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Aziza Amer: Producer of the First Egyptian Feature-Length Film


Translated by Priscilla Adum



Table of Contents




Translator's Comments:

It may surprise you to know that one of the the first two feature length Egyptian films was produced by a woman. In contrast to Hollywood's male-dominated early days, there were several important women producers in the early days of Egyptian film.

I would like to acknowledge the very important Egyptian film industry, an industry whose history and beginnings are every bit as fascinating as Hollywood's.

The 1927 silent film Layla is considered by many to be the first full-length Egyptian film ever made. (However, a recently discovered narrative film about the discovery of Tutankhamon's tomb made by Victor Rossito, a Cairo lawyer of Italian origin, was made in 1923.) Layla was also the first Egyptian film to feature a belly dancer.

Many consider Aziza Amer to be the producer of Layla. The following study was published in the Journal "Bahrain Here" in two parts: December 28, 1994, and January 4,1995 by Hassan Hadad in the section called Pioneers. This page offers the English translation.

The original arabic article can be found here:

Aziza Amer



Aziza Amer's Early Years

Every year, the 17th of December marks the birthday of the first pioneer in Egyptian cinema, the artist Aziza Amer. She was an artist whose name is linked to the history of Egyptian cinema as a founder of the industry in Egypt, and in Arab countries in general. She was the producer-owner of the first Egyptian film, and she was the first Egyptian woman who dared to break into the field of film production. She did so with the silent movie Layla, which was screened at the Metropol Cinema on November 16, 1927.

Moufeda Mohamed Ghonami, this is her real name, was born at the beginning of this century in Alexandria, where her family was living. Some say that her family relocated to Doumyat and she was born there on December 17 sometime between 1901 and 1908.

Aziza Amer grew up an orphan, as her father died 15 days after her birth. She spent her childhood in Alexandria, then she moved to Cairo with her family and lived on Khayrat street near the El Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood. She learned to read and write and play the piano because she hoped to be a musician. She later learned French.

Although she didn't have any formal studies, Aziza did receive a good amount of education as she grew up under the auspices of a well known political figure. He was a member of Parliament who had literary activity. He had published several books, and his articles appeared in newspapers. Some say that Aziza was married to this man and stayed with him in a house in El Manakh street, but the marriage didn't last long because he was much older than her. He was married to another woman with whom he had children, so Aziza divorced him. This man had an interest in her education because of the kinship between him and her family, and he took her with his family on a trip to Europe which helped to expand her horizons and broaden her thinking.

Aziza grew to love literature and art, and would often go to theaters and movie studios. During her trip to Europe she also met the international director D.W. Griffith, the founder of Hollywood cinema, and he offered her a part in one of his international films.

The death of Aziza's brother Ahmed who was studying medicine in Europe had a big impact on her. He died at a young age and left a deep wound in her heart even though she had four sisters.

Aziza Amer



The Beginning was in Theater

In the summer of 1925, Aziza worked in theater. When she read in the newspaper that Yousef Wahbi wanted new faces for the Ramses Theater Ensemble which he had founded 2 years earlier, she sent him a letter and enclosed a picture, expressing her desire to work in theater. She refused to ascend step by step and asked him to give her the leading role. Yousef Wahbi liked her self confidence and he pushed her to the stage in the role of the shy bride in a play entitled False Prestige.

Aziza Amer worked with Yousef Wahbi for only one season, and then went back and forth between two troupes, The Arabic Playhouse and Naguib El Rehani. In the first troupe, she acted in the plays called The African Lion, Ehsan Bek, The Fighters, Fransisco, and Japanese Honor. With the second troupe, she acted in the play called Miss Potato. Then she returned to the Ramses troupe and starred in the play Awalas el Zawat which was later made into a movie. Aziza was considered for a repeat of her role, but the part went to actress Amina Rizk. The last role played by Aziza Amer on the stage was the part of Prisca in the play Cave People, for Tawfik el Hakim with which the troupe opened their first season in 1935. So Aziza Amer entered into cinema through the stage door.

Aziza Amer



Thinking About Cinema

Aziza Amer was a beautiful, attractive girl who wanted to see her face on the big screen just as any girl wanted to see her image in a mirror. She had the money and the potential, as she had married for the second time while she worked with the Ramses Troupe, to a wealthy man from the Said named Ahmed El Shere3y.

Aziza's love affair with amateur cinema began with an odd event. She was ill and bedridden for a time, so her husband bought her a film projector with which to watch foreign films and to entertain her during that period. She then asked him to buy her a small movie camera with which to film family and friends just for fun, and she could later watch them on their home screen.

She began by recording a film 5 minutes in length, in which she appeared along with family members and friends, among them Zeinab Zadki, Amina Rizk and Amina Mohamed. She didn't forget to write in the film's introduction: Filmed and directed by Aziza Amer.

Aziza Amer



The First Film

It was when Turkish artist Wedad 3arafi came to Cairo at the beginning of 1926 that Aziza's thoughts turned to cinema production. This adventurous artist's name will always be linked to the emergence of Egyptian cinema, although all of his efforts in this field were just projects that he started and others completed. However, history credits him with having persuaded a number of Egyptian women to enter the field of production: Aziza amer, Fatma Rushdie, Asia. 

Wedad 3arafi directed the film Layla in two parts with the name God's Call, and he played the leading role opposite Aziza Amer. It was subsequently directed once more in 5 parts with its new name after his role was edited out and given to Ahmed 3alam who thus became the first leading man in Egyptian cinema history. The director was Stephan Rosti with the collaboration of Ahmed Galal, Hussein Fawzy, and the Italian photographer Tello Caprini. 

