In the early years of the twentieth century, only foreign studios (German, Italian, and French) operated in Egypt, most of them in Alexandria because of its optimal lighting conditions. It was not until the 1920s that Egyptians made their own films. The first long feature to be financed by Egyptian money was Leila (1927), produced by a woman, Aziza Amir (1901–1952), who also acted in the film, and directed by Estephan Rosti (1891–1964; not a native Egyptian). Mohamad Bayoumi (1894–1963) and Mohamad Karim (first Egyptian film actor), who studied filmmaking in Germany, were early pioneers. Bayoumi was the first Egyptian to produce and shoot anewsreel, Amun , about the return of nationalist Saad Zaghloul Pasha from exile in 1923, and the first Egyptian to shoot and direct a short fiction film, al-Bashkateb ( The Head Clerk ). Mohamad Karim, who claimed to have learned filmmaking at "the university of Metropolis ," where he spent a year assisting and observing in the production of Fritz Lang's 1927 expressionist classic on the sets of Ufa (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft), directed his first film, Zaynab , based on the novel by Mohamad Husayn Haykal, in 1930. In 1932, he directed the first Egyptian talking film Awlad al-dhawat ( The Children of the Aristocrats ), starring theater actors Yussef Wahbi and Amina Rizq; in 1933, he directed his first musical, al-Warda al-bayda' ( The White Rose ), which showcased the talents of musician and composer Mohamad Abdel Wahab (1901–1991). This was also the first film to solve the problem of compressing long classical Arabic songs (usually 15 to 20 minutes in duration) into six-minute sequences. From then on, Karim was known as Mohamad Abdel Wahab's director, and they made several other films together.
Talaat Harb, the savvy businessman and nationalist financier, founded Bank Misr in the 1920s as well as Studio Misr in 1935, which produced its first talking feature in 1936, Widad , directed by Fritz Kramp after a dispute broke out between original Egyptian director Ahmed Badrakhan and the studio manager, Ahmed Salem. After this, Studio Misr dominated productions in the film industry for the next thirty years. To ensure technical and aesthetic quality, Talaat Harb sent young filmmakers abroad to acquire professional training and recruited European technicians as consultants in Cairo. With the preexisting industries of radio and music recording and with Cairo's position since the nineteenth century as a refuge for artists and musicians fleeing the more constraining conditions of Greater Syria, this unique confluence of talent and technology led to the hegemony of Egyptian cinema over the Arab and North African region.
Born in 1926 to a middle-class Catholic family of Lebanese and Greek origins, Youssef Chahine's formative years were spent in the cultural melting pot of Alexandria, living under British occupation. There he was exposed to a polyphonic culture of Eastern and Western flavors, surrounded by English, Italian, French, Greek, and Arabic languages, and living in a religiously tolerant environment where Muslim, Christian, and Jew coexisted. These elements, along with Egypt's changing politics since 1950, have strongly influenced his body of work.
Adept at mixing genres and styles, Chahine has made films for over fifty years, during which time he has revealed a commitment to social and political critique. His early tendency toward social realism is hallmarked by Bab al Hadid ( Cairo Station , 1958) and Al Ard ( The Land , 1969). In the former, he played a disturbed and crippled newspaper vendor in the Cairo train station who murders a voluptuous drink vendor out of unrequited desire; in the latter, based on a novel by Marxist Abdel Rahman Sharkawi, he shows the bonds of kinship and rivalry that destroy the solidarity of the peasants under the new land reforms of the Nasser period. His historical epic, Nasr Salah el Din ( Saladin , 1963), depicts the twelfth-century uniter of the Arabs, Salah el Din, as a merciful and religiously tolerant leader who is an obvious allegory for Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's leader from 1954 to 1971. In his 1973 film Il Usfur ( The Sparrow ), he attempts to reconcile the ideals of Nasserism with the disappointing results of Egypt's 1967 defeat in its war with Israel and the aftermath. His 1997 Le Destin ( Destiny ) about the twelfth-century Andalusian philosopher Averroes (Ibn Sinna), is an allegory for the contemporary struggles in Arab countries between Islamic fundamentalism and political despots, on the one hand, and free thinkers, on the other, mirroring his own battles with censorship on religious grounds in his film Al Muhajir ( The Immigrant , 1994), banned for representing a character who is somewhat similar to the Biblical and Quranic Joseph. His autobiographical films were the first in the Arab world to treat non-normative sexuality as something human, seen in his quartet Alexandria … Why? (1978), Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria, Again and Forever (1989,) and Alexandria … New York (2004).
Chahine has offered a new model for the Arab filmmaker as an independent auteur of a personal cinema. While his films attempt to cater to popular Egyptian tastes with their musical numbers and well-known film stars, the majority of Egyptians relate best to his realist films, finding the others too obscure. Those he has mentored include established film auteurs Yousry Nasrallah and Atef Hetata, who face similar problems of censorship and lack of local markets for their films.
Bab al Hadid ( Cairo Station , 1958), Nasr Salah el Din ( Saladin , 1963), Al Ard ( The Land , 1969), Il Usfur ( The Sparrow , 1973), Return of the Prodigal Son (1974), Alexandria … Why ? (1978), Egyptian Story (1982), Adieu Bonaparte (1984), Alexandria Again and Forever (1989), Cairo as Illuminated by Her People (1991), Al Muhajir ( The Immigrant , 1994), Le Destin ( Destiny , 1997), Alexandria … New York (2004)
Fawal, Ibrahim. Youssef Chahine . London: British Film Institute, 2001.
Stollery, Martin. Al-Muhajir, L'émigré . Wiltshire, UK: Flicks Books, 2005.
Once the talking feature had been established in 1936, films were made in the genres of farce, melodrama, and the musical. These were collaborations by established musicians, star singers, and actors, including Yussef Wahbi (1897–1982, actor and theatre director), comedian Naguib Al Rihani (1891–1949), and musicians Umm Kulthoum (1904–1975), Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Farid al Attrach (1915–1974), Layla Murad (1918–1995), and Mohamed Abdel Wahhab. The period from the early 1940s until the early 1950s is considered the golden age of Egyptian cinema, with annual output averaging forty-eight films a year between 1945 and
1952. In the immediate post–World War II years, the film industry was more profitable than the textile industry, and by 1948, there were seven operating film studios, and 345 feature films had been produced. But the dominance of Western cinema in the market impeded national film production, even during the post-independence period after 1952, when Egyptian productions did not exceed 20 percent of all distributed films.