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Interview with Cinema Historian Farida Marei


Farida Marei

Farida Marei

Interview with Cinema Historian Farida Marei


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.

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.

Of course Alexandria was a pioneer in the field of the cinema. The first cinema hall in the whole of Egypt was the Toussoun Bourse in Alexandria, where the first film was projected on 5 November 1896, less than a year after the first film was shown in France by the Lumière Brothers. The cinema began in Alexandria when the foreigners obtained exclusive rights to screen films, and they opened cinema halls in Alexandria. Two weeks later, a foreigner obtained exclusive rights to open a cinema hall in Cairo, and projected the first film on 16 November 1896.

Films were projected for a long time. The Lumière Brothers found that their films had generated a great interest, so they sent delegates all around the world, to film movies that would attract people from all countries. Some of them came to Alexandria and Cairo and filmed movies about Egypt. So it started with one cinema hall, and then they became two and three and started increasing. The Lumière Brothers made films and exported them around the world, and the foreigners had the exclusive rights to screen them in Egypt. The Lumière Brothers took into consideration people’s tastes, so there were movies on sports and science and so on.

The foreigners of Alexandria played the main role in the cinema and laid its foundations. They were the ones who introduced it to Egyptians, and acquired the rights to open cinemas and to shoot films. Without the foreigners of Alexandria, this invention would have arrived much later.

The first specialized magazine on the cinema was issued in Cairo, called El Sowar el Mutaharika. The second in the Arab world was Ma‘rad el Cinema and it was issued in Alexandria in 1924, 1925 and 1927. It was stopped because there was not a large enough audience to support it. But these magazines played an important role in that they drew the attention of a great number of youth who developed an interest in the cinema and called for the creation of a cinema industry and cinema companies. So when the cinema industry started, it grew on fertile soil that was ready for it, not in an atmosphere that opposed and fought it, considering it an unreligious and atheistic practice. There are a lot of Arab countries where the cinema industry did not grow because it was looked upon as a work of the devil. But in Egypt the cinema industry did not have this problem.

There was an active film critic called El Sayed Hassan Goma’ in Alexandria, and he is considered the first film critic in the Arab world. He was a primary school teacher and was passionate about the cinema. These specialized papers played a role by providing all sorts of news to those interested in the cinema. He wrote a lot about the cinema from Alexandria and was an editor-in-chief of several Alexandrian specialized magazines. When Ma’rad el Cinema was shut down, he became editor in chief of ‘Alam el Cinema, also in Alexandria. So Alexandria had a role to play in the press, cinema halls, distribution, and advertising. He then moved to Cairo because ‘Alam el Cinema closed down, and Dar el Helal did not have a specialist to write about the cinema, so they created a new magazine El Kawakeb to be solely on the cinema, and requested him to supervise it. But Alexandria remained fixed in his heart and sometimes he would write from there.

Before feature films were made, there were the short documentaries which were the first attempts at film making, such as Bayoumi’s The Return of Saad Zaghloul from Exile, and a lot of other films, and he opened in Alexandria an institute to teach the art of the cinema. Then there was Mahmoud Khalil Rashed, who was a science teacher and investigated the scientific side of movie making, that is, how things work together for the film to finally come out. He published a lot on that topic, and made a film, The Little Magician (el Sahîr el saghîr) in Alexandria. The role of Alexandria in the cinema industry cannot be ignored.

Interview with Cinema Historian Farida Marei


Togo Mizrahi came later. He established a studio and so did the Lama Brothers. All those who worked in the cinema made studios. They were very primitive but very successful, which was due to the fascination of the audience with this new art. People could not get over the fact that figures were moving on the screen. All those people created studios but when they wanted to grow and increase their activities, they went to Cairo.

Interview with Cinema Historian Farida Marei

Bahiga Hafez had an enormous role to play in the Egyptian cinema. To begin with, she was the first member of an aristocratic family to enter this field. In those days, people did not respect this art. Men were respectable artists, but the actresses were from Syria and Lebanon. If an Egyptian woman joined the field, a lot of rumours were circulated about her that affected her reputation. Bahiga Hafez came from an ancient line, and was educated and spoke several languages. Also, she did not stop at acting, but also composed music. She composed the music for all her films, which was a precedent as women did not compose the film music in Egypt. Unfortunately, she never won the acclaim she deserved. She died poor and alone in a tiny flat. The government did not help her. She also had a very valuable library which the government should have taken care of. But sadly, this is what happens to artists in this country.

The problem with Fatma Rushdi is that she was torn between the cinema and the stage. She started out on stage, and came from a family of artists, such as her sisters Ratiba Rushdi and Ensaf Rushdi… so like them she too acted on stage, and created her own troupe, The Fatma Rushdi Troupe, and married a theatre man. She went to the cinema because all the others did, such as Aziza Amir and Bahiga Hafez and Assia and Mary Queeny and so she said why not me? But she burned one of her films after she saw it, as she said it would ruin her artistic reputation. Afterwards she directed for her own self the film Marriage (El Zawag). She made several films, some of which still remain; that is, not all of her films are lost to us.

In the early days French women sometimes acted in Egyptian films. A French woman acted in The Elite (Awlâd el dhawât) and also a French woman acted in Yaqout (Yâqout). But the French press protested because of the way the French women were portrayed: as home breakers who ruined the family and stole the husband from his wife and children, as well as his money. This was not how the French liked their women to appear in Egyptian films.

Alexandria had the same role to play in the field of the cinema as New York. The cinema began in New York, being a large city. But when the cinema started growing and becoming an industry, they thought of creating a special city for the cinema, so it moved to Los Angeles, and created Hollywood. The weather was good in Los Angeles, and there used to be a problem regarding filming and they had to stop filming when the weather was bad, or when it rained or was cloudy. And in Los Angeles the weather is very similar to the weather in Egypt, so that natural lighting made the cinema industry move to Los Angeles. The same thing happened in Alexandria. The cinema began and flourished in Alexandria, and drew a large audience, and then moved to Cairo since it was the capital, where there were more people with higher incomes. Besides, the stars were concentrated there, since the theatre was livelier there and was the chief source of actors and stars.