impressive storage facilities for its day and kept copies of both newsreels and feature-length films.
However, preservation practices on a global level were still being developed, and not every producer put aside positive prints in storage for safekeeping. Few had the foresight to comprehend that this new-fangled invention would prove to be such a vital instrument in capturing modern life, let alone that it would become an artform. Normally, two or so master copies of each film were created and sent to cinema projectionists for screening. The idea of preserving the negatives, an extra print, or even tracing the copies’ whereabouts beyond the distribution cycle was yet to be implemented. Cinema was still viewed by many as disposable entertainment, and Egypt was no exception. Further, much of early cinema was shot on nitrate-based film stock, which is infamous for its flammable qualities. When a fire in July 1950 burned through parts of Studio Misr’s storage facilities, it was an all-too-familiar note within the broader narrative of film archives throughout the world.
To help fill the gap left by Studio Misr, the Office of the Arts instated the Egyptian Film Archive in the mid-1950s. From this point onwards, the approach to film preservation was fragmentary at best. Under the mandatory deposit ruling passed in 1968, producers were obliged to create a copy of each film specifically for archival purposes but not all of them complied on a regular basis. Egypt continued to participate in the work of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) but its application for full membership was repeatedly rejected, as it was unable to meet the organization’s preservation requirements.
Tracing the state’s archival efforts helps understand one piece of the puzzle but there are other elements worth pondering such as state censorship. While some films were initially banned, only to be released shortly thereafter to popular acclaim—a famous example of this is Tewfiq Saleh’s Muzzakerat Na’ib fi-l-Ariaf (Diary of a Country Prosecutor, 1968)—most of these works have all but faded from public memory. A prime example of this is Lasheen (1938), a historical drama with socio-political overtones, of which only a few production stills survive. The film’s whereabouts are a mystery, and few scholars have seen it.
Other works produced during this time period and dealing with poverty and the country’s social struggles head-on were also subject to cuts by the censorship board, such as al-‘Aamel (The Labourer, 1943), distributed by Behna Films, or Onshoodat al-Fuad (A Song from the Heart, 1932), which was banned from foreign distribution for fear that it would damage Egypt’s reputation abroad. This does not mean that the films were intentionally destroyed by the state for security reasons, but it does seem to indicate that since the films were killed early in the distribution stage, it is less likely that anyone would be tempted to preserve them.
Neglect, Perseverance and Passion
Anyone working as a historian or archivist in Egypt will inevitably run-up against the informal network of collectors running the show behind closed doors. Egyptian cinema inspires uncommon passion among devotees: collectors embark upon endless missions to open-air markets and antique dealers or connect with underground networks of vendors to unearth invaluable and rare pieces of filmic history. While they might not be able to ensure the best preservation practices for the pieces they collect, at least they represent a form of access and a notion of safeguarding, limited as it may be.
Luckily, there are also numerous individuals who have taken it upon themselves to organize and digitize what they can of their archival collections. Studio photographer Mohamed Bakr is one heartening example. Both he and his father, Hussein Bakr, were active studio photographers documenting the production of hundreds—if not thousands—of films from the 1930s onwards. Their photographs do not just consist of production stills made for promotional purposes, but they capture and edify crucial behind-the-scenes moments, providing a wonderfully rare glimpse into the film production process over many decades.
After his offices at Studio Misr were unceremoniously demolished in the 1980s due to rampant neglect and corruption, Bakr saved what he could of his own and his father’s work. He opened a new studio in Giza where he worked tirelessly to rescue what he could from climate-related damage, while also digitizing much of his formidable catalogue, entirely on his own. He has since served as an incredible font of information for researchers and filmmakers alike, generously providing valuable information on the Egyptian film industry’s most pivotal era.
Archives in Egypt and Elsewhere
The sad reality is that much of Egyptian cinema history has left the country: either the rights for certain films have been sold to television stations based in the Gulf, or they have found their way to various archives in Europe. Through different channels, the Cinémathèque Française acquired many films, but it is difficult to ascertain the exact number or the kinds of works they might have, locked away in their vaults. Likewise, British Pathé, and the BBC possess newsreels produced by Egypt in the late 1920s and 1930s when Egypt was under British occupation.
