'Women in the New Egypt' sees aspiring filmmakers explore gender issues

Yasmine Zohdi, Tuesday 3 Dec 2013

Five short films by young Egyptian directors were produced by Misr International Films and screened at the Panorama festival

Still from Sondos Shabayek's 'El Bent'

“It’s very rare, especially in a country like ours and at the present moment, to find initiatives willing to support young filmmakers with no previous work of their own,” said Sondos Shabayek, director of El-Bent (The Girl), one of the five short films screened on Monday in Galaxy Cinema as part of the Panorama of the European Film.

Women in the New Egypt, a project launched by Misr International Films (MIF) and the British embassy in Cairo, aims to change that, by bringing short films from new filmmakers to screen at the Panorama.

The company received entries from seventy applicants. Ten of those were picked to participate in a workshop under the supervision of renowned Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Khan, and only five were selected to bring their scripts to life as short films produced by MIF and Marianne Khoury.

Shabayek’s film is a simple yet powerful portrayal of a walk taken by a girl down one of Cairo’s streets, projecting the changes that occur on her face as she deals with different looks and comments thrown her way from people she passes by, men and women alike.

In a city where sexual harassment is alarmingly rampant, members of the audience found the film quite easy to relate to, laughing at first at some of the silly pick-up lines directed at the girl, then growing somber as they started getting more aggressive and increasingly profane. Most admirable is the film's raw representation of what actually happens to girls on the street, and its refusal to allow aesthetics to overshadow the ugliness at the heart of the subject matter.

“I thought the company was going to use our scripts for films they would make,” Shabayek admitted. “I was really scared when I was told I was to direct the film myself. I even told Mr. Mohamed Khan that I don’t really like the camera, and he asked me, ‘Well, what are you doing here?’” she laughed. “I’m so glad we managed to pull it off in the end.”

Another of the short films which deals with how women are viewed on the street is Shady El-Hakim’s Masreya (Egyptian). While it starts and ends on a somewhat vague note, leaving viewers with the impression that the structure is fragmented, it includes two very memorable scenes where women are subjected to intrusive and often offensive reactions: once when a girl gets on a public bus in a dress, the other when one attempts to jog on a crowded Cairo street.

Perhaps none of the short films engaged the audience like Mina Magdy’s Ibn Bnoot (Male Virgin), a fresh take on gender issues that explores the life of one Egyptian family where social roles are reversed, giving women infinite authority over men. Although viewers roared with laughter at certain parts of the film, like when the male protagonist complains to his father of girls harassing him on his way home, Magdy insisted that his aim wasn’t just to entertain.

“I didn’t want to address the problems women face in Egypt through the usual, redundant character of the oppressed and abused girl; I was aiming to be less direct,” he explained. “This is where the idea came from. I thought maybe I should address men, not women. This film is to encourage the men in sexist, male-dominated societies like ours to reevaluate their lives and how they treat the women in them.”

It seemed Magdy has done something right, for one viewer admitted that she was angry at herself for being “ten times more shocked” that the things she saw on the screen were happening to a man than she would have been had they been happening to a woman. To Magdy, that was a promising indicator. “It’s exactly the kind of reaction I was rooting for,” he said. “I hope men are even more appalled at what they see.”

Nada Riyadh’s Ifterady (Virtual) is a work loaded with symbolism. It follows a day in the life of a female workers’ rights activist in Alexandria through the posts she makes on Facebook. Working closely with striking groups of labourers and factory workers, she is caught in a constant battle between her revolutionary activities and life at home with her mother, who she feels guilty for not spending enough time with.

Ifterady may very much be the most technically sound of all five films, as well as the tightest in terms of narrative. The story, running in two parallel lines, as well as the smooth dialogue that complements it, manage to convey a real and accurate depiction of the pressures many Egyptian women face when they choose to operate as fully active individuals in the public sphere. It can also be seen as a small tribute to the many female activists who have been putting their lives on the line since the start of the revolution for the sake of justice and civil rights.

Further mention of female revolutionaries was made when Mavie Maher, director of Bahiya, spoke about the girls who were arrested in the recent Shura Council protest against military trials for civilians, and the pro-Morsi demonstrators who were harshly sentenced to 11 years in prison.

“I am grateful to each of these women, even those who fight for a cause we do not believe in, because they play a part in creating more free space for us to move and to act,” she said.

Bahiya, an introspective look at the turmoil a young female teacher goes through when one of her students is killed in a violent attack, wrestles with the theme of religious tolerance rather than gender. Although rich in engaging details and brimming with possibilities, Bahiya comes off as a bit overstuffed for a short film, yet remains unresolved. The screenplay, which includes several flashbacks and time lapses, seems like one that was initially intended for a feature-length film and was later compressed and adjusted to fit a smaller timeframe, perhaps forcing the writers to be too direct in parts that would have better been left subtle.

In addition to the film’s directors and some of the actors, the screenings were attended by director and producer Marianne Khoury, co-manager of MIF and founder of the Panorama of the European Film and ‘Women in the New Egypt’, as well as filmmaker Mohamed Khan and James Watt, British ambassador to Egypt.

Khan mentioned his pleasure at having been part of the project, and urged the five other aspiring filmmakers who had participated in the workshop but had not been selected, not to give up on film-making.

Watt said that he hoped to guarantee wide distribution for the films within Egypt, internationally, and especially in Britain.

“Egypt’s just got so much to say,” he said, “and the world is listening.”


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