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Seen Films: The variable in Egypt's independent film production

Cairo-based film house Seen seeks to present needed cinema and support independent projects

Nourhan Tewfik , Friday 14 Aug 2015
Out on the Street, The Mulberry House
Still from Out on the Street (Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, 2015)(L), still from The Mulberry House (Sara Ishaq, 2013)(R)
Views: 3587
Views: 3587

“We founded Seen Films to make the cinema we aspired for, minus the typical bureaucracy and with more freedom,” Mostafa Youssef, a director and a co-founder of the Cairo-based film house, tells Ahram Online.

Established in 2011 by friends Youssef and Heba Yossry, who graduated together from the High Cinema Institute in 2006, Seen strives to contribute to society’s “social and political discourse” through a two-fold objective: first, the development and production of films, which as Youssef explains, “should come out from the ghettoisation of independent cinema but at the same time must not resemble commercial cinema,” and latter, the organisation of industry-events that could directly facilitate the production of these films.

Seen has thus far co-produced three films: Sawt Min Al-Toroqat (“Sound from the Hallways”, 2012), a short video-art film by filmmaker Lasse Lau; Bayt Al-Tout (“The Mulberry House”, 2013), a long feature film by the Academy Awards-nominated Scottish-Yemeni filmmaker Sara Ishaq; and its most recent production Bara Fil Sharea (“Out on the Street”, 2015), a hybrid documentary film by filmmakers Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk.

The Mulberry House
Still from The Mulberry House (Sara Ishaq, 2013)

Seen: The constant variable

“We felt that the effort we put in our films far exceeded the success that they garnered once they were screened,” Youssef says, explaining Seen’s objective.

The solution was to found a ‘loose entity’ – with no bureaucracy and a huge expanse of freedom – that would allow the team to mould any interesting idea into a cinematic production.

This free approach underpins Seen’s artistic philosophy.

“We believe that the film’s essence must dictate how we approach it as a production company. The film itself must be true to the society that it claims to represent, and in its turn the society supports it,” Youssef says.

With the slogan “necessary cinema,” Seen therefore aspires to work for “the full representation, self-realisation, and positive engagement of all marginalised groups — whether due to gender, urban centrism, economic restriction, or religion,” according to its website.

“However, our objective is only to make films. I believe that cinema now has a very important role to play in terms of opening societal dialogue affecting people’s imagination, inspiring them, and giving them the knowledge as a tool that can help them change their lives,” Youssef explains.

This philosophy is even reflected in the film house’s name.

Seen is the name of an Arabic letter, the same one that is used in mathematics, carrying the same value of the English letter 'x'. As such, Seen – just like the variable – functions according to the situation.

“We’re always that variable. We work with no fixed set of rules. We get creative with each production, trying our best to be transparent and authentic to the film’s essence,” Youssef adds.

To do that, the team prefers early involvement in the filmmaking process.

“Because we believe that the producer’s role exceeds just the management of production and securing of funding. A producer also has a creative role to play.”

Youssef says this “creative role” materialises during the conversation that ensues between the director and producer, during which both discuss the film’s topic, its objective, and other particularities of the film.

Sound from the Hallways
Still from Sound from the Hallways (Lasse Lau, 2012)

Production challenges

With a dearth in necessary production tools, it was not long before the Seen team realised the need to devise their own capacity-building solutions.

They introduced an array of workshops and industry events, which include panels, discussions and meetings.

Youssef reveals one problem Seen faced while working on Bara Fel Sharea, for example – the unavailability of sound engineers eager to participate in the film’s creative process.

The team therefore organised an intensive one-month long sound workshop. Towards the end of the workshop, three participants were chosen to join the film crew.

“This capacity-building is also of benefit to the participants on the long run. For example, we now recommend those sound engineers to other production houses.”

As Youssef explains, Seen is trying to actualise an upswing in the quality of their films.

"We are just trying to directly help our production and also that of other independent production houses. And in a way, we believe that by catering to our own needs, these workshops can also benefit the field as a whole.”

Challenges: From lack of funding to lack of screening venues

When all is said and done, Seen faces an array of challenges, with lack of funding topping the list.

“As opposed to commercial cinema which has a fixed set of factors for success (whether the story is a high concept or not, for example: a love story, etc.), independent cinema has no established rules. Production becomes more of a gamble,” Youssef argues.

However, one factor that can determine an independent film’s potential success is whether it explores a “hot topic” of interest to donors like the revolution, the concept of democratic transformation, women’s issues, freedom of religion, etc.

But, as Youssef explains, some films have none of these buzzwords. For example, Bara Fel Sharea, which looks at workers’ issues, follows a creative approach different than the one typically employed by filmmakers.

“The market wants to see Egypt and the revolution, except that the directors are not necessarily interested in telling this story. For them maybe it's more important that people do not relate to the film as Egyptian per se—but rather as speaking of the phenomenon everywhere.”

To deal with this problem of funding, the team depends on deferments (besides available funding and other sources of cash flow) to lift the main burden off the film’s budget.

Out on the Street
Still from Out on the Street (Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk, 2015)

“In Bara Fel Sharea for example, a German sound engineer volunteered to give a free workshop and supervise the film’s sound production. Two participants from our sound workshop joined us. The film crew agreed to take only a part of their compensations. Moreover, media collective Mosireen lent us the equipment needed for filming,” Youssef says.

In fact, as he explains, collaboration between independent filmmakers in the form of co-production in funding or in exchanging filming locations, editing or cinematography services or equipment, has come about as a result of the pragmatic need to tackle the lack of funding and to alleviate the burdens on independent filmmakers.

“Unless we are capable of collaborating and networking, so that instead of it becoming an individual burden, it becomes a collective burden, we will not survive. Those who do survive will have to resort to doing commercial work.”

This collaboration also includes the need to exchange information regarding distribution deals and sources of funding. For example, the Seen team publishes the list of grants and also festivals they apply to. But, as Youssef explains, this exchange of information is not widely practiced given the existence of “gatekeepers” who fear newcomers and competition.

“What such gatekeepers fail to grasp is that the more films we produce, the more international festivals and donors will be interested in supporting Egyptian films,” he adds.

Another problem independent filmhouses face relates to viewership. Apart from Zawya arthouse cinema and a few cultural centres, there are no venues that can host screenings of these films; commercial cinemas are not willing to take the risk.

The other option would be distributing the films on television, also a challenge.

“In Ramadan some channels buy up to five drama series, paying about LE50 million [USD 6.5 million] in total. If, for instance, such channels buy four instead of five series and use the remaining amount to support independent cinema, they will actually end up funding up to 10 independent films. Independent filmmakers would definitely welcome such an opportunity.”

Looking into the future

Seen currently has two films in the post-production phase: Samira, a short feature film, and El-Ard El-Qadem (“The Coming Attraction”), a documentary film by Syrian film director Nidal Al-Dibs.

Seen will also pursue a different work approach, which Youssef describes as “one film, one year."

“We decided to slow down the pace of our production, and focus more on producing risky film, dedicating one year to each production,” he says.

The team also aspires to make their resources more accessible to independent filmmakers, so they are looking for new headquarters to accommodate a bigger number of people.

“We are also planning to improve our post-production unit and integrate professional calibrated mixing and professional colour correction which can be used in Seen’s own production and those of other independent film-houses.” 


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