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In her two-part documentary series, The Women Who Loved Cinema (2002), director Marianne Khoury recounts prominent Egyptian actresses and filmmakers’ lives from the 1920s and 1930s. These women would advance the development of Egyptian cinema, leaving their mark on a growing industry. (RMM: 3.5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
Marianne Khoury’s The Women Who Loved Cinema (2002) is a great place to start for anybody interested in learning about the history of Egyptian cinema. In this two-part series, Nadia Wassef sets out to learn more about the women pioneers who shaped the industry a century ago. We follow Wassef on her journey through the streets of cities like Cairo and Alexandria as she seeks knowledge from historians, civilians, and notable figures like director Youssef Chahine.
Wassef focuses especially on five female figures of early Egyptian cinema. There is the audacious yet graceful Aziza Amir, who starred in the theater before debuting in cinema as the lead in Laila (1927). She went on to work not only as an actress but also as a producer and director. Similarly, pioneer Fatma Roushdi directed—as well as acted—in her films and had a strong personality that served her well in such a fast-paced, cutthroat industry.
Known as Egypt’s first female composer, Behidja Hafez also acted, directed, and edited films. She was often described as beautiful, modest, patient, and dedicated. Lebanese-born Assia Dagher became a very important producer as well as an actress in Egypt, and apparently “mortgaged her house and sold everything to achieve film as she wanted it.” Finally, Wassef learns about Marie Queenie, actress and editing expert, who founded her own film studio – Galal Studio – with her husband.
These women loved the cinema and made it their life’s work, despite society’s shunning of them for it. At the time, acting was considered shameful, and those who partook in it were blacklisted in society. Even men who acted would be refused by families as suitors. A fatwa (a ruling on the point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority) was even issued stating that “a Muslim girl who takes up acting is a sinner and is denied heaven.” Actors and actresses alike had to change their names to protect themselves and their families from public shame. Still, Chahine states that there was “a courage I found way more in women than men.” They were bolder, more willing to take risks in making new films.
As somebody who knows virtually nothing about Egyptian cinema or Egyptian history, I found this series interesting and informative, if not a little confusing. As I have no prior knowledge of the subject, there are gaps of information in the film that I can’t fill. Wassef’s interviewees would reference certain historical events that I knew nothing about, and thus could not be used as context in understanding the films they discussed. They make brief references to many industry names, and I often found myself forgetting who was who.
That being said, there is value in Khoury’s work as it not only discusses— but memorializes— the important work of these actresses and filmmakers. At the very least, I was able to get a taste of a cinematic culture that I am eager to explore. Furthermore, I hold a great deal of respect for these women who paved the way for the industry’s future while defying society’s extremely limiting expectations of them.
As the world we live in becomes more globalized, it is worth looking past your own country’s borders into another culture, where you can see people and their stories from a new perspective. At the 92 nd Academy Awards this year, Korean film Parasite (2019) won the award for Best Picture – the first foreign film ever to do so. This is a reminder to us – especially the English speakers – that great film can exist anywhere and is worth watching. Many people do not like watching foreign films as they don’t want to read subtitles, but they miss out on some of the best cinema. Some of my favorite films are foreign, and I have loved seeing stories told from these unfamiliar perspectives as I have seen the ways in which these people think both differently and similarly to myself. Khoury’s The Women Who Loved Cinema reminds us that film reaches beyond cultural borders.
© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/8/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Aziza Amir on the silver screen.
Photo Credits: Arab Film Distribution
Wassef speaks with men and women alike in her community about the female pioneers of Egyptian cinema.