"World Cinema Bursting at the Seams"




 This analysis of mine is concerned almost solely with the presentation of the first sixty years of film history. I will leave it to others who have devoted more study than I have to evaluate how effectively Cousins has dealt with the next sixty years in the remaining ten episodes. I will only note, after viewing the series in its entirety, that the greater amount of time he devoted to these decades, along with the advantage of interviewing the participants, made for the superior treatment first evident in the fifth episode on the 1940s.

 I will hence address only certain parts of the transitional sixth episode, “1953-1957: The Swollen Story: World Cinema Bursting at the Seams.” As the title indicates, this chapter takes in even more countries than had been covered previously. Not only does Cousins revisit China, Japan and Brazil, he introduces three major film-producing countries whose histories he had not discussed before—Egypt, India and Mexico. As this necessarily involves some degree of commentary on their earlier cinema production, I think it essential to consider his interpretation in the context of his overall conception of world film history.

 Cousins begins his historical exposition in episode six with a look at Egyptian cinema, followed by a more extended segment on Indian filmmaking. When depicting India, he comments on the cinematic aspects of the country and then includes a short but informative presentation of its early film history. Utilizing excerpts from the great pioneer D. G. Phalke’s 1913 feature, Raja Harishchandra, he discusses the first Indian films about the lives of saints known as “mythologicals” with their trick effects reminiscent of Melies. Then he points out that with sound, Indian cinema drew on a tradition of musical theatre to become the one cinema in the world to incorporate songs and dances into the majority of their films. These were, he says, the seeds of what later was called Bollywood which, like its American counterpart, suggested cinema as bauble.


  However, he notes that the 1930s also saw the production in India of what were termed “socials,” films depicting the poverty in the country and challenging the caste system and materialism. Including a clip from Sant Tukaram (1936), co-directed by Vishnupant Govind Damle and Sheikh Fattelal, Cousins describes these realistic reform films from India as predating Italian neo-realism. This background forms a sort of prologue to his extended presentation of Satyajit Ray, a major filmmaker of a later generation whose films had a tremendous impact world-wide in the 1950s.  


 Obviously, given its abbreviated format, this exposition can only impart a very limited amount of information on early Indian cinema. Hence, there is nothing on the splendid and spectacular trilogy of silent films that producer-star Himanshu Rai realized in collaboration with German director Franz Osten--The Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929)--an outstanding creative partnership that led to their establishment of Bombay Talkies, a major Indian studio in the '30s. Nor is there any mention of such remarkable films as V. Shantaram's Amar Jyoti (Eternal Flame; 1936), a dynamic period adventure starring Durga Khote as a female pirate leader fighting against male oppression; or the Wadia Brothers' Miss Frontier Mail (1936), an equally exciting contemporary action thriller, also with feminist overtones, in which the celebrated stunt queen Fearless Nadia performs amazing feats as she takes on a gang of ferocious train bandits. Still, since this episode is concerned with international trends in the ‘50s, the method Cousins chose is an excellent way to introduce a country he had not featured before in the series.


  By contrast, Cousins’ handling of Egypt that precedes his journey to India is far less satisfactory. Here, too, he emphasizes a noted director who first made his mark in the 1950s, Youssef Chahine. But in this instance, there is no footage from earlier films or even an attempt to consider Egyptian cinema of the preceding decades save in the most dismissive terms. All he says about it prior to the late 1950s is that there had been “formulaic filmmaking” in Egypt since the 1920s and that, until 1958, Africa had played no significant role in the story of film. It was during that year that Chahine, whom he calls the founding father of both Arab and African cinema, made Cairo Station, “the first great African and Arab film,” in his words.

 Cousins’ treatment of early Egyptian film history in his book was equally disappointing and contained several glaring inaccuracies. He wrote: “The first films shown here had been by the Lumiere brothers in 1897 but no features were made by Egyptian filmmakers until Misr was established.” With the establishment of the Misr Studio in Cairo in 1935, which he called “the first production facility on the African continent,” regular production of Egyptian films began and increased in number over the next several years. He observed that “the most distinctive of the early Misr films” was Al-Azima or The Will (the title is also translated as Determination), directed by Kamal Selim in 1939. One of “the first steps towards North African cinematic realism,” Cousins wrote, it influenced other Egyptian filmmakers in subsequent years.


