It’s not easy to chose a particular historical moment to serve as a starting point from which to write about cinematic experiences that have deviated from the production and distribution system controlling Egypt’s film industry.
Attempts to organize activities that would allow some negotiation with filmmaking capital began in the 1940s. In the early 1960s, state and public funding bodies entered the arts with a centralized plan for culture, represented by public-sector experiments and the Egyptian Film Organization between 1963 and 1973. It was a time when the state tried to control many activities and, through its left wing, make them more “of the people.”
This article, however, traces the steps taken by certain film and culture critics, including Ghali Shukry and Amir al-Imary, who saw the 1967 military defeat as a perfect starting point: a moment when the regime that had dominated Egypt’s political and cultural life for almost 15 years, reaching a peak in 1965, had broken and receded.
Artistic production that counteracted the dominant, official discourse had already appeared on the horizon before the 1967 defeat, but it became more visible then. Sonallah Ibrahim wrote his first, subversive novel That Smell in 1966; Yusuf Idris republished The White, a novel criticizing the Egyptian left, in 1970; and, in the same year, Youssef Chahine directed The Choice, written byNaguib Mahfouz, followed by The Sparrow in 1972. The year 1967 also marked the return of Tharwat Okasha, the former minister of culture who laid out the ministry’s structure for public cultural institutions in Egypt.
Against the backdrop of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s new cabinet, the return of Okasha, Nasser’s March 30, 1968 statement (see link in the references below), and the release of imprisoned communists to take up official cultural posts, the post-defeat moment was a relief for cinema, due to the receding hegemony of a single controlling group. It also witnessed the public film sector’s involvement in some critical productions, such as Tawfiq Saleh’s The Rebels. Were it not for the defeat and the resulting changes in society, it’s safe to say that these alternative cinematic projects I’m about to discuss wouldn’t have had the chance to exist.
Three important film initiatives appeared in the aftermath of 1967, engaging with that historical moment and its contradictions and contributing to the development of filmmaking: firstly a production initiative, the New Cinema Society; secondly an attempt to create a critical space to watch films and produce written knowledge on cinema through the Cairo Cinema Club; and thirdly an attempt to decentralize film screenings by organizing screening programs in the nationwide “culture palaces.”
Filmmakers founded the New Cinema Society in 1968 with the aim of redistributing the Cinema Organization’s budget to give a new generation of filmmakers a chance to produce films.
After the foundation of the Cinema Institute in 1959, fresh graduates – including young directors, cinematographers and editors – began looking for means of production. While the Cinema Organization did actively start producing films under Okasha, the budget largely went to older directors. The New Cinema Society was founded to protest this practice.
The society’s members included young directors with unfinished feature films, like Mohamed Rady – who was said to be the founder, Ali Abdel Khalek (“Ughniyya ala al-Mamar/Song on the Passage), and Palestinian Ghalib Shaath (Dhilal fil-Janib al-Akhar/Shadows on the Other Side), in addition toRaafat al-Mihy, Daoud Abdel Sayed and Ashraf Fahmy; cinematographers like Mahmoud Abd al-Samiea, Said al-Shimy and Samir Farag; and critics like Sami al-Salamoni, Samir Farid and Youssef Sherif Rizq Allah, who later became famous.
But only two of the society’s productions were actually released: Song on the Passage (1972) and Shadows on the Other Side (1971). The latter was initially banned by the censorship authority before being allowed to be screened after it received an award at Czechoslovakia’s Karlovy Vary Festival. (Ironically, the authorities who helped ban the film were those who sent it to the festival.)
The society’s production model, according to critic Amir al-Imari, was to cover the film crew’s wages, while the state took on the rest of the production costs, such as for equipment, studios and so on. This were the terms of production used for the two aforementioned films.
The year 1968 saw the launch of many cultural publications calling for new and avant-garde ideas, like Gallery 68, a journal focused on literature and visual arts. The New Cinema Society was given a few pages in Al-Kawakib magazine, which was headed at the time by Ragaa al-Naqash – a cultural icon during and after Nasser’s era. Those few pages had an independent title, “Furious Magazine,” and Fathy Farag, who initiated the cinema club project at cultural palaces, was the chief editor (more on Farag shortly).
With time it became impossible to ignore the society’s existence, which allowed for it to negotiate with the Ministry of Culture as represented by the Cinema Organization. In short, it negotiated with Okasha to co-produce films with the state.
At the same historical moment when the New Cinema Society was founded by filmmakers, Okasha took charge of the Culture Ministry and the Cinema Organization was controlling production, the alternative production movement evolved into a desire to create an alternative context to view films – a valid request given the Cinema Organization’s early productions, as it flooded cinemas with light comedies that entirely avoided the agitated political reality and collaborated with the censorship authority to ban political films. The Cairo Cinema Club, an offspring of Okasha’s ministry, was a project that offered some alternatives.
The Film Association was founded in Cairo in 1960 through an initiative introduced by film critic Ahmed al-Hadary. It continues to operate today, organizing an annual festival at the Opera House to celebrate mainstream production, but back then it was a refuge for short and documentary films, in terms of production, screening and as a platform for shorts and documentaries to participate in festivals. The association used to organize a festival for such films – I’m not sure when it stopped. It also contributed to the production of films like the 12-minute Hissan al-Tiin (Mud Horse, 1971) by Atiyat al-Abnudi, and published a periodical with reports on its activities and critical articles.
