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Egyptian Cinema in 2011 between activism and art

Has the revolution reached Egyptian cinema? Ahram Online’s overview of the year’s major events in the cinema industry

Menna Taher, Tuesday 27 Dec 2011
Fady El Sawy
Views: 4720
Views: 4720

2011 has been a turbulent year for Egypt: the year started with the bombing of a church, 25 days later, Egyptians took to the streets demanding the fall of the regime, and 18 days later the president Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Since then, Egypt has been ruled by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), who have also attacked and abused protesters. So has Egyptian cinema been affected by the on-going revolution?

Although, cinema-makers have taken an economic blow this year, as cinema-goers have thinned out, it seems that film in Egypt, especially documentary filmmaking, has taken on new approaches.

It cannot be said that cinema has become revolutionised in terms of ideas and images, yet it has taken a new form. Cameras have become an important tool of activism, and there are now different initiatives for documenting the revolution and attacks on it. Mosireen (Determined) is a non-profit media centre based in Downtown Cairo born out of the explosion of citizen journalism, and more recently Kazeboon (Liars) has been established aiming to expose the lies of the armed forces.

Kazeboon screen the violations by the army against protesters in many public squares, to counter the mainstream media, which is characterised by depicting protesters and revolutionaries as thugs bent on stoking instability.

Mosireen have made many of the widely shared YouTube videos becoming one of the most watched YouTube channels in Egypt. One of its films “Victory to the Martyrs,”captures the killings of martyrs from January through to November, when it was made.

These videos of brutality and oppression, many of which are widely circulated online, have left many images engraved in the collective memory; the importance of the image has gone to a new level this year.

Mosireen are also behind the Tahrir Cinema initiative, screening their films in Tahrir Square. The initiative started during the 8 July sit-in that lasted for around three weeks before it was dispersed by force on 1 August. Tahrir Cinema screens films with footage from different events during the revolution, including from the 18 days and the recent Mohamad Mahmoud clashes, as well as testimonies with regard to military trials, torture and mistreatment at the hands of security forces.

However, the question has been posed several times throughout the year: is it time to make films about the revolution while the revolution is still ongoing?

Filmmaker Ayten Amin, who directed one part of the three-part documentary film “Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician,” discussed this question with Ahram Online from the middle of Tahrir Square during the clashes that started 19 November between security forces and protesters in Tahrir Square and nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street. During these clashes around 40 protesters were killed, and thousands injured.

“If I could, I would do it all over again,” Amin said. “I was trying to capture the human side of the police in my film despite my hatred towards them,” she said. “But I caught them at a time when they were defeated,” she continued.

Perhaps, these films will become a testimony to certain moments during the revolution, or perhaps they will become irrelevant with the passing of time. Only time will tell.

Two films surrounding the 18 days that led to the ouster of Mubarak, received international recognition.

The first “Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician” was screened at the Venice Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Film Festival. In the three-part documentary, the first part revolves around the protesters, the second interviews members of the police of different ranks, and the third takes a satirical look and how a dictator is made.

The second, “18 Days,” is a series of ten fictional shorts by different filmmakers. Prior to its screening at the Cannes Film Festival, the film was plagued by controversy, because of the ties the filmmakers had with the Mubarak regime.

This year, Cannes made Egypt its guest of honour. In addition to “18 Days,” it screened “The Cry of an Ant” (Sarkhet Namla) outside its official selection, and Hussein Kamal’s masterpiece “The Postman” (El Bostagy) in the classics section.

However, it seems that at Cannes, the desire to honour the Egyptian revolution took precedence over the quality of the films. “The Cry of An Ant,” like many contemporary Egyptian films, puts too much effort into making a bold statement that it compromises the development of a convincing narrative. Similarly, the film “El Fagoomy” based on the autobiography of revolutionary Egyptian poet Ahmed Fuad Negm – popularly known as “El Fagoomy” – closes off the film by forcefully inserting the January uprising .

