by William M. Drew
| The father of the Egyptian cinema, Mohamed
Bayoumi was born on January 3, 1894, in Tanta, Egypt, to a wealthy, devoutly
Muslim merchant family. Bayoumi received all his primary and secondary
education in Tanta and demonstrated artistic abilities from an early age.
In his teens, he developed a talent for sketching and began taking photographs.
He was also caught up in the political struggles of the time, joining the
National Party, a patriotic organization, at the age of 17. Influenced
by the writings of Mustafa Kamil, the Egyptian nationalist leader and Islamicist,
Bayoumi, like other Egyptian patriots of the period, was strongly opposed
to the British colonial occupation of his country. Although he was from
a privileged background, Bayoumi, in developing a national consciousness,
was sympathetic to the struggles of ordinary Egyptians, a concern he would
later demonstrate in his films.
In 1912, Bayoumi entered the Military School in Cairo, graduating in 1915. He continued his artistic activity at this time as well, writing poetry and painting. As a second lieutenant, he was sent to the Sudan but was transferred to Military Labor in 1916, later serving as a special services officer in Palestine in 1918. His fervent opposition to British imperialism as well as the corruption in the Egyptian military often brought him into conflict with the authorities, at one point leading to his temporary suspension. Bayoumi actively supported the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against British domination and published Al-Makassat (The Scissors), a revolutionary journal financed by the Al Wafd Party. He also formed a stage troupe, the Valley of the Nile, with his friend, Bishara Wakim, and in the summer of 1919, the group performed in Alexandria.
Soon after, he left for Europe where in 1920, he met and married Charlotte, a young woman from an aristocratic Austrian family. They came back to Egypt where their son was born the following year. Fired with a desire to learn the new art of cinema, he returned to Europe in 1922 to work in the German cinema, now in the forefront of international filmmaking. Bayoumi was employed as an extra at Gloria Film, a studio in Berlin, and later progressed to playing secondary roles in their productions. To further his real ambition in cinema, he purchased a motion picture camera and began familiarizing himself with film technology. After having joined the Union of Cinema Professionals in Austria, he returned to Egypt in 1923, determined to make his own films.
Before setting up his company, Bayoumi was the cameraman for Fi Ard Tutankhamun (In the Land of Tutankhamen), a fictional narrative film produced and directed in Cairo by Victor Rossitto who, like the other early filmmakers working in Egypt up to that time, was of Italian origin. Bayoumi was the first Egyptian to work behind the camera. Indeed, with the exception of the Tunisian pioneer, Albert Samama-Chikli, Bayoumi was the first native-born African to become a filmmaker, founding a studio, Amon Film, in Cairo in 1923. As an ardent patriot committed to the modernization of his country and its liberation from Western domination, Bayoumi launched a series of newsreels recording significant events in the contemporary life of Egypt. His first film, appearing in the fall of 1923, covered the huge public reception in the streets of Cairo for the revolutionary leader, Sa’d Zaghlul, upon his return from exile.
From the production of actualities, it was a logical progression for Bayoumi to turn to narrative films which dramatized the everyday lives of the Egyptian people. Not long after making his first newsreel, Bayoumi wrote, produced, directed and photographed a short comedy entitled Barsoum Yabhas Aen Wazifa (Barsoum Looking for a Job), released by Amon Film in December 1923. It is the story of two friends, one a Muslim, Sheik Metwalli, and the other a Coptic Christian, Barsoum, both unemployed, suffering from hunger, and competing for a job in a bank. When the bank’s director mistakes them for wealthy businessmen, he takes them to his home for a lavish lunch. But upon learning their actual status, he chases them out of the house. At the film’s conclusion, as the two friends rest on the sidewalk absorbing their long-overdue meal, they are arrested by a policeman. Through laughter, Bayoumi made a strong social commentary on hunger, poverty, unemployment, and the glaring gulf between the rich and poor in contemporary Egyptian society. The scenes of Sheik Metwalli frantically looking through the newspaper want ads and Barsoum desperately searching his room for the bread that has been stolen combine comic action with a realistic depiction of the plight of the urban lower middle class. The naturalism is further intensified by the skillful use of the streets of Cairo as a backdrop for the narrative. The film’s portrayal of the friendship between a Muslim and a Christian makes a plea for religious tolerance which Bayoumi viewed as essential in establishing a modern, unified Egypt free of Western colonial domination. Underscoring this sense of unity was Bayoumi’s unusual casting of his old associate from the theatre, Bishara Wakim, a Coptic Christian, as the Muslim, a Muslim actor, Abdel-Hamid, as the Christian, and a Jew, Victor Cohen, as the banker.