 The errors in Cousins’ book could easily have been avoided had he consulted basic, readily accessible sources, some of them long available on the Internet. The first production facility on the African continent was not, in fact, the Misr Studio in Cairo but the Killarney Film Studios in Johannesburg, South Africa established in 1915 by the American-born entrepreneur, Isidore W. Schlesinger. This fully equipped studio produced a number of ambitious, large-scale films in its early history and remained in use for over fifty years.


  As for Egypt, a number of studios sprang up in both Cairo and Alexandria in the years between 1917 and 1935. The earliest, the Italian Cinematographic Society, founded in Alexandria by investors from Italy, produced short narrative films in the late 1910s and early 1920s with casts that included Egyptian actors. The cinematographer on several of these films, Alvise Orfanelli, would decades later play a pivotal role in launching the career of Youssef Chahine. It was the outstanding pioneer, Mohamed Bayoumi, however, who became the first native-born Egyptian to initiate film production when, in 1923, he established the Amon Film Studio in Cairo, directing, among other works, the comedy short, Barsoum Looks for a Job. Contrary to what Cousins wrote, feature film production in Egypt began in 1927 with Laila, produced by and starring the renowned actress, Aziza Amir. Prior to the opening of Misr Studio, approximately fifty features, first silent and then with sound, were made in Egypt by such leading filmmakers as Mohamed Karim and Togo Mizrahi. As production grew, so did the facilities in which they were made. The Lama Brothers, for example, who had used their villa in Alexandria as the production center for their first silents, in 1930 moved their headquarters to a new, well-equipped studio in Cairo.


 As Cousins’ commentary in the sixth episode now acknowledges that Egyptians were making films in the 1920s, it would appear he had at least gained a better grasp of the basic chronology of the country’s cinema history since writing his book. On the other hand, in his zeal to proclaim Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station as the origin of everything worthwhile in Egyptian cinema, he no longer so much as even mentions Kamal Selim’s Determination. Yet Selim’s film, in relating the experiences of a young couple in Cairo struggling with unemployment and financial strains, depicted Egyptian slum life with painstaking accuracy. Often considered as a precursor of Italian neo-realism, Determination is ranked by many cineastes in Egypt as the greatest film in the history of their country.


 Cousins is equally oblivious to other early achievements of the Egyptian cinema. There is not a sign of Mohamed Bayoumi’s silent comedies which incorporate realistic depictions of the lives of the lower classes in Egypt, nor anything concerning Mohamed Karim’s pioneering sound feature, The White Rose (1933), with its portrayal of social inequities. One outstanding Egyptian film from the ‘30s that became available in the West during the time that Cousins was working on his series is the hilarious comedy classic, Everything is Fine (1937). Directed by Niazi Mustafa and starring the celebrated comedian Naguib al-Rihani, it is the satirical tale of a humble and harassed office clerk whose life takes a most surprising turn when he is mistaken for the prince of a mythical Middle Eastern kingdom. But since for the most part Cousins pays scant attention to comedy in his series, it was perhaps inevitable that he would have overlooked this cinematic gem.


 Also missing from both Cousins’ book and series is any reference to an extraordinary phenomenon of Egypt’s early film history—namely, that women played a central role, perhaps the central role, in the birth of Egyptian cinema, not only as actresses but also as producers and directors. In 2002, none other than Youssef Chahine’s niece, Marianne Khoury, directed an acclaimed two-part documentary entitled Women Who Loved Cinema. This production chronicled the amazing careers of Aziza Amir, Bahiga Hafez, Fatma Rushdi, Amina Mohamed, Marie Queenie, and Assia Dagher, all of whom broke long-standing cultural taboos in shaping a national cinema.


 While it would hardly have been possible for Cousins to have covered the majority of these films and artists in the limited amount of time available to him, it seems to me there could have been at least a decent short background for Egyptian cinema before the 1950s similar to the one on India. In completely ignoring Egyptian cinema before Cairo Station, Cousins is all too reminiscent of an earlier generation of Western-centric critics who dismissed everything in Japanese cinema prior to Rashomon. And just as the imbalance of attention paid to earlier Japanese films in comparison to those in the 1950s was justified on the grounds that these newer works were representative of the country’s postwar democracy, so Cousins attempts to find a political context for his focus on Cairo Station as the real beginning of cinema art in Egypt. He maintains that Chahine’s film emerged from the new Zeitgeist in the Third World arising from the 1955 Bandung Conference of the non-aligned nations of Asia and Africa. But in applying a broad brush to the forty years of Egyptian production that preceded Cairo Station, labeling it all as merely “formulaic,” he demonstrates the same Orientalist mindset implicit in Noel Burch’s equation of cultural originality with political structures in the East. A glaring departure from his stated goal of “redrawing the map of movie history we have in our heads,” his perception of Egyptian cinema thus consigns its highly fruitful early years to the same obscurity that once shrouded entire decades of the Japanese, Chinese and Indian cinemas. 


