Soon after the creation of Israel following World War II, many Israelis, especially those who had emigrated from the Middle East and North Africa, found entertainment and solace in watching the weekly Arabic movie shown on television every Friday night. This personal but widely reported documentary explains how that happened, and shows why Jews looked forward to kicking off the Sabbath with Arab cinema.
You grew up with this, but when did you realize that the Friday night Arabic movie phenomenon would make an interesting documentary?
Eyal: I like to ask questions about what is taken for granted. It can be the very small things of life or the very big things of life. The fact that it was taken for granted that Egyptian films are screened on national TV while Arabic culture is considered inferior, while we don’t absorb anything from the Arabic language, music, or literature into Israeli mainstream. It seemed very odd to me, and I like to question it.
At the beginning of 2000s, I was working as a content editor at the Arabic department on the Israeli television. This whole department was a bit anachronistic and strange. It was there that I met some of the people who were responsible for bringing Egyptian Cinema to the Israeli TV screen. They were Egyptian Jews who adored and had enormous knowledge of the films. I also learned about the way the films were smuggled and that made me think none of us Israelis ever asked ourselves how come we were watching films made by our enemies. Never asking how these films were obtained. This was the kind of question that would make an interesting documentary.
Sara: In the 1970s, Arabic Movie was a nickname for cheesy and poorly made melodramas. But for our grandmothers who emigrated from the Arab countries of the Middle East that was a meaningful world. Watching the Arabic movie helped them keep and maintain their Arab identity, an identity that was suppressed and excluded. This is another question we wanted to explore: Is it really such an insignificant, inferior cinema? Why was it so central for our mothers and grandmothers, in their everyday life?
Did you know that you would have to be part of the film from the start of the project, or did you consider a more traditional format first?
Sara: We knew that we wanted to talk about the film fans and their experience. We wanted to tell the story of how the films were smuggled. We wanted to bring up some of the knowledge about Egyptian cinema and put it in a cultural context. But there was no narrative that will connect all those bits and pieces.
From a very early stage I thought Eyal should be a part of the film because his story is unique, but it is also all-Israeli, and because he has an interesting and unconventional point of view. He had this wonderful personal story about Leila Mourad, the great Egyptian-Jewish movie star, and I also liked the fact that it is hard to stereotype him.
But Eyal hesitated. He thought his story was boring, he told me “I’m not such a good character.” He felt that we must find someone else who has a direct connection to the Arabic department. It took us quite a while to find other characters, but we always came back to the same point: no one could connect all the different parts in the way Eyal is doing it.
Eyal: I felt that we have three different films. I felt we needed to concentrate on the fans of the Arabic movie, or the Arabic department. And yes, it was hard for me to admit that Sara was right.
The Egyptian films from that era are very westernized. How are they now? How is the Egyptian/Arab film scene in general?
Eyal: What do we mean when we say westernized? Wearing jeans is westernized? Living in an apartment house is westernized? The cinematic medium is a western medium, and it was constructed by Hollywood and the European tradition. Some directors in Egypt were influenced by Hollywood. Others were affected by the French New Wave and the Italian realism. Egypt does not exist in a cultural vacuum.
But still there are always clear Egyptian elements. It was true in the 40s and 50s and it is true today. In Egypt there is something called Tamsir which means “Egyptinizing”. Even when they adapt an European novel, they will always arrange it in an Egyptian way. For example in the Egyptian version for “The Lady of the Camellias”, Marguerite the courtesan, became Liela the singer, because they would not show a whore on screen.
Today there are Egyptian films that are very westernized in their style and content, and there are movies that are very Egyptian in their subjects of interest — everyday life in Egypt, problems of the ordinary people and also in the way they use cultural codes that need internal cultural understanding.
The amount of secrecy that still persists in how these films got on TV is very interesting. Were you surprised that such a veil of secrecy persists to this day?
Sara: On one hand, yes, we were surprised, because we thought people would be glad to talk about it after all these years. On the other hand the everyday life in the occupied territories is bad and getting worse all the time. The Palestinians who were involved are still in danger of being accused and condemned as collaborators. Since people are living in a life-threatening reality, both sides are still afraid of the consequences of their past deeds. So we should not be surprised.
Eyal: Knowing very well the Arabic department and the way its workers think and work, and the amount of loyalty to their colleagues and to the network, it wasn’t surprising.
Is there anything like this now in Israel, or is the Internet and cable TV offering too much content for such a shared cultural experience?
Sara: There is no such an experience anymore. Of course there are some very popular television slots like reality and comedy shows, but there is no show that relates to religious and non-religious, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazi and Mizrachi alike.
Eyal: The Arabic movie was a phenomenon created by the government. Today there is no such thing. It’s a multi-channel age and there is no tribal bonfire but many fires for different tribes. On the very personal level on the internet we can create such an experience. Sometimes the internet can function as a unifying agent. But you need to be active about it. Also gathering and entertainment places were Jews and Arabs can meet create such an experience, but then again you need to be active about it. You need to decide to get out of your home and go there. It’s not something that comes into your living room.
What is your next project?
Eyal: I’m working on a documentary television series about Jewish cultural heroes in the Arab world.
Sara: I’m working on a film about my mothers’ family story. They are Moroccan Jews who immigrate to a Kibbutz, a non-religious, and completely Ashkenazi environment.
Eyal: we also look for another project were we can collaborate.
Sara: Working together was a great experience for us and we would love to work together again.