Every weekend, cinemas in Cairo are filled with audiences eager to see the biggest releases, which have been advertised on billboards all over the city.
Given this enthusiastic audience, commercial films which are distributed by large companies often achieve revenues in the tens of millions Egyptian pounds.
Independent filmmakers, on the other hand, struggle to fund their films and to reach the same kind of viewership.
As a part of the Hybrid Reels: Revisiting the documentary programme, Mostafa Youssef, a director and producer from Cairo-based film house Seen Film Production, led a discussion titled "Funding Stories: Arab vs. International Co-production." The panel, held on 23 May in Cairo's ROOM Art Space, centred around film co-production as a source of funding, in the Middle East and internationally.
“Co-production has a long history in the region,” Youssef explained, citing the German Film Festival DOK Leipzig, one of the most important documentary film markets, as an example.
“There were a lot of co-production partnerships between Palestine and East Germany before the union. This is an example of partnerships based on shared values, something that doesn't really exist anymore,” Youssef said, adding that due to the large number of Palestinian films participating in the Leipzig festival, the Palestinian Liberation Front created an award for the best film about a country under occupation.
Struggle for control
Co-production seems like a perfect solution to funding problems, but it raises the question of who decides the final cut.
“That’s an ongoing debate everywhere,” Youssef said.
Often a filmmaker loses the ownership of the final cut when working with television channels, since producers try to maintain the upper hand so they can make sure that the channel’s terms will be fulfilled.
One example of a dispute about final cut ownership is the case of The Roof (2006), Palestinian filmmaker Kamal Jaafari’s first film. As the film director and producer, Jaafari was able to reach a partnership with a German producer. The film was offered a slot on two famous German channels, ZDF and ARTE. The producer, who also insisted on hiring a German film editor, chose to retain the final cut ownership.
“The producer is always loyal to the channel. He works with a filmmaker only once, but works with a channel for a lifetime.”
Youssef explains that in The Roof, Jaafari wanted to portray the Palestinian people as “human beings. He did not want to present a symphony of shouting and complaining.”
But the German producer and the television channels had a different opinion.
“The Germans told the Palestinian director that his film was not Palestinian enough since it had no scenes of barefoot kids running to throw stones.”
According to Youssef, the channel said that the film would be screened only if Jaafari added a voice-over with a narration about the Palestinian struggle.
The director, who illegally made a copy of the final cut with the help of the German editor, tried to protect his artistic view and contacted the German Filmmakers Syndicate and the press, and in the end was able to show the film his way.
But not all cases ended with the directors' victorious.
When Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad was working his film Paradise Now (2005), he worked with a German producer and distributor, explained Youssef.
“The distributor thought the only way to get European audiences to watch the film was to frame it as a film about suicide bombers, which totally contradicted Abu Assad’s idea.”
The film ended up having two posters, one showing two men in suits, and another showing a suicide bomber with a background of a mosque, a scene that doesn’t even exist in the film.
“Everyone has an agenda, and I mean the good and the bad sides of the word,” Youssef said.
“A public institution’s agenda can promote local culture. A producer’s agenda can be his personal belief in some work,” he said. “The important thing is transparency.”
Youssef recalls a personal experience he had during his work with Seen films, when the Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq approached Seen to produce The Mulberry House (Bayt Al-Tout). In the film, Ishaq goes to Sanaa, Yemen where she reconnects with her family after years of living in Scotland.
Ishaq’s Scottish nationality made her film interesting to Scottish producers. One producer offered to match any funding Seen could get if the film should have a Scottish angle. Ishaq sought help from Creative Scotland, a public entity that supports Scottish artists, yet they had the same condition.
“A Syrian private production company, Proaction, was interested in the film, and a German and a Danish producer were very interested,” Youssef added.
“The German producer did not want a German element,” he said, “but he wanted some intro to explain where Yemen is and more information about Sara’s social class.”
The film production, however, ended up taking a completely different track.
“None of these entities ended up being co-producers and Al Jazeera English ended up buying it.”
Persistence and pragmatism
Producing Arabic language films and distributing them on television is not an easy task. Despite the presence of a few slots for Arabic content in large networks like the BBC, the amount they pay cannot fund a film.
“The only channel that gives enough fund to produce a film is Al Jazeera Documentaries,” Youssef said. “They are interested in several lines of work, which offers filmmakers better opportunities.”
Youssef advises filmmakers to apply with their films to festivals and workshops. Films do not necessarily get funding, but they get exposure, he said.
Co-production can have different forms that don’t necessarily involve funding. Partners can provide filming locations, editing or cinematography services or equipment.
Regional partnerships sometimes offer more flexibility for filmmakers about their topics and artistic view of their work. Yet Youssef believes that producers should be “pragmatic.”
“The most valuable thing for a film is bringing it to life,” he explains, “even if the co-producer is not my favourite or the film will not be exactly what I want.”
As long as “a director’s pay check can never achieve financial independence,” Youssef suggests that film professionals think differently about budgets.
In El-Ard El-Qadem (The Coming Attraction”), one of the films Seen has produced recently, Syrian actor Nidal Al-Dibs explores an initiative to restore one of the cinema houses in the working class Cairo neighbourhood of Sayyeda Zeinab, and to turn it into a cultural centre.
The initiative, which started right after the revolution, happens in parallel to several cultural initiatives like El-Fan Maydan. The film reflects on “a sense of hope” that people had after the revolution.
“The film was not popular in international market,” Youssef said. “It has no scenes of clashes or protests; it doesn’t discuss a hot topic like minorities or gender discrimination.”
In addition to its topic, the filmmaker’s nationality was also an issue, he said.
“A Syrian making a film about a purely Egyptian topic. The film is neither eligible to grants for films about Syria nor ones about Egypt.”
Most grants go to filmmakers who are producing their first film, but El-Ard El-Qadem was the director’s fourth film. Seen had to take a different path.
Egyptian independent production house Hassala joined Seen as a co-producer, providing equipment needed for filming. The film crew, including the editor and the sound technicians, agreed on taking only a part of their pay checks and then taking the rest as shares in the film.
“We got no reply from any grants until we were done with the film,” he said, “but we believed in it.”