Egypt: Cinema of the Sun

by Sherif Awad

Daniel Rafaelic Sherif Awad Egyptian Cinem

Ancient Egyptian still mystified ordinary people and specialized scholars for decades around the world until nowadays. One Croatian specialist developed an enthusiasm not only for Egyptian history but also films related to or shot in Egypt which drove him to both study archaeology and cinema.
Born in 1977, Daniel Rafaelic, a film critic and a cinema historian, is now hosting a weekly TV segment about cinema in Croatia’s leading morning show Good Morning. As a filmmaker, he directed a documentary called The Other Side of Welles about the life and work of Orson Welles in Croatia. After decade of thorough research in Croatian and German archives, he published last year a bestseller on film propaganda in WWII Croatia. While teaching at Faculty of Humanities, departments of History and Archaeology lecturing on Ancient Egypt on film, Rafaelic succeeded to finalize his new book although he is a doctoral candidate. The book is CINEMA OF THE SUN: ANCIENT EGYPT ON FILM is expected by the end of 2017 with an interest by AUC in Egypt to publish it locally

Daniel Rafaelic Sherif Awad Egyptian Cinem

SA: Can you tell us the outline of your new book and how it starts?
DR: There is an introductory chapter that sets the tone for the whole book – generally about the films on ancient Egypt as perceived in the wider corpus of (more familiar) films about ancient worlds (Greece; Rome) – similarities and differences. Then the book describes early (pre) history of Egypt being perceived as the mythical time in human history and, as in literature, cinema tried to answer the question of superb technical abilities of the “civilisation before civilisation”, namely Atlantis – which is always in one way or another associated with ancient Egypt (first and foremost in terms of imagery – pyramids etc). And although, as we know today, the Atlantis myth arose primarily from the historical volcanic eruption of the Island Thera (Santorini) and the destruction of indigenous civilisation in Akrotiri in 17/16 century BC., the image of the ill-fated island was regularly depicted as a replica of ancient Egypt town (with the pinch of non-terrestrial influence). Atlantis itself, unknown island shrouded in mystery, was mainly linked to “extra terrestrial” powers which controlled it (and it’s out-of-this-world-power) and films such as Ronald Emerich’s 10.000 BC (2008) or Disney’s Atlantis (2001) linked Egyptian protohistory with the construct of the big picture of, so called, far advanced civilisation, out of which Egyptian one would emerge. Not forgetting, of course, Hercules (1983) or The English Patient (1996.) respectively.
SA: We see that Tom Cruise made a new Mummy film being released worldwide last June. I remember there was two Mummy films (1999) and (2001) and the first one was banned in Egypt with claims by the Egyptian censorship it was not historically accurate. Then there was the unsuccessful spin off The Scorpion King in 2002.

Daniel Rafaelic Sherif Awad Egyptian Cinem

Early recorded Egyptian history (the beginning of dynastic period), as the starting point, focuses primarily on a king (pharaoh?) called simply Scorpion. This persona was no less than three times transferred to film - however with totally different approach. In Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy returns (2001.) Scorpion king is fairly depicted as an earthly warrior who, after selling his soul to the Devil/Anubis, becomes the most powerful figure of his time. After big box-office success of the film, sort of spin-off was born simply called The Scorpion King (2002.), with its sequel Scorpion King 2 (2008.). And, contrary to the popular belief, this film was not set in Egypt as all, but rather in an amalgam of the uncharted Hellenistic landscape with occasional occurrence of no other than the biblical city of Gomorrah. The main character in the film was not ‘The’ Scorpion king the audience was expecting. Lead character was completely turned not to mythology (as in its first appearance) but to the down-and-dirty earthly – fighting sequences. Namely he became a typical muscleman hero. The distinction would not be complete, were it not include the several imageries of scorpion-creature from the Gilgamesh epos.

Daniel Rafaelic Sherif Awad Egyptian Cinem

One of the most revered and popular personality in ancient Egypt was Imhotep, pharaoh Djoser’s chief architect and the creator of the first, step-pyramid. He came to life in the first Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), although we later realised that he is living on the court of Seti I. – not Djoser). But film had its origins in famous Boris Karloff/Karl Freund The Mummy (1932).

SA: How do you interpret this fascination with Egyptian history although depicted with fiction more than history worldwide.

DR: The discovery of the solar boats of the King Khufu at the basis of his Great pyramid in Giza, incited in 1954 a new wave of Egyptomania (like the one from the twenties, after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun). The grandest result of this fifties ancient Egyptian craze was Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955), with still unsurpassed mechanical solution for the secret devices that were used during the building and the sealing the most popular large structure in the history. This was still the time when films really tried to reflect as much as possible ‘true’ nature of the film subject’s (and object’s) world thus creating the film as close as possible to the ‘real’ ancient Egypt. On the other hand, other famous monument, The Sphinx, or its ill-fated nose to be precise, became a frequent joke that was frequently used among cinematic Egyptians closing in this the popular circle of the Old kingdom.  

