Barbara Walters: Who would you like to see playing you in a movie?
Anwar Al Sadat: Robert Redford.

— Televised interview, aired shortly after signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978

 

The beginning of cinema was arguably marked by acute insincerity. Early pictures were the domain of bourgeois values, and it took some time for the medium to come into its own as an art form for the masses. Audiences rightly experienced a sense of wonderment at the new technology that could capture a facsimile of reality so well, and bedazzlement with fantastic imagery was all the rage. The Lumière Brothers’ work quickly evolved from shooting an oncoming train or factory labourers leaving work en masse, to filming exotic locales throughout the world. In 1897, Alexandre Promio – one of the Lumière company’s most notable cameramen – arrived on the shores of Alexandria, with the duty of completing Les Pyramides (1897), a 50-second short capturing the Sphinx and the Nile for posterity. Other major film companies, such as Edison and Pathé, would follow suit. And while countries as diverse as Turkey, Tunisia, Russia, and Japan featured strongly in a global audience’s fantasia of strikingly beautiful imagery, Egypt’s landscape held a particular fascination in the imperial imagination.

This is due in part to the popularity of moving images coinciding with the curious phenomenon of Egyptomania – an obsession with all things Pharaonic that dates back to the Victorian Age and which reached a fever-pitch with the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The silent cinema adored the glamorous mystique of Ancient Egypt, and Hollywood celebrated it through the splashy production of numerous films. Likewise, the first Egyptian features resurrected Cleopatra and mummies ad infinitum, although little of this work survives today. The imagery was potent, and early filmmakers tried their hardest to seduce Egyptian audiences with the new spectacle of cinema. However, film did not become truly celebrated as an emotionally powerful and commercially sustainable force till the advent of sound. And even more so, the iconography that film traded upon was deeply emblematic of a national consciousness, one that was undergoing tremendous revolutionary change throughout much of the twentieth century – the mummy, the ancient vixen, the Bedouin, the poor but industrious young man, the rich bully, and so on. 

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