Before he made any films, when he was in his mid-twenties and living in London, Mohammad Khan (1942-2016) wrote a book in English, An Introduction to Egyptian Cinema (1969) which he dedicated to the Cairo that he missed. Khan had been forced to leave the city by family circumstances, and he wrote constantly to his friend the cinematographer Saied Shimi, who remained. Recently, Shimi published their correspondence from that time, with commentary, in three volumes.
Working at a petrol station to make a living while sparing no effort to learn filmmaking, Khan’s book was part of an ambitious project. “In 1966,” Khan writes, “I suggested that the British Film House might hold an Arab Film Week. They liked the idea, but they did not implement anything. I suggested to the British Film Institution to finance my project of writing a book on Arab cinema, but to no avail. I tried the same with the Centre for Arab Cinema and Photography in Beirut without success. I decided in the end to start a publishing company and publish a book about Egyptian cinema.
“The first quarter of this book is based on a group of articles on the history of Egyptian cinema, but the rest is based on my personal opinions along with facts from other articles. The financial success of this book is very important to me because it enables me to publish other books on cinema. Too many Europeans do not know that there are really any Egyptian films. The blame should fall on the weakness of Egyptian cinema promotion abroad. This book could have an impact, especially at the London Film Festival next year. They might screen an Egyptian movie. My hope is to make an Egyptian movie one day, maybe…” In another letter, Khan explains that this is “an introduction”, among others: “It includes my own opinions, in addition to verified information, as much as possible.”
The project cost Khan £500, and he had to sell 1,500 copies to retrieve that amount. There were pre-orders from outside Britain as well as deals with British bookshops, but Khan had counted on the Egyptian government buying a large number of copies. This never happened. “The book was sold in many countries,” Shimi writes, “and unfortunately Egypt did not care to buy even a single copy. This book was in fact a message of love from Khan to his country Egypt.” The handwritten dedication on Shimi’s copy reads, “To my brother Saied, with my best regards.” In the acknowledgements Saied is thanked for “keeping me constantly up to date with Egyptian film activities and productions”.
A month into publication Khan was complaining about slow sales – most of the British public wasn’t even aware of any such thing as Egyptian cinema – which filled his mind “with worries and debts”. “What really annoys me is that the cultural advisor at the Egyptian embassy here in London didn’t even send a single letter asking about the book. It is really shameful. Such [has taught] me a very hard lesson, unfortunately. My belief that Egyptian institutions would buy so many copies of the book is dead. I will not try again. I will do my best with the rest of the world.”
Though intended as “a serious look at a struggling film industry in our modern times” and “a positive vision” aimed at “raising Western interest”, it is also the young Khan’s personal mission statement. The book is composed of six short chapters – The Cinema in Shadows, The Pioneering Stage, The Silent Cinema, The Singing Cinema, The Cinema at War, and The Film Mongers – as well as a longer one, The Contemporary Cinema, covering the industry after 1952.
In that long chapter, through the work of Salah Abu Seif (1915-1996), Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) and Hussain Kamal (1934-2003), the latter a promising young director, he discusses the post-July Revolution context: the state supporting the industry and the inauguration of the Higher Institute of Cinema, but also greater censorship and censorial laws. “It was inevitable that Egyptian cinema would be inspired by the 1952 revolution and thus patriotic films increased in number. However, it would be wrong to assume that the contemporary cinema in Egypt is solely preoccupied with patriotic subjects. Unquestionable progress was to be seen in all kind of productions during this period, as regards both dramatic construction and technique.”
The future founding member of Egyptian neorealism, which took filmmaking out of the studio to real-life locations, is impressed by Abu Seif’s ability to give any script a local atmosphere using Egyptian folk songs, by his use of symbolism and avoidance of monologues amid the usual melodrama, and the fact that he shot one of his films in the alleyway where he was born. Adapted from major novels, Abu Seif’s films were just as powerful and in some cases “even added... more depth and understanding”.