The outdoor scenes in Layla were shot between Saqqara, the pyramids, and the streets of Cairo. The indoor scenes were filmed in homes, and the processing and printing was done in the home of the producer which doubled as a studio on Albergas street in the Garden City neighborhood. 

The film's plot takes place between country and city, and the heroine is Layla. She is a country girl who has fallen in love with the hero Ahmed, a young Bedouin youth who works as a tour guide. But he falls in love with an American tourist, and he leaves Egypt to travel abroad with her, leaving a deep wound in Layla's heart. The film is filled with many melodramatic events, such as the village boy who loves her but whose love she does not return, and the land owner who tries to rape her but she wards him off then escapes from the village and goes to the city.

Also acting in Layla along with Aziza Amer and Ahmed 3alam were Amr Wasfi, Ahmed Galal, Hussein Fawzy, Mary Mansour, and the old-time dancer Bamba Kashar who was related to the producer of the film. Bamba Kashar performed many dances in this film. The amateur Egyptian photographer Hasan El Helbawi collaborated in the filming.

Aziza Amer could never forget the night of the premiere of her first production and first Egyptian cinema production. In the front row was the leader of the Egyptian economy, Mohamed Tal3at Harb, as well as the Prince of Poetry Ahmed Shawky, and the young virtuoso Mohamed Abdul Wahab in addition to people from the press, art and literature.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This poster advertises the movie Layla.

Layla Movie Poster



The Mother of Egyptian Cinema

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel very honored that the cinema industry has made great progress and that I am the ransom and the sacrifice."

These were the words that the artist Aziza Amer delivered at the first Egyptian Cinema conference in 1936. After she said this, tears streamed from her eyes, and she wasn't able to finish her speech because of her tears.

And how could it be otherwise, after seeing the daughter that she had created (Egyptian cinema) grow and flourish? She had been like a legitimate mother.

After the production of her first film Layla in 1927, Aziza followed it with the film Daughter of the Nile which premiered on December 2, 1928. In the early 1930's she produced a third film called Kafari 3an Khatiatik that premiered on March 23, 1933 with which she suffered heavy losses. It was a silent movie in the era of talking film.

However, the film Layla returned back to her a profit that was many times its initial cost. It was shown in all the movie theaters in Egypt, as well as in other Arabic countries. Aziza Amer stopped producing films as a result of her losses with Kafari 3an Khatiatik. She sat back and watched the evolution of the cinematographic movement that she had promoted.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows the façade of the Metropol Theater where Aziza's first film Layla premiered. Today it has a sign saying "Nour" on it.

Many production companies were formed early on, such as Condor Films and Lotus Films. Others were established later such as Ramses Film, Fanar Film, Abdul Wahab Film, Bahna Film, Mousiri, Mizrahi, Nahas and then the Egyptian Company for Acting and Cinema which established Studio Misr in 1935 from which brought forth a real rebirth in cinema.

The film The Apple Seller was the movie that marked Aziza's return to film production. It was of course, her first talking film. She entrusted its direction to the young director Hussein Fawzy who started with her in her first film. In addition, he helped her develop the screenplay for her new film based on a story she had written. This was the first film that involved the shaabi poet Biram el Tounsi after his return from exile in Paris. He wrote the dialogue in the film as well as the songs. It featured singing by her favorite singer whom she included in all of her films, Hassan Moukhtar Sakr. She also introduced a new face, Mahmoud Zulficar who played the leading role opposite her, as well as Anwar Wagdi. Aziza Amer married this new face, and he became her partner in life and in films. This was after she had divorced her husband Ahmed El Shere3y in 1938 and had married his brother Mustafa el Shere3y and then divorced him as well in 1944.

Metropol Theater

Mahmoud Zulficar lived with Aziza in the Apple Villa, which she built in the Pyramids area on a large piece of land that included a farm and a garden adorned with a swimming pool. The films she produced during this time period netted her such large profits that it made up for her past losses. 

Aziza Amer continued producing under her company's name (Isis Films). She produced 25 films, the last of which was Amint Billah, which premiered at the El Cosmo Cinema on November 3, 1952. And thus, the film Amint Billah was the movie with which the Mother of Egyptian cinema finished her artistic journey. There is a story about this film. Parts of it were burned during the Cairo fire on January 26, 1952. It was almost lost without ever seeing the light of day after the death of its leading actress two days later. But some changes were made to it, and it premiered the following season. A large bouquet of flowers was placed in the seat of its late heroine.

Despite the importance of this pioneering artist in the history of Egyptian film, both as a producer and as an actress, Aziza's first silent films do not exist in our film library, one which is supposed to safeguard the heritage of Egyptian cinema. In addition to this, Arabic television doesn't broadcast any of her talking films even though there are many of them ready to be aired. Others need to be reprinted so that the people of this generation can watch the glories of this artist. 

The true value of this pioneering artist was not only in the establishment of the Egyptian film industry nor in the discovery of its stars and talented people in the various branches of cinematographic art. It was also in her artistic ability, and her experience in production and writing, and her brilliant acting.

Aziza Amer had hoped to become a mother but she always consoled herself by saying "I gave birth to a daughter, and her name was Egyptian Cinema."

Layla Scene



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About the Translator

Priscilla is a dancer of Lebanese heritage who enjoys researching the Golden Era of Egyptian dance. She owns a collection of more than one hundred classic black and white Egyptian films which is continually expanding.

Priscilla has also gathered a large library of dance related articles and clippings from Middle Eastern magazines and newspapers, many of which she has translated from the original Arabic to both English and Spanish.

Priscilla currently resides in Central America where she is a dance instructor. 




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