Tunisie: trent ans de cinema

Roy Armes

Recent writing on Arab filmmaking not only adds considerably to the immediately accessible knowledge of cinemas still too little known and appreciated in the West, but also demonstrates the variety of available approaches to the chronicling and assessment of film history.

Egypte: cent ans de cinema, edited by Magda Wassef for the Institut du Monde Arabe, is a fine example of an official history, a glossy, expensively produced and splendidly illustrated volume, with eighteen chapters on all aspects of Egyptian cinema by fifteen distinguished critics. The book is divided into four sections: pioneers, the birth and development of the film industry, key film genres and the sources of inspiration.

The first three chapters give a vivid picture of the struggles and achievements of those who created the first Egyptian films, in the period before 1935. Like the industrial development of the Egyptian economy as a whole in the early part of this century, the early years of cinema in Egypt were distinctly cosmopolitan, with key contributions made by Europeans (particularly Italians, some of them born in Egypt), by Turks and by immigrants from other parts of the Arab world. Within this context, which is admirably sketched out, detailed accounts are offered of the careers of the handful of genuinely Egyptian pioneers, such as Mohamed Bayoumi who, between 1923 and 1934, tried his hand at various kinds of film making, from newsreel shooting to the fictional feature film, and Aziza Amir, one of a number of women who played a key role in the establishment of Egyptian film making and whose career as actress and producer extended from Leila (1929), arguably the first Egyptian fictional feature, to the early 1950s.

Egypt is the only country in the Arab world where one can talk meaningfully of a film industry, and three chapters in section two of Egypte: cent ans de cinema trace the principal stages in the development of this industry, which began with the establishment of the Misr studios in 1935. It was always intended that Egypt should become the provider of film images for audiences throughout the Arab world and in the period up to the 1952 revolution this was achieved as output rose and stabilised at around fifty features a year. A new turning came at the beginning of the 1960s with the nationalisation of the industry. Though now challenged by the new emerging Arab cinemas, such as that in Algeria, the Egyptian national industry produced most of the key Egyptian films of the decade, while maintaining its commercial stranglehold throughout its markets in the Arab world. Indeed the General Organisation of Egyptian Cinema became a model for national film production sectors in other Arab countries such as Syria and Iraq. The contemporary situation–as satellite television and video cassette distribution erode the old theatrical market–gets very little consideration (one of the volume’s few weaknesses), but the three historically based chapters are backed up by insightful essays on censorship, exhibition, the star system and film training. Egypt is the only Arab country to train its own film makers (1530 writers, directors, producers and technicians graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema between 1963 and 1995), and this as clearly played a key role in particular inward-looking perspective of Egyptian cinema and in the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers in the 1970s and 1980s who play with the stereotypes of Egyptian cinema much as the practitioners of the French New Wave reworked Hollywood themes and images.

The historical discussions of the first hall of Egypte: cent ans de cinema are backed up by lengthy discussions of what are the key components of any film industry: the particular film genres as they have developed over time. One key element here which gets detailed discussion is the realist film which, from Kamal Selim’s 1939 production, The Will, through the 1960s and 1970s work of Salah Abou Seif, Tewfik Saleh and Youssef Chahine to the more recent productions of Atef al-Tayeb and Mohamed Khan, bas been the key point of entry for Western film critics interested in Arab cinema. But there are also extended pieces on Egyptian comedy and musical comedy, on the historical film and on literary adaptations.

These eighteen factually packed and admirably sourced chapters are backed up by a well-compiled index and by over a hundred pages of precise reference material presented in five sections, which would themselves make the volume indispensable. The first is a chronology of key events from 5 November 1896, when the first projections of the Lumiere cinematograph took place in Alexandria, to 1994, when production fell to just thirty-five features, of which five were produced for television. This chronology is supplemented at the end of the book by a listing of sixty-three leading directors (giving biographical and career details plus a full feature film listing), an appreciation of the careers of eighty-eight actors and actresses, a directory of contemporary production and distribution companies (with addresses and telephone numbers), and a chronology of films produced between 1923 and 1994 (listing French and Arab titles, director and stars).

Chadi Abdel Salam: le pharaon du cinema egyptien, edited by Salah Marei and Magda Wassef, is an excellently produced volume of drawings and sketches by the designer and director Chadi Abdel Salam, accompanied by short texts by Iris friends and former assistants. It gives a clear view of the vision and design sense of a man who might have become one of Egypt’s greatest directors. Bore in Alexandria in 1930, Abdel Salam studied in Cairo and at Oxford and worked for ten years as set and costume designer. His sole feature film, The Night of Counting the Years/Al-mumia (1968), established his reputation worldwide but received virtually no distribution in Egypt. The director was never able to realise his long-planned feature, Akhenaton, about the pharaoh who briefly introduced monotheism to Egypt, and he directed nothing else of real significance before his death at the age of 56 in 1986. The drawings and designs reproduced here show Abdel Salam’s enormous talent, and the texts bear witness to the warmth with which he is regarded by those who knew him best.

