A committee of 40 filmmakers and critics met late last August to decide on an Egyptian submission for the 2019 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.
Selected by the Egyptian cinema syndicate, the committee has been in charge of this process since 2014.
The committee shortlisted seven out of 30 films screened for the public since October 2018 (one of the conditions for submission), choosing Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Poisonous Roses (2018) over a month before the deadline.
Other films on the shortlist included Dreamaway by Johanna Domke and Marouan Omara, EXT Night by Ahmed Abdullah (both independent productions) and Gunshot by Karim Al-Shennawi, produced by an established company despite being a debut.
Whether or not Saleh’s film will be among the Oscar’s five final Foreign Film nominations won’t be clear for a while, but having been selected for over 50 competitions, Poisonous Roses has been remarkably successful.
In 2018 it won an Arab Cinema Horizons special jury award as well as the TikTok and the UNFPA awards at the Cairo International Film Festival.
It was also nominated for the best first film and best film awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the New Directors best film award at the São Paulo International Film Festival and the best film award at the Kerala International Film Festival.
Egypt has made a total of 31 submissions in 60 years, frequently missing the deadline due to administrative incompetence on the part of the committee in charge of selecting an entry.
In 2010, actor-producer Ilham Chahine requested a legal enquiry into the then Ministry of Culture committee’s failure to submit the chosen film, Kamla Abu Zekri’s One-Zero, in which she starred.
In 2013, screenwriter-producer Mohamed Hefzi (the current director of the Cairo Festival) wrote an open letter on FilFan website in which he expressed distress about the ministry missing the Oscar deadline and called on the then minister of culture Mohamed Saber Arab to push a post-deadline submission, arguing that the political situation had caused the delay.
And in 2015 Amir Ramsis’ Cairo Time was submitted after the deadline.
Arguably due to the lack of any clear selection criteria, only one of those — Youssef Chahine’s 1958 Cairo Station, which had been selected for the Berlin Festival competition — became an Oscar nomination.
Even though the selection committee and even the organisation that forms it have changed through the years — first it was the Egyptian Catholic Centre of Cinema; in 2002-2014, thanks to then Cairo Festival director Sherif Al-Shobashi’s decision, it was the Ministry of Culture, that festival’s organiser; and finally in 2014 it reverted to the syndicate — Egypt’s fortunes with the Oscars have remained the same.
But even in 2014 there were problems: two eligible films — Excuse My French, by Amr Salama, and Villa 69 by Ayten Amin — were excluded from the selection and the committee had to vote a second time before the late Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl was confirmed as that year’s entry.
Such chaos has been repeatedly criticised and filmmakers and critics have demanded clear criteria for the committee formation and the selection process.
This, despite the fact that, like Cairo Station, most Egyptian submissions had what might be called potential internationality, being festival-worthy films in touch with world cinema.
Indeed, submissions have been remarkably alike: art house films that have an unusual narrative style and tackle sensitive issues. Since 2013, indeed, submissions have come from the independent sector which, though not well supported or widely appreciated, is thought to produce films that will garner international admiration.
In 2013, the Egyptian entry was Winter of Discontent by Ibrahim Al Batout — a pioneer of the alternative scene who, since his 2014 Al-Ott, has stopped making films — which won four international awards, a Special Mention from Cairo International Film Festival, the Muhr Arab Award for best actor at the Dubai International Film Festival and the Critics Award and a special mention at Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival as well as being nominated for the best film award of Venice Film Festival.
In 2016, the entry was Clash by Mohamed Diab, which won 11 awards and participated in numerous festivals including Cannes, where it was nominated for the Un Certain Regard award.
In 2018 Yomeddine, Abu Bakr Shawky’s debut, was submitted even though it never hit Egyptian cinemas. It won eight awards including François Chalais Award of Cannes Film Festival where it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.
This, in addition to three of Chahine’s more controversial features: Alexandria Why? (1979), Alexandria Again and Forever (1990), and Destiny (1997).
Chahine won the 50th Anniversary Prize for a Lifetime’s Achievement at Cannes in 1997, where he was nominated for the Palme d’Or three times, for the Grand Prize twice, and for the Un Certain Regard award twice and where he won the François Chalais Award in 1999.
Alexandria Why? won the Silver Berlin Bear and the CIDALC Diplom from the Berlin International Film Festival in 1979. Chahine was also nominated for three awards from the Venice Film Festival and won the UNESCO Award there in 2002.
Although not his best, two films by Mohamed Khan, one of the founders of Egyptian Neorealism — In the Heliopolis Flat (2007), and Factory Girl (2013), which won the FIPRESCI Prize of Dubai International Film Festival — were also submitted to the Oscars.
Likewise two by Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, another pillar of Neorealism who won three Cairo Festival awards and a lifetime achievement award at the 2004 Dubai Film Festival: Dreams’ Land (1993), and Messages from the Sea (2010).
In 2004, another controversial film, I Love Cinema by Osama Fawzi, was the Egyptian entry for the Oscar.
The film won five awards at the Cairo Festival, while Fawzi’s debut, Afarit Al-Asphalt (1996), won the Swissair/Crossair Special Prize of Locarno International Film Festival and four awards at the Cairo National Festival for Egyptian Cinema.
Last January, Fawzi passed away after 10 years of failed attempts to secure funding for his next film project. The same goes for Shadi Abdel-Salam, whose unique and only feature film The Mummy (1969) was the Egyptian entry for the Oscars in 1970. He passed away eight years later at the age of 56 having failed to secure the funds necessary to make his second film, Akhenaten.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Love-Hate Relationship*