Documentary provides cinematographic take on Egypt's past

Kate Dannies
5 Min Read

Despite unseasonably cold weather and horrendous traffic caused by an accident on the Sixth of October bridge, last week found the Cairo Opera House’s Artistic Creativity Center auditorium packed with a crowd fervent for a screening of director Madkour Thabet’s new documentary “Sehr Ma Fat Fi Kenouz Al-Merayat.

The film, the first documentary to be produced by Dream TV, explores Egypt’s past through old film reels shot by the French Lumiere brothers in the late 1800s and pioneer Egyptian filmmaker Mohammed Bayoumi in the early 20th century. The historic footage is enhanced by voiceover commentary by Egyptian actors Mohammed Wafik and Mahmoud El-Guindy, who explain the historical events depicted and present the reflections of the director.

Though the footage shown in the film has a strong historical significance, it is by no means a sentimental look back upon the “good old days of Egypt. The film’s overwhelming themes are political, touching on issues of Egypt’s representation by foreigners, and the catastrophic mistakes made by Arab governments.

The film begins with the Lumiere brothers’ footage of Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Qasr El-Nil bridge is shown playing host to donkeys, camels and people crossing the Nile. Back then, crossing fees were charged for animals and people over the age of six.

Also shown is the great statue of Ramses, newly excavated and lying in a field, where, the narrator tells us, it remained for six years before being put on display in Cairo’s downtown square.

Footage of a nearly unchanged Sayyeda Zeinab, the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria railroad and tourist activity at the Sphinx also provide a look into Egypt’s past. However, the footage shot by the Lumiere brothers depicts only one segment of society, reinforcing Europeans’ stereotypes about Egypt at the time. As the narrators put it, “that’s why the Europeans thought we were all riding camels!

Later footage by Mohammed Bayoumi captures a time before the modernization of the country when Egypt’s population of only 10 million suffered under colonial rule. Some of the major events in Egyptian history are portrayed, including the Denshawai incident, events of the 1919 revolution, and Saad Zaghloul’s return from exile in 1923.

The film focuses much attention on the Arab-Israeli wars, featuring footage of Egyptian soldiers marching off to Palestine in the failed Arab campaign of 1948 and shots of the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall as well as of Israeli prisoners of war.

“It’s sad to see the faces of the soldiers now because today we know what happens to them, say the narrators, as the film proceeds to footage of military funerals accompanied by a chilling recital of the names of the dead.

Impressively well-researched, Thabet’s film reveals some little-known facts about Zionist activities in Egypt prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Cairo had its own Zionist institute, and, according to the film, Zionist leader Theodor Herzl visited Egypt in 1903 to lend support to the Zionist project of creating a Jewish homeland between the Euphrates and the Nile.

In fact, Thabet points out that it was the Egyptian southern town Kom Ombo, not Palestine, which was the site of the first Jewish agricultural settlement in the Middle East. By 1907, however, this settlement had been dismantled as Jewish settlers migrated to Palestine to concentrate settlement efforts there.

Much new information and perspective is to be drawn from this remarkable film. Both an important historical document and a forceful political commentary, “Sehr Ma Fat forces its audience to consider the political and social plight of Egypt and the wider Arab world and to question the role of the individual in ending the repetition of historical mistakes.

Director Thabet and narrators Mohammed Wafik and Mahmoud El-Guindy were on hand after the screening to give a talk about the film’s message and their experiences creating it.

The audience left the hall with a greater appreciation for the magnitude of upheaval that Egypt has faced over the past century, and a greater understanding of the challenges the country faces for the future as a result of its past.

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