Paul Schemm, Associated Press
German expatriate Birte Wagener has her hair done on the set of Egyptian production "The Passenger."

CAIRO, Egypt — A motley group of foreigners — English teachers, students of Arabic, even a journalist — gathered on a recent chilly night in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, brought together by a love of cinema, curiosity and a furtive hope of catching a glimpse of Omar Sharif.

Glamour, however, was in quite short supply for our band of film extras. Waiting around for hours in our 1940s period costumes, we slouched in the elegant wood paneled bar of a luxury hotel eating cold food from McDonald's, waiting to shoot a five-minute dining room scene. The lead actors had yet to even show up.

Still, it was a unique opportunity, one I had searched for off-and-on during the decade I have lived in Egypt — especially since this production is being touted as a rebirth of Egyptian cinema.

"The Passenger" has a cast full of Egyptian stars, topped by Sharif in a heralded comeback to Egyptian film after a 15-year absence. The movie has been billed by Culture Minister Farouk Hosni as a "return to the golden age of cinema."

The ministry itself is footing the bill for the film, the first time it has done so in 30 years, in an effort to boost the flagging reputation of what was known as the Hollywood of the Middle East.

Egypt has one of the region's oldest movie industries; 50 years ago, it was producing films on par with those of Hollywood. But in the past two decades, it has declined, throwing together slapdash comedies and over-the-top melodramas with poor production values.

"In the West, the film has a great position, and it used to be the same here in the 1940s and 1950s and then something happened, it became, I don't know why, a second-class economy," said Amr Waked, one of Egypt's up-and-coming actors, who also appears in "The Passenger." He is better known to international audiences as the Egyptian terror leader in George Clooney's 2006 film "Syriana."

Critics have blamed Egyptian cinema's decline on a host of factors. Rising Islamic conservatism made movies disreputable, while at the same time, the funding dried up leaving producers just trying to make a quick buck.

The Culture Ministry is hoping that by returning to its role of financing the cinema — the way it's done in many countries — it can produce quality features like "The Passenger."

The film is a multigenerational epic set in 1948, 1973 and 2001, and first-time director Ahmed Maher has spent a year and a half filming it.

"There was a need to capture the right stuff, no matter how long it took, no matter how many times you repeat," Waked said. "There was very little compromise on that, unlike other (Egyptian) productions where they sometimes accept certain compromises to finish quickly."

The painstaking process was certainly clear in our scene that night, as the two dozen foreigners — from Britain, the U.S., France, Puerto Rico, Germany and Sweden — were transformed into diners on a postwar luxury cruise.

Battered trucks parked outside the hotel where the scene was being shot served as makeshift makeup and dressing rooms.

In the harsh glare of lights, hairdressers heated metal tongs on open gas flames to carefully straighten and then curl each woman extra's hair into elaborate coiffures, as everyone was fitted into natty suits and ball gowns.

I was selected to be a waiter. Unfortunately, I wouldn't have the chance to act with Sharif. He was appearing only in the 2001 scenes of the movie — and my brief appearance in a crisp white waiter's jacket was set half a century earlier.

The scene was shot in Alexandria at a luxury hotel that once served as a 19th century hunting lodge for Egypt's royal family. The ornate wood-paneled restaurant would stand in for the cruise ship's dining room. Maher whisked away the anachronistic no-smoking signs that had been inadvertently left on the tables.

Ahead of the shoot, Maher — who spent years in Italy — chatted in Italian with his director of photography, Marco Onorato, whose film "Gomorra" just won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Then, as filming finally began at 1 a.m., Maher bellowed across the set with the Egyptian version of "lights, camera, action": "Doh! Tasweer! Action!"

The camera circled around the lead couple: Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy, who appeared in Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven," sat across from Lebanese pop diva Cyrine Abdelnour in a tense dinner scene.

Nabawy plays a lower class postman who intercepted letters between Abdelnour and her childhood sweetheart, whom he is now impersonating in effort to win her heart.

For my part, I — the waiter — was struggling with my own job: precariously balancing two plates on my arm.

Just minutes before I was to appear on camera, the restaurant's real head waiter took me aside and taught me how to carry plates and properly pour wine.

I tottered across the dining room floor, desperately trying to remember my cue and look appropriately haughty as I served the elite clientele and delivered my sole line — "excuse me," in English.

The steak slid ominously across the plate toward the two actors as my overburdened arm faltered, and I had a sudden vision of the entire movie turning into a farce as the bumbling water dumped his food onto their exquisite costumes.

Fortunately, the scene went off more or less without a hitch, despite me stuttering my line and saying it too early at first. But it was just a rehearsal and we had several more takes ahead us. At one point, Abdelnour just buried her head in her hands — she'd been working since the morning.

Hours later, it was over. One more scene finished. Only a few weeks of filming left and the year-and-a-half odyssey for the actors would be over.

We had been sitting around for 14 hours and would be paid $50. The true compensation, however, was a little taste of movie glamor, with the hope, perhaps, that it might lead to something bigger.

For me, my sole prospects for a career change came from elsewhere. "You know, you're weren't too bad," the restaurant's head waiter told me. "If you ever need a job here, just let me know."