Ali Abdel Khalek is one of the most distinguished Arab directors who made qualitative leaps in the history of Egyptian and Arabic cinema. He presented various film genres and used cinema to express the social, cultural, and economic transformations that Egypt has witnessed since the fifties.
Abdel Khalek believes the film industry in Egypt will not correct its path unless the state modifies the laws governing it. He pointed out that the sixties period is evidence that the state’s interest in art and culture is the only solution to confronting extremist ideas and terrorism.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Abdel Khalek to speak about his unique cinematic career and his view of the current situation of the film industry in Egypt. Abdel Khalek said he was proud to be the only Arab director to present seven films on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Have you reconsidered your retirement decision?
I cannot make films in such circumstances, because things completely changed from what we have been taught and brought up on. The conditions of production, acting, and even scripts do not suit me, and I will not reconsider my retirement decision. Producers are currently helpless and obey stars. They became subordinate to the actors because they are the ones who market the film, and if a dispute erupted between an actor and a director, the director would be immediately changed, so I retired so as not to destroy my history.
Why are the current circumstances in cinema so different in your opinion?
Egyptian cinema is now limited to only one genre. The artistic taste of the people also changed. They now prefer meaningless films that do not enthuse their mind.
How do you see the Egyptian cinema now?
I was sad and happy at the same time. I was sad that the film industry in other Arab countries, which recently debuted in the scene, is better than Egypt’s. However, I’m happy for the Arab cinema. In the film festivals held in Egypt, we have seen films that present deep ideas, and relate to the people. There are films that are not suitable for the average audience, but others discuss important issues. I was saddened to see the Egyptian cinema getting lower in quality, despite the fact that the film history in Egypt exceeds 122 years.
Who is responsible for this crisis?
All the countries around the world are keen to support cinema, except Egypt. Even America, the largest country with a capitalist and free economy, supports the film industry. Several years ago, I read a story in a foreign magazine saying that the US Department of Defense allocated $4bn to the film industry this year to produce war films while providing war equipment for free. This is in addition to evaluating the texts of those films in order to determine the amount of support they are entitled to according to the value of the film, provided that it promotes one concept, which is that the American soldier is invincible and that American technology is unparalleled in the world. Indeed, American cinema succeeded in its goal, and people were infected with the fascination with American cinema and the state of America itself, while the truth is that the United States entered a war with one of the poorest countries in the world and did not last more than 3 weeks, and its victims were in the thousands. The invincible American army is nothing but a lie, and the cinema has promoted it. What I want to say is that there is no country in the world that does not support cinema or drama. All Arab countries have occupied a great position, and Egyptian drama is regressing, while Gulf and Syrian drama have been at the fore for years.
How do you see the solution from your point of view?
I suggested that we do like Tunisians, Moroccans, Palestinians, and Algerians. They depend on joint production, and we need to communicate with funding bodies in different countries and send our works to these bodies to obtain funding and screen our films abroad. With this step, you will find the shape of cinema changed because then we will not produce bad works like “Abdo Mota” because the producing organizations will not accept works of this level, and you will find all parties to the industry, including writers, technicians, and artists, all in a permanent state of work. The Syrians, for example, “The Institution” produces for them despite the conditions that the country has been living in from a state of war for years, and it presents very sweet films that express the current situation.
Will the establishment of the “Good Time” group contribute to the return of your generation to the arena again?
I don’t think in my experience it will pay off quickly, but I hope they do something. Great hopes can come true. Personally, I announced my retirement and I was satisfied with what I presented, and when someone asks me where your films are, I reply by watching the television and you will find my films are there, in which there are 40 films that I presented. I cannot go back to the current industry system in which the star is the one who drives everything. When I was working, the director used to lead the work, but today the producer is only interested in the star, and the star, regardless of his culture, cannot reach the director’s thoughts. I will tell you about an incident that happened a short time ago to an actor who presented only one series. He recently succeeded and entered the second series. On the first day of filming, he watched the decor and said to them: No, no, I do not like the decor, change it. How do I work in this system? The generation I worked with was a respectable generation, from the biggest star to the youngest worker on the plateau.
You presented a large number of films about the victories of October, who was behind these films, the state or production authorities?
Both of them. I am proud that I was the only Arab director who presented seven films about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once, one of the senior officials told me that the Israeli newspaper “Yedioth Ahronoth” published an article entitled “Ali Abdel Khalek: The most Arab director hater of Israel.” This is an honour for me and I am proud of it.
Do you think that the October war was presented properly in the Egyptian cinema?
There is a great failure in presenting films that chronicle the struggle of the Egyptian people in their wars against Israel until the complete liberation of Sinai on April 25. These wars have stories that can be presented in more than 100 films. The state is the only party capable of producing these films due to its artistic and military capabilities.
How do you evaluate film criticism in Egypt, and is it different from the past?
When we started working in the cinema there was a great critical movement. Despite the small number of critics at the time, they had a great deal of study, awareness, and cinematic culture, and they stood by the new generation and strongly supported it. Today, the criticism movement in Egypt has declined a lot, despite the large number of critics that resulted from the significant increase in the number of magazines and newspapers. However, these writers and critics do not have sufficient awareness of film criticism and often write their impressions only on films and cannot differentiate between self-impression and criticism based on study and understanding.
How do you view this large number of directors who appear suddenly without any preliminary steps?
I see that this situation is somewhat healthy, as I am always with the emergence of new young directors because this is in the interest of the Egyptian cinema, which renews its blood on them and gives them the opportunity to show their talent, then the screening takes place after that.
Do you like any of these young directors?
I like Ahmed Nader Galal and I believe he is talented and distinguished.
How do you see Egyptian TV dramas from your point of view?
In previous years, the state was producing TV drama, so strong series appeared that people still remember, such as “Layali al-Hilamiah, Raafat al-Hajjan, Tears in Rude Eyes, Witness and Tears”, which are valuable works that were produced by the state and the private sector was moving in the same direction. The state at that time was leading both artistic and cultural movements together.
Has the state honoured you in a manner that befits your name and history?
The state did not honour me in a manner that befits my name and history, and this is what frustrates me.