Many filmmakers and people working in the film industry or the art scene in general, were enraged that two of the participating directors of “18 Days,” were Sherif Arafa and Marwan Hamed who had contributed to the Hosni Mubarak’s 2005 presidential campaign.

Filmmakers were angry that people who had cooperated and aided the Mubarak regime would be representing the revolution abroad. The participation of prominent actress Yousra in one of the films also sparked anger, as she had appeared on national television criticising protesters.

During the 18 days of mass protests in January, many celebrities were blacklisted by activists for their statements condemning and defaming the revolution. Yousra was blacklisted, as was actor Talaat Zakareya who said that Tahrir Square protesters have sex in tents and smoke marijuana.  

It is also true that many working in filmmaking have participated in the revolution from the beginning. On 7 February, members of the Egyptian Cinema Syndicate turned against the corrupt, old regime personified by its head Mosaad Fouda, and joined the call to oust Mubarak and his regime.

In March 2011, after the downfall of former president Mubarak, more than a third of the syndicate’s members signed a petition presented to the interim government, calling for the removal of Mosaad Fouda and the formation of a temporary administrative board to guide the syndicate until elections scheduled for July.

The Ministry of Culture refused to accept the petition, prompting a 60-day sit-in at the syndicate during which members dug up files and documents of corruption incriminating Fouda and Mahdouh El Leithy, head of the Union of Artistic Syndicates and close associate of Fouda.

However, despite these efforts and a protest in June against the participation of regime figures in the syndicate’s elections, Fouda won in the elections on 11 July. He was running against the well-known Director Aly Bakdrakhan.

Another wave of protests in the field of cinema took place, when film student Fady El Sawy was detained on 9 September during the protests outside the Israeli Embassy in the wake of a cross-border incident that left five Egyptian soldiers killed. Students at the High Institute of Cinema held a sit-in, while many well-known cinema figures, including director and screen writer Khaled Youssef, condemned his detainment. El Sawy was released on 18 October.

Releases this year were scarce, and none of these except perhaps “The Traveller” (El Mosafer) are worth mentioning as the film of the year. The debut of filmmaker Ahmed Maher, “The Traveller” is despite its flaws, an interesting film. It is highly stylised, with meticulous care to costume and set-design and costumes, with beautiful cinematography in places. The film’s underdeveloped script, however, leaves the audience in a daze. Characterised by a sense of vagueness, there are too many missing links in the film.

The cinematic year closed off with the Eurofilm Panorama, the most anticipated cinema event this year in Egypt. Its timing was however problematic, with the opening taking place while fighting between protesters and security forces on Mohamed Mahmoud were still on-going. This raises another question: amidst turbulent events, is it right for cultural life to continue as scheduled?

This year the Panorama included a section that featured films on different revolutions worldwide. Despite its relevance, however, this section was not the highlight of this year’s edition.

Highlights this year were the films that participated in Cannes including The Dardenne Brothers’ “The Kid with the Bike,” Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia”, Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” and Wim Wenders’ “Pina.”

Another interesting film among this year’s selection was Richard Ayoade’s debut film “Submarine,” which sensitively captures the essence of adolescence. The film has won the best screenplay in the British Independent Film Awards.

The Eurofilm Panorama was the year’s major film festival as the Cairo International Film Festival was cancelled by former minister of culture Emad Abou-Ghazi because of the ministry’s tight budget. Other smaller festivals included the Alexandria International Film Festival and the Cam Film Festival for short films, the latter of which was a major flop as most of its entries were more akin to advertisements and propaganda than to films.

As the year closes off, the Islamists have won the majority of seats in parliament so far, and the political situation remains still unclear.

An observation made by many, that became an online joke, refers to “Haram Street” (Sharea El-Haram), set in a nightclub and starring famous Egyptian belly dancer Dina. The film made unprecedented profits in the Ramdan Eid holiday, taking the record for an Egyptian film profits in one day to a new high of LE 2.1 million. The joke is that many of those who went to watch the film also voted for the Islamists.

Many artists have expressed concern about the impact of an Islamist-dominated parliament on the art and film scene, though what such an impact might be remains unclear.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.