Lots of papyri that survived throughout the time preserve for our time most interesting examples of ancient Egyptian narrative. Some of those stories were intriguingly transposed to the media of film (i.e. Story of Eloquent Peasant). However, non-other that Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian (1954) combined in its structure several different layers: fragments of Middle kingdom stories, fragments of demotic tales, great part of Mika Waltaris’ novel Sinuhe the Egyptian all mixed together with unique image references to one of the bravest endeavours in Egyptian civilisation – namely the famous Amarna period. The period itself has been several times portrayed in films – from as different perspectives belonging to the cinematography of USA, France, Italy and Mexico respectively. The genres also varied – from ‘typical’ large-scale spectacle, to the cheap sword-and-sandal production; from the animated feature to the intimate and erotic portrayal of the period.

The discovery of the most famous tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter, unleashed original Egyptomania as well as a myriad of films about the mummies and their curse. Although mostly relaying to the rule-book of the horror genre, these films tried (and succeeded) to paint the portrait of ancient Egypt as fascinating, yet dangerous, mystic and hidden civilisation. It is also noteworthy to state that the cinemagoers’ hunger for wrapped up corpses is still very strong although the movie recipe is pretty much the same.

SA: From our side, Shady Abdel Salaam was the only filmmaker who reflected Ancient Egypt in an accurate way

DR: Modern Egyptians were often disregarded whenever the topics of ancient Egypt on film was dealt with. Yet it is very interesting how, in their own films, they reflect on their own past and heritage. Although several successful attempts exist, for years they were left unrecognised outside of the country’s border (or Islamic world for that matter). However, the rightfully revered personality of Shady Abdel Salaam tried and managed to bring close modern Islamic audiences to the civilisation that existed long before they did. His film Al Moomia aka The Night of the Counting of the Years (1969) was also recognised all around the world, eventually deserving to be one of the films restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. Salaam’s El-Fallah el-fasih/The Story of the Eloquent peasant (1970.) was also preserved by the same foundation and shows that Salaam dedicated whole his life to the making of the films on ancient Egypt. He was working until his premature death in 1986. However, his script and unsurpassed drawings for sadly unfinished production The Tragedy of a Great House at least throw some light on a film that might have been superb intellectual sequel to Al Moomia. The topic was the Amarna period.

SA: Ridley Scott shot most of film Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) outside of Egypt. Like Noah released the same year, both films were banned in Egypt.

DR: Probably the most filmed Egyptian pharaoh (if we disregard for the moment Cleopatra), Ramses is present on the silver screen literally from the beginning of the cinema. The films such as Slave’s Queen (1924.), The Ten commandments (1923.; 1956.), Prince of Egypt (1998.) as well as Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adele Blanc-Sec/Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010) manage to bring to cinematic life the pharaoh who, during his reign, did really everything he could to be remembered by posterity. Film directors, as it seems, just fulfilled his command. Always, of course, closely related to the story of Exodus (and the Bible), Ramses was a villain that (sometimes great) Christian influence on cinema really accepted. Of course, sheer size of the narrative paid the terrain for the film production companies and the directors to create ancient Egypt larger than life – as to show (often exaggerated and distorted) picture of inhumanity on which such society rested upon and to justify the need for Exodus itself. However, recent Luc Besson attempt presented us with the different Ramesses - Ramesses not the persecutor but rather the executor of the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. Of course, one should not forget such silent classics as, for example, Das Weib des Pharao/The Love of the Pharaoh (1922.), ground-breaking, for than 80 years lost but recently restored, Ernst Lubitsch so called “monumental film”.

SA: What’s the importance of a film like Agora in contemporary cinema?
DR: Alexanderia’s personal project and Cleopatra’s capital, fabulous city of Alexandria was for a long time living as a cultural centre of the Mediterranean world to which even the proud Romans were felling inadequate. And, although the City flourished for 300 years, cinema treated Cleopatra’s leaving the scene as the end of Egyptian history and thus uninteresting for the movie audiences. However recent example of Alejandro Amenabar’s Agora (2009.) opened the old wounds of rightful or wrongful portrayals of the early Christianity, violent ending of ancient world as well as a widely unknown first women philosopher Hypathia. This film solely widened the playfield of ancient Egypt on film from Cleopatra’s downfall to the one of Alexandria, concluding that the film has now really reached the very end of ancient Egypt.

You are currently the Head of Croatian Audiovisual Centre, what is the status of the contemporary Croatian cinema.