It is a widely known fact that the Egyptian cinema industry is unparalleled in its reach in the Arab world. From the North African reaches to the Arabian Peninsula, no Arab household with access to television has foregone the influence of the Egyptian silver screen of the twentieth century. With our numerous dialects, which are often unintelligible as vernacular vary widely across the expanses covered by the Gulf, the Levant and North Africa, the Arab world has implicitly learned the Egyptian dialect through the ubiquity of great (and sometimes not so great) motion pictures. Thus, Egypt is the star of the Arab world; it has been our political beacon since the 1950s, setting an example of expelling colonial and imperial interests, even if that example was very short-lived and is currently in tatters.
Egypt of the twentieth century also gave us a kind of identitarian cohesion through its popular cultural output. Whether through Oum Kulthum’s highly anticipated and widely televised monthly concerts, or Abd al-Halim’s blockbuster protagonisms or al-Sheikh Imam’s political dissent, Egypt has been telling the story of humanity in Arabic in a way whose reach is incomparable in the twenty-two other Arab nation-states. But while this may be a very unsurprising fact, what is little known is the extent of women’s involvement in founding the Egyptian cinema industry. Despite patriarchal discouragements that seek to inhibit women from pursuing film production, the Egyptian film studio was built by women about whom we do not hear enough.
At a time when there were five production companies making films in Egypt, one of these, Lotus Productions, belonged to the Lebanese-born Assia Dagher, who immigrated to Egypt in the 1920s. Dagher’s career spanned a lifetime of filmic production, and estimates of her output vary. According to Nadia Wassef, in the extremely important documentary ‘Ashiqat al-Cinema al-Masriya Part II, Dagher produced fifty films, whereas Rebecca Hillauer in her equally monumental work, Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, claims that Dagher produced over a hundred films.
Alongside her niece Marie Queeny and Ahmad Galal, whom Queeny would later marry, Dagher made films that would define filmmaking for the next generation. Dagher was a shrewd business woman and was even able to survive the Nasser administration’s nationalization of film studios, and pressed on to produce the epic film Al-Nassir Salah Al-Din in 1963, hiring Youssef Chahine as director. Salah Addin cost 120, 000 Egyptian dinars to produce, and as researchers tell us, back then it was the most costly film in Arabic filmmaking history. It is said that the film’s budget was six-times the budget of the average Egyptian film from the period. Dagher preceded this historical epic with her depiction of the legendary Egyptian queen Shajar al-Durr in an eponymous film in 1935. This was the Arab world’s first first historical epic depicted on the silver screen.
But even before Dagher became the giant film producer who would usher in a generation of filmmakers, there was Aziza Amir, who starred in and produced Egypt’s first feature-length film, Leila, in 1927. She founded a production company, Isis, that same year and produced Bint al-Nil (1931) and Bayya’at al-Tuffah (1939). In her doctoral dissertation, “The Plight of Women in Egyptian Cinema…” Marisa Farugia credits Amir with being the first Arab filmmaker to address the Palestinian question in her films Fatat Min Falastine (1948) and Nadya (1949).
Farugia further argues that Bahija Hafez should also be considered as one of the founding pioneers of the Egyptian cinema industry. Hafez founded the Fanar Film Company in 1932, and produced her first feature-length film, al-Dahaya, in 1933. Farugia further illuminates that al-Dahaya was the first Arab film to be subtitled in a foreign language (French). Hafez also wrote, produced and starred in Layla Bint Al-Sahra in 1937, and according to Farugia the film was banned in Egypt and internationally (despite winning the Venice Film Festival in 1938), for its depiction of the 6th century Persian King, Anusharwan, as a villain.
There can be no doubt, when gleaning over the incredible filmography of these founding mothers that their central preoccupation was to make films about women, films that sought to re-tell and re-envision what it means to be a woman in the Arab world. They lived courageous lives, and pioneered extraordinary accomplishments and yet our school books fail to celebrate them. They gave us what we take for granted, they gave us the feature-length Egyptian film! Dagher, starring alongside her niece, Marie Queeny, also gave us the very first same-sex subtext in Arabic filmic history.
The film in which this occurs tells the story of Hikmat (Dagher), a poor but educated young woman, who is compelled to disguise herself as her brother (who lies ill in a hospital). She must do this in order to take his position as a private tutor for an aristocrat’s younger children, or else face homelessness. Badriya (Queeny), an older child in the family, finds Hikmat-in-disguise extremely attractive. And in this scene she is working hard to seduce “him,” and “he,” at some point, for whatever reason, decides to oblige. Earlier in the film, Badriya sought the advice of Hikmat-as-a-woman on how to seduce a man. Hikmat told her that she should take a flower to him, drop it on the floor and wait until he picks it up. Hikmat thought that Badriya was asking for this advice in relation to her own would-be husband, her cousin Bayouni, and little did she know that Badriya has her sights set on Hikmat-in-disguise. Here it is, a clip from Bint al-Basha al-Mudir, dating back to 1938.