Indexes of Dust: Cinematic Archives in Egypt and Lebanon

Alexander Nesbitt
Alexander Nesbitt
Cairo, Egypt, 1999 – hand painted cinema and movie billboards cover a building site in Midan Orabi, downtown Cairo. Photo by Alexander Nesbitt.

by Ahmed Elhennawy


The destruction and decay of cinematic archives will be akin to the loss of the great libraries of ancient and medieval times. It is only in the last few decades that cinematic  preservation has gained importance. To think that most films from the advent of cinema in the late 19th century until the 1950s have been lost is a tragedy, considering that cinema has only  existed for 120 years. Many consider the loss of film a national tragedy (depending on which  country is discussed), however, it cuts deeper. These losses are human and cultural losses, since cinema is the most advanced means of preserving historical and cultural periods. One must  keep in mind that many of these archives also housed non-fiction films such as newsreel films. The tragedy of the loss is compounded in regions that garner little global attention for their modern cultural and historical legacies, such as Egypt and Lebanon. 

When discussing the challenges of cinematic preservation, it would be easier to divide  the challenges into two major categories: cultural-political and scientific. The major cultural political challenges that countries face are an uninterested government and populace. In many  developing countries, governments do not value the arts and cultural productions. They are  often viewed as frivolous acts that only the country’s intelligentsia or bourgeois classes engage in. Unfortunately, it is common for this view of the arts to be assumed by the general  populations as well. In more optimistic situations, developing countries view the arts as  important but lack the material/economic means necessary for its maintenance, preservation  and promotion. 

The second type of challenge is the scientific challenge of film preservation, and this is  perhaps the more dangerous type. Until the post-war period, film was produced from celluloid, a combination of cellulose nitrate and camphor.1 Apart from possessing the ability to combust  spontaneously, transforming into a fire that is basically inextinguishable (as one might recall from the famous ending of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), the second issue that  preservationists face is that celluloid has a very short lifespan—between 40 to 80 years,  depending on the quality of preservation.2 Celluloid film can decay externally (basically, crumbling into dust) or internally  (ruining the images printed on the film). The speed and type of decay is also related to the  temperature at which it is preserved, among a host of other factors.3 When looking at the archival history of Egypt and Lebanon, we can see that all these preservation-related issues coalesce, thereby making it almost impossible to change the current  archival condition. 

The destruction and decay of cinematic archives will be akin to the loss of the great libraries of ancient and medieval times.

Archival History 

Looking at Egypt, the Arab region’s largest and oldest film producing country, we can track the production of film by Egyptians (and other Arabic-speaking peoples in the country) with the emergence of sound in the early 1930s. Talaat Harb, the famous industrialist and the  founder of Egypt’s first and largest studio, Studio Misr, did not waste time in creating the first  archive in 1935.4 It belonged to the studio, and housed fiction and non-fiction films. An  unfortunate fire in July 1950 destroyed the majority of Studio Misr’s archives. The fire was a  result of custodial carelessness.5 

It was only a few years later that Egypt joined the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). Additionally, the Egyptian Film Archives (EFA) were established but were also cursed with a fire in August 1958—this time due to the spontaneous combustion of nitrate  film.6 The Egyptian Film Archives, however, played a passive role since they amassed their  archives primarily through gifts and Customs seizures.7

It wasn’t until 1968 that the Ministry of Culture established a mandatory deposit obligation, but there were no repercussions for those that did not make a deposit. This disincentivized private actors from making deposits to the EFA. It would be another seven years before the passing of Law no. 35 of. 1975, which made it obligatory for producers and distributors to deposit a 35mm copy of their film at their own expense to the EFA.8 These copies are also subject to quality control.9 Most films since have been preserved,  even though the quality of preservation will be subject to further discussion. 

Lebanon’s history with cinematic archives started similarly to Egypt’s, albeit well after. Studio Baalbek was established in Beirut in the 1962 by Badie Boulos and Palestinian Lebanese financier Youssef Beidas, as a response to Egypt’s cinematic waning.10 The studio quickly became one of the largest in the region, producing Arabic and foreign movies at a high technical capacity.11 Studio Baalbek also possessed the only archives with the necessary conditions to properly preserve films. As such, they opened their doors to all those wishing to make a deposit.12

The Lebanese Civil War began in 1975, causing Studio Baalbek to halt its productions. On February 19, 1976, producers of Palestinian productions asked the studio to return their films.13 Later the same year, the Syrian Army invaded the studio. Syrian soldiers went to the archives on the upper level and began throwing film reels and documents from the roof. They were betting to see who could throw the reels the farthest.14 Hundreds of film reels were lost as a result of the nihilistic barbarism of the Syrian soldiers. Luckily, the 1000 reels of film on the  bottom level were spared, due to it being unknown to those who are unfamiliar with the  studio’s architectural layout.15

The studio reopened in 1993, a few years after the end of the war, under the patronage of First Lady Mona El-Harawy. Studio Baalbek was also promised funding for new equipment by France, but Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture showed no signs of interest in taking any initiative.16 Therefore, the studio closed for good in 1995. They asked for those who had made deposits to their archive to collect them, but improper indexing made this practically impossible.17

In Lebanon’s case, we can see a complete lack of interest by the state to preserve its cinematic heritage, whereas the state in Egypt has only shown partial and passive interest in the second half of the 20th century. Any serious initiative to archive films came from private actors, with no help from governmental bodies or individuals. 

