The Golden Age before the Golden Age
Commercial Egyptian Cinema before the 1960s
[In the 1940s] a type of film began which one could call a “collage”—a collage of songs and dances. But it wasn't cinema, or at least not what we know as cinema.
TAWFIQ SALIH, “AL-WAQI'IYYAH”
One often encounters the opinion that “serious” Egyptian cinema dates from the 1960s, when the state partially nationalized the cinema, thereby allowing some directors to produce films according to criteria other than marketability. Although support for the public-sector cinema of the 1960s is not universal, 1 on one related issue intellectuals in both the pro– and anti–public-sector camps are substantially in agreement: there is little value in most of the films made in the three decades before the 1960s.
A small number of the nine hundred fifty Egyptian films made from 1927 to the early 1960s are excepted from axiomatic disparagement. These tend to be films interpreted as leading up to the 1960s, that is, works by directors who became prominent in the 1960s, and films that in retrospect are thematically similar to certain genres of the 1960s fare better than the rest. General audiences and fan magazines are more forgiving of the commercialism dominant in films made before the appearance of public-sector cinema. Critics attribute this enthusiasm to the misguided tastes of uneducated people suddenly thrust into the unfamiliar role of culture consumers. But is there really nothing more to be said of the hundreds of pre-1960s commercial genre films than that they are too vulgar to be worthy of attention?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, I assume that early Egyptian films are important; that their ambiguous status as art should be a point of analysis rather than a reason to ignore them. Pierre Bourdieu suggests that the transcendence of art is “based on the power of the dominant to impose, by their very existence, a definition of excellence which … is bound to appear simultaneously as distinctive and different, and therefore both arbitrary … and perfectly necessary, absolute and natural” (1984, 255). Stuart Levine