Chahine’s work, on the other hand, was “visual, poetically composed and at times hauntingly effective. Shahin’s expertise as a technician brought his films up to international standards, although they were never of the same social importance as those of Salah Abu Seif.” Though it would not overshadow their auteurship, for Khan as much as other neorealists the social role of a film is its most important aspect. Another impressive feature in Chahine was his moving camera and unusual imagery. “He held onto a face long enough for the audience to see through it without a single word being uttered. This was a new experience for the Egyptian cinema whose audiences were trained to listen as much as they can,” Khan writes. In his own films he would use symbolism and body language.
As for Kamal, whose films treat human problems with attention and interest, “he showed an economy in technique and visual imagination. His claustrophobic sets, decor and lighting, and restrained direction, his excessive care and interest in his selection of props and angles, always in relation with characters and events. It was perhaps this self-artistic-control that brought Kamal’s talent to public attention.” Kamal’s work would contribute to the breakthrough which, following a period of relative decline, took place in the 1970s. Khan divides filmmaking of that time into cycles, veterans, newcomers and performers. “Through these sections one can discuss specific talents and films. Then by marrying the four sections together and adding to them Abu Seif’s, Chahine’s and Kamal’s activities, it would be possible to conclude a fair picture of Egypt’s contemporary cinema,” he writes.
The Cycles include Ismail Yassin, the legendary comedian whose talent was drained to the very last drop by producers through the 1950s: “Thus by the early-’sixties no one wanted to see Ismail Yassin any more. His charm evaporated and his absurdities turned sour. Who can blame the public?” Another cycle was the “three” films: Three Inheritance (1959), The Three Musketeers (1961), The Three Devils (1963), which were formulaic, involved only one hero and were “mostly badly written and directed”. They eventually disappeared. He also mentions Chahine’s Struggle in the Valley (1953) and Struggle in the Pier (1955), which marries subjects to locations. “The real importance of these struggle films lies in their direct encouragement for location works. Thus filmmakers began to use locations more and sets less. Cameras and casts moved to the countryside to bring a kind of reality to their sometimes too melodramatic themes.”
Under “Veterans”, Khan discussed those experienced filmmakers who carried forward the 1930s and 1940s traditions: Salah Abu Saif, Ahmed Badrekhan, Henry Barakat and Mahmud Zulfikar. Khan felt that, by holding back experimentation and keeping viewers in the same mental space – affecting both the body and soul of the cinema – they did more harm than good.
As for the newcomers, there were three categories: the Followers, the Individuals, and the Amateur/Professionals. The followers are those filmmakers like Ahmed Dia-Eddine, Hussam-Eddine Mustafa and Youssef Malouf, who follow in the veterans’ footsteps, afraid or unable to change. “Some of them made hit-and-run films of an artistic nature but they always fell back on the old theories in order to play safe.”. The individuals like Tawfiq Saleh, Sayid Issa, Farouk Agrama, Khalil Shawki, Galal El-Charkawi, Abdel-Rahman El-Khamisi, Ali Rida and Shadi Abdul-Salam sought to make their mark from the start. The Amateur/Professionals like Ahmed El-Hidari, Saied Shimi, Ahmed Rashid, and Rafat El-Mihi are makers of experimental and future oriented films.
A fourth section, The Performers, deals with major actresses and actors of the period: Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama, Chukri Sarhan, Nadia Lotfi, Soad Houssni, Shadia, Hind Rouston, Magda, Roushdi Abaza, Ahmed Ramzi, Ahmed Mazhar, and Kamal El-Chinawi. A whole chapter is devoted to Sharif: “Unfortunately Sharif’s career in the west has been, up until the present, camouflaged in epics and costumes. He has yet to be given the opportunity which Goha and Beginning and End gave him. It’s high time for the western producer to realise that all that Sharif needs is an open country, a simple legendary tale and a chance to do a bit of acting.”
Khan ends his book with a prophetic Last Word: “It is clear that the ‘fifties was a period of adjustment, the ‘sixties a period of experiments, and one anticipates the ‘seventies to be a period of recognition.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.