by Ameera Fouad
Alexandria marks the birthplace of the film industry in Egypt as it was the site of the first film screening in 1896. The Lumiere brothers, the pioneers of the cinematographic industry, after playing their first public screening on 28th December 1895 at the Grand Cafe on Paris’s Boulevard de Capuchines they moved from one country to another, showing off their first screenings. As cinema halls got established in both Cairo and Alexandria, artists were mobilised to start working on their own motion picture production.
As documentary movies are regarded as the first type of filmmaking practice, Alexandrians were known the best to utilise this kind in order to capture the city’s renaissance and its cosmopolitan arena which had been flourishing till the end of the 1950s.
With Alexandria being in close ties to European shores and with the eruption of World War I, immigrants from Armenia, Italy and Greece started pouring inside the city walls at an unprecedented pace. Such immigrants who have close ties to their home countries imported innovative ideas and film equipment to the city.
Also, producers, actors, actresses, directors and singers jumped into the new craze, establishing the Egyptian cinema with its golden era (from the 40s till the 70s) in which more than 100 movies were produced yearly.
One of these immigrants was the Armenian Rashid Behna, who launched the legendary production and distribution company Behna’s Brothers in Alexandria. Established in 1930, the company had stepped into the film industry production zone in no noticeable time with its first blockbuster Mish-Mish Effendi.
Akin to Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop in America, Egypt got its national Mish- Mish Effendi. As he was the hero of the first Egyptian cartoon, several movies under the name of Mish-Mish Effendi were subsequently produced.
Behna was one of the key players in the Egyptian movie industry at that time, taking the lead in many musical and animated films. Being the biggest distributer in the Middle East, the distribution of the Egyptian movies at that time reached many countries inside and outside the Arab region. The Egyptian movie could be watched in Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria as well as in India, France, Italy and many other countries.
However, Behna’s distribution company, despite its marvellous success and its distribution boosting techniques, did not last for long. Although it had been in market from 1930s till 1960s, the family faced a major downfall in Nasser’s era. The wealth and status the Behnas craved had been all lost due to the nationalisation of most private and foreign sectors in this period of time. In 1961, Behna’s company had gone bankrupt due to its nationalisation. In 1978, the heirs, Baslie and Marie-Claude Behna filed a lawsuit against the Egyptian government to restore back their company. However, it was not until 2010 that they won their lawsuit giving them the rights to the company and allowing them to re-open the company’s Alexandrian office and headquarters in January 2013.
Gaining at last the keys of their Alexandrian apartment, now it is regarded as one of the heritage icons in Alexandria where Guadran Association for Arts and Development has taken over the apartment in coordination with Behna’s heirs.
Behna and Guadran worked collectively to turn the 12-room apartment in Mansheya Square, which was the main office of Behna Films, into a hub for independent filmmakers in Alexandria as well as a space to exhibit and produce visual arts of all sorts.
The apartment is also hosting a museum exhibiting forgotten cinema heritage of the Behna Film Company.
Whereas Behna was the tycoon of distribution companies in Egypt, Frenkel Pictures was the tycoon of the production industry.
Not surprisingly, as the Behna brothers met their fate with the nationalisation of their properties in the sixties, Frenkels Brother Company, which produced major blockbusters movies, met the very same fate. Both companies left their several-year booming industries behind and fled outside the country.
It was always said that film making was the second largest source of income for the Egyptian economy after cotton in the 1940s and 50s, but this is no longer the case. And so it was, huge numbers of movies were produced each year in a wide range of genres. The movies also became a forum for the leading male and female romantic singers of the time, ushering an era of great musical movies.
According to Behna’s film production and distribution company, the cost of one movie ranged between 1,000 to 3,000 Egyptian Pounds, and some revenues from such movies did not exceed its cost payment. However, the flourishing of the cinematic industry at that time with the production of many movies and with the support of the government helped the industry to rise at its peak.
However, the nationalisation of many production companies that belonged to the private sector at the sixties had its share in declining the industry as a whole. With many producers and distributors leaving the country for good, the film industry started to decline.
In the 1970s, the bulk of the Egyptian movie industry moved to Lebanon, and the quality of the movies began to decline.
The next quarter century saw another decline in the quality of films as producers focused on quick financial gains. Many of them seemed reluctant to invest in new actors or new stories, leading to the emergence of what movie critics called “contract films,” or ones made with money, rather than quality, in mind.
The government supports this point of view with the Ministry of Culture committing 20 million Egyptian pounds ($3.3 million) in grants to film makers in 2012. This has helped 37 films into production, including 17 full length feature films. The Ministry of Culture provides 50 per cent of the film budget and asks for no returns.