Egyptians have been avid filmgoers since the birth of cinema: The first movie theater in Egypt opened in 1897, the same year the Lumiere brothers sent a cameraman to shoot the earliest moving images of the land of the pharaohs. Since then, Egyptian films have led the Middle East’s entertainment industry, and yet their survival is estimated at a mere 50%. It’s not just the products of the Golden Age but also films made more recently that are disappearing, victims of an array of assaults ranging from political, religious and temporal to simple apathy.
Martin Scorsese and his World Cinema Foundation’s recent restoration of two films by Shadi Abdel Salam is a rare piece of good news, but without an adequate archive or a systematic cataloguing of the country’s screen treasures, a significant aspect of the country’s cultural heritage likely will be lost.
No country is entirely successful in preserving all of its film legacy, but Egypt seems to be particularly unfortunate. Studio fires as recently as 1980 sent countless movies up in smoke, and the nationalization of the industry in 1961 meant there was little incentive to protect and preserve.
In 2000, Egyptian actor-producer, and Los Angeles resident, Sayed Badreya spearheaded a campaign to raise awareness and funds for a state-of-the-art conservation lab and archive. His 2002 docu “Saving Egyptian Film Classics” paints a bleak picture of the situation, blasting the Egyptian Film Center’s storerooms in Giza, “a nitrate film slaughterhouse” in which deteriorating cans of one-of-a-kind prints and negatives were rotting in an unclimatized warehouse in the Egyptian heat.
Since the docu came out, Badreya is even more pessimistic.
“I wish I didn’t make this movie,” he says. “After my campaign, they spent some money, they bought air conditioning, but the roof and the windows are leaking.”
The result, according to Badreya, is that temperature and humidity fluctuations are creating condensation within the film canisters, actually hastening deterioration.
He had hoped to convince Egyptian authorities to train people in the delicate science of conservation, but after 10 years, his disillusion is palpable: “I saw the problem and I had the solution. I spent three years in America learning how to fix it and I brought it to my country, and my country rejected it. It’s so sad. But that’s Egypt. I can’t fight it.”
There are other proposals. At last year’s Middle East Film Festival, Paolo Cherchi Usai, director of the Netherlands-based Haghefilm Foundation, suggested creating a pan-Arab film archive.
“It’s not too late to join forces for the sake of saving what’s left under a multinational curatorial team, ensuring that the interests of each Arab nation, and of the Arab world in general, are protected and promoted,” he says.
There has been a recent success story: The World Cinema Foundation restored Salam’s feature “The Night of Counting the Years,” aka “The Mummy,” and most recently his short “The Eloquent Peasant.” Both films, from 1969, were featured in Cannes Classics sidebars.
“Scorsese was frustrated because there were no decent prints,” says the Foundation’s executive director, Kent Jones. So meticulous restoration work using original 35mm material, with the full cooperation of the Egyptian Film Center, was undertaken. The work yielded a splendid return to the pics’ sumptuous colors.
As to whether the Doha Film Institute’s recent partnership with the Foundation might lead to an increased number of Arab film restorations, Jones says the funds “allow us to fulfill our mission,” but notes that they won’t be specifically earmarked for Middle Eastern cinema.
Badreya sees little reason for celebration, given the volume of pics that aren’t getting restoration or basic preservation treatment.
Though he says it’s great to have those two films preserved, it’s only a start. “You need to make an archive for Egypt. You have to have an agenda. Today, Egyptians have nothing, because they don’t have an agenda.”