In the late 1960s, Israelis curiously began watching Egyptian movies. They were shown on television on Friday afternoons from 1968 until the first intifada in the early 1990s. Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defence minister during the 1973 war, watched them avidly. In fact, Israelis welcomed the Sabbath, Judaism’s day of rest, by watching movies like Khali Balak Min Zouzou (Take Care of Zouzou). In the documentary Arabic Movie, directors Eyal Sagui Bizawe and Sara Tsifroni examine the ritual of Israelis gathering around Egypt’s movies.
We start Arabic Movie with Abdel Halim Hafez on a bike, singing. This melodious shot from Maaboudet Al-Gamaheer (The People’s Idol) is followed by Bizawie introducing himself to the audience. His parents were born and raised in Egypt until they moved to Israel. With his family he spoke both Hebrew and Arabic—the only language his grandmother understood. It was with her that he watched the Friday Arabic movies. With this start, it seems that the tone is set for a nostalgic documentary, exploring the memory of these movies. However, Bizawie and Tsiforni are intent on exploring the paradox embedded in the happening.
Television broadcasting began in Israel in 1968, with, among others, an Arabic speaking channel that was directed at the Palestinians. One of the aims was to facilitate their integration into Israel following the 1967 war. The Friday movies were shown without subtitles, because the Israelis were not meant to be concerned with them. These films, however, attracted Mizrahi Jews, who already spoke Arabic having emigrated to Israel from Arabic speaking countries, like Bizawie’s family. In the documentary, he interviews a group of Mizrahi grandmothers who recount to him their admiration for Farid Al-Atrash and the memory of watching Mariam Fahkr El-Din’s romantic movies. More surprising is that Ashkenazi Jews, who came to Israel from Europe, began watching the movies as well, even though there were no subtitles. In fact, letters were sent to the broadcasting authorities asking that subtitles be added. The issue was raised to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, which authorised their addition.
Egypt and Israel had no official relations until after the 1979 Camp David Accords. To many in Israel, Gamal Abdel Nasser was known as “Hitler on the Nile” and several wars were fought between both countries. How then could the movies have arrived to Israel? This question is left unanswered. While the directors did interviews with people working in the broadcasting station, no one provided answers to this. The purchase of the films was likely illegal.
While the state writes a history of separation between Israel and the Arabs, the memory of the enjoyment of these movies hints at something else. To the sabra generation, those who were born and raised in Israeli territory, these movies—while enjoyable—were part of an inferior culture. Bizawie and Tsiforni highlight that the audience did not differentiate between the melodramas of the 1950s and Youssef Shahin or Mohamed Khan’s films, which had a critical element to them. In fact, the Friday Arabic movie was a private phenomenon. These movies entered people’s homes through television and discussion about them never went out of them.
However, the parents of the sabra generation felt things quite differently. One of the interviewees, Bizawie’s aunt, Aviva, who was born in Egypt, says: “I can’t live without these movies. They’re part of my life.” What comes across from the interviews is the difference between history, which is the product of state nationalism, and memory, which is personal. There is an interesting part in the documentary where Bizawie accompanies a group of Mizrahi grandmothers to the site of a Palestinian theatre house where they used to watch the films. This group of Arab Israeli women recounts with much faithfulness where they used to sit and what movies they saw. In this re-enactment, the audience witnesses the act of remembering, which contrasts with the project of constructing national identities.
In fact, the directors use the uniqueness of the memory of the Friday films to explain the dialectical nature of identity. To them, the enjoyment of these movies re-evaluates Israel’s place in the Middle East. One of his interviewees remarks: “We looked at these films and said it wasn’t quite us, but it was close to us.” The documentary’s editing played a large part in reflecting this. There are three major components in Arabic Movie: the interviews, the footage of people watching movies, and the clips from the Egyptian movies themselves. These clips come from, among others, Al-Erhab Wal Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab), Al-Haram (The Forbidden), and Maaboudet Al-Gamaheer, are very smoothly and fluidly weaved into the rest of the documentary. These snippets are a part of the documentary’s fabric just as the Friday movie was a part of the Israeli society at the time. The editing becomes a metaphor for the dialectics of identity.
What makes Arabic Movie go beyond nostalgia is also its capacity to interrogate, but not necessarily with the aim of finding answers. The documentary is not a trip down memory lane which looks at Egyptian movies on television. Rather, there is the intent to speak to the audience, particularly the Israeli one. The directors filmed several groups of people watching these movies; however, without necessarily showing us what they were seeing. The documentary’s audience find itself watching people watch these movies. In other words, they watch themselves. The possibility of introspection raised here also invites the Israeli audience to examine what they may have taken for granted.
There is also another interesting point that is developed in the documentary and looks at the fluidity of identity. In an interview, Aviva tells Bizawie that one of her favourite films in Fatat Min Israel (A Girl from Israel), a movie that deals with a grieving Egyptian family who lost their son in the 1967 war. Aviva, who supports the right wing in Israel, lost her son in the 1973 war. She tells Bizawie that she understands the mother’s pain in the film. This example highlights the universality of the cinematic experience which again questions the separation between Israel and the others.
In Arabic Movie, Israel looks at its place through Egyptian films. For the audience, the diversity of Egyptian cinema is seen through this Israeli film.