From life to paper: the truth about Egyptian biopics

Safaa Abdoun
9 Min Read

In the mid-80s, audiences in the Arab world were kept on the edge of their seats for three Ramadan seasons, watching the life of Egyptian spy Refaat El Gamal.

“Rafaat El Haggan is arguably the most successful Egyptian television drama of all time.

At the turn of the millennium, particularly in 1999-2000 Ramadan seasons, another prominent figure recaptured Arab audience’s attention. “Om Kulthoum, played by Egyptian actress Sabrine, was a sensational success, proving that Egyptian drama was far from dead at a time when the limelight was on Syrian drama.

This year’s influx of Egyptian biodramas can almost entirely be accredited to the success of last year’s “King Farouk, which attracted the attention of a dwindling audience to Egyptian serials. Aspiring to replicate “King Farouk’s success, a number of producers decided to produce big-budget biographies of iconic Arab figures as well as lesser-known personalities whose lives were shrouded in mystery.

This year, no less than four biographies were broadcast on Egyptian television channels during Ramadan: “Asmahan, “Nasser, “Ali Mubarak and “Imam Abdel Halim Mahmoud.

Out of the bunch, it was “Asmahan – a tragic biopic of the late Syrian chanteuse – that came close to matching “Farouk’s success. The series proved controversial from day one, mainly for depicting Fareed El-Attrash’s sister in an unflattering light. Asmahan is portrayed as an alcoholic, gambling, chain-smoker whose amorous love affairs are splashed about in the media.

The series also focuses on the alleged connection between the late singer with the British and French intelligence during World War II.

The series managed to captivate audiences and critics alike. Government officials were watching too, but they weren’t as enchanted as regular Arab viewers. In Syria, Asmahan’s home country, the Information Minister banned the show from broadcasting on the country’s national terrestrial channels. Her nephew, Faisal El-Attrash, reportedly filed a lawsuit against the producers of the series for tarnishing his family’s reputation.

Biographies have always been a problematic genre for producers. Even the most faithful of biographies have their critics, with either the subject’s family or people affiliated with the figure claiming that the work draws a false image of a certain party. The controversy that continues to surround “Asmahan raises the same questions that are always associated with biopics: To what extent can a dramatic work tweak facts in favor of the drama?

Lamis Gaber, who penned King Farouk and the upcoming major screen biopic of Mohamed Ali Pasha, doesn’t believe that dramatic necessity justifies falsification of facts. “The writer absolutely does not have any liberty to change or alter facts in the person’s life in favor of the drama, she told Daily News Egypt.

Rather, she added, “The writer picks out the events in the person’s life that are suitable for drama.

Not all public figures lend themselves to having a television series or movie made about their lives, she said. “It has to be a dramatic character. [King] Farouk’s life was full of drama: his personality, his mother, inheriting the throne, his tragic ending. Overall, he was a mysterious character and Egypt itself at the time was full of dramatic events, she explained.

Although Gaber finished writing the series in 1997, it wasn’t until 2006 that she found a producer willing to finance her adaptation.

“There was the fear involved in producing something about Farouk because he is blacklisted in Egyptian history. The series was a shock to people because the only thing people know about the royal family is that they robbed the country, she said.

The controversial life of Egypt’s last monarch and the thorny issues it brings to the table weren’t the only obstacles. Gaber also faced production problems, and eventually found support from the Saudi channel MBC.

“It s all about the production. Whether it’s a television series or a movie, this is a work of art; the viewer must see a good picture, which includes the music, the set décor, the costumes, she said.

“The great production behind Farouk was the key behind its success. If it wasn’t produced that way people wouldn’t have even seen it, Gaber added.

Critics and audience tend to agree with Gaber. Most critics blamed poor production, reflected on every element from costume design to art direction, for the failure of this year’s “Ali Mubarak, for example.

When it came to writing the biography of the founding father of modern Egypt, Gaber wasn’t ready to “repeat the same mistake she did with Farouk. First, she decided to write it as a movie instead of a TV series because, according to Gaber, the effort put into writing one episode is almost equal to scripting an entire movie. Gaber also claims that finding a producer for a film is much less daunting than finding one for a television series.

While Gaber struggled to find a producer for her television project, Mohamed Fawzy, producer of “Nasser, doesn’t think biopics are that difficult to produce.

“There isn’t any risk when you are going to do a series or film about a great person. The person has to be worth the production so people will be attracted and want to watch in order to know this person, said Fawzy.

Still, Fawzy said a historical production is extremely costly, which may have prevented several producers from embarking on certain projects. “‘Nasser’ starts in 1926 and ends in 1970 so you are talking about 44 years, said Fawzy, which entails changing sets, homes, clothes and cars. “The country itself changes drastically during these years, said Fawzy.

Possible lawsuits brought by the subject’s family and complicated copyright issues also discourage executives from producing biopics. “There will always be people for and people against any work. The people attacking it [Nasser] may be attacking the person himself, Gamal Abdel Nasser, but not necessarily the series, he said.

The current mini-sweep of biographies on the small screen and the several projects lined up for next year raise another crucial question: Does the newfound popularity of biopics stem from nostalgia or is it just another trend?

“I find it to be a trend which started with the television series about Om Kulthoum’s life. It encouraged many actors, writers and producers to bring the biographies of prominent political and art figures to the screen, renowned film critic Rafiq El-Sabban told Daily News Egypt.

“During the past three or four years, we have seen several productions of biographies, whether on television or cinema, but not a lot of them have succeeded. This year we have ‘Asmahan,’ and critics all over the Arab world unanimously agreed that it’s a great work, he added.

The main factor that led to the success of past biodramas, El-Sabban said, was their realism.

“These three [‘Om Kulthoum,’ ‘King Farouk’ and ‘Asmahan’] presented these figures realistically, with all their flaws and fine points, and should set an example for others. In contrast to ‘Al Andaleeb’ and ‘Cinderella,’ both of which seriously flopped because they presented an imaginary picture of the person that was far from reality.

Share This Article
Leave a comment