As 1923 drew to a close, Bayoumi had come a long way towards realizing his artistic ambitions with his first films. But his life was suddenly darkened by tragedy when his son contracted diphtheria and died in December 1923. Plunged into grief, Bayoumi struggled to overcome his pain through his work. In January 1924, he combined a live theatrical presentation with another comedy short, Al-Bashkateb (The Head Clerk). The prominent actor, Amin Atallah, appeared in the stage sequences and in the thirty-minute film in the leading role of a civil servant whose involvement with a dancer leads him to embezzle money, a theft which brings him a prison sentence. Bayoumi also continued with his newsreels, scoring a coup when, by special invitation, he filmed the opening to the public of Tutankhamen’s tomb in March 1924.
In late 1924, Bayoumi persuaded the prominent economist, Tal’at Harb, founder of the Misr Bank, to establish a film section in connection with the bank. Bayoumi became the director of the Misr Society for Spectacle and Cinema in 1925, and in that capacity traveled to Europe to purchase the latest motion picture equipment. But feeling that he had little real influence on the Society’s decisions, Bayoumi resigned the following year.
The great success of actress-producer Aziza Amir’s dramatic feature, Layla, in 1927 finally led to the emergence of a film industry in Egypt. Seeking to duplicate this triumph, Ihsan Sabri, a leading woman writer in Egypt, hired Bayoumi in 1928 to direct and photograph The Victim, a feature written and produced by Sabri with herself in the starring role. However, Sabri’s husband, Hosni Bey Ibrahim, who played a leading part in the film, prevented its release after the shooting was completed. Bayoumi soon moved to Alexandria where he continued his film activities. There in November 1932, he established the Egyptian Cinematographic Institute, an organization intended to advance the Egyptian film industry through the training of native technicians. Financed by wealthy backers, the Institute’s tuition was free and attracted a number of students. Bayoumi was president of the administrative council and another leading Egyptian director, Mohamed Karim, was secretary. The Institute also served as a production company, enabling Bayoumi to continue his work as a filmmaker. Although the first Egyptian talkies appeared in 1932, as with many countries beyond Hollywood and Western Europe, the conversion to sound in Egypt was very gradual. Therefore, Bayoumi’s final works as a director were silent films. He continued with his production of short documentaries and climaxed his career in 1933 with a notable return to narrative cinema in two classic comedies.
The first of these films, Al-Khatib Nimrah Talatach (Le Fiancé No. 13), released in December 1933, was Bayoumi’s only full-length feature, apart from the unreleased The Victim. A picaresque tale about Zatar, an unemployed young man of the lower middle class, and his mischievous little brother, Zazu, Al-Khatib Nimrah Talatach is Bayoumi’s greatest work. As in Barsoum Yabhas Aen Wazifa a decade earlier, he used exuberant comedy to depict the lives of the urban Egyptian poor contrasted with the wealthy class. In the narrative, Zatar and Zazu share a cheap rented apartment in Alexandria but face hunger after Zatar loses his job with the streetcar company. Zatar is so bedeviled by misfortune that even his attempt to catch fish in the harbor goes awry when the fish manages to get away. A temporary job advertising for a butcher shop meets with disaster when, as the two brothers rest, junkmen make away with their sign, and they are soaked with slop thrown from an upstairs window. Taking it upon himself to rectify the situation, Zazu has a public scribe forge a letter from a banker offering Zatar a job as his private secretary. When Zatar arrives at the bank in expectation of employment, the bank director starts to throw him out but suddenly decides that the young man might be the answer to his most pressing problem--how to marry off his homely daughter who has already been turned down by a dozen prospective suitors. Zatar becomes "fiancé no. 13," and after further comic misadventures, he weds the banker’s daughter as the film ends. Bayoumi not only produced, directed, authored, photographed and edited the film, he also designed the sets and played the important role of the banker. The role of Zazu was played by Bayoumi’s ten-year-old daughter, Dawlet, whose delightful and convincing portrayal of the boy was a stellar example of comic acting. For the rest of the cast, Bayoumi used students from his Institute. In Al-Khatib Nimrah Talatach, Bayoumi revealed himself as a master of silent film comedy, presenting his narrative primarily in visual terms with a minimum of intertitles, all illustrated by his own drawings and caricatures. Bayoumi used his seemingly limitless supply of comic invention to convey his take on class conflicts. For example, when the banker begins assaulting Zatar in his office, Zazu comes to his brother’s aid by gathering a group of street urchins armed with sticks who leave the banker’s premises in a shambles. With an abundance of exteriors shot on the streets of Alexandria and a vivid portrayal of hunger and unemployment, Al-Khatib Nimrah Talatach, for all its lighthearted tone, marked a real advance in the presentation of social realism in the Egyptian cinema.
