Racy Egyptian Films Persist in the Face of Increasing Conservatism

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Beirut, Lebanon

January 29, 2015

After the death of Arab film icons Faten Hamama and Sabah earlier this year, cinema fans revived the memories of what many describe as “la belle époque,” which dated from the 1950s till the mid-1970s.

During this golden age, budgets and standards were considerably high and the progressive state ideology promoted the production of films that were successful throughout the Arab world. This wave benefited from cultural interaction between different Arab societies, a seemingly endless cache of amazing talents and the blessing of a dedicated audience. More significantly, movies reflected liberal societies.

Aboudi Abu Jaoudeh, the director of Al-Furat publishing house, is a collector of Arab film posters. Through this collection, one can understand the prevailing mentality at that time. He explains that since the mid-1970s, filmmakers have steered away from showing explicit content as a result of pressure from producers from the Arabian Gulf.

A recent audiovisual performance titled Gharam wa Intiqam (Love and Revenge), designed by artist Randa Mirza and rapper Wael Kodaih, known as Rayess Beik, revives Arab cinema’s golden era. The show, which is still running in alternative venues, incorporates electronic music into scenes from some of the most iconic Egyptian, Lebanese, and Syrian movies.

This video includes an interview with Sadek Sabbah, a famous Lebanese cinema producer and distributor of Egyptian and Lebanese movies whose company, Sabbah Art Production, was a main contributor of cinematic production in the 1960s and 1970s. He analyses how social change in Egypt has affected the movies and discusses the influence of Islamists on public freedom in Egypt.

Shotlist and Transcript

1 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man), Abboudi Abou Jawdeh, Director of Al-Furat Publishing House
00:00 – 01:17
I am focusing my interest on Lebanese cinema. I want to archive [the relevant material] accurately.
I love this poster. It features Sabah. Many posters were inspired by Western ones. This one was shows an influence of the movie Gilda, starred by Rita Hayworth. They have reproduced the exact same poster in Lebanon.
When James Bond movies were out, there were spy movies in Lebanon, too. When musical films were produced abroad, musicals were also produced [in Lebanon]. The same trends that appeared in the 1970s… When erotic movies were produced, the same took place in Arab countries and Lebanon between 1970 and 1972 or 1973. The same trends in world or Arab cinema were echoed [in Lebanon]. These trends had a worldwide effect. This includes all aspects [of cinema], from designing poster to producing the movie. This also affected people’s lives.

2 Various of Abboudi Abou Jawdeh examining posters

3 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man), Abboudi Abou Jawdeh, Director of Al-Furat Publishing House

01:31 – 08:18

This movie… this poster dates from the 1940s. This is how they designed posters.
In the 1970s and 1980s – the late 1970s and early 1980s – especially when video and new technology appeared, people were able to take movies to their homes. At that time, funding from Saudi Arabia or the Gulf in general was channeled into production. This funding forced its own requirements on production. It imposed certain limits. There was a large-scale consumption of cinematic work, or movies in general, through new broadcasting media; there were new TV stations as well as video.
This financial capital bought a large part of old movies and financed new movies. It laid down new models for work. For example, [investors] require that certain scenes or topics do not appear. There were certain molds that had to contain these movies. Movies that were produced until the 1970s were modified to suit the new display rules. All the kisses were removed from movies, as well as all scenes that were deemed unacceptable. Movies that are being currently shown and that were produced in 1950s, 1960s and 1970s are disfigured.
It was a rare for a director to be able to take control of his own movie. Even earlier, in the 1950s and 1960s, there were directors who suffered in their work and their movies were even censored. They used to be paid per movie. They would receive a certain fee, for example 6,000 or 7,000 Egyptian pounds and would not ask about the movie later. Some producers were in need of money.
I started collecting… one usually has a favorite actor or actresses. I started collecting their photos and posters. After the show, I used to ask workers in the movie theater if there were any posters [that I could take]. I started collecting posters of Western movies. I continued this collection, and later I was interested in cinema magazines, especially in the 1970s… in the early 1970s. Cinema was the main source of entertainment in Lebanon at that time. People from all social classes used to go at least five or six times a year to the movie theater.
When she [Um Kulthum] died, they filmed her funeral and showed part of that footage [in the cinema].
Al-Haram (The Sin) was a movie produced in 1968. It was based on a novel by Youssef Idriss. It is a beautiful story about a female peasant who was a raped by another peasant and did not dare to say anything about it. She did not even tell her husband about this. She died while giving birth. This story is very tragic and can really be described as a story with a social interest. It shows women’s suffering in our Arab societies.
The changes… now there are restrictions that actors, directors, or producers apply to avoid being held accountable. It is not the people who would hold them accountable. [A producer would say,] “I have paid one or two million dollars to produce a TV series; I do not want the government to ban it if I did not remove this or that part.” Producers avoid any trouble to be able to make a profit.
This poster was designed by artist Hilmi al-Touni. I think that it expresses very beautifully what the movie is about. All the black color… the background represents death while she represents life. The movie’s illustration is done beautifully.
07: 13
Look at this poster. Imagine that this poster was printed in 1955. This is one of the first movies starred by Hind Rustom.
This kind of magazines was printed in Lebanon in 1960s and even in the 1970s. This magazine was distributed in Arab countries. It is called Cinema and Marvels. It was indeed a marvelous magazine!
Interviewer: Do you think it would be possible for such magazines to be printed again in the Arab world?
- No, it is not possible. Some of [these models] were Arab. You would be able to find Arab dancers on magazine covers. It was normal.

