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On the Egyptian Silent Film

Bahiga Hafez

Bahiga Hafez

The villagers gathering around
the crew of the film during
shooting outdoors

Bahiga Hafez and another actress
receiving instructions from
Mohamed Karim
in one of the scenes

At the beginning of this [twentieth] century, the cinema was not at all every young person’s dream, and its lights did not attract attention or appeal to hearts. The cinema was a “shame” every family tried to avoid. This is exactly what happened to me, and to Youssef Wahbi, whose story is known to anyone interested in the history of the cinema in our country.

My story with the cinema began in the twenties of this [twentieth] century. The grand master of the Egyptian cinema, Mohamed Karim, was looking for a new female face for the role of the heroine in the film Zeinab. He searched high and low, going to gatherings and salons, looking with care for this new face, declaring he did not want a face people knew from the stage. The theatre was already a well established genre, standing firmly on its feet, while the cinema was still trying to walk, like a weak toddler. At that time the young men flocked to the theatre, many of them forming associations for amateurs. They were influenced by flimsy cinematic shows, so that each one dreamed of becoming a Douglas Fairbanks or a Charlie Chaplin or some other Western movie star whose silent films were being shown in the few projection halls in Cairo and Alexandria.

In truth, I was very interested in art. I studied music and waited for any opportunity to watch foreign films in Alexandria. I was also following from afar the activities of the Egyptian amateurs, for it was not possible for young Egyptian women to mix with men.

I used to sneak out to watch some of the flimsy films which were being shown in cinemas in Alexandria. These films were not enthusiastically met, for they were attempts that lacked the elements of material and artistic success. They also lacked money, experience and art. One of the films I saw in the twenties of this [twentieth] century was Master Barsoum. I don’t remember who directed it.

At this time Mohamed Karim had returned from Germany after having studied production there. Before that, he had started out as an actor, appearing in silly roles in early cinematic attempts. One of the papers published an announcement that Mohamed Karim was preparing to direct the film Zeinab, taken from the novel by Doctor Mohamed Hussein Heikal, and that he was looking for a fresh face not yet burnt out by the theatre to play the heroine’s role.

I never thought circumstances would place me in the way of Mohamed Karim, or that he would choose me for the leading role of his film. But fate ordained that I would play this role. Mohamed Karim saw me at a party. I caught him staring at me, as I was stealing a look at him. Suddenly he left his seat and approached me. He greeted me in French, and we started chatting. Then he surprised me by nominating me for the leading female role in the film Zeinab. We did not talk for long, for he was surprised by my enthusiasm and consent, despite whatever my parents’ disapproval would bring upon me.

I began work with him around 1927. It took us 21 months to complete the film, though during this whole period we only worked 2 months and a few days. The reason was that we did not have the necessary technical equipment, and Mohamed Karim was trying his best to get round this problem. The cameras were operated by hand, and the methods of developing film were primitive. Also, there was no cinema studio or a lab to develop films. There was no lighting equipment, so filming had to be done in sunlight, or in places without ceilings, or in corridors lined with silver paper that would reflect the light.

Mohamed Karim had a bad temper that was aggravated by lack of equipment and all the problems we had and which we tried to solve by filming outdoors. But these problems began to decrease when Youssef Wahbi, the film producer, built a simple studio of mud in Imbaba – which later became Madinet Nasr – and which included several theatres and a glass studio. This primitive studio relieved many of their difficulties, although it was practically unequipped. And with all this, we still lacked the human element. People would run away from Mohamed Karim after he had spent time and money on them. For instance, he had agreed with some farmers upon some work, and had spent many hard days training them and rehearsing in front of the camera. But when the day for shooting came, they all disappeared from sight – from the village, in fact. And so work would stop till we found the runaways and convinced them to come back.

There was nobody around responsible for the film or its production. Karim alone was the director, producer, make- up artist, registrar, and he also operated the clapperboard.

When Karim made use of background music to affect the psychology of the actors during the filming of a scene, the peasants recruited to work as extras would leave their work to dance to the music.

What annoyed us most was sometimes, in cloudy weather, we had to wait for a whole day for the sun to shine. And sometimes no sun shone for days on end. When we were in Fayoum shooting a scene there, we would wait for a long time for the sun to shine, and would often return home in the evening without having done the day’s work. And how often the car broke down, so we had to spend the night on the empty road and face the attacks of wolves and other wild creatures.

Once, in winter, Karim tried to shoot a scene in which the heroine would walk in the fields, in the pouring rain, and then find shelter under a tree, after her clothes had got thoroughly wet. Having failed to control the weather, Karim had this ingenuous idea. He put up some wood scaffolding and attached to them the garden sprinklers. All this exhausted me and I fell ill. We would shoot the scene several times. I felt terrible pains and was conveyed to hospital suffering from appendix pains.

Some unforgettable memories have to do with the problems we had in moving and transporting the cameras. This was very difficult for the photographer and the director, and cranes and chariots had not yet been invented. But the genius of Karim surmounted this problem. He invented a means of moving the camera, by placing it on the front of the car and making it move carefully.

The movie was finally filmed, and developed, after an enormous effort. It was shown in Cinema Metropole, behind Cicurel Stores. It was a huge success, because it was the first serious attempt in the Egyptian cinema. On the day of the premiere, I was surprised to see my family there. My success as the heroine of the film was one of the factors that made my family forgive me, so that the rift was healed and all went back to normal between us.

The days passed, and I began to seriously consider storming the field of cinema production. My first idea was to produce musical films for which I would write the music and lyrics, and record them on records. But Mohamed Karim and Youssef Wahbi surprised me by visiting me at home and offering me the leading role in the new film The Elite (Awlâd el Dhawât), which was going to be shot in Paris because now that sound movies had appeared in Europe, this would be a sound movie.

So I gave up my project, and accepted. We left for Paris and started work on the film. But Youssef Wahbi and I disagreed over some technical matters and I refused to go on with the film, locking myself up in my room. Friends tried in vain to resolve this issue, for each of us insisted on our point of view. I returned to Cairo after giving up my role, and hired a lawyer to sue Youssef Wahbi for recompensation. This matter caused an uproar in the cinema circles, and in the papers and magazines, so that this interest became a huge advertisement for the film.

I then went on with my ideas regarding art. I established a cinema company, through which I produced a film called The Victims (el Dahâyâ), followed by another called The Accusation (al Ittihâm).

These two films were enormously successful, and I repeated The Victims as a sound movie. This was after a sound engineer called Szabou had invented a recording machine.

In the meantime Talaat Harb had begun building Studio Misr. This led me to produce my new film Laila, Daughter of the Desert (Laila Bint el Sahrâ’), which took 5 months to film. It is about the attempt of Kisra an Cherwan, a Persian king, to rape a Bedouin girl. She resists him, and with the support of her tribe, overcomes him.

The film was projected and won acclaim like no other Arabic film. But then the sister of the former King Farouk married the Shah of Iran, and this marriage was the death knell of the film. Orders were issued to ban it.

This of course caused me an enormous financial loss, as I had invested all I possessed in that film. I abandoned art and the cinema, and became a recluse. Recently, after the Egyptian revolution, I managed to get a permit to show the film in full.

El Helal. October 1965. Issue 10. pp 27-31