The year 1929 witnessed a major revolution in the film industry in the world, as movies turned into talking films, and silent films disappeared from view. This coup had a direct impact on the Egyptian film industry, as filmmakers were keen to exploit modern technologies to advance the film industry in Egypt, and combine the advantages of cinema and theater. They sought to present an Egyptian film whose heroes speak Arabic, in the hope of attracting the audience to watch it, thus ensuring huge financial profits.
For many months, that idea remained just a wish in the minds of filmmakers. Until the dean of the Arab theater, the great artist Youssef Wehbe, came to present the first Egyptian speaking film, which bore the name “Awlad Al-Zawat”, which was produced and shown in 1932. To make Egypt one of the first countries in the world, and the first in the Middle East, to have feature films.
This film is considered a milestone in the history of Egyptian cinema for many reasons. In addition to being the first attempt to present a talking cinema, it brought together a group of the most important artists at this time, headed by Youssef Wehbe and Amina Rizk, under the leadership of Mohamed Karim, the most important pioneer of directing art in Egypt. On the 90th anniversary of the premiere of the movie “Awlad Al-Zawat”, which falls on March 14, we would like to shed light on the details of this distinguished artwork, which caused a great crisis and angered the French.
A murder crime turned into a movie idea
The idea of the movie “Awlad Al-Zawat” came to the mind of the artist Youssef Wehbe after a famous murder that took place in the twenties of the last century. Which began with the marriage of the rich Egyptian “Ali Bey Fahmy” to a poor French woman named “Margaret Miller”. While they were in London after a short period of marriage, and as a result of the difference in cultures and civilizations between the spouses, the differences between them increased, until the wife fired three bullets at her husband that took his life. She was arrested and her trial began on September 11, 1923, in a London court. Margaret chose the famous lawyer Sir Marshall Hall to defend her. Who would attack the oriental husband and describe him as barbaric, in order to convince the world that killing him was a just recompense for his brutality. The case turned from a murder to a trial of oriental customs, and the Europeans sided with “Margaret” as a victim of backward oriental customs. The court was convinced of the lawyer’s words, despite not providing a single evidence of the brutality of the eastern man, and issued a ruling acquitting Margaret, who demanded her inheritance from her dead husband.
The artist Youssef Wehbe was affected by this case, and wanted to defend the Arab man, rejecting the accusations leveled against him of backwardness, reaction and barbarism. So he suggested to his friend, director Mohamed Karim, that he present a film to show the opposite, and that foreign girls trap wealthy Egyptian youths for their money. He insisted that “Awlad al-Zawat” be the first Arabic-language film, in order for it to remain a landmark in the history of Egyptian cinema.
The story of the film revolves around “Hamdy”, the husband who meets a French girl named “Julia” and falls in love with her. He leaves his wife in Egypt, and travels with his French lover to Paris. There, he discovers her betrayal, so he kills her, kills her lover, and is sentenced to prison. After the end of his imprisonment, he decided to return to Egypt, on the day that coincided with his son’s wedding day. To discover that his wife thought he had died in France, she married her cousin. Hamdi approaches his son to congratulate him on the marriage, without revealing his identity. The son thinks he is a beggar and gives him some money. Hamdi leaves home sad and goes to commit suicide under the wheels of the train.
Filming behind the scenes
The movie “Awlad Al-Zawat” was shown for the first time on March 14, 1932, and a large number of beautiful time stars participated in it, including Youssef Wehbe, Dawlat Abyad, Amina Rizk, Siraj Munir, Hassan Al-Baroudi, Anwar Wagdy and French artist Colette Darvey. It was directed by one of the most important pioneers of Egyptian cinema, director Mohamed Karim, and Ahmed Badrakhan worked with him as an assistant director. Kawkab Al Sharq Umm Kulthum also participated in singing in the film. Badia Masabni presented a dance segment as part of the film’s events.
Although “Awlad Al-Zawat” was considered the first speaking drama film in the history of Egyptian cinema, it was not fully spoken, as half of the film was spoken and the other half was silent. The reason for this is due to the high costs involved in producing a talking film at the time. The speaking part was filmed at the “Bison” studio in Paris, and the other part was filmed in Egypt at the “Ramses” studio.
Cruel attack and political crisis
After the movie “Awlad Al-Zawat” was shown in the cinemas of Cairo and Alexandria, the film sparked widespread controversy due to the presentation of the character of the French woman as a liar, a traitor and a lover of material. Foreign newspapers, especially French ones, led campaigns to stop showing the film.
And the matter did not stop with the press attack, as many foreigners residing in Egypt filed a complaint with the Ministry of the Interior against the film, and several lawsuits were filed to demand the suspension of its showing, as it carries a clear insult and unjustified hostility to everything that is foreign. Especially as the film’s heroes came out with statements condemning the Egyptian’s marriage to a foreigner, because of the dire consequences it brings to the Egyptian family.
Indeed, the film was discontinued. The film’s hero and author, artist Youssef Wehbe, responded to the foreign press’s attack on the film, saying that the character of the French mistress “Julia” was not a descendant of a high-end French family, but rather a woman in ballrooms and cabarets. He pointed out that there are characters similar to that character in all films directed by European and American countries, including France itself. Why did not issue any press campaigns to attack those films. Youssef Wehbe also confirmed that the one who played “Julia” is a capable French actress who has a strong position in the world of cinema and theater in France. If she had found in the film something that would harm the reputation of the French woman, she would not have accepted the role from the beginning. With the passage of time, the fierce campaigns directed at the film subsided, and it was allowed to be shown in cinemas in Egypt and the Arab world again. To represent the birth certificate of talking cinema in Egypt, and to announce the end of the era of silent films.
Congratulations on that title fight.
The time of filming the movie “Awlad Al-Zawat” coincided with the shooting of the movie “Song of the Heart”. This caused a controversy over the eligibility of both of them to get the title of the first Egyptian speaking film. Some technical sources classified the movie “Song of the Heart” as the most worthy of the title, especially since filming it first. However, the date of the show “Awlad Al-Zawat” settled the matter, as it was shown for the first time on March 14, 1932. On April 14 of the same year, one month after the release of the first talking movie in the history of Egyptian cinema, the movie “Song of the Foad” starring the singer Nadera in partnership with Zakaria Ahmed and George Abyad, and written by Khalil Mutran and Italian author Lazar, was shown. It was directed by Italian director Mario Volpi. His main idea was similar to the movie “The Children of the Self”, which is the hero’s love for a foreign girl, which causes misfortunes to befall him and his family. Despite its poor story, “Song of the Heart” achieved commercial success as it was the first musical film.
As for “Shajarat al-Dur”, which was shown on February 26, 1935, it is the first historical film presented by Egyptian cinema. And it was starring Asia Dagher, Mary Queenie, Abdul Rahman Rushdi, Mikhail Atallah and Mukhtar Hussein. It was based on the story of the Lebanese writer, Jerji Zaidan, and wrote the script and dialogue, and directed by Ahmed Jalal. The makers of “Shajarat al-Durr” waged a new struggle with the movie “Awlad al-Zawat” because they considered it the first full-length film, and that “Awlad al-Zawat” was half-speaking.
During the seventies of the last century, the artist Youssef Wehbe appealed to the Ministry of Culture in his press interviews, to search for the tape of the original version of the film, and to restore and preserve it as an important piece of the heritage of Egyptian cinema. Noting that he searched for a long time in the National Film Archives, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Oriental Institute in Paris, trying to find a copy of the film, but to no avail. Therefore, “Awlad Al-Zawat” was considered one of the lost films, despite its historical importance in Egyptian cinema.