4 Various of Metro al-Madina theatre hall and cabaret

5 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Woman) Randa Mirza, Artist
“Our show is called Love and Revenge, the title of a movie starred by Asmahan in 1944. The entire show is based on replaying Arabic songs that date from the 1930s till the 1960s. It features Egyptian, Lebanese and Syrian movies from the same period.“

  1. Various of show. NAT Sound: Music.

7 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man), Rayyes Beik, Musician
“I wanted to revive these songs with a new spirit so that I and other people rediscover them. In remixing these songs, I incorporated electronic music. I changed the beat and the length of the songs. The song now has a new face, a new spirit.”

  1. SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Woman) Randa Mirza, Artist
    “When we return to that era, we realize that we had a great cinematographic and musical production, which had simplicity, aesthetics and experience that now have been lost. We want to bring this era back. Then we would perhaps be able to say, “See where we were and where we are now.”

9 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man), Rayyes Beik, Musician and Rapper
“There is a political, economic and artic void. There is a big void in the Arab world.”

10 Wide of posters in Metro al-Madina

11 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man), Aurelien Zouki, Spectator
It is really important that they worked on Egyptian movies. This shows our situation back then and what we have now reached. This difference is a bit scary.

12 Various of show. Scenes taken from Kaborya, starred by Ahmadn Zaki and Raghda (9:14).
Scenes feature dancer Tahiya Karioka. Soundtrack , song by Warda al-Jazairiya (11:08); Dancer Samia Jamal (11:39); scenes from film Abi Fawqa al-Shajara, starred by Abdel Halim Hafez and Samia Jamal; soundtrack, Tindam by Widad; film starred by Sleiman Eid

13 SOUNDBITE (Arabic, Man) Sadeq Sabbah, Owner of Sabbah Art Production
15:11 – 18:36

I think the change is due to the fact that people’s mindset was affected by the Islamic tide. Part of this was negative. This negative part affected people. It affected their social habits and way of life, which has to do with cinema, what they eat or drink, as well as going out. It has to do with everything. It is not specifically related to cinema. If, in Lebanon for example, I wanted to say that cinema is the mirror of society… I feel that cinema currently is not the mirror of society. If you look at 10 women in the street, you will see that nine of them wear the hijab. However, if we looked at women in Egyptian movies, the ratio would be reversed. Maybe one tenth of them wear a hijab.
Lebanon embraced Egyptian cinema approximately from 1965 to 1975. They [Egyptian filmmakers] discovered three things in Lebanon. First of all, Lebanon is a large studio where there is great scenery. There is the sea, mountains and a nice climate. Media services in Lebanon were – and still are – very distinguished. Egyptians discovered that film production was easy in Lebanon. In addition to that, there were Lebanese actors and actresses present in Lebanon, which complemented Egyptian cinema. More importantly, distribution originated in Lebanon. The distribution revenues were funneled into Lebanon, which created an economic cycle during these 10 years. This facilitated film production. I feel nostalgic about the movie Nagham fi Hayati (A Life Melody), starred by Farid al-Atrash. First of all, I followed my parents work while they produced this movie. Secondly, there was a horrible incident. Farid al-Atrash died during two days before the end of filming, but they [the crew] were able to come up with solutions. It might also have to do with the fact that this was the last movie made in Lebanon – we were talking about these movies made between 1965 and 1975. After that the war broke out. I always have this movie in mind and I always love to watch it. Also, It featured a large group of Lebanese actors, such as Shoushou. There was a large Lebanese cast in this movie. It also featured classical scenery in Lebanon, such as Baalbek, Byblos, the cable cart, which was very important back then. It also featured Tyre. It was as if there Egyptian cinema was bidding Lebanon farewell.