Daikha Dridi interviews Mustafa Darwish, judge by profession and occasional film critic, a veteran founder of ciné-clubs in Cairo, who once held the position of censor.
Until this day, Mustafa Darwish remains a critic and judge of cinema. In the 1960s, off and on, he was the very atypical director of the censorship unit at the Ministry of Culture, as well as the unhappy founder of several ciné-clubs in Cairo. He revisits for us a nearly 50 years long experience, that can be summarized in a race against obstacles…
Before founding ciné-clubs in Cairo, you were first the official censor, during which periods did you hold that post?
I was appointed director of the censorship commission twice. The fist time, in 1962, I held the post for six months before being fired, and a second time towards the end of the year 1966, where I stayed until April of 1968.
Your story with cinema started with your role as censor?
No, I have adored cinema ever since I was a child. It is the case for all my generation, we did not have television, and the only entertainment available was cinema. Until today, I am still unable to accommodate myself to the small screen. For example, I cannot watch the series that are so popular today. I have grown used to the big screen. The disappearance of cinemas that began at a certain period has been a most disenchanting chapter in my life.
Are you talking about the disappearance of cinema in Egypt?
Not of a total disappearance, but of a certain death, with the closures of many theaters, transformed to garages, commercial malls, etc., many small and big theaters have vanished: Cinema Métropole, Cinema Royale, Cinema Qasr el-Nil, Cinema Radio, etc. There is a real decline in the role of cinema in society. True, people still go to the theater, but they are far fewer. Today, audiences spend their time glued to television sets watching mediocre series, all the energy is granted to television, not cinema.
You were appointed director of censorship in your capacity as a film critic?
Before I was appointed, I used to write about films in the press, but my principal profession was in law. I was a judge at the state council and was transfered from that post to administer the censorship over artistic production in 1962. When I was given the job, I accepted on the grounds of an agreement, I was going to grant cinema greater freedom. It did not happen this way, my first tenure as the head of that commission was very brief, almost less than six months. My second tenure was longer, but it was only two years, a bracket too brief when compared to other directors who retain the post until their death.
Why did you last so briefly as head of censorship?
It is because I granted more freedom for expression. We had to watch everything, Egyptian and foreign films. With Egyptian films the situation was more drastic as the process began with the synopsis. Every film synopsis had to be submitted for our review, then the script had to earn our approval, and so on until the final stages of production!
Was there a list inventorializing all that was forbidden?
Yes off course! There were more than sixty items on the list of prohibitions. Some were inherited from the era of the monarchy under King Farouk. A scene with nudity was forbidden –whether it was a man or woman–, things regarding religion –the prophets could neither be visible nor their voices heard–, and political issues like undermining the republic or demanding the re-establishment of the monarchy. It was forbidden to speak of homosexuality, characters could be identified as being homosexual, but they had to be bullied, comical, laughable, and inspire loathing. A homosexual could not be likeable even in a foreign film. The boundaries of the three taboos, politics, religion and sex where pushed very rarely, only in cases where the producer of the film had tight connections with circles of power.
When I took my post, I started to lighten the list of the prohibitions. I began with screening films that were censored and issued license to release them in theaters. Thus did The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (by José Quintero, 1961) Hiroshima My Love (“Hiroshima mon amour,” by Alain Resnais, 1959) etc, screen in the city. I was fired because I was said to be a danger. When I came back to the same post, I was even more audacious, I permitted the release of films that would have never been passed, and with regards to scenes that would have usually been cut off, I allowed their screening without any cuts. Films like A Man and a Woman (“Un homme et une femme” by Claude Lelouch, 1966) or Blow Up (by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) were screened in their entirety, uncut. I remember how the Metro Cinema was packed to the seams, in spite of the fact that it was during the defeat of 1967 we and we were in mourning, but the theaters were packed, and inside the theaters during the projections you could hear flies buzzing.
My goal was to give as much freedom to cinema so it could muster a fighting chance against television. It was absorbing people, it kept them cloistered in their homes, I wanted to show the stuff that would never screen on television, strange or shocking scenes, and I am talking about great films and world-known filmmakers, just so that people did not forget there was something called cinema and continued to go to the theater.