That being said, there have been a few cooperative efforts between entities in Egypt and abroad paving the way for a more equal playing field when it comes to restoration and preservation efforts. Misr International Films, under the leadership of producer Marianne Khoury, has spearheaded the restoration of Youssef Chahine’s considerable archive in cooperation with the Cinémathèque Française. The project not only focuses on restoring much of the director’s filmography, but also preserving documents such as press kits, notebooks, scripts, and set design portfolios, amongst other important artefacts. Likewise, Basile Behna, the heir to Behna Films’ holdings and founder of Wekalet Behna in Alexandria, helped lead an effort with his sister to restore Onshoodat al-Fuad, one of the first films in Egyptian history with spoken dialogue, in partnership with the Cinémathèque Française.
France is a common denominator when discussing joint international efforts to preserve or restore Egyptian film history. This can be traced both to the influence that France continued to exert over the Egyptian cultural sector after Napoleon’s short-lived occupation in the late eighteenth century as well as to the fact that many Egyptian émigrés settled there in the mid-twentieth century. For example, the Frenkel Brothers—producers of the country’s first animated films in the 1920s and 1930s featuring the beloved Mish Mish Effendi—left Egypt for France in the 1940s, taking their works with them. Years later, surviving members of their family supervised the restoration of this valuable film archive.
Similarly, in Meudon, France, the Jacques Haïk Regent Film Archives, established by a French-Algerian distributor, focuses on restoring many of the classics of Egyptian cinema’s self-proclaimed golden age of musicals featuring Farid al-Atrache and Samia Gamal.
The American University in Cairo houses the incredibly vital archive of photographer Van Leo, including his equipment and a series of priceless home movies of his family in 1940s Egypt. The university archives also include movie press kits from the 1920s and a sizeable collection of film stills from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Archaeology of Memory
Cimatheque–Alternative Film Centre has devoted much of its energy to highlighting the importance of moving image archiving and cultivating a sense of ownership through programming and encouraging research. The nascent archive—built largely thanks to generous donations from Abdel Hamid Said (who served as the director of the Egyptian Cinema Organization in the late 1960s and 1970s), noted documentarian Atteyat al-Abnoudy, and animator Ihab Shaker, among others—houses 35mm prints and ephemera from well-known and acclaimed cinematic works from the region and beyond. It also includes material from the less traditionally celebrated corners of motion picture industry and heritage, such as found footage, amateur films, commercials, newsreels, experimental documentaries, and press kits for B-movies, or image stills of long-forgotten shorts.
The Cimatheque archive was built with a sense of urgency, accepting all kinds of donations and amassing material that often falls somewhere in the murky area between prestigious archival material and unimportant finds relating to more niche aspects of filmic history. Most researchers crave access to what they deem a ‘proper’ archive, one that houses important aspects of motion picture history, such as silent films, feature-length works from the 1930s, and so on. The sense of disappointment that soon settles over researchers hoping for more than just fragments of film history begs the question whether it is even possible to privately curate a film archive in the absence of a proper state-funded repository of heritage.
However, the Cimatheque archive provides value of a different kind by demonstrating how various forms of filmmaking—from B-movies to amateur home movies documenting family holidays—communicated with each other, one piece informing the other parts of a larger puzzle. Sometimes, these seemingly disparate elements tell us more about modern-day Egypt and its people than the celebrated works upon which we are usually fixated.
The argument can be made that in Egypt, the archives are ones of memory rather than process. The challenges of creating an archive, one that prioritizes basic principles of cataloguing, indexing and preservation, are immense. There remains a stark gap in basic know-how, and misconceptions regarding the utility of film archives abound. The lack of funding and training will also continue to hamper efforts for some time.
Given this reality, stories and memories serve as an alternative form of archiving. While this might sometimes lead to erroneous assumptions and vague rumours, for those willing to venture down the less beaten paths in Cairo, Alexandria, and beyond, the findings can be of staggering value.
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Yasmin Desouki is a film archivist and programmer currently working as the artistic director at Cimatheque–Alternative Film Centre in Cairo, Egypt. After completing her degree in cinema studies and film archiving and preservation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, she returned to Egypt where she managed the archival collection at Misr International Films for several years.