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Interview'They became the Walt Disney of Africa and the Arabic world'

‘Jewish Disney bros’ who founded Egypt animation industry make triumphant return

Tal Michael’s film ‘Bukra fil Mish Mish’ focuses on the Frenkels, a long-forgotten trio who launched a cartoon company by their bootstraps in the 1930s before being forced to flee

  • 'Bukra fil Mish Mish' director Tal Michael. (Courtesy)
    'Bukra fil Mish Mish' director Tal Michael. (Courtesy)
  • From left: David, Shlomo, and Herschel Frenkel, with the poster for a Mish Mish film. (Courtesy Menemsha Films)
    From left: David, Shlomo, and Herschel Frenkel, with the poster for a Mish Mish film. (Courtesy Menemsha Films)
  • A still from 'Bukra fil Mish Mish' featuring the title character opposite real-life Lebanese singer Sabah. (Menemsha Films)
    A still from 'Bukra fil Mish Mish' featuring the title character opposite real-life Lebanese singer Sabah. (Menemsha Films)
  • Thousands cheer Egypt's King Farouk, seen driving with then-prime minister Ali Maher Pasha in Cairo, May 11, 1936. (AP Photo/Staff/Len Puttnam)
    Thousands cheer Egypt's King Farouk, seen driving with then-prime minister Ali Maher Pasha in Cairo, May 11, 1936. (AP Photo/Staff/Len Puttnam)
  • Mish Mish Effendi, a character developed by the Frankel brothers in the 1930s. (Screenshot from 'Bukra fil Mish-Mish')
    Mish Mish Effendi, a character developed by the Frankel brothers in the 1930s. (Screenshot from 'Bukra fil Mish-Mish')

Even in Egypt, few today know about the three Jewish brothers who pioneered Egyptian cartoon animation back in the 1930s. On the international stage, they are today compared to a Middle Eastern version of the Disney brothers.

After nearly being lost to history, the legacy of the Frenkel brothers — Herschel, Shlomo, and David — is being pictured in a new documentary film, “Bukra fil Mish-Mish,” by Israeli director Tal Michael.

In a Zoom interview, Michael told The Times of Israel that as young men, the Frenkels “just fell in love with it, this technology, the animated world, [and just] decided they could do it.”

Not everyone supported them. The documentary’s title refers to an inauspicious early-career conversation they had while seeking funding. When they pitched a leading member of the Bank of Egypt, he called their project “mafish fayda,” or “useless” in Arabic. When they persisted, asking when he might be open to investing, he replied with a well-known expression, “bukra fil mish-mish,” or “when the apricots bloom,” a reference to the short apricot season and generally understood to mean that something will never happen.

Mish Mish Effendi, a character developed by the Frenkel brothers in the 1930s. (Screenshot from ‘Bukra fil Mish-Mish’)

Reflecting on the phrase, Michael finds two potential meanings. One is dismissive, but the other allows for a brief possibility of hope — just like the small time frame when apricots do actually bloom. The Frenkels’ story fits right in with the second interpretation.

“For a very short time, they became the Walt Disney of Africa and the Arabic world,” Michael said. Along the way, they took some swipes at their naysayer. “Mafish Fayda” became the title of one of their films, while they named their most enduring character Mish-Mish Effendi. A fez-wearing, hijinks-prone young man, Mish-Mish appealed to rich and poor alike and even starred in “National Defense,” an Egyptian propaganda film by the administration of King Farouk.

Yet future success was derailed by Egyptian hostility toward the newly declared State of Israel. Riots against the Egyptian Jewish population caused a mass exodus. The Frenkels left for France, and although they continued making animated projects they could never recapture their glory. Eventually, their film reels were left gathering dust in their basement.

Thousands cheer Egypt’s King Farouk, seen driving with then-prime minister Ali Maher Pasha in Cairo, May 11, 1936. (AP Photo/Staff/Len Puttnam)

Now, these once-forgotten films are being restored in France, and the brothers’ former homeland of Egypt is beginning to recognize their place as trailblazers in its animated film industry — all of which is documented in Michael’s film.

Upcoming virtual screenings include the Albuquerque Jewish Film Festival on February 18. During the pre-COVID era, “Bukra fil Mish-Mish” was shown at venues in various countries including France and Israel. It won the Interfaith Competition Award at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. Another Israeli screening, for the Egyptian Jewish community, received a standing ovation.

“It’s the reason you make films, bringing back the emotional parts to people,” Michael said of the Egyptian Jews’ reception. “It’s one moment you never forget.”

‘Waiting for this call for 40 years’

The film project began after Michael read an e-book about animation. Its author wrote that Egyptian animation dated to the 1950s or ‘60s. When Michael did a Google search about the subject, she found different information in an article about the Frenkels written by Shlomo’s son Didier.

“So many things did not fit,” Michael recalled. “[The article] spoke about pioneers in the ‘30s. The e-book talked about the ‘60s or the ‘50s. Also, Frenkel is not a common Egyptian name.”

