The evolution of Egyptian film history reflects the economic and political changes that have swept the country since the beginnings of a national film industry. These changes have been distinguished by widely divergent economic directions and opaque ideological systems that became more pronounced following the 1952 Free Officer's Coup—a revolution led by a group of young military officers. This group effectively unseated from power the former British mandate puppet, King Farouk, descendent of the Ottoman Turkish dynasty, in a bloodless coup that served as a model revolution to other Arab countries seeking independence from colonial European rule. The subsequent rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) to power in 1954 extended to his leadership of the Pan-Arab movement, which forged ties between Egypt, Syria, and Iraq after Egypt's successful resolution of the 1956 Suez crisis, when French and British air forces were overpowered by the Egyptians after Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal.
Nasser's social reforms included nationalizing the cinema in the 1960s, and this had a great and negative impact on the film industry. Soon after the establishment of the General Organization of Egyptian Cinema in 1961 and the nationalization of the theatres in 1963, directors, producers, and talent fled to Lebanon, where they worked in the Lebanese film industry until the outbreak of civil war in 1975. In spite of these problems, Egypt's nationalized cinema organization made most of the films of the 1960s. One positive contribution from this period was the opening of the Higher Institute of Cinema in 1959, by the Ministry of Culture, where students received training in different aspects of production. Since then, this institute has produced much of Egypt's film and television talent. After Egypt's demoralizing 1967 defeat in the Six-Day War with Israel, Nasser's death in 1970, and the rise of Anwar Sadat (1918-1981), who promoted normalization of economic ties with Israel and the United States, the country underwent a general shift back to privatization. Nationalization was over by 1972, but relations with neighboring Arab countries were strained by Egypt's open-door policy with Israel, and the country's economic and political ties with Syria were broken.
As soon as Nasser nationalized the radio and television industries in the early 1960s, attendance at movie theatres dropped drastically. In the period from 1955 to 1975, the number of film theatres declined from 350 to fewer than 250. Meanwhile, imported foreign films continued to flood the Egyptian market. Tickets to films were heavily taxed, and the state film organization lost about 7 million Egyptian pounds, slowly bringing state film production to a halt by the early 1970s. The pendulum effect in funding between private and public sectors was also damaged by the increasingly predominant investment from the oil-rich Gulf countries, which financed films for television in the 1980s and later for satellite distribution in the 1990s. In addition to their more stringent censorship requirements of the usual subjects (sex, politics, and religion), the Gulf producers generally lacked awareness of the aesthetics of cinema. After the 1981 assassination of Sadat by a member of the Islamic Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarek's (b. 1928) regime was installed and with it emergency law, eventually diffusing the student movement that had erupted in the 1970s in reaction to Sadat's economic and political moves.
The Gulf petrodollars of the 1980s caused an outpouring of funded television shows, which led to further decline in the film industry. By 1994, Egyptian cinema was considered to be in a state of crisis: the annual production of films had fallen to single digits, a far cry from the annual output of fifty narrative features in 1944. More recently, independent directors have concentrated their efforts on serial television shows for Ramadan, the holy month in which Muslims fast during the day, then relax in the evening, creating large popular audiences. Meanwhile, the reconstruction of post-war Beirut was fueling the media explosion of the second half of the 1990s, which led to such satellite channels as Rotana and Good Day from Beirut and the Gulf states, which now produce many films for the Egyptian market.
Another challenge to independent Egyptian film is the power of censors to stifle artistic work and freedom of expression at the slightest hint of perceived criticism of religion or of taboo subjects presented in anything other than a denunciatory way. Between 1971 and 1973, during Sadat's early years, any films that dealt with the 1967 defeat were banned, including II Usfur (The Sparrow,
Youssef Chahine, 1973), but since the early 1990s, censorship has been more acutely attentive to religious issues.
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