Another visually based book is Tunisie: trente ans de cinema, a collection of production stills and portraits by Anouar Ben Aissa, with an accompanying text by Kamel Ben Ouenes. It offers a picture of film making in Tunisia, not Tunisian film making, with some 130 pages devoted to productions by foreign film makers (Rossenini, Zeffirelli, Chabrol and Polanski among them) and a mere twenty-five pages dealing with the emerging Tunisian cinema. This disproportion accurately reflects the economic fragility of local filmmaking with its national distribution base of just seventy or so film theatres. The existence of this mass of foreign produced films shot in Tunisia–outweighing Tunisian productions but numerically and (vastly) in terms of production resources–has had a considerable impact on the way Tunisian film making has developed, helping foster an outward-looking stance. From Ferid Boughedir working with Arrabal and Robbe-Grillet in the 1960s, via Abdellatif Ben Ammar in the 1970s, to Nouri Bouzid in the 1980s, many of the most innovative Tunisian film makers have deepened their understanding of the craft of filmmaking by working as assistants and production managers, thereby achieving the insights which have allowed them to produce films which, however Tunisian in essence, have also been accessible to European festivals and television stations.

At the opposite extreme to these luxurious volumes is the modestly produced (and priced) work on Moroccan cinema of the young critic Moulay Driss Jaidi. Jaidi comes to the cinema as a sociologist and bas previously published a general survey of his national cinema (Le Cinema au Maroc, 1991) and a study of cinema audiences (Public(s) et Cinema, 1992). His examination of the relationship of cinema and society is highly informative, offering precise insights into both the ways in which filmic representation is shaped by ideology and the manner in which Moroccan society itself has changed and developed since independence.

Vision(s) de la Societe Marocaine a Travers le Court Metrage is based on the analysis of thirty-two short films made between 1956 and 1970. These shorts are situated within their specific production context and in comparison with a number of works made–generally promoting Morocco as a tourist centre–made by foreign filmmakers. On achieving its independence in 1956 Morocco inherited a considerable infrastructure of production and distribution facilities set up by the French protectorate to promote French rule. The key organisation was the Centre Cinematographique Marocain, established in 1944. After independence the CCM enjoyed a virtual monopoly of film production until 1970 and is still today the principal organisation responsible for the promotion and regulation of the film industry in Morocco.

Jaidi’s chosen corpus of short films is important as an example of a long period of official filmmaking which exists without competition or contradiction from independent feature film productions–the first two Moroccan features, both released in 1968, were produced by the CCM and directed by state employees, and they continue the ideological stance of the preceding short film output. The overt propaganda role of the short film has now of course been taken over by state television, but through Jaidi’s analysis these works show with remarkable clarity how film’s supposed reflection of reality can be consistently reshaped and distorted.

It is fascinating to compare this idyllic filmic image with the actuality of Moroccan life as represented in the independently produced features films made since 1970, which constitute Morocco’s major contribution to world cinema and which Jaidi analyses in the final chapter of his book on the short film and in the central essay of the subsequent volume, Cinegraphiques. Independent feature film making in Morocco, which begins with Hamid Benani’s Traces/Wechma (1970) and Souheil Ben Barka’s Thousand and One Hands/Mille et Une Mains (1972) has a constant theme of social confrontation, questioning the bland certainties of the state propaganda machine through into the 1990s. Most of the films which have followed this pattern have been largely confined to festival screenings and have received virtually no conventional commercial release within Morocco. But their vision is totally consistent. In Jaidi’s words, ‘Moroccan society, strongly marked by the imprint of Muslim tradition, is presented in the image of a world turned in on itself, which explains the introverted nature of the characters and their final failure’ (p. 109). As in so many Arab films, defeat is the protagonist’s ultimate rate, in a world where the countryside is a ‘place where the characters suffocate’ (.p. 119), while the city becomes a closed labyrinth, where the authority of the father is contested and the underlying class struggle becomes apparent, and where futile gestures are endlessly repeated.

The central section of Jaidi’s Cinegraphiques, entitled ‘Le film marocain, essai d-analyse’ continues this exploration through the examination of a selection of around forty films, some shorts but mainly fictional features, made during the thirty years stretching from independence in 1956 up to 1986. Jaidi’s analysis is a thematic one, structured around social relationships, the link between the individual and society, the exercise of power and the classic dichotomy of town and countryside. The author shows how the major Moroccan feature films of this period are made consciously to counter the myths perpetuated in the state-controlled short film output of the late 1950s and of the 1960s.

