On Transnationality and Archive Practice: A Chronicle of the Rafla Collection

by Tamer El Said

In December 2018, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus put me in contact with Ihab Rafla, who was in touch with the Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art seeking shelter for his father’s film collection, which was stored in their family apartment in Cairo’s neighborhood, Heliopolis.

The father, Magdy Rafla, was a jeweler who had a jewelry shop located in downtown Cairo during the second half of the twentieth century. Magdy was also a passionate cinephile who had spent his life amassing an extensive collection of films, a true testament to his love for this art form. Spanning the early 1900s to the 1980s, his collection encompassed a mesmerizing array of cinematic treasures from all corners of the world. However, after Magdy’s passing in 2017 at the age of 87, his vast collection was left lonely inside his empty apartment.

In the first week of January 2019, I visited the Rafla apartment, unsure of what I would encounter. The sight that unfolded before my eyes left me fascinated—a sight that can only be described as a cinephile’s paradise. Each room within the expansive flat was overflowing with films and film-related materials, immersing the space in an aura of cinematic history. It was a testament to Magdy’s unwavering dedication and an insatiable curiosity for the silver screen.

Ihab, Magdy’s son, suggested moving the collection to Germany, but it was clear to the Arsenal and us that it had to stay in Egypt. From this moment on, we started a new journey of collaboration with the Arsenal to work on this collection, following a 9-year history of collaboration on many other joint projects.

In March 2019, we relocated the Rafla collection to Cimatheque.[1] A few weeks later, we organized a workshop with the Arsenal to work on the collection at its new shelter. Guided by the expertise of our esteemed archivist, Yasmin Desouki, and the invaluable insights of Lisabona Rahman, a film preservation and restoration specialist from the Arsenal, a dedicated group of 10 passionate volunteers joined forces to embark on the meticulous inspection and assessment of the collection’s content and physical condition.

The Rafla collection is a remarkable ensemble, encompassing a diverse range of cinematic items that offer a profound glimpse into the material culture surrounding cinema-going and film collecting during the second half of the previous century. It includes approximately 1000 9.5mm Pathe Baby films, around 1,200 16mm and 35mm prints, hundreds of amateur films and home movies in various formats such as 8mm, Super8, and 16mm, orphan films, newsreels, as well as rare magazines and books that provide a wealth of historical and contextual knowledge, in addition to many invaluable cinematic apparatuses, including rewinders, projectors, splicers, and viewers. Rafla’s comprehensive collection of equipment not only offers insight into the inspection and maintenance of film reels but also comprises an array of projectors of different gauges—both locally produced in Egypt and internationally acquired. Furthermore, the collection showcases an intriguing assortment of world films thoughtfully translated into Arabic, providing a captivating window into the history of subtitling and inter-titling practices in Egypt.

Following extensive research and working hard on alternative methods to build a climate-controlled room, we were able to equip, seal, and outfit a room inside Cimatheque to host the analog collection in the best possible conditions within our limited resources.

In July 2021, we launched a call for volunteers program. The response was overwhelming, with over 220 applications pouring in within a week. Inspired by this growing interest, we initiated a regular volunteer program, which proved to be a transformative experience, not only for the volunteers but also for our team and the collection itself.

As the program unfolded, we had the privilege of providing basic training to 80 young practitioners specializing in Library Sciences, equipping them with the essential knowledge and skills required for effective archival practices. Additionally, 10 individuals received specialized training in film preservation techniques, further bolstering our capabilities in safeguarding these cinematic treasures.

The involvement of these dedicated volunteers has been instrumental in our ongoing efforts at Cimatheque. They have become an integral part of the day-to-day operations, actively contributing their expertise and enthusiasm to various tasks such as indexing, cataloging, and digitizing the collection. Their commitment and passion have been truly inspiring. They represented a new generation of archive practitioners who have emerged as a driving force within the growing archive community in Egypt.

The extensive work on the Rafla collection resulted in findings that surprised everyone. The collection includes incredibly diverse material, but the true treasures are amateur footage of Egypt shot primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. It captured local provinces, bustling Cairene streets, and governates such as Port Said and Alexandria, shot by Egyptians and also by German, Greek, British, and Italian ex-pats who lived in the country. The footage provides an unforgettable and rarely-seen view of Egypt at a critical point in its history. It offers a unique window into Egyptian life under the British protectorate, revealing a layer of the colonial history in the Arab region. It also contains footage shot in different European cities by Egyptians during the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these images do not exist elsewhere, and these are the sole prints available, making the collection the most precious one we know about in Egypt, let alone in the MENA region. Amazingly, it still remains in its country of origin, which is a rare feat.

In February 2022, the Arsenal and Cimatheque organized a cutting-edge workshop led by Lisabona Rahman on “Advanced Techniques and Challenges in Film Archiving and Preservation.” Following the workshop, we are currently collaborating with Arsenal on developing a trilingual toolkit that will offer a comprehensive resource covering various aspects such as inspecting, logging, film repair, splicing, digitization, and cold storage techniques.

Our collaboration with the Arsenal offered Cimatheque an incredible opportunity to learn and grow. To us, transnationality is not about bringing people from different nationalities together. It’s not about acquiring or showing material from different parts of the world. Transnationality is a daily practice, vision, and mindset that are based on a set of values and principles.

Openness, mutuality, transparency, eye-to-eye level, exchange positions, maintaining cultural differences as a source to enrich the process rather than a way to demonstrate hierarchy, and challenging the power dynamics that are imposed by the funding structures and geopolitics are key elements to be considered in every step and every decision we make in our collaborations.

This is what we need today more than ever, and we owe it to ourselves before anyone else.

This text benefited from reports on the Rafla Collection by different team members of Cimatheque, including Yasmin Desouki and Hana Al Bayaty.


[1] Cimatheque—Alternative Film Centre: https://www.cimatheque.org/.