Monday, January 17, 2011

Egyptian Cinemagraphics of Naguib Mahfouz

Naguib Mahfouz


This book is the result of over ten years of data collection, research, traveling and poster collecting. It is a collector’s field guide, a catalog and a work in progress that focuses on some of the most important memorabilia in the modern history of Egyptian film, the cinematic legacy of Naguib Mafhouz. Because of its meticulous listing and index of film studio personnel, this work can also serve as a graphic film studies outline for an essential phase of Egyptian cinematic realism.

Novelist Naguib Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988 for literary fiction. By the time he got his prize all but six of the Egyptian films based on his work had already been produced and marketed, for Mahfouz had long been a recognized talent in his own land. His fiction is famously cinematic. He was one of the insiders in the Egyptian film industry and also a prolific writer of screenplays. Over 70 Egyptian films based on his novels, short stories and screenplays were produced in the period 1947 - 1992. Presented here are graphic images from promotional material for most of those films, their plot summaries and an indexed listing of studio personnel and promotional entities. In short, what we offer here is an executive summary of the long cinematic career of Naguib Mahfouz, with many of the classic commercial images that were used to promote the films.

These posters and graphic designs all come from an important but little documented period of art history in Egypt. It was a time when domestic and foreign films were being produced and exhibited in Egypt frequently and in large numbers, and posters and other promotional materials were made with primitive tools by a busy but highly talented pool of artists and technicians. The art on the posters is beautiful, but the visual beauty gives only a faint taste of the bustling environment from which they emerged.

Small print and design workshops in Cairo and Alexandria were kept busy day and night for many years meeting the promotional demands of the burgeoning Egyptian film industry. Zinc printing plates were etched by hand. These plates were expensive and had to be washed and reused, sometimes in their hundreds in the case of the production of color billboard posters, which required the preparation of 24 multi-colored images, each of which required at least three different plates for the color separations. The printed posters that survive were sometimes displayed in front of theaters alongside original paintings done for the same purpose that were never printed. The original unprinted paintings are almost all lost to posterity, as are unfortunately all known copies of many of the printed posters from Egypt’s golden era of cinema.

Many of the printed posters were done as labor intensive stone lithographs where the images were transferred to the paper directly from an etched stone on a small hand press. The paper sheets were fed into the these devices one at a time. In today’s world this kind of production would be prohibitively expensive, but in Cairo in the forties and fifties it was often the only method available to determined cadres of skilled but poorly paid workers. Yet the Egyptian film posters made so beautifully in this painstaking way, like most of the world’s other film posters, were made for one-time use and often discarded afterwards. The graphic images here are scarce remnants from a lost period of 20th century industrial art.

This chronological arrangement of Egyptian poster images gives visual milestones for several parallel lines of development, Mahfouz’s develpment as as a writer and professional film worker, the evolution of the modern Egyptian film along with the emergence of the Golden Era of Egyptian film and the evolution of the technology and art of the film poster in Egypt.

When Mahfouz wrote his first story for film in 1945 with Abdel Aziz Salam (the Adventures of Antar and Ablah), the most common Egyptian poster size was about 24× 35 inches, and the most common printing technique was stone lithography. Mahfouz’s fiction was still historical, nationalistic and patriotic, a thematic focus he would abandon later for contemporary social realism, thanks in part to the influence of that film’s director Salah Abouseif.

This was just before the beginning of what can be called the Gasour era in Egyptian film poster design, a period of over 40 years beginning in 1946 dominated by the great Egyptian cinema poster artist and printer Hassan Mazhar Gasour (1925-1992). When Gasour came onto the scene in Egypt posters were being produced by a handful of small art studios, but as the Egyptian film industry developed Gasour, with his own printing business and his prodigious skills as a painter, soon became the nation’s undisputed master in the field of poster production. In those years his studio also served as a working school for other developing poster artists and technicians.

Mr. Gasour’s daughter Hala maintains his printing business today, as she has been dong for the last 24 years; she continues to print Egyptian film posters, but she does not design them.

The early period of Mahfouz’s cinema career lasted until 1960 when his first novel to become a film production was released, Dead among the Living [bedaya wa nehaya]. In this first period, in his film work Mahfouz wrote mostly screenplays and collaborated frequently with director Salah Abouseif, who also directed Dead among the Living.

By the time Dead among the Living was released Egyptian film posters had become larger and were made with zinc plate lithograph or offset presses instead of stone lithography. Most posters at this point were now 27× 39 inches and the smaller 24× 35-inch size had fallen into disuse. The old artists and printers active in the 40s had largely faded from the scene and most posters were now printed either by one of the two Gasour shops or by Sayed Ali Ibrahim Al-Nasr, although there were many other active printers.

The next period in the Mahfouz filmography includes his famous 1,500-page work known as the Cairo Trilogy. The film titles based on it are Between Two Palaces (1964), Palace Walk (1967) (sometimes called Palace of Desire) and The Sugar Bowl (1973) (sometimes called Sugar Street). The trilogy is an extended narrative covering the affairs of three generations of a single Cairo family descended from the patriarch al-Sayed Ahmed Abdel Gawad. The family is depicted as being challenged constantly by its difficulty adapting to the rapid pace of social change. In this period films based on Mahfouz works were more often taken from his novels than his screenplays and were built around the dense detailing of the urban street for which Mahfouz is best known.

The final period of our Mahfouz cinemagraphic survey points to a miscellany of remakes and initial film treatments of earlier Mahfouz works, but it is also includes films based on works such as Adrift on the Nile in which Mahfouz’s political disenchantment echoes more loudly in his crowded social matrix than it had done in earlier films. Mahfouz was always acutely sensitive to politics but in some of his later work and the films based on it we can see his disappointment with certain political developments in Egypt such as the revolution and the 1967 war.

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