Having gone bankrupt in the ’60s after its nationalisation during Egypt’s socialist era, and following many lawsuits between the family and the Egyptian government, Basile and Marie-Claude Behna, the company’s heirs, finally won their lawsuit giving them the rights to the company and allowing them to re-open the company’s Alexandrian office and headquarters in January.
In cooperation with Gudran Association for Arts and Development, which operates in Alexandria to establish spaces that nurture art, Behna and Gudran are working to turn the 12-room apartment in Mansheya Square, which was the main office of Behna Films, into a hub for independent filmmakers in Alexandria as well as a space to exhibit and produce visual arts of all sorts. The space will also host a museum exhibiting forgotten cinema heritage of the Behna Film Company.
Between 27 December and 18 January, a group of 27 volunteers from 11 countries gathered in Alexandria under the umbrella of CISV, an international organisation promoting peace-education and international development. The volunteers spent three weeks working alongside local volunteers from Gudran to renovate seven rooms and two corridors of the apartment, under the supervision of visual artist and one of Gudran’s founders, Aliaa El-Gready.
Behna films opened its doors for the first time in 50 years during a soft opening that included a photography exhibition curated by Alexandrian photographer Sherif Sharkawy showcasing the experience of the project and the city through the volunteers’ lenses. The event also included a short documentary of the renovation process by Sharkawy, a presentation of Gudran’s activities, an exhibition of some of the documents and artefacts of Behna films along with a screening of the forgotten 1947 film ‘El-Hanem’ starring Assia and Zaki Rostom, directed by award-winning director Henri Barakat, which the volunteers found while working in the apartment. The event ended with speeches by the project coordinators and a small music concert by the volunteers.
Basile Behna, an art lover and believer that culture is the key to real social change, told Ahram Online the story of Behna Films’ golden years, its closing and everything in between.
“My family were merchants from Aleppo, originally from Mosul in Iraq, and came to Egypt around the turn of the 20th century,” Behna said.
“By the end of the ’20s they started importing films from France and other countries, and started producing shorts, and were the first to produce an animation film, ‘Mishmish Afandy’ along with shorts such as ‘Awlad Akef’, ‘Fantasia Arabia’, and ‘Siwa’.”
“They wanted to expand so they established a cinema distribution and production company, which is Behna Film Company, and produced one of the first ever talking films ‘Onshoudet El-Fouad’ which proved to be an unsuccessful venture. It led them to stick to acting as executive producers and taking charge of film distribution. As the years went by their background in trade helped them greatly in the film industry and enabled them to widely distribute the films with offices in Khartoum, Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and others. For thirty years they were one of the biggest cinema production and distribution companies in Egypt,” Behna said.
Behna Films was involved in many iconic films in Egyptian cinema history such as films by ‘Assia, Marie-Queen’, ‘Ahmed Galal’, all the films of comedy icon Ismail Yassin and talented composer and actor Mohamed Fawzy, and many others.
“Mohamed Fawzy and actress Madiha Youssry were family friends,” Behna said. “Ismail Yassin would give my family unlimited distribution rights, such trust was there between them.”
The company was at its strongest in the ’30s and ’40s. After the Second World War, with its economic damage to the whole region, along with more competition on the cinema scene, in the ’50s the company’s activities dropped but still remained strong.
“The Nasser regime nationalised the company in 1961, by that time my uncles and father were quite old so they didn’t really put up a fight. Behna stayed open under the supervision of a committee appointed by the regime, and produced a film, I think it was ‘Saba’ Banat’ in 1963, which caused its bankruptcy, and they had to start selling most of their offices in the region until 1969 when they sold the company’s Cairo office on Qasr El-Nil street. The only thing left was the office in Alexandria,” Behna recalled.
“In 1978, when they wanted to return the company to us, it had a huge dept due to mismanagement under the Nasser regime, we refused since that would mean we would have to pay the debt. People from the cinema scene called my father and told him they would help pay off the debt to get the company back in business since they were hard-workers and showed a very high work ethic compared to nowadays.
Reclaiming Behna’s heritage was not easy. “My interest in the family business started when I was 19 years old,” Behna said. “After I refused to take the company back due to the debt, I gave the papers to a legal accountant and it turns out they had miscalculated the budget and it was the government that owed me money,” he laughed.
Behna appealed the case in 1982 and won. He then left Egypt to work in Central Africa, only to come back in 1997 and find no procedures had been taken since. He then filed another case in the court specialised in dealing with citizens who had ownership issues with the Nasser regime to reclaim the company, and seven years later in 2004 the court ruled that this case was not under its jurisdiction and transferred his case to a civilian court, which finally ruled in his favour in 2010.
“It took all this time, between 1978 until we won the case in 2010, to reclaim the company because they had miscalculated the budget,” Behna sighed. “Unfortunately the court order in 2010 had a spelling mistake which led us to only take the executive paper of the order this month.”
Basile’s interest in photographic heritage along with his sister, Marie-Claude, who lives in Paris and holds a post in the Arab Cinema Institute, led them to save many of the documents they managed to get their hands on over the years. One day, in 2000 when his sister was visiting, they went to the Alexandria office. Marie-Claude found a receipt for a sound roll for a film called ‘Onshoudet El Fouad’ from Studio Eclaire in France. She took the receipt back to Paris, and through research found that this film was not available anywhere. Through further research, she found that Studio Eclaire had sold it to Regent Films who had a copy of the 1932 film and had submitted it to the French National Centre. The siblings managed to get hold of the film, and after realising it was one of the first talking films and the first musical in Egypt, they submitted it to film festivals that year such as the Cairo International Film Festival, the Alexandria Film Festival and the Arab Film Festival in France.
Basile has collected documents and possesses more than 12,000 photographs of old films, as well as advertisements, posters and other printed materials. After visiting the Egyptian National Archive’s museum, he realised the lack of documentation from these decades, the ’30s and ’40s. This led Basile and Marie-Claude to establish a foundation to gather and exhibit this heritage and it was registered in France in 2007.
“Many families have boxes of cinematic heritage in their homes, which they inherited. If we have an official initiative, many of these people can be encouraged to give their documents for exhibition and archiving purposes,” Behna concluded.