An experienced documentary filmmaker whose subjects include women’s rights, human rights and animal rights, Michael conducted more research into the Frenkels. Although the brothers had long since died, she connected with Shlomo’s family, including his widow Marcelle and their children, Didier, Jane and Daniel.

From left: David, Shlomo, and Herschel Frenkel, with the poster for a Mish Mish film. (Courtesy Menemsha Films)

She first located Didier Frenkel in 2012, after finding four people with that name in France. (She succeeded on the third try.) It turned out that he had uncovered his father’s and uncles’ trove of film-related material in the family’s basement decades earlier.

“He was crying when he heard I was from Israel,” Michael said. “He had been waiting for this phone call for about 40 years.”

He had been waiting for this phone call for about 40 years

Michael visited France to meet with him and his siblings, along with their mother Marcelle. Over the seven years of making the film, Marcelle would end up having a particularly important presence due to her complex view of the Frenkel cartoons.

“As a feminist, as a storyteller, I understood there was another, different story here,” Michael said. “A melodrama about a family, what they were going through, a really difficult immigration. I started to watch [their] films in this perspective. It was amazing. I started to see all of them through the narrative of an immigrant longing for a homeland, everything in their cartoons. It was very, very obvious when I started looking in this manner.”

Self-made men

The budding cartoonists were Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated numerous times during their life. Originally from Belarus, they fled to Ottoman Palestine and what is today Tel Aviv. During World War I, the Ottoman authorities deported the area’s Jewish population to Alexandria, where the Frenkels remained in the postwar period.

‘Bukra fil Mish Mish’ director Tal Michael. (Courtesy)

In 1929, they saw the Walt Disney animated film “Steamboat Willie,” starring Mickey Mouse. They got the idea to create their own animated films in their new homeland, despite considerable obstacles.

“They did not have anyone to learn from,” Michael said, adding that they found “only one how-to book, a Czech book in Europe, on how to make animation,” and requested animated films from the United States.

Some aspects of their backgrounds proved helpful. David worked for a furniture company that used a Chinese style popular in the era. He applied Chinese painting techniques to the cartoons he drew. Shlomo proved gifted at creating machines to make the films, including portable screens, and registered at least one patent. Herschel served as the films’ producer.

“These three people were a company,” Michael said. “They did everything by themselves.”

After their first film, “Marco Monkey,” they found audiences more receptive toward their subsequent creation, Mish-Mish Effendi.

As Michael explains, “mish-mish” means “apricot,” while the term “effendi” indicates respectability. The character himself was less identified with pomp than with pratfalls. Mish-Mish became a hit with the wealthy audiences who patronized theaters, and with the poor who watched movies outdoors or from rooftops. He even appeared in a cinematic combination of animation with the real-life Lebanese singer Sabah. His image was featured in newspapers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, according to Michael.

A still from ‘Bukra fil Mish Mish’ featuring the title character opposite real-life Lebanese singer Sabah. (Menemsha Films)

Bittersweet escape

By the late 1930s, Mish-Mish had grown so popular that Farouk’s government featured him in a propaganda film made in collaboration with the army of the ultimate ruler of colonial Egypt — the British Empire. He leads a patriotic march against a background of pyramids and palm trees.

“Mish-Mish became like a symbol of the Egyptian soldier,” Michael said.

Although the cartoons were used to rally Egypt toward national unity, there were tensions brewing.

‘Bukra fil Mish Mish,’ directed by Tal Michael. (Courtesy Menemsha Films)

After Israeli independence in 1948, a coalition of Middle Eastern states, including Egypt, declared war on the new nation. Deadly riots erupted against Egyptian Jews, whose position became untenable. The Frenkels considered two emigration choices: Israel or France. Ultimately they chose France, and brought all of their cartoon collection with them — preserving their work, but leaving no trace of it in their former home.

A longing for Egypt is reflected in their work in France. They created a new character with a familiar-sounding name: Mimiche. In a Cold War-era film, a mad scientist explodes an atom bomb, with science-defying ramifications for four landmarks: the pyramids, the Sphinx, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. The brothers, it seems, never quite got over their own geographical dislocation from Egypt to France.

Marcelle Frenkel had complicated feelings about the cartoons of her husband and brothers-in-law. A Sephardic Jew from Egypt, she loved her husband, but tensions arose with her Ashkenazi in-laws. In France, the entire family lived in the same house. Marcelle felt that in a new country, they would be better off following more practical pursuits than cartoons.

Marcelle Frenkel (Screenshot from ‘Bukra fil Mish-Mish’)

A moment of decades-overdue reconciliation occurs in “Bukra fil Mish Mish” when Marcelle gets a visit from an Egyptian scholar of cartoons, Sherif El Ramly. They converse in Arabic, and she recalls (and sings) a popular song from the Egypt of her younger days. He tells her of the cartoons’ merit in Egyptian history — a moment of catharsis for her with her children watching off-camera.

The Frenkels’ work may continue to receive a warmer reception thanks to Michael’s film — including a future screening in Cairo in partnership with the Israeli embassy.

“I think it will be something we can do to close the circle,” Michael said. “I hope the family will be there for the film, to see it with their own eyes.”

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