The trajectory of the Moroccan protagonist is almost always towards disillusionment and failure, if not towards death. The barriers that have to be confronted are immutable, and personal responses which have their own profound logic in view of the irreconcilable contradictions of society are viewed from the outside as mere anti-social behaviour. Eternal victims, these anti-heroes can do no more than accept the reality of their inevitable defeat. Moroccan filmmakers, as Jaidi demonstrates, have so far proved themselves far more adept at depicting the minutiae of the ‘non-accomplishment of desire, repressed by authority (patriarchal or, by extension, social)’ and displaying ‘a dimension of unease expressed by the behaviour of different individuals or marginalised groups, socially penalised or seeking refuge in evasion’ (p. 83), than in proposing the construction of positive steps towards a new society. Cinegraphiques, which also contains an analysis of the economics of Moroccan cinema, a study of film audiences and a consideration of the portrayal of Tangiers in foreign-made fictional modes, is a rewarding work which shows the unique value of the lone, committed observer.

Khemais Khayati, a Tunisian who has lived and worked as a critic for many years in France, also offers an independent voice. Cinemas arabes, topographie d’une image eclatee is a collection of pieces written over a number of years (two UNESCO commissioned reports, articles for Arab and French-language journals). Khayati begins by confronting the question of whether there is one Arab cinema or several, and comes down firmly in favour of the latter definition. He even argues that ‘Arab cinema is no longer made “uniquely and necessarily” in the Arab world’ (pp. 9-10), citing among others the examples of Mehdi Charef, bore in Algeria and of Algerian nationality but living in France since the age of ten, and the Palestinian-born Michel Khleifi, long resident in Belgium, where his production company is based. The situation has changed totally since the 1960s, when Egypt with its solid commercial infrastructure and history of 3000 feature films formed the key and inevitable point of reference. Now all Arab states (as well as many Arab-born individuals living in exile) aspire to cinematic expression.

Khayati shows himself well aware of the strengths of the Egyptian tradition, offering a sympathetic survey of centenary of Egyptian cinema and a detailed analysis of Salah Abou Seif’s 1957 classic, The Tough Cruy/Al-futuwa. But writing in terms highly reminiscent of the French New Waves strictures on the ‘tradition of quality’, he shows himself highly critical of the New Egyptian Cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. Judging its proponents to be weighed down by the heritage of the past, he finds himself ‘torn between the mastery of the craft they possess and the platitude of content and form’ (p. 11). He sees current Egyptian filmmakers as ‘making their films in a succession of compromises which makes them daily more submissive’ (ibid.), as they operate in a context where ‘every little change, like filming in the streets, becomes a revolution, using unknown players is taken as an innovation, playing the role of a homosexual or a transvestite becomes a “fitna” and questioning Islam is to be treated as an atheist’ (p. 12).

The two UNESCO papers, one on dramaturgy and the other on technology, are solid pieces which show the extent of Khayati’s general knowledge of cinema. But he is perhaps at his very best when dealing with matters which affect him more directly. He is excellent, to take just one example, on ‘the lovers’ quartel’ between Egypt and Tunisia. This goes to the heart of the rivalry between different Arab cinemas.

As Khayati reminds us, until 1965 Egypt supplied virtually all the Arab world’s films and from the start its industry had ‘never been conceived for purely local consumption’ (p. 140). Moreover Egyptian films served as a positive supporting force throughout the Maghreb in the years before independence. But after 1965 a new kind of state film industry was set up in Algeria to contest the Egyptian model. In Algeria the predominant themes (first the liberation struggle, then the agrarian ‘revolution’) were positively encouraged and the film makers became salaried state bureaucrats. Output was small (around five films a year on average), but within ten years Algeria had shown itself capable of winning recognition in the West–with the Cannes Grand Prix for Chronicle of the Years of Embers/Chronique des Annees de Braise in 1975–in a way that Egypt had never been able to do despite its fifty-year filmmaking history.

Faced with these two competing models, Tunisia adopted a different strategy, building expensive modern studios at Gammarth. Though these would eventually draw in European film producers working on locally shot co-productions, neither Algerian nor Egyptian filmmakers were ever willing to use them. Adopting a new tactic, Tunisia set up the Carthage Film Festival in 1966, thereby staking a claim for cultural leadership in Arab filmmaking despite its tiny internal film distribution base (just seventy-three film theatres). But as kahayati recounts, the history of the festival, which enjoyed its sixteenth gathering in 1996, has never been totally amicable. When the Egyptians round they did not automatically win the top prizes, they denounced the Tunisians as too Europeanised and the festival as an anti-Egyptian conspiracy. To which the Tunisians were justly able to reply that the Egyptian industry was monopolistic, pointing out that no Maghreb film has ever been given a distribution on Egyptian screens.

The arguments and rivalries continue, though the balance of power seems to have shifted (as Khayati mischievously remarks, ‘Egypt isn’t America! and is Cairo really Hollywood?’). If Tunisia currently seems to have the upper hand, with its clutch of innovative film makers (Bouzid, Boughedir, Tlatli) treating subjects (homosexuality, incest, nudity, the Jewish communities) which are taboo elsewhere in the Arab world, who can tell what tomorrow will bring? Khayati has been a film critic for thirty years and this is very much an insider’s account of Arab film making, offering perceptive and stimulating analyses of a whole range of relevant issues–film history, film distribution language, relations with the wider world.

ROY ARMES, Middlesex University, Middlesex t of Arab fi

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