A Brief Tour of Egyptian Animation

By  · Published on December 13th, 2014

Honayn’s Shoe (Screenshot)

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is out this weekend. Yet the buzz remains about the casting controversy rather than the (apparently low) quality of the film itself. Rupert Murdoch tweeted that as far as he’s concerned, Egyptians have always been white. I wouldn’t begin to try to exhaustively explain the Australian media mogul’s unfortunate perspective. There is, however, something fascinating and troubling about the whitewashing of Egypt because of 1) its role in the Bible and 2) its place in ancient history. Not only does it belie a misconception of Ancient Egypt, it also tends to eclipse any acknowledgment of Egypt as an existing nation of 87 million people who possess a rich culture and who write in Arabic, not hieroglyphics.

So, here’s a proposal. Don’t go see Exodus: Gods and Kings. Instead, take a few minutes and dive into the tradition of modern Egyptian animation. There isn’t much of it, to be sure, but what little there is can be quite fascinating and charming.

The first Egyptian animator to attain any reputation internationally was Iham Shaker, who was born in Cairo in 1933. In 1968 he made a short film called The Bottle, which you can watch online thanks to the Egyptian chapter of the International Animated Film Association, which he helped found. Shaker moved to France and began to work with legendary animator Paul Grimault (The King and the Mockingbird), who helped him make a more substantial short in 1973.

One, Two, Three is a collection of three vignettes, entitled “The Shower,” “The Bird” and “The Machine.” They each place a doughy, confused man into a frustrating situation. The first involves a shower that refuses to spray in the right direction. The second afflicts him with a pesky bird and the final segment places him in an abstract and increasingly difficult to operate machine. Shaker’s extremely simple style creates a vaguely defined world of free motion, reminiscent of pioneering animator Émile Cohl. Throughout, his human protagonist’s form is much more malleable and fluid than that of the object (or animal) confronting him. He twists and turns, contracts and expands, and often loses shape entirely. Both a funny diversion and a cynical portrayal of how humanity clashes with its surroundings, One, Two, Three is something of an unseen classic.

Jumping years ahead to the present, Egypt today has a handful of creative animators taking the art into the 21st century. In 2010 Mohamed Ghazala won the Animation Prize at the African Movie Academy Awards in Lagos, Nigeria. His was his country’s only representation in the entire competition, a three-minute cartoon entitled Honayn’s Shoe. It’s set in the vast sands of the Sahara, where a mysterious man and his camel are slowly traveling. They come across a golden shoe, brightly hued in comparison to the black silhouettes of both the sand and their own figures. The fact that there is only one of these slippers is at first a point of confusion and then the source of an intense chase that encapsulates the way the desert can feel all-encompassing. It becomes at first a hallucination and then a cosmos of its own, sending this poor traveler on a loop through Ghazala’s charismatic world of strange shapes and empty landscapes.

Mohanad Hassan’s graduation project from Cairo’s Higher Institute of Cinema in 2006, Nour, won a number of awards at home and abroad. You can watch it on Vimeo, where it’s been designated as a Staff Pick. Since then he’s worked on a number of other projects, including a 2011 short film called El Sakia, or The Water Wheel. The film is dedicated to Salah Jahin, a cartoonist and poet whose works included a number of screenplays and an epic poem narrating Egypt’s history. Hassan’s short is a delirious deconstruction of contemporary life, alternating between agricultural toil and the vortex of television. The TV in question features real news and sports footage inserted into jagged, black and white animation. Rapid editing creates an unsettled atmosphere of panic and disorientation, the claustrophobia of those crowded around the screen compounded by the heavy images of oxen working at a mill. It concludes with a quote from Jahin imploring the bulls to break free, certainly a charged message in the year of Egypt’s world-shaking revolution.