Bayoumi next directed Laylat al-Omear (A Night in a Lifetime), a lively two-reel comedy starring the noted dancer and actress, Amina Mohamed, and the comedian, Ahmad Farid, as a peasant couple who win a lottery ticket and visit the city. In a series of slapstick situations filmed on location in Alexandria in December 1933, the two fellahin represent the age-old world of rural, traditional Egypt encountering the fast-paced life of the modern city. In one sequence, for example, they are riding in a streetcar and become ill from the rapid, jolting motion. The film concludes with a photographer’s disastrous attempt to take their picture by the seaside, an effort that results in the photographer ending up in the water, his camera being demolished, and the two peasants convulsing with laughter in an appropriately playful coda to Bayoumi’s directorial career.
After the 1934 screenings of Al-Khatib Nimrah Talatach and Laylat al-Omear, Bayoumi withdrew from filmmaking. Paradoxically, this was at the very moment that the Egyptian film industry was beginning its greatest expansion symbolized by the founding of the large Studio Misr in 1935, an artistic growth that had been nurtured by Bayoumi’s pioneering activities. But while he no longer produced films, Bayoumi maintained a strong interest in film technology, as in later years he continued to manufacture and experiment with motion picture equipment. Increasingly, however, his artistic energies were devoted to more traditional media. A highly gifted painter, his canvases captured in vivid colors the daily life of contemporary Egyptians, much as his films had done. In 1935, in partnership with the celebrated painters, Seif and Adhan Wanly, Bayoumi opened the Gallery of Fine Arts in Alexandria to further public interest in the arts. Bayoumi also wrote extensively and in 1946 published a volume of his collected poetry. He took an active role in public affairs, serving again as an army lieutenant in World War II, going to Palestine as a representative of the Arab League during the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war, and becoming a leading member of an Egyptian peace movement in the early 1950s. While most of his later life was creatively and personally fulfilling, his final years were darkened by failing health, financial difficulties, and a lack of recognition from the Egyptian film industry in which he had played such a pivotal role. He died in Alexandria on July 15, 1963, at the age of 69. Survivors included his wife, Charlotte, their daughter, Dawlet, and several grandchildren. With no archival establishment in Egypt at the time, Bayoumi’s family carefully preserved his films. In 1987, film archivist and historian Mohamed Al-Kalyoubi, determined to restore Bayoumi to his place in Egyptian film history, contacted his family and took over the preservation of the films. In 1990, Kalyoubi produced and directed an award-winning documentary on the filmmaker, including extensive interviews with Bayoumi’s family and friends.
The work of Mohamed Bayoumi is of fundamental importance in world cinema. At a time when Egypt was striving to emerge from a protracted period of Western colonial domination and exploitation, Bayoumi, with his artistic genius, effectively used the new medium of cinema to reinvigorate his culture. While others would later take up his banner to develop a vibrant heritage of cinema in the Middle East, it was Bayoumi who provided the precedent with his decade of activity as a filmmaker. His newsreels and short documentaries, presenting the public life of Egypt with its ceremonies and processions, are impressive records of an ancient nation emerging into the modern world. His ebullient comedies, although few in number, anticipated in their trenchant commentary and striking realism the achievements of such later Egyptian directors as Kamal Selim, Salah Abu Saif, and Youssef Chahine. Against all odds, Mohamed Bayoumi single-handedly succeeded in creating a national cinema of vast influence in works that continue to reveal the democratic spirit of his civilization to his countrymen and to the world.
REFERENCES: Mustafa Darwish, Dream Makers on the Nile: A Portrait
of Egyptian Cinema (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1998);
Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo:
American University in Cairo Press, 1998); Aly Abou Shadi, A Chronology
of the Egyptian Cinema in 100 Years, 1896-1994 (Cairo: American University
in Cairo Press, 1998); Oliver Leaman (ed.), Companion Encyclopedia of
Middle Eastern and North African Film (London: Routledge, 2001); Ephraim
Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979).
Also, Sayed Badreya, producer-director of Saving Egyptian Film Classics,
for sharing his research of Bayoumi and the Egyptian cinema.
Sayed Badreya's site dedicated to the preservation of Egyptian cinema,
including articles on Egyptian film history:
An article about the history of the cinema in Egypt:
Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew. All rights reserved.
This site is intended for educational purposes
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