Is this how the idea of a ciné-club was born?
Yes, exactly. We started at the Ministry of Culture, the minister and I had discussed the creation of a ciné-club, I was still at the censorship at that time. It was February 1968, we founded the first Egyptian ciné-club that was known as the Cairo Ciné-Club, it screen films in a beautiful theater that was placed at our disposal by the American University of Cairo. The idea was to show films that would not be released in the big theaters, films that the public was not used to, etc., that represented new trends or schools in cinema.
The Cairo Ciné-Club was financed by the Ministry of Culture?
Yes, there was an executive board, and I was one of its members. When I was dismissed from my post at the censorship commission, by the same token I had to ‘resign’ from my post on the ciné-club’s executive board. This is how things happen here, once you are fired, you are regarded as an enemy, so I was removed from everywhere. They replaced me with people who were ready to execute orders only. The ciné-club was transferred to the Cinema Opera and began to lose its character.
At that time, was the state the sole instigator of ciné-clubs?
The movement behind the creation and administration of ciné-clubs in Egypt was entrusted to the state, as is the usual of our governments, they were incapable of sustaining anything in the long-term. The very notion of ‘long-term’ is in fact foreign to them. The ciné-club began to deteriorate to the point where some people stole the funds, and it was eventually shut down.
I remember this period, they decided to start ciné-clubs in all the provinces in what they described as “culture palaces”: they built these large edifices, christened as “culture palaces”, inside which there were all sorts of things including screening rooms. The people in charge of the screenings were functionaries who had no clue on what should and should not be projected. They ended up renting Egyptian and American films that had already screened in commercial theaters.
True Egypt is in the Arab world and the oldest producer of films, but it does not have a cinémathèque. Curious, isn’t it? We have a problem with memory; there is no accumulation and no regard for the memory of cinema. The cinémathèque is the memory of cinema, but there is no awareness for such matters. It costs money, and in Egypt, we have a terrible flaw, we abandon ourselves to forgetting. Naguib Mahfouz said: “the calamity of our neighborhood is the forgetting”.
So what did you do after the sorry experience of the Cairo ciné-club?
I created an association with other people, “Cinema al-Ghadd” (which translates to the Cinema of Tomorrow) to organize screenings, I targeted young people who believed in an alternative cinema, and such. We started showing films at the Italian Cultural Center, the only place I found that would host us. It was around 1973, the club went on for several years in spite of numerous problems and troubles. There were always people dispatched to sabotage the association from the inside. It was dissolved after nearly seven years, after which it was really impossible to establish an Egyptian ciné-club because the Italians demanded that we only screen Italian films. I continued screening Italian films exclusively.
We faced obstacles incessantly, the ministry dispatched regularly a ‘special envoy’ that watched the films and drafted a report according to which I was screening films that had a nefarious impact on the audience’s values. They also pressured the Italian Center sending strongly worded notices that threatened to shut the place down if they continued to allow the screenings. We were forced to cancel screenings we had already advertised. During the month of Ramadan, they chastised us for daring to screen films “of a particular genre” in the midst of the holy month! We were deemed to be attacking the faith of Muslims! And it went on like this until I was relieved of carrying this cross last year!!!
Listening to you, it seems your experience was only race against hurdles?
It was very difficult; it was one obstacle after the next. There was no freedom, censorship was ferocious. And then we faced problems everywhere, for example there were those who joined the association because there were no open political tribunes anywhere else, so they attended the free discussions and debates in the ciné-club not out of an interest in cinema, rather for the political content. These people came to spread their propaganda, they chastised us for screening Claude Chabrol films, claiming he was a “filmmaker of the bourgeoisie”, and sermonized all the time about screening Battleship Potemkine.
There was never an overtly leftist ciné-club?
No, they did not establish ciné-clubs of their own, rather they tried to take over our association, they wanted to appropriate something that was already there.
All this to say that the general atmosphere was hostile to the ciné-club and its flourishing. It was impossible to imagine a movement springing from our experience and spreading. On the contrary, the spaces kept shrinking, shrinking, shrinking… until they were entirely destroyed.
Photo Courtesy of Kodak Agfa.