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Interview with Cinema Historian Ahmed el Hadari


Ahmed el Hadari

Ahmed el Hadari

Interview with the Cinema Historian
Ahmed el Hadari


There was a greater congregation of foreign communities in Alexandria than anywhere in Egypt. They only had to cross the Mediterranean by boat, as there were no planes, and they would be in their country of origin (Italy, France, Greece), and were in touch with their families there. So they landed in Alexandria first. They were in touch with what was happening in Europe, and were aware that there was this new invention of the cinema abroad, and so the foreigners brought the first films and equipment and cameras to Alexandria to establish cinemas and it is true that the film industry began in Alexandria. It was much later that Egyptians began to take part. All cinema activity began in Alexandria.

The first film to be projected (not filmed) in Egypt was in November 1896, less than a year after the first screening in the world on 28 December 1895. It was in a well known place in Alexandria called Toussoun Pasha Bourse. They were short films that had come from Paris. They were made in Lyons by the Lumière brothers. They provided the films and the equipment that would project them, and they distributed those films around the world.

The films lasted a few minutes. Every half hour a new show would begin, so every half hour the audience would leave, and a new group would go in. But the ticket was very expensive. It cost 5 piastres, which was a huge sum. Later, it went down to 4, and later still, when there were proper long films, the ticket cost only 2 piastres.

Lumière would send its people to different parts of the world. In 1897 they sent a delegate to film the pyramids and sphinx, because it would be a marketable product. The delegate arrived in Alexandria and filmed the ship as it was docking, then filmed the Place des Consuls, where the foreign consuls had their homes, and which is called Manshieh now.

Foreigners were interested in the film industry. The delegate who brought in the Lumière films was a foreigner. He had the privilege of showing their films and getting their equipment, and Lumière took half the profits.

Interview with the Cinema Historian
Ahmed el Hadari

The first cinema production in Egypt was the film shot in Alexandria. This is the beginning of the cinema industry, in 1907. To document properly the history of the cinema in Egypt, we must begin with the first movie that was filmed in Egypt, regardless of its length, or of its kind. It is wrong to say that the first film was Laila starring and produced by Aziza Amir in 1927 because it was a long one. …

As for the first film made in Egypt there was a shop in Ramleh Station called Aziz and Dorés, which was very famous. They built a cinema there Cinemaphone Aziz and Dorés . So they thought of getting the cameras, since they were projecting films and also, as photographer, they knew how to develop and print. They bought a cinema camera and its printing equipment and a small lab from abroad, and in June 1907 they photographed Khedive Abbas Helmi II inaugurating an educational course in the Morsi Aboul Abbas mosque.

Aziz and Dorés would make the films, screen them in their cinema first, then distribute them around the country.

Foreigners began the movie industry in Alexandria. They began thinking of short narrative films, but they were not successful, because they didn’t have Egyptian stars who would attract an audience. They brought Fawzi el Gazayerly and his troupe. He was the first Egyptian actor. It is true Mohamed Karim was the first, but he had only minor roles in 1918.

So the foreigners, whether Italian or Greek or French, thought of bringing in Egyptians to act, Egyptians who were acting on stage and that was how they had become famous. Gazayerly was the first to act in a short narrative film. This was all happening in Alexandria. He acted on stage in Alexandria, and he had his troupe with him, and as he was used to directing them on stage, he also gave them guidance in the film. The first short narrative was made in Alexandria, The American Aunt (El Khâlah el Amrîkaniyah) starring Gazayerly.

The short silent film Gazayerly and his troupe made, under the direction of foreigners living in Alexandria, was The American Aunt (El Khâlah el Amrîkaniyah). A year later Ali el Kassar and his troupe starred in another short film called Madame Lorrita. These were the first films made in Egypt by foreigners, resorting to Egyptian well known names, because people knew them from the theatre. Ali el Kassar was not Alexandrian, but he came to work with the others in Alexandria.

The short silent film Gazaerli and his troupe made, under the direction of foreigners living in Alexandria, was The American Aunt (El Khâlah el Amrîkaniyah). A year later Ali el Kassar and his troupe starred in another short film called Madame Lorrita. These were the first films made in Egypt by foreigners, resorting to Egyptian well known names, because people knew them from the theatre.

Mohamed Karim was enthusiastic about becoming an actor, so he took of himself photographs in many poses, such as an idiot, a drunkard, a foreigner etc, to show them to directors and convince them he could act. When the Italians thought of making films, they thought of Alexandria. Italy was at war and so it was easier to make them in Egypt, with Italians living in Alexandria. They created a film company to produce films that would first be shown in Egypt then in Italy. He contacted them in order to act in their films. He was the first Egyptian to appear before a camera. This was in 1917 and 1918.

Interview with the Cinema Historian
Ahmed el Hadari

Togo Mizrahi was Alexandrian. He thought of making movies, and bought Cinema Bacos and converted it into a studio. There was also Alvise Orfanelli, who was in charge of the projection hall of the Aziz and Dorés studio. He worked as an assistant to Togo Mizrahi, and then became independent. So he had his own studio and there was the studio in Bacos.

In Alexandria there were also the two Palestinian brothers Badr and Ibrahim Lama. They were on their way to Palestine from Chile, carrying with them their cinema equipment, because they were working in that field in Chile and were perhaps planning to set it up in Palestine. When they found a cinema activity already established in Alexandria, they stayed on. They made their first silent feature film A Kiss in the Desert (Qoublah fi-l-sahra) projected in 1928. Before that, the first feature films were made in Cairo in 1923 and in 1927. They were Laila (1927) and In the Land of Tutankhamon  (Fî bilâd Toutankhamon) that was made in 1923, and projected in 1924. The Lama Brothers made the first long film in Alexandria, A Kiss in the Desert (Qoublah fi-l-sahra), which would make it the third long film in Egypt. These were the beginnings in Alexandria.

Mahmoud Khalil Rashed is from Alexandria. But Mohamed Bayoumi started in Cairo, then moved to Alexandria. He started as a photographer with a studio, then had his own cinema equipment, which he sold to Bank Misr.

Most of the cinema pioneers were women. They had admirers who would fund those productions. There were Aziza Amir and Fatma Rushdi and Assia.

Fatma Rushdi had a Jewish admirer, Elie Derie who would fund all her whims.

Women were pioneers at a time when they needed to struggle and persevere to continue the project. When Aziza Amir made her film Laila in 1927, Talaat Harb told her the famous statement: “You have done what no man dared to do”, because he had been unwilling to risk a long movie, and was content with short movies.

They realized that the industry could not go on in Alexandria. They needed well known actors, who were all acting on stage in Cairo. So the cinema had to move there, but the pioneering start was in Alexandria.

Alexandria influenced the films of Youssef Chahine. The films of Shadi Abdel Salam and Tewfik Saleh do not concentrate on Alexandria. But when Youssef Chahine made his autobiographical movies starring a protagonist called Yehia instead of Youssef, they were all about the developments in Egyptian history as they were reflected in his life in Alexandria. They were even called Alexandria, Why? (Iskandariyyah lîh) and Alexandria Again and Again (Iskandariyyah Kamân we Kamân), and his last movie is called Alexandria, New York (Iskandariyyah…NewYork), so the name appears in the title. He was the one who was born and brought up in it and it formed part of his consciousness.

Ahmed Metwalli is creating a complete studio in Borg el Arab, with an adjacent hotel, where artists coming from outside Alexandria could stay while working in the studio.