Tunisia's King of Cinema - World Jewish Congress
Tunisia's King of Cinema
Albert Samama Chikly (1872-1934)

Although it is generally understood that the independent Arabic film industry emerged in Egypt in the late 1920s and early 1930s, this is only part of the story. In fact, Jewish involvement in Arabic cinema began decades earlier with the pioneering efforts of Albert Samama Chikly (1872– 1933).

Chikly was born in Tunis in 1872 but was educated in France. In 1896, he returned to Tunisia as the representative of the Lumière brothers, considered the fathers of modern cinema. In Tunis, Chikly organized the first screenings of Lumière films with photographer Soler in 1897. Chikly was not only interested in film but also in other technological innovations of the time, also bringing the bicycle, radio, and X-ray technology to North Africa. In 1897, he opened a "Hall for Radioscopy and Radiography" in his home on Siddi Sofian Street in Tunis, where he not only used it for medical applications but also for public demonstrations of X-ray photography. During this period he continued making films, documenting Tunisian culture and experimenting with underwater cinematography. Chikly received recognition for his photography skills and was awarded a bronze medal for the photographs he exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Chikly produced newsreels in both Tunisia and France, selling his films to companies such as Urban, Pathé and Gaumont. Always at the cutting edge of technology, he documented Tunisian culture by filming Tunis from a hot air balloon in 1908, and even experimented with underwater cinematography in a wooden submarine. Later, during the Italo–Turkish War of 1911, he made films capturing the perspective from Libya. During World War I, he worked for the French army's film and photography units, filming at Verdun and taking Autochrome color photographs.

After World War I, Chikly returned to Tunisia and worked on French films, eventually directing his own movie, Zohra (1922), which was written by his daughter Haydée Samama Chikly (1906–1998). His only feature-length film, ʿAīn El-Ghazel [The Girl from Carthage] (1924), tells the story of a young woman trying to escape a forced marriage, and foreshadowed the female-centric focus that Tunisian cinema would take after independence. Both films also starred his daughter, who continued acting in Tunisian films into the 1990s. His work represented almost the only independent Maghrebi films made during the colonial era.

Albert Chikly’s daughter, Haydée Samama Chikly (1906-1998) in the film ʿAïn El-Ghazel (The Girl from Carthage, 1924)
Albert Chikly’s daughter, Haydée Samama Chikly (1906-1998) in the film ʿAïn El-Ghazel (The Girl from Carthage, 1924)

Chikly died in 1934 in Tunisia at the age of 62 and is buried in the Borgel cemetery in Tunis, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Maghreb. His tombstone bears the epitaph: ”Tireless in curiosity, reckless in courage, audacious in enterprise, obstinate amidst trials, resigned to relegation, he leaves his friends.”

However, his legacy lives on in cinematic history. In 1996, Mahmoud ben Mahmoud, a Tunisian film writer and producer, released a documentary on his life, and in 2015 the Cinematheque in Bologna curated a retrospective exhibit on his life and works.

Zohra (1922): A Film Directed by Albert Samama Chikly and Written by his Daughter, Haydée Samama
  • Corriou, Morgan. “Tunis and ‘modern times’: the beginnings of cinematography in the Regency (1896–1908).” Academia.edu, 2013,
  • “Albert Samama Chikly, Principe Dei Pionieri.” Il Cinema Ritrovato,
  • “Samama, Albert.” Who's Who of Victorian Cinema, British Film Institute
About Tunisia

Tunisia’s historic Island of Djerba and its synagogue, which is considered one of the oldest in the world, was a hub of Jewish life since the Roman era. From the Roman era, when Jewish communities thrived in Carthage, to significant populations in Tunis, Sfax, and Djerba, they've been integral to Tunisia's cultural mosaic.

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