1. Haji Agha actore cinema / Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor (Ovanes Ohanian, 1933, Iran)
One of the oldest surviving Iranian films and I believe the last silent feature - Dokhtare Lor ya irane druz va emruz, the first sound feature, came out just weeks after this was released and not surprisingly killed the nascent Iranian silent cinema - and for Farsi speakers, the latter is on YouTube at the moment unsubbed - this is certainly a historical artifact first and foremost, and, at least in the poor condition that it exists online in, not much else. The copy I watched was intertitled in Farsi, Russian and French - but sometimes only in Farsi - and I'm far from fluent in French, so I can't say I got the best experience here; and it's absolutely absymal in quality. But there are still some interesting elements to be gleaned in this tale of a filmmaker (the director) who in trying to convince a wealthy businessman that cinema is a good thing and not ungodly, surreptitiously films the man going about his life and then shows him the results. Not surprisingly it's mostly slapstick comedy with lots of falling down and such, and the actor who plays Haji Agha looks rather like a cross between a young Fidel Castro and Jacques Tati, so there's some fun, but most of the enjoyment for me was in contemplating that even in this very early film, the Iranian cinema was well aware of the contradictions between art, entertainment, faith, Iranian-ness and foreign-ness.
2. Avodah / Work (Helmar Lerski, 1935, Palestine)
3. Adamah / Tomorrow's a Wonderful Day (Helmar Lerski, 1947. Israel/Palestine)
These early propagandistic short features used to be listed on IMDb as being from the British Mandate of Palestine, which is more accurate, but I guess the guys in charge there didn't want to confuse the dummies with no understanding of history who couldn't be bothered to look up old, dead political entities. At any rate, the first of these is about the early emigration to then-Palestine by Zionist settlers from the USA and Europe, 1890s-1930s. It's a pretty visually striking work, clearly heavily influenced by the Soviet montage school and perhaps Joris Ivens, with the workers coming in to tame the land for communal prosperity. The empty land - a land, if you watch this film, that doesn't seem to have any people. Hmm. Literally no mention of those already inhabiting the space whatsoever.
The second film documents a teenaged Holocaust survivor's attempts to adjust to a new life and to get through his fears of the camps and captivity; it's a little less overt or obvious in it's politics, perhaps, and perhaps there isn't as much "need" in this kind of story to acknowledge the former inhabitants, but it's still not something that you can forget. It's all overdubbed/narrated in English and was clearly meant as a tool to help interest American Jews in moving to or helping the nascent state of Israel. It's also not as beautiful a piece of cinema as the first film; both definitely function more as historical curiosities than anything else I think.
4. Dananir (Ahmed Badrakhan, 1940, Egypt)
My first exposure - at least on film - to the mega-star Egyptian singer Om Koultoum, who starred in a few musicals in this period but is mostly known for her recordings and songwriting. She plays a simple bedouin girl whose voice is heard by one of the Caliph's top men, and is then taken to live in the palace, where lots of intrique and plotting and assassinations follow and the mood turns from love songs and comedy to tragedy and despair. I can't say this did a whole lot for me musically or cinematically up until the finish, where Koutoum's extraordinarily plaintive final song really lifts the film up into something at least memorable, if still not really great. Very different from other Egyptian musicals I've seen, and overall not really my cup of tea, but certainly worth one view.
5. Afrita hanem / Lady Afrita / Little Miss Devil (Henry Barakat, 1949, Egypt)
Much more to my liking, and I suppose much closer to Hollywood musicals in some respects, is this tale of a loser musician who just doesn't have the money to marry his sweetheart (whose father is also his boss), but happens to find a magic lamp, and a genie who beats the pants, veils and everything else off Barbara Eden for sexiness and mischievousness. Farid al Atrache as Asfour, our hero, has a nice voice and is a decent enough romantic lead but it's certainly Samia Gamal as both genie Kahramana and the human she sends to win Asfour's hear, Semsema, who stands out in both dancing and comedy - one of the sexiest performances I've seen in a very long time. There are definitely some negatives - the comedy stylings of Afour's second banana friend left me pretty cold, and it did start to feel a little busy and perhaps too madcap with maybe not as much real romance as it could have had, but this was pretty enjoyable start to finish and the last big song and dance number could have come straight out of a big-budget Hollywood musical of the period.