 Cousins’ treatment of Mexico is much better. He begins by observing that movies and life had been intertwined in Mexico since the 1910s. As I said before, he does not show footage from the pioneer Mexican documentarians, featuring instead American cameramen filming Pancho Villa during the revolution. Nor does he have anything on Mexico’s silent production, including such classic films as Enrique Rosas’ documentary-like serial about a group of bandits active in Mexico City in the 1910s, El Automovil Gris (1919), hailed by Georges Sadoul as “one of the most beautiful silent films,” or Gabriel Garcia Moreno’s remarkable, surreal story of drug addicts and criminals, El Puno de Hierro (The Iron Fist; 1927).


 However, he does give a creditable presentation of Mexican cinema of the sound era. He points out that in the ‘30s Mexico had great directors of whom Fernando de Fuentes, who “virtually invented the Mexican national cinema,” was perhaps the best. He notes that his films highlight themes of wealth and poverty as well as feminine suffering with brilliantly controlled melodrama. While he does not feature either of de Fuentes' great films on the Mexican Revolution, El Compadre Mendoza (1934) and Vamonos con Pancho Villa! (Let's Go with Pancho Villa!; 1936), he does show scenes from another outstanding film of his, Dona Barbara (1943), in which the heroine, played by Maria Felix, is raped and, traumatized by this, becomes a landowner who rules rigidly.


 Then he covers Emilio “El Indio” Fernandez who he says was even more influential and was great at masculine story-telling. He uses excerpts from Fernandez’ La Perla (1947), shot by famed cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Cousins compares the film’s images to Michelangelo’s sculptures and observes that, with its dark theme, it is like a landscape Mexican film noir. This solid highlighting of Mexican cinema concludes with the reappearance of Luis Bunuel who Cousins notes had been featured in an earlier episode and had now relocated to Mexico. His work there is illustrated by scenes from his most famous Mexican film, Los Olvidados (1950). After discussing Bunuel’s anarchic, irreverent vision, Cousins travels once again to the United States.


  Having spent time with films made in Egypt, India, China, Japan, Brazil and Mexico, Cousins finds himself in a very different place—the America of the 1950s, affluent, capitalist and seemingly placid. Yet, as he correctly surmises, there were tensions simmering beneath the surface that were reflected in many films of the era. He starts with clips from Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) which at first appears to be a paean to the values of 1950s America but proves to be far more innovative and subversive than the initial impression of its opening. For in its story of a well-to-do widow who is condemned by her peers for having an affair with a man of a lower class, Sirk exposes the conformity and hollowness of the American dream, thus using the superficial gloss of Hollywood to attack gloss.


 Effective and insightful as is Cousins’ interpretation of All That Heaven Allows, I think it is somewhat of a missed opportunity that neither in his book nor his series has he considered Sirk’s earlier career in the 1930s. Unlike the segment on Bunuel preceding this and the subsequent presentations of 1950s films by Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock in this episode, there is no continuity with the director’s previous work in Germany when he was known as Detlef Sierck. All he says about Sirk’s background in the documentary is that he fled the Nazis. In his book, he wrote that Sirk directed nine features in Germany in the ‘30s but did not discuss them. Yet had he analyzed such outstanding films as Sirk’s Final Accord (1936) and To New Shores (1937), he would have found that the director was already masterfully exploring the themes of class structure and social prejudice that would be characteristic of his later American films.

 However, such an exposition would have required Cousins to think outside the box and recognize that German filmmaking in the years of the Third Reich, far from being a totally monochromatic series of propaganda pictures, did have its subversive and dissenting spirits. Even amidst the heavy-handed efforts of the regime to impose a brutal totalitarianism on the culture, there were those artists like Sirk who succeeded in projecting alternative perspectives. Having thus incorporated a critical vision in his early German films, Sirk clearly had the experience to challenge the America of the 1950s with its Cold War conformity through the subversive implications of his romantic narratives. But while the continuity of the artist’s vision could have been emphasized by taking into account Sirk’s German work in the context of his American films, Cousins might then have himself subverted the very neat, ordered structure of standard film history with its “official” line on German cinema in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Therefore, in this instance Cousins opted for the safer approach.  


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