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Why Egyptian Musicals Faded — A Film Fan’s Scholarly Quest


Back home in Maadi, a town in the city of Cairo, Ghada Emish ’19 would watch Egyptian musical films of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60 and wonder why the films she respects and enjoys are no longer produced in her country.

After taking film courses with Professor of Art History Scott McDonald, Emish got serious about discovering why the genre fizzled. With an Emerson Grant from the College, she is spending much of her summer scrutinizing musical films on YouTube. That’s the backbone of her research project, which focuses on the factors that led to the films’ production and the possible reasons for the films’ puzzling demise.

about Ghada Emish ’19

Major: Cinema and Media Studies

Hometown: El Maadi, Egypt

High School: Maadi Canal School

read more student research stories

“It is quite a strange turn, especially because these films were truly appreciated by Egyptians and Arabs,” says Emish, who majors in cinema and media studies and minors in French and art history.

She’s also reading about the films in books that are so rare she’s not allowed to take them out of the public libraries that house them. And she’s reaching out to interview critics, some of whom were reviewing films at the time the musicals were made.

Emish has learned that the socio-political pressures Egypt experienced after the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel influenced movie content. After Egypt was defeated in 1967, she says, people’s disappointment in their government and in themselves tamped down the production of films that featured love songs. And after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the musicals became too expensive to produce.

That’s a loss, in Emish’s opinion. She loves how the directors in the genre use symbolic language to express ideas and pay great attention to creating persuasive and consistent characters. It’s clear to her that the filmmakers respect the intelligence of their audience. Even watching film after film this summer, Emish has not tired of the musicals.

“Some films are fundamentally different from one another in the designs of frames, the way the musical performances are shot and integrated within the context of the plot, the levels of elaboration of the mise-en-scéne and the singing/acting style of each singer/actor,” she says.

Emish views her Emerson project as the beginning of an ambitious larger pursuit  —resuscitating the genre and spreading the word about its cinematic importance.

“In the future, I would like to join the film studies faculty at the American University in Cairo. My dream is to teach a class on the musical genre,” she says.

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