On 25 and 26 April, Oriental Hall in the American University in Cairo (AUC) Downtown campus witnessed a series of enlightening panel discussions exploring a myriad of topics related to contemporary Egyptian cinema. The discussions were part of a conference hosted by the university’s Film Department, titled "Post-2011 Cinema in Egypt: Challenges and Opportunities."
Discussions on the first day were dedicated to examining the study of film in Egypt, its challenges and limitations, with panelists Mona El-Sabban, director of the Arab Film TV School, and film critic, researcher and historian Ali Abou Chadi.
El-Sabban took attendees through her tumultuous journey to found her school — with 60,000 Arab members from all around the world — as well as the first distant learning website in the world to specialise in teaching cinema and television studies in the Arabic language.
Abou Chadi, meanwhile, discussed alternative film education.
Addressing the issue in his usual historical approach, Abou Chadi spoke about early initiatives that culminated in the formation of "cinema clubs" in Egypt, starting with Yahia Hakki’s "Selected Film Discussion," which the late author launched in 1956 to screen specific films that were not released commercially and follow them with discussions between viewers and critics.
“The most significant initiative that we were involved in back then was the dissemination of cinema clubs throughout Egypt’s governorates,” Abou Chadi reminisced.
“It wasn’t easy, films back then couldn’t be carried on DVDs or flash drives; we had to transfer 35mm reels on the train from one city to the other, but it was worth it,” he explained.
In the 1970s, too, Abou Chadi admitted, challenges similar to today’s existed; a certain brand of films was always confined to small circles of viewers, while mainstream culture remained the same.
“I used to be the critic responsible for Sohag’s cinema club. I would travel for eight hours straight, and only one person would show up. We would watch the film together then discuss it afterwards, one-on-one,” he said. "The day I left that club, however, 150 members had joined.”
Today, as film professor Arab Lotfi pointed out in an interjection, most culture palaces are closed down, their halls shut off to the public, their film projectors dusty and broken.
The second panel, further discussing film education in Egypt, included film director and professor at the High Cinema Institute Mohamed Kamel El-Kaliouby and Professor Malek Khouri, director of the AUC Film Department.
El-Kaliouby’s talk illustrated how censorship could be considered the most challenging obstacles facing the study of cinema in Egypt today. “As a film professor, you should base everything you teach your students on one foundation: how to become a rebellious creator,” he said. “And then they find themselves at the mercy of a narrow-minded censorship board.”
Such limitations sometimes make El-Kaliouby question the very idea of cinema education in a country like Egypt, he confessed. “The late Tawfik Saleh and I met Elia Kazan in Cairo once, and asked him to give a lecture at the Institute. He refused the offer instantly, telling us he regrets every single minute he spent studying film.”
Khouri, meanwhile, observed how film schools around the world were always born during times of social and political upheaval. Egypt’s High Cinema Institute was established as part of the Egyptian state’s post-1952 national strategy to create strong educational institutions in the arts.
“Topping every filmmaker’s priorities right now should be the issue of national independence. Independent filmmakers can’t go around looking for funds from foreign bodies each time they want to make a film," Khouri said.
Khouri also spoke about his vision for improving curricula in Egyptian educational institutions. “Curricula should encompass a comprehensive technical aspect, a theoretical and historical component, as well as the study of the industry and its dynamics,” he said.
Delving deeper into the industry, particularly from a production perspective, the next day’s opening discussion featured prominent producers Gaby Khoury, of Misr International Films, and Mohamed El-Adl, of El-Adl Group.
Khoury listed what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the Egyptian film industry today, from piracy, which discourages many producers from venturing into films knowing they will end up losing money, to insufficient state support and stifling bureaucracy, added to excessive filming fees.
“In order to film on the street, you need a pass from the Ministry of Interior (MOI), and they are legally bound to secure the set,” Khoury said. “However, what happens is they now ask you for ridiculous amounts of money in exchange for that.”
Both producers spoke about recent efforts to facilitate the production process, mainly through a "one window" initiative, where producers only approach one entity, the National Centre for Cinema, for all authorisations they need from other bodies, including the MOI or the Armed Forces.
El-Adl also suggested co-productions as a way to overcome the current stagnation. “Even the biggest producers right now are shying away from making films because it’s become such a huge risk. I think one solution is for several producers to cooperate on the same work, each investing part of the money and thus not leaving one producer to face the full risk alone.”
The second panel, focusing on the concept of independent cinema, included director and producer Hala Galal, veteran filmmaker Mohamed Khan and director Amal Ramsis.
The discussion sought to answer a question that’s been plaguing moviegoers for years now: What exactly is independent cinema?
According to Galal, an independent film is one that bears the filmmaker’s signature from A to Z, with no intervention from any external forces, especially censorship bodies. “I never understood why a brilliant director like Shadi Abdel Salam insisted on state funding The Mummy,” she said. “To create is in essence a personal act; the state hinders you and forces you to submit your film to the censors, and it becomes no longer yours.”
From Galal’s point of view, state institutions are corrupt and as a filmmaker she does not seek cooperation with them, although she thinks attempting to gradually reform them is a noble cause.
Ramsis, meanwhile, countered that filmmakers seek the support of state institutions because, at the end of the day, they are theirs. She also posed a stimulating question: “What makes a film funded by state bodies not independent, and another funded by an entity like the Ford Foundation independent?”
Foreign foundations, too, she argued, have their agendas.
When speaking of independent film, Khan commented: “I do not believe the term ‘independent’ has anything to do with content, or that it necessarily signifies that the film differs from what is seen as ‘commercial cinema,’” he said. “Besides, there’s nothing wrong with commercial cinema, per se. Commercial means people actually buy tickets and go see the film, and every filmmaker in the world wants their work to be seen.”
“I am a firm believer that cinema is part art, and part business; you cannot ignore the second half of the equation.”
Panelists in the final discussion, which revolved around film criticism in mass media and academia, were film critics Waleed Seif, Essam Zakaria, Safaa El-Leithy and Mohamed El-Rouby.
While Seif spoke about the importance of differentiating between film journalists/editors who report on news, and critics who analyse the content and technical aspects of a film, El-Rouby stressed on the fact that a critic should never be considered a judge or a referee.
“The views of each critic are coloured by his personal knowledge and experience; there are no set standards,” he said. He added: “When T S Eliot judged Hamlet based on his own criteria, he concluded that it was ‘an artistic failure,’ which is hardly what most critics would say.”
El-Leithy, meanwhile, lamented the lack of specialised publications where critics could write freely and extensively about film. “Critics now can only write in regular newspapers or magazines, and therefore have to tone down their language, maintaining a balance between depth and simplicity in order to ensure readership.”
“The problem is all publications treat the arts section as a ‘break’ for the reader; editors only want to fill it with easy, entertaining bits and pieces. Most of the time there’s no space for thorough and solid film analysis,” El-Rouby added.
"Post-2011 Cinