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CINEMA. The development of cinema was closely linked to Western industrialization. It was exploited in Europe and the United States as a commercial entertainment for a largely working-class audience, and, even when exported, has remained a secular, commercial entertainment. At the turn of the century, the social and economic conditions in the Islamic world were vastly different from those in Europe and the United States, and it is significant that some of the first contacts between cinema and the Islamic world were through the royal families. In the Ottoman Empire, the first screenings were held in the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul, and in Tehran a cinematograph, acquired on a visit to Paris in 1900 and operated by the court photographer, became a favorite entertainment for members of the Qajar Dynasty. Public screenings came only much later: in 1905 in Tehran and Istanbul, 19o8 in Aleppo, and 19o9 in Baghdad. Often, in Tehran ‘for example, there was strong initial opposition to such entertainment from religious groups.

Sometimes those responsible for early film showings were local entrepreneurs-Albert Samama, also known as Chikly, in Tunisia, or the Armenian Ardeshir Khan in Iran-who also imported other Western novelties, such as the bicycle, still photography, or the phonograph. Chikly, indeed, is a true pioneer, since he subsequently directed the first Tunisian short film in 1922 and a first feature in 1926. But, as this was an era of colonialism and European domination, many of the early showings were arranged by foreign residents. Thus, in Egypt and Algeria, screenings of the Lumiere cinematograph were organized as early as 1896 in those cities with the highest numbers of foreign residents: Cairo and Alexandria, Algiers and Oran. In sub-Saharan Africa it was similarly foreign businessmen who set up first screenings, in Dakar in 1900 and Lagos in 1903. Often local scenes were shot by the Lumiere operators to add to the attraction of their programs. In time, screenings for an elite audience-foreign residents and members of a westernized bourgeoisie-came to be supplemented by film shows for a popular audience. A two tier system of distribution-new imported films in luxurious but expensive air-conditioned cinemas and cheap, low-grade productions shown in poor conditions to the popular audience-remains common in many parts of the Islamic world.

Usually the first film productions, like the first screenings, were the work of foreigners: the Frenchman De Lagarne in Egypt in 1912, the Romanian representative of Pathe, Sigmund Weinberg, in Turkey in 1916, two Dutchmen, Kruger and Heuveldorp, in Indonesia in 1926. Such films were based on foreign models. Thus the Armenian Avans Ohanian’s first film-shown in 193o and one of only four Iranian silent films-was an imitation of a Danish silent comedy, and most Turkish films of the 19205 were adaptations of European stage plays. More authentic national productions usually followed within a few years, but overall film production remained low throughout the silent era of the 1920s. Just thirteen features-including Mohamed Khan’s 193o adaptation of Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s novel, Zaynab-were made in Egypt, eight films in Indonesia, a half dozen in Turkey (where production ceased altogether for five years with the advent of Kemal ataturk’s secular republic), three in Syria, one in Lebanon. By contrast, European filmmakers made great use of some parts of the Islamic world as film locations, with more than sixty features shot in North Africa alone before the end of the 1920s.

The coming of sound presented Islamic filmmakers with fresh problems, such as higher production costs and greater technical demands. The employment of foreign directors was therefore common: Italian directors for a number of early Egyptian sound films and an Indian, Ardeshir Irani, for the first Persian-language sound film, shot in Bombay in 1931. Sound also confronted distributors with fresh problems, as differing languages and dialects fragmented previously unified markets. But sound also allowed the possibility of closer links with audiences, through the use of local languages and dialects and, above all, local music and song. Though producers were usually seeking-in an unsophisticated way-to create a popular mass art imbued with national values, they remained very vulnerable to imported films. Far from giving support or offering tariff barriers, governments tended to see cinema simply as a source of tax revenue, at rates usually far higher than in the West. Even a comparatively successful film industry, like that established in Egypt, found it hard to compete with films from the West, especially as these matched the tastes of elite audiences in the major cities, where most cinemas were located.

In most parts of the Islamic world production remained low in the period from 1930 to the end of World War II and beyond. In Tunisia, Chikly’s pioneering efforts found little echo, and only two sound features were made in the period before independence in 1966. In Lebanon, where cinema attendance was the highest in the Arab world, only eight features were made between 1930 and 1952, and there was no production at all in Syria or Iraq. Arab cinema became synonymous with Egyptian cinema, as Egyptian producers gradually came to dominate film markets throughout the Arab world. Initial progress was slow, however, though producers showed an early interest in the sound film’s potential for films featuring Oriental songs. By the mid-1930s, when the Misr studio opened, equipped with imported European facilities and employing staff trained in Europe, output reached twenty-five films in 1945. The bulk of the films-unpretentious love stories with exotic settings and plenty of space for song and dance, bedouin adventure tales, and theatrical melodramas-have little lasting value. But critics are united in praising, as an example of totally independent filmmaking, The Will/ Al-`azimah (1939), the first film to look realistically at Egyptian life, directed by Kemal Selim (1913-1945)

Elsewhere in the Middle East progress was more muted. The first five Persian-language feature films shot in Bombay were patriotic films which enjoyed some success with audiences. But the driving force behind them, the actor and director Abdolhossein Sepenta (19071969), received no official support and was unable to continue his career on his return to Iran in 1936. Indeed, no further Iranian films were made until 1947. In Turkey, production was more sustained, but remained at under half a dozen films a year until 1948, when changes in taxation made low-budget production profitable. The key figure in the transition from silent to sound cinema was Muhsin Ertugrul (1892-1979), who joined Ipek Film when it was set up in 1928 and directed the first Turkish sound film. Ertugrul’s heavily theatrical style-he was director of the Istanbul Municipal Theater and appeared as an actor in most of his films-set the pattern for younger directors of the period.

In the Far East, filmmaking got under way in Malaysia in the 1930s, but since the films were financed by Chinese producers, written and directed by Indian expatriates, and performed by Malay actors, little cultural authenticity was possible. In Indonesia, film output remained at seven films or less a year until 1939, then swiftly expanded to reach forty-one films in 1941, only to fall back to three or so a year during the Japanese occupation and to dry up completely during the early years of the independence struggle against the Dutch colonizers. It was not until after independence was formalized in 1949 that the industry again began to expand rapidly.

The period after 1945 saw a boom in film production in many parts of the Islamic world. In Egypt, the immediate postwar years were a period of rapid expansion as production levels rose to more than fifty films a year, a total that has been largely maintained into the 1990s. As a result, Egyptian films came to dominate the Arab film market and impose the Egyptian dialect as the “natural” language for Arab films. Most of this output comprised melodramas and farces, with a liberal helping of song and dance, but from the early 1950s, serious writers began to involve themselves in filmmaking and a number of major directors made their appearance. Salah Abou Seif (b. 1915), Youssef Chahine (b. 1926), and Tewfik Saleh (b. 1926), all of whom made strikingly realistic studies of Egyptian lower- and middle-class life, came to dominate Egyptian cinema from the 1950s through the 1980s.

The expansion of cinema in Turkey was even more striking. From just two films in 1947, output rose to thirty-five in the early 1960s, eventually reaching a peak of 298 features in 1972. Some new directors made their reputations: Metin Erksan (b. 1929), Atif Yilmaz (b. 1925), and Lufti O. Akad (b. 1916). But much of this production was mediocre, often derivative of foreign models, and there was even-unique in an Islamic country-a proliferation of pornographic films. But political censorship remained strict, and the charismatic and politically committed actor-director Yilmaz Guney (19371984) spent much of his career in jail. Though he ended his life in exile, the films he was able to make in Turkey-such as Yol and suru-gave Guney an international reputation. The economic crisis caused production levels to fall drastically to just sixty-four films by 1980, but Guney’s example has been followed in the 1980s and 1990s. by two of his collaborators, Zeki Okten (b. 1941) and ,Serif Goren (b. 1944)

Iran experienced a similar upsurge of production when indigenous production began in 1947. By the mid1950s, output was around fifteen features, rising to thirty in 1961 and peaking at ninety in 1972, before falling back to just eighteen in 1978. Alongside the conventional commercial production, there emerged in the 1970s a New Iranian Cinema receiving support from the government and the state television service. Among the largely Western-trained directors were Dariush Mehrjui (b. 1940) and Bahrain Bayzai (b. 1938), both of whom established an international reputation. This particular organization of cinema ceased, however, with the fall of the shah.

Equally striking has been the growth of production in Indonesia, where production rose from eight features in 1949, the year of independence, to 124 in 1977, staying at more than fifty features a year throughout the 1980s, though falling back in the early 1990s. The backgrounds of the successive generations of directors offer a fascinating reflection of the country’s political transformations. The 1950s generation-Usmar Ismail, D. Djajakusuma, and Asrul Sani-studied in Dutch schools, while the 1970s generation comprises both filmmakers trained in Moscow-Wim Umboh (b. 1933), Syumanjaya (b. 1933), and Ami Primyono (b. 1939)-and a younger group coming from Indonesian theater, such as Teguh Karya (b. 1937), Arifin Noer (b. 1940, and Slamet Rahardjo (b. 1949) By contrast, Malaysian cinema, though it experienced a brief growth in the 1950s, has seen its markets continue to be dominated by imported Indonesian films, as government efforts to aid the industry have proved unsuccessful.

At the time of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, there was no tradition of filmmaking in either West Pakistan or East Pakistan (later to secede as Bangladesh). The all-India movie, which passed two hundred films a year in the 1940s, was a Hindi-language phenomenon, with some Muslim actors, often disguised under Hindi names, but only Hindu filmmakers. Moreover the tight political censorship under British rule had precluded the depiction of religious differences or specifically Muslim viewpoints. From the moment of partition, cinema in the two halves of Pakistan developed separately. Though output levels rose steadily, to peak at a hundred films a year in Pakistan and fifty a year in Bangladesh, most of this production was derivative, even plagiaristic, of Indian models. Few productions have more than local interest, though the great Indian filmmaker, Ritwikkumar Ghatak (1925-1976), did return to his native region of Dhaka to shoot a solitary feature in 1973.

The virtual nationalization of the Egyptian film industry, after the establishment of the General Organization of Egyptian Cinema in 1961, served to give some support to serious filmmaking in Egypt, but was a financial disaster. Perhaps as a result, Egyptian cinema did not experience the kind of renewal common elsewhere in the 1960s, and the one major new filmmaker to emerge, Shadi Abdel-Salam (1930-1986), was never able to create a real career for himself, though his sole feature, Almumiyah (1969), was internationally acclaimed. Overall, film production remained at a level of around fifty films a year, and in the 1960s many Egyptian producers moved abroad, particularly to Lebanon, and continued to make “Egyptian” films there. But this did little to foster the emergence of a genuinely Lebanese cinema, and it was not until the 1970s that a number of talented, Western-trained filmmakers, led by Heiny Srour (b. 1945) and Borhan Alawiya (b. 1941), emerged and began to treat the social and political problems of their country in a number of features strongly influenced by documentary techniques.

Though Egypt’s nationalized film industry was dissolved in 1972, the Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo has remained in operation. As a result, Egypt is the only Arab country to train its own filmmakers locally. The generation that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, led by Mohamed Khan (b. 1942), has shown itself very aware of the history and style of Egyptian filmmaking. In one of the more remarkable film developments in the Arab world, the so-called New Egyptian Realists have produced a series of films within the commercial structures of the industry which play with the genre conventions of film narrative and star casting.

Though the state film organization eventually proved to be an expensive commercial failure in Egypt, it provided a model for neighboring Arab countries. In Syria, which, like Lebanon, became a site for expatriate Egyptian producers, a state sector was developed alongside the commercial industry. The policy that offered state backing for talented young filmmakers was rewarded with the emergence in the 1980s, of two extremely talented newcomers, both born in 1945 and trained in Moscow: Samir Zikra and Mohamed Malass. Another Syrian-born filmmaker to make an international reputation has been the French-trained documentarist, Umar Amiralay (b. 1941), who, after an initial feature-length documentary, has worked largely for television. By contrast, in Iraq, where film production had been sporadic until the I96os, the General Organization for Cinema, which achieved autonomy in 1964, pursued a policy of funding epic super-productions, some directed by Egyptian veterans such as Tewfik Saleh and Salah Abou Seif, others by Iraqi-born directors, like the British-trained Mohammed Shukry Jamil (b. 1936). Elsewhere in the Middle East, isolated pioneers made their appearance: Toryali Shafaq (b. 1947) in Afghanistan, the Indiantrained Khalid Siddik (b. 1948) in Kuwait, and the Nazareth-born Michel Khleifi (b. 1950), whose work reflects Palestinian values from an exile base in Belgium.

The mid-I96os also saw the emergence of new national cinemas in the Maghrib, though most of the filmmakers were European-trained and the influence of France was all-persuasive. In Algeria the roots of the new cinema lay in the liberation struggle. The nationalized film industry established in the mid-I96os organized first a series of studies of resistance to the French-with notable contributions from Ahmed Rachedi (b. 1938) and especially Mohamed LakhdarHamina (b. 1934)-and then a series on rural reform, beginning with the first feature of Mohamed Bouamari (b. 1945) But already by the late 1970s more distinctive individual voices could be heard-among them Merzak Allouache (b. 1944) and Mahmoud Zemmouri (b. 1946)-and by the mid-1980s the state monopoly had been broken up.

In Tunisia the state had no such clear initial objectives, but there is a strong film culture, evidenced by the biennial film festival, the Journees Cinematographiques de Carthage, in Tunis. Output in Tunisia is largely the work of dedicated individualists such as the self-taught Omar Khlfi (b. 1934) in the I96os, Abdellatif Ben Ammar (b. 1943) in the 1970s, and Nouri Bouzid (b. 1947) in the 1980s. Output in Morocco shows a similar mix of those, like Souhel Ben Barka (b. 1942), who seek commercial success, and others, among them Moumen Smihi (b. 1945), who are more concerned with formal innovation. But in general, the films of the Maghrib receive more showings at foreign festivals than in local cinemas.

The same problem confronts filmmakers in subSaharan Africa, though a few directors have made international reputations, among them the Paris-based Med Hondo (b. 1936) from Mauritania, Souleymane Cisse (b. 1940) from Mali, and Gaston Kabore (b. 1951) from Burkina Faso. There have been occasional Musliminspired films, like the Nigerian Adamu Halilu’s Shehu Uma (1977), but these have received far less notice and screening than the works of the Marxist Senegalese veteran, Ousmane Sembene (b. 1923), whose Ceddo (1976) is an outspoken attack on Islam.

In general, cinema in the Islamic world falls into two categories: mindless commercial production for a limited local audience or Western-influenced “art cinema” destined for foreign film festivals. There have been few attempts to create a genuinely Islamic cinema, though in Turkey a group of filmmakers led by Yucel Cakmakli (b. 1937), and given some tacit government support, has advocated a return to Islam and national origins. The sole state-backed Islamic cinema developed after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, where attacks on film theaters had formed a key part in the campaign against the shah. Yet the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolution showed themselves in support of cinema as a positive cultural force, organized through the Farabi Cinema Foundation. After initial interruptions of production, older established filmmakers like Mehrjui and Bayzai were allowed once again to produce freely, fresh opportunities were given to other veterans, like Amir Naderi (b. 1945) and a new generation of directors came to the fore, led by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (b. 1957). Iranian cinema has again found a way to reach its own audiences and reestablish its place at international film festivals. [See also Communications Media.]


Armes, Roy. Third World Film Making and the West. Berkeley and London, 1987. Wide-ranging study of factors governing the emergence and growth of cinema in the Third World.

Barnouw, Erik, and Subrahmanyam Krishnaswamy. Indian Film. 2d ed. New York, 1980. Invaluable, pioneering survey.

Diawara, Manthia. African Cinema: Politics and Culture. Bloomington, 1992. Wide-ranging survey by a Malian-born academic now teaching in the U.S.

Downing, John D. H., ed. Film and Politics in the Third World. New York, 1987. Excellent anthology with articles on African, Arab, Turkish, and Iranian cinema.

Heider, Karl G. Indonesian Cinema: National Culture on Screen. Honolulu, 1991. Study of Indonesian cinema as an aspect of national culture, by a U.S. anthropologist.

Issari, Mohammad Ali. Cinema in Iran, 1900-1979. Metuchen, N.J., and London, 1989. Meticulous and well-documented history of cinema and its cultural context.

Kabir, Alamgir. The Cinema in Pakistan. Dacca, 1969. Film in Bangladesh. Dacca, 1979. Two extremely useful general surveys.

Lent, John A. The Asian Film Industry. Austin, 1990. Ten essays on Asian national cinemas, with emphasis on contemporary developments.

Malkmus, Lizbeth, and Roy Armes. Arab and African Film Making. London and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1991. Detailed study of narrative patterns in the cinemas of Africa and the Arab world.

Naficy, Hamid. “The Development of an Islamic Cinema in Iran.” Third World Affairs (1987): 447-463. Rare example of discussion in English of the implications of a specifically Islamic approach to cinema.

Naficy, Hamid. “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran.” In Iran: Political Culture in the Islamic Republic, edited by Samih K. Farsoun and Mehrdad Mashayekhi, pp. 178-213. London, 1992. A further examination of the topic.

Pines, Jim, and Paul Willemen, eds. Questions of Third Cinema. London, 1989. Essays on theoretical aspects of Third World cinema. Sadoul, Georges, ed. The Cinema in the Arab Countries. Beirut, 1966. Pioneering account of various national cinemas.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/cinema/

  • writerPosted On: November 4, 2012
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