Egyptian cinema has been the source of inspiration (and imitation) for the Arab world and beyond, not to mention its long hegemony over other national film industries. In the years after World War Two, Egyptian cinema was a ‘dream factory’, churning out farce or melodrama spiced with ample belly dancing to lure viewers away from the mundane realities of everyday life (not dissimilar to the Indian genre that eventually came to be known as Bollywood). The star-led industry quickly established its hegemony over the Arab world, particularly due to its accessible language, and from the post-war period into the 1990s Egypt was the major exporter of films throughout the African continent.
Not all Egyptian cinema features song and dance routines. Kemal Selim, Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu-Sayf and others began to make realistic films during a period when locally-produced Indian imitations were saturating the market and American box-office hits were a big success. The ‘New Realism’ used the melodramatic aspects of the commercial genre to expose new social evils, such as the increased materialism and the nouveau riche who profited from this trend. Chahine has successfully created works that are both popular and intellectual. A group of younger filmmakers have been trying to continue the artistic tradition, but censorship, commercialism, inflation, video piracy, lack of government sponsorship and also originality have had a detrimental effect on the Egyptian cinema that once earned Cairo the title, ‘Hollywood on the Nile’. Today, Bollywood musical melodramas and Chinese kung-fu films occupy the position that Egyptian films once held in markets throughout Africa.