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Cinema Treasures: Film Poster Making in Egypt

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Cinema Treasures: Film Poster Making in Egypt

Egypt was the epicenter of Arab film ever since its inception at the turn of the twentieth century. Making films was incredibly cheap, regional love of cinema ensured the industry was fabulously profitable, and talented film professionals like Omar Sharif, Hind Rostom, and Youssef Chahine achieved fame worldwide for their work.

As the cinema industry evolved and expanded, the Egyptian film poster industry ascended simultaneously and the prosperity of the former encouraged film distributors to hire talented artists to create posters that themselves became works of art. Egyptian film posters today are recognized for their beauty and creativity, as they are highly sought after by collectors and enthusiasts. Here follows a brief look at the origins and evolution of film poster making in Egypt.

EARLY DAYS

The Egyptian film poster making industry first arose in tandem with the debut of the local film production which was responsible for a small number of silent films beginning in the early twentieth century. Film distributors used the posters as promotional and advertising tools and the low labor costs of the time gave them access to a very talented group of mostly Armenian and Greek residents in Alexandria, who, in a matter of a few days, were able to complete hand-painted posters.

 This first generation of artists was responsible for passing along their skills not only to fellow community members, but also to an emerging generation of Egyptian artists who brought their own talents to the trade. Standouts among the early Greeks include Cairo-born Stamatis Vassiliou and Marcel. They trained and inspired famous Egyptian artists based mostly in Cairo, including Gassour, Abdelaziz, and Wahib Fahmi.

CINEMATIC ARTISTRY

The combination of talented artists and a diligent, labor-intensive process is just one of the reasons why Egyptian film posters are so beloved today. Posters from the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema, roughly beginning in the mid 1940s show an amazing energy and creative spirit. Actors in character are featured boldly in scenes from the film, with meticulously detailed facial expressions and action poses. Many feature women in dress or behaviors that would be regarded today as scandalous or inappropriate. Titles, names and text are rendered in brightly colored Arabic calligraphy.

 Other styles invoked a more symbolic or expressionistic style, with vivid colors and symbolic imagery drawn from a variety of traditions. Poster artistry began to evolve with a creativity that rivaled or often exceeded that of the films they were meant to promote.

 

For many years, stone lithography was the primary production medium, a largely outdated technique that thrived in Egypt due to the low cost of labor. The poster art was initially hand-painted on a limestone surface and subjected to a variety of treatments to bring out detail and color. Then a grease- or oil-based treatment was used alongside generous applications of water. The inability of water and oil to mix allowed an image of extreme fidelity to be lifted from the stone onto sheets. The resulting prints could rival the original artwork for detail, mood, and color variations, making these posters unique, quality artworks that stand the test of time.

 Scarcity is a major driver of the precious value of many of these posters. Theater chains regarded them as disposable and typically threw them into the trash at the end of a film's run. No official film archives or government-sponsored organizations in the region are dedicated to the accumulation, preservation or display of local cinema materials, so preservation is solely in the hands of collectors, enthusiasts, and small industry groups.

 THE MODERN EGYPTIAN FILM POSTER INDUSTRY

Regional film production peaked in the 1960's and the industry went into slow decline as television proliferated and people stayed home; regional cinema passed largely into history. Film poster production remained strong and actually accelerated through the 1980's, when the industry shifted to promote mostly foreign films. The Middle East's love for American and European B-films, including westerns and action films, ensured film poster makers remained in demand.

However, production techniques were updated and artists increasingly took their cues from foreign sources, resulting in a more homogenized, less idiosyncratic look. Modern Egyptian film posters typically demonstrate less creative license or artistic flair, hence there is less demand for them as collectibles or cultural items.

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