Any serious initiative to archive films came from private actors, with no help from governmental bodies or individuals. 

Present Situation & Restoration Attempts 

The present has yielded a more unfortunate reality for both countries, particularly Lebanon. Studio Baalbek’s inactivity since the war had turned the premises into a relic of the past or a symbol of the war’s destruction. In 2010, the owners of Studio Baalbek, Intra Bank, decided to destroy the building. The destruction was preceded by an auction of all the building’s possessions.18 Upon discovering that the studio’s massive cinematic archive was about to meet  its maker, Lokman Selim—one of the founders of UMAM Documentation & Research—decided to buy the entire archive.19 At the time of his purchase, there were close to 1000 film reels and film documents concerning figures as important as Youssef Chahine.20 As of today, UMAM is trying to organize and preserve the reels, a task made seemingly impossible due to poor indexing and governmental disinterest.21

The situation in Egypt is more complex as a result of the size of the country’s film industry. There are two main archives for historical materials, including films, the National Archives and the National Library. These archives are treated more like storage spaces where historical objects are kept.22 There is no understanding of how to index, organize, and preserve  films. In addition, there is limited funding, training, and bureaucratic clarity.23 Like other archival departments in Egypt, external attempts at accessing or aiding the film archives is viewed with  suspicion.24 Access is extremely limited and becoming even more so in the post-revolution status quo. 

Nevertheless, there have been great restoration initiatives by private organizations and  individuals. The largest restoration initiative was taken by Rotana Cinema, the Saudi-Arabian company, which has restored around 250 Egyptian films at $20,000USD a piece. Their restoration included films going back all the way to the 1920s.25  

Other restoration initiatives have mainly been conducted by family members of producers, distributors, and filmmakers. One cannot help but recall the amazing achievements by Marianne Khoury, who managed to restore 20 of her uncle, Youssef Chahine’s movies, which can now be viewed on Netflix. Additionally, family members of Aleppo-born film  producers, George and Michael Behna, have restored a copy of one of Behna Studio’s movies, found on the floor of the abandoned studio.26 

The son of one of the Belarusian, Jewish Frenkel brothers (founders of Egypt’s first  animation studio) has recently rummaged through his father’s archives. The result was the restoration of many of his father’s then-popular animation films, starring the titular Mish Mish Effendi, Egypt’s Mickey Mouse.27 There have also been much smaller restoration attempts that search for film copies (almost never finding film negatives) in Cairo’s open-air markets.28 While their search has led to almost nothing in the way of restoration, their commitment and resolve is commendable. 

The main conclusion is that the continuation of the Lebanese and Egyptian states’ negligence will only result in further destruction of the cinematic, cultural, and historical legacies of both countries. It is unclear whether this is a purposeful attack on the countries’ heritages, which is only being preserved by individual acts and the memories of a dying generation, which witnessed Egypt and Lebanon’s cinematic heyday.


  1.  Edmondson, Ray, and Henning Schou. 1984. “The Nitrate Ultimatum.” The Unesco Courier, 10-11.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4.  Osman, Khaled. 1984. “Egypt’s National Film Archive.” The Unesco Courier, 9.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10.  .دارمنسي, دلفين. 2016. “قصّة أكبر ستوديو إنتاج في العالم العربي وأرشيفه المهدور”. رصيف 22
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22.  Desouki, Yasmin. 2018. “A Map Of Love & Loss”. Rawi – Egypt’s Heritage Review, 2018.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25.  Desouki, Yasmin. 2018. “Diamonds in the Dust.” Rawi – Egypt’s Heritage Review, 2018.
  26.  Desouki, Yasmin. 2018. “A Map Of Love & Loss.” Rawi – Egypt’s Heritage Review, 2018.
  27.  Derman, Ushi. 2020. “The Jewish Brothers Who Invented ‘Egyptian Mickey Mouse.’” Museum Of The Jewish People.
  28.  Desouki, Yasmin. 2018. “Diamonds in the Dust.” Rawi – Egypt’s Heritage Review, 2018.

Ahmed Elhennawy is a filmmaker and writer from Cairo, Egypt. A Political Science graduate from the University of Amsterdam. He is currently based in Amsterdam, where he works as a freelance editor and writer.