Shafik, Viola 1961-

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SHAFIK, Viola 1961-

PERSONAL: Born 1961. Education: University of Hamburg, Ph.D.

ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Author Mail, American University in Cairo Press, 113 Sharia Kasr el Ainy, Cairo, Egypt.

CAREER: Filmmaker, researcher, and author. American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt, professor of film.

AWARDS, HONORS: FIMA Prize, Paris, for best Arab short film, 1993, for Shadjarat al-Laymun; Rockefeller fellow, 1996-97.


Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity, American University in Cairo Press (Cairo, Egypt), 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: Viola Shafik is a professor of film at the American University in Cairo and the author of the first English-language book to discuss both the content and form of Arabic film. Shafik researched her subject in the Arab world and in Germany in writing Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity. Shafik addresses the artistic, political, historical, and economic considerations that impact film in the Arab world. An Egypt Today reviewer called the book "a rich, multilayered (albeit academic) study" and felt that "the inclusion of films from all over the Arab world is perhaps the book's greatest accomplishment, with large sections covering the often marginalized films of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco." Shafik examines the beginnings of film in Arab countries and points to independence from colonialism as an important factor in its development. She focuses on political films and art films which were produced after Farouk's fall in Egypt, the French departure from Algeria, and the strengthening of the Palestinian conflict. Egypt is the only country to have developed a national cinema prior to independence, and its films were modeled after Hollywood productions. Shafik discusses the economics of the Arab industry—how films were first produced by foreign companies, then by Arab entrepreneurs, and then by government-run companies. She discusses how films are now often co-produced with Western companies and evaluated and defined on a more international level.

The Egypt Today reviewer noted that Shafik "outlines the process of 'cultural repackaging' that turned cinema from an imported medium to an 'Arab' cinema, and explains how Arab-Islamic culture accommodated cinema, in spite of the fact that Islam prohibits visual representation of human beings." This explains why music and dialogue are so important in creating a "word-centered" rather than an "image-centered" medium. Shafik says that with socialism came a need for realism, especially since those who had been colonized had not been allowed to have an image.

In a Times Literary Supplement review, Robert Irwin cited some of the films that have been produced since the 1960s. Shadi 'Abd al-Sallam's Al-Mumia (1968) was shown in Great Britain as The Night of Counting the Years. Irwin said this film about a young Egyptian who chooses not to rob tombs, a practice that had been carried on for generations, "serves as a vehicle for a meditation on Egypt's national identity and on its relationship to its past." Irwin noted that although most Arab films are made in local vernaculars, in this film, "the protagonists conduct their fierce debates in a stately classical Arabic." Nacer Khemir's Tawq al-Hamama al-Maqfud ("The Lost Ring of the Dove," 1999), a "'picture-book' of a film, has also attracted much praise and attention," wrote Irwin. Irwin described Yusuf Chahine's Wada'a Bonaparte ("Adieu Bonaparte," 1985) as "visually ravishing." It is the story of the friendship between a French doctor and two Arab boys during Bonaparte's occupation. Irwin said Shafik criticized this film as being historically inaccurate and because it did not include important Egyptian characters. Irwin felt that Shafik "takes some films too seriously." He cited Chahine's Al-Nasir Salah al-Din ("Saladin," 1963), a historical drama Shafik praises for its costumes and sets.

Irwin agreed with Shafik's observations of the obstacles faced by the Arab film industry. There are too few movie houses to sustain the productions, and many films are adapted to Western audiences. In the process, Arab audiences are easily alienated, and still the films do not garner international praise. It is very difficult for aspiring Arab filmmakers to find the training they require. Irwin pointed out that even Egypt, which had been able to export most of its films to the Gulf, is now faced with increasing competition from satellite television and videos. The upside is that there is renewed interest in some of the classic films as they are being shown on television.

Arab filmmakers have been pressured to adapt their films to propaganda and have been targeted by fundamentalist criticism. In 1952, a pan-Islamic conference in Karachi proposed a ban on all film. Irwin said that Hassan al-Imam's Khalli balak min Zou-Zou ("Watch out for Zou-Zou," 1972), about a student who belly-dances to pay for college, and Chahine's Al-Massir are two of the few films "to engage directly with fundamentalist bigotry."

Shafik writes of the Egyptian censorship law of 1976 that dictates that the "heavenly" religions of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are not to be criticized. There should be no positive portrayals of magic, vices, and immoral acts (which must be punished). Nakedness and emphasis on erotic body parts, sexually arousing scenes, scenes involving drug or alcohol use, excessive violence and horror, and obscenity, are not allowed. Respect must be shown to families, marriage and parents. It is also forbidden "to represent social problems as hopeless, to upset the mind, or divide religions, classes, and the national unity." Irwin noted that a 1949 censorship law "equated realism with social subversion." Irwin concluded by asking and answering the question: "What does this leave space for? Some wonderful films."



Egypt Today, December 4, 1998. Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 1999, p. 10.*