One North African source from the 1930s called him “the great mover and shaker of cinema” in the region (le grand animateur du cinéma). Another insisted that he was, simply, “the King of Cinema” (le roi du cinéma). Such was the reputation of the great movie entrepreneur Joseph Seibarras, who was, nevertheless, little known at the time outside of North Africa, and almost completely unknown to us today.
I’ve mentioned Seibarras once before, in a post from May 2018, when I wrote about his Empire cinema in Fez, Morocco, which when it opened in 1932 was described as an architectural wonder in Les Chantiers nord-africains. And, really, to find out anything about him, you need to go to the French colonial sources from the 1920s and ‘30s, newspapers and specialized journals like Les Chantiers, or Oran Spectacles, or La Gazette de Mostaganem, Le Progrès de Bel-Abbès, and L’Afrique du Nord illustrée. Only occasionally will there be evidence in material from France, for instance the issue of the film journal Hebdo from April 9th, 1932, that makes a brief, back-page mention of Seibarras moving into film exhibition in Tunis. In my own internet search for information about him, I found only one source, a very partial biography, in French, at a website dedicated to the Bab El Oued neighborhood of Algiers (http://babelouedstory.com/cdhas/16_cinema_majestic/cinema_majestic_16.html).
Of course, many of us know about another great North African film impresario, Jacques Haïk, a Tunisian Jew who came to Paris and had one of the great boom and bust careers in a national film industry famous for them. In the years just before 1920, when he was still in his early-twenties, Haïk was one of the most significant film distributors in France, handling films from Keystone, Kay-Bee, Majestic, and other early studios, while also being among the first to bring Charlie Chaplin’s films to the French public. At the height of his career, during the 1930s, Haïk owned his own production company as well as a chain of cinemas, including the spectacular Grand Rex in the second arrondissement, which is still in operation today. But what about the career of a major distributor and exhibitor, like Seibarras, who chose to stay in North Africa?
By 1933, Seibarras was so important to the region that the journal L’Afrique du Nord illustrée ran a glowing retrospective of his career. This was the source that referred to him as the “great mover and shaker,” and then asserted that “North Africa has amazing cinemas, comparable to anywhere in the world,” because of Sebarras. He had built his first cinema in Algiers in 1912, and this seems to have been the first space designed specifically to show movies in Algeria. L’Afrique du Nord described Seibarras as the ideal colonial subject, so loyal to France that he left to fight at the front as soon as The Great War began, but also fully Algerian, and as a result “a fatalist” who “patiently waited for the end of the nightmare.” With the armistice, he returned to Algiers and built the Variétés and the Montpensier cinemas, and then bought the run-down Regent and transformed it into a salle d’exclusivité, a showplace for the best films and “a rendez-vous for elite Algerians.”
He then extended his empire with similarly named cinemas, the Regent in Oran, then the Regent in Casablanca, and then the Regent in Rabat, and then branched out to Mostaganem, Marrakech, and Tangier. Once again demonstrating his loyalties to both Algeria and France, to mark the hundredth anniversary of French colonial rule he established the Majestic cinema in Algiers, a 4000-seat exhibition site that was “one of the best in the world.” Ever the pioneer, Seibarras even went “to the farthest reaches of South Algeria and Morocco, which few Europeans have seen,” and brought state of the art cinemas to the “backward races.”
The cinemas in Seibarras’ exhibition chain typically showed the most prestigious films. In 1929, the Regent cinema in Oran presented the city’s first program of sound films, including a short subject featuring André Baugé, one of France’s leading baritones. In 1935, Seibarras brought the much-anticipated Frank Capra film New York-Miami (It Happened One Night ) to the Rialto cinema in Oran. But that was a dubbed version. And so, “responding to a group of cinephiles,” according to Oran Spectacles, Seibarras arranged a one-night screening of the version originale, a print of the film in English with French subtitles. Then, in 1939, perhaps the greatest international hit of the decade, Blanche Neige et les sept nains (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ), opened in Bel-Abbès, Algeria, at Seibarras’ Empire cinema.
Seibarras’ career ranged beyond the cinema, and in fact gives us a sense of how a successful film impresario might become vital to a region’s broader culture. As early as 1927, for the grand opening of the Empire cinema in Bel-Abbès, which was attended by “everybody who was anybody,” Seibarras donated all proceeds to the construction of a monument honoring Algerians who had died during the war. In 1938, he brought Josephine Baker back to Algiers for the first time in six years, for a show at his Majestic cinema. Reviewing Baker’s performance, Les Spectacles d’Alger made it a point to “congratulate” Seibarras “for his daring,” and thank him for “bringing us such magnificent shows.” Moving into higher-brow spectacle, and not just movies and stage shows, Seibarras presented the 1932 North African premiere of an opera by Jean Nouguès, Le Scarabée bleu, at the Grand Casino cinema in Oran and starring the well- known French lyric soprano, Aimée Mortimer. In 1938, Seibarras hosted a high-society masked ball for charity, at the Modern cinema in Mostaganem, Algeria, during the same week that the Modern screened Bureau des épaves (Stranded ), starring Kay Francis.
The list might go on, of talks by artists and intellectuals, or events benefitting local charities. And we can see from this the significant role played in the region by a commercial and cultural entrepreneur like Seibarras. The local press listed his new cinemas, his various forms of programming, the new distribution businesses he would form in Tunis or Morocco or elsewhere, and also his frequent visits to the metropole of Paris, where he would meet with important French officials. Seibarras came to be considered the ideal blend of high finance and high taste, the colonial subject who was the perfect mixture of French and Algerian sensibilities, and who brought world culture, from Walt Disney to Josephine Baker to Aimée Mortimer, to the colonies.
The trail goes very cold on Seibarras in 1939, not coincidentally the year marking the start of World War Two. This may, of course, have a great deal to do with the Nazi invasion of France and subsequent control of North Africa, for at least the very early stages of the war. It’s also true that there are hardly any sources from this period, at least from North Africa, that are readily available to the historian working in the United States.
If we return for a moment to Jacques Haïk, whose career in France paralleled that of Seibarras in North Africa, we know very well of his militant anti-Nazism, his exile during the Occupation, and his participation in the French Resistance. Haïk would return to France after the war and partially rebuild his empire before his death in 1950. We can imagine a similar narrative for Seibarras, who had fought for France once before and who seemed so dedicated to the empire that had made him a wealthy and important man.
I have been unable to find anything about him during this period or later, information about his activities while the war was going on or after, or when he died. We can only know him, and then only partially, as he was in the 1920s and ‘30s, when his career could be understood by many of his contemporaries as a perfect signifier of North African modernity, and when he himself might reasonably be called the King of Cinema.