Many critics and intellectuals involved in the Film Association were co-founders of the Cairo Cinema Club in 1968. The fact that the first person to take charge of screenings and discussions was Mostafa Darwish, a State Council judge and former employee of the censorship authority, was probably no coincidence. The state, represented by Okasha, was not detached from the project and possibly wanted to use it to assimilate this new generation of filmmakers, especially under the tense post-defeat political status quo.
It’s also no coincidence that the club made use of the stock of films banned in Egypt, which were screened only once and without subtitles. Over 3000 people applied for club membership when it opened, as it was said that it would show films banned from public screening, an indication of how controlling the censors were at the time. The club began with 300 members, but grew to over 2000. Two thousand members on paper, hundreds attending screenings and dozens of regular members — would it be possible to imagine critical cinema activity on such a scale now?
Apart from banned films, the club screened films provided by cultural institutes in Cairo, mostly French, Italian, US and Soviet films. These weren’t subtitled, but the club had an interesting custom when it came to translating films: as critic Ahmed Youssef explained to me, a critic or volunteer from the audience would simultaneously interpret the film, translating the dialogue into a microphone connected to loudspeakers in the cinema. Viewers would hear the dialogue in the original language overlaid by a hasty Arabic translation. I don’t know if such a practice has taken place in any screenings since then.
Films were screened at the Nile Cinema in the old Opera Square (now Attaba), where parts of the building still exist. Every Wednesday evening a new film was screened with an introduction provided by a member critic, followed by a discussion about it. The club’s most valuable contribution, according to Youssef, was its periodical which, like the Film Association’s, included reports on its activities, critical pieces and many translations, especially from French.
The founding of the Cairo Cinema Club was followed by an attempt to end Cairo’s domination over cultural activity, with new efforts to use the public cultural sector’s mechanisms to spread new viewing customs to other cities.
In 1965 Saad Kamel, a leftist intellectual imprisoned by Nasser for five years alongside the communists, founded the mass culture office, or rather, he took over what was known before the revolution as the Popular University in Egypt, shifting it toward mass culture — creating what are now known as culture palaces, because they were former princes’ palaces transformed into art spaces affiliated with the culture ministry.
Kamel worked with Fathy Farag in 1969 on the mass culture cinema clubs project, which first included 16 clubs and expanded later to 18. Like the other cinema projects, it was accompanied by a publication issued in parallel to screenings and included reports on its activities and critical articles, with Farag as editor-in-chief.
Through a system set up by Farag, films would travel with a critic to be screened in cultural palaces, which were now all over the country, and the critic led a discussion afterward. Many critics were involved in this practice, including Youssef, who nostalgically recalled the experience and told me how years later he came across a club visitor who reminded him of a presentation he had organized at the culture palaces. It’s also worth mentioning that Farag left the Culture Ministry after Youssef El Sebai was appointed minister by Anwar Sadat in 1974.
The post-defeat political moment presented Nasser’s regime with the necessary conditions for such cinema activities, from the possibility of negotiating with the state’s Cinema Organization to make more democratic production choices for younger filmmakers, to expanding the experience to involve a critical yet centralized space for viewers, to the attempt to decentralize film screenings.
The defeat, with all the names that appeared and reappeared with it – like Okasha’s and Kamel’s – was both a stimulus and a prerequisite for such activities. The 1973 “victory” signaled the decline of that moment: with Sadat and his reform revolution, launched with Sebai’s appointment, and as leftist intellectuals, introduced to the official cultural front by Nasser’s March 30 statement, withdrew.
These three initiatives highlight cultural activity that happened somewhere between civil society and the public sector, revealing how much the parties in question were entangled and how much they negotiated before the sharp rift occurred between official and independent cultural activity. If we now claim to be looking for ways to challenge a dominant production pattern and create critical viewing habits engaged in the political context, then this might be a history of people who made similar attempts during a politically charged moment of Egyptian history that is worth revisiting.
This article relies on the rich historical documentation of the three cinema initiatives discussed, provided by Amir al-Imary and others, during the 1970s and 1980s. These include (in Arabic):
Memories of the Cinema Club Experience, by Amir al-Imary
Memories of the Cinema Club Experience, also by Amir al-Imary
For information on the history of Egypt’s public cinema sector, I have also relied on this file featured in the first issue of the Arab Cinema Magazine, in the winter of 2015, titled: “The Public Sector in Arab Cinema: Merits and Faults.”
Nasser’s March 30, 1968 statement can be read here.
I also found useful information on the history of the Public Authority for Cultural Palaces in this article published on Masress in October 2013.
This article was also inspired by critic Ghali Shokry’s ideas on the reflection of the 1967 defeat in Egyptian culture, especially in his book The Rise and Fall of Modern Egyptian Thought (1978).
The image above is taken from Imary’s article “Memories of Cinema History,” and shows Youssef Sherif Rizkallah (right), Fathy Farag (center) and Ahmed Raafat Bahgat (left).