By SHERIF AWAD
Film historians recognize that only few months after the first screening in Europe had taken place, an exclusive Egyptian audience was privy to a private screening that took place Alexandria’s Tousson, its stock exchance, and at Cairo’s Hamam Schneider (Schneider Baths) in 1896. By 1907, there were five between Cairo and Alexandria. A short documentary film about the visit of Khedive Abbas Hilmi II to the Institute of Mursi Abul-Abbas in Alexandria depicted in Arabic was since that time the catalyst behind Egyptian cinema ascending to lead the Arab film production. Egyptian prominence began with the silent film genre, moved into the talkie and color film era, then reaching high-definition among the present various cutting edge digital technology.
Egypt’s long and celebrated journey was however facing technical and natural challenges ominously in danger of losing some of its film heritage to the effects of time. Neglecting film prints in the storage rooms without adequate air-conditioning and preservation processes threatened to exacerbate eventual decomposition, degradation and their potential loss for all time.
In 2004, the first initiative to save Egyptian classic films came from Founoon Film Distribution Co. The bought the negatives of a handful of films to add to their library. Restoring some of those films followed and was marked by the release of some titles on DVD carrying The Founoon Film label. It was the first time for film specialists and buffs alike to rediscover their favorite classics, like Gharam wa intiqam (Love and Revenge, 1944), Ayyam wa layali (Days and Night, 1955) and Thartharah fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1971) in high quality sound and vision with at least two subtitling languages, French and English.
However, the high cost of mastering the prints in Egypt and creating the replication with the Greek-based company Digital Press Hellas, and the low DVD sales across Egypt, put the project on hold, that is until Founoon was ultimately sold to Rotana a few years later.
Some international entities also helped to restore Egyptian classics like Shadi Abdel Salam's Al-mummia (1969), aka “The Night of Counting the Years”, that was universally recognized as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever. It is based on a true story that took place in 1881, when precious artifacts began showing up at market. It was soon thereafter discovered that members of the ancient Horbat tribe were secretly raiding Deir al-Bahari, the site of a legendary cache of royal mummies. The tribe had little livelihood other than selling antiquities, putting them in conflict with the Egyptian government's Antiquities Organization. After reading the script, Roberto Rossellini agreed to lend his name to the project, and Shadi Abdel Salam's film was completed in 1969. This cinematic treat was extremely difficult to see from the 1970s onward. A beautiful restoration by Martin Scorsese through his World Cinema Foundation brought about a renewed transformation of the film. Using negatives preserved at the Egyptian Film Center in Giza, the restoration preserves the film's poetic beauty, its evocative sense of history, and its themes of desecration.
Most recently, last month in fact, the initiative of restoring Egyptian classics was revived by Rotana in a major event that hosted approximately 400 Arab and Egyptian stars of cinema and television. In a video message to the attendees, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, founder of the Rotana Group, announced that he would assign a special budget from his Kingdom Holding Company to restore the 1,650 Egyptian films which Rotana aquired since their acquisition of Founoon Film. The importance of such a project is best understood when market forces demanded HD (high-definition) content on broadcast, streaming media and digital disk. Rotana began by buying Egyptian films in the form of positive and negative 35mm prints attributed to differing decades which they added to their growing library. Rotana had a small window of opportunity to aquire these treasures before they would succumb to not a state from which they could no longer be saved. Rotana’s target now is to restore more than 1,000 feature films from those classics. However, it will be made in successive phases. The first phase will cover 600 titles in the course of the coming three years. We have signed an agreement with the Indian company Prasar that will import their equipments and experience to execute the restoration of Egyptian film prints inside the facilities of Rotana, in the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC). It is the procedure followed across the world: the film prints don’t leave the country so that restoration takes place “in-house”.
Among the saved films with a print that was about to degrade to be lost forever is the 1962 production, Imraa Fi Dawama (A Woman in a Spiral), directed by Mahmoud Zolfakar and starring Shadia, Ahmed Ramzi, Layla Taher and Fouad al-Mohandes. The print experienced a state that restoration experts call vinegar syndrome where the film material starts to release acetic acid, making the film smell like vinegar. In other words, the film print starts to decompose, turns red and shrinks. Before Rotana made the deal with Prasar, the company wasn’t able to roll the film in the telecine and video transfer equipment in order to digitize it because its perforations were first to deteriorate. The new equipment by Prasar allows for the film to be pulled without using its perforations on the two sides and also permits the film to be scanned frame by frame. Further, it affords restoration experts to overcome the defocus problems on some frames that lost its flatness. After the restoration process, it was possible to create a 4K scanned copy that can allows one to create a new negative of the film and also create a digital copy for HD broadcast and the Blu-ray market.
Between the restoration, mastering and promotional costs, the turnover of DVD sales in a few venues, like Virgin Megastores and Diwan Bookshops, in Cairo was low, so much so to the point that more DVD releases was put on hold, a situation quite different from video stores in Europe and the US. But with the spread of high speed internet services and touch pads becoming more ubiquitous in the nation, even film buffs and DVD collectors started to prefer to download a copy of the film, legal or illegal, on their PC and tablets. There is an expectation that sales of restored Egyptian classics will be re-awakened through Blu-ray disks. Rotana will test the market with a few titles. If results are promising, it will likely release restored films across Egypt on Blu-ray. On the other hand, Rotana will consider launching a streaming service through iTunes that already has a regional MENA (Middle East News Agency) office in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) . There are also possibilities of making a deal with Netflix or similar streaming video technology companies. The Egyptian National Film Center and some broadcasters have shown interest in joining the Rotana project by using Rotan’s expertise to restore the content they own.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Sherif Awad is a film / video critic and film festival curator. He is the film editor of Egypt Today Magazine (www.EgyptToday.com ), and the artistic director for both the Alexandria Film Festival, in Egypt, and the Arab Rotterdam Festival, in The Netherlands. He also contributes to Variety, in the United States, and is the film critic of Variety Arabia (http://varietyarabia.com/), in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Al-Masry Al-Youm Website (http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/198132 ) and The Westchester Guardian (www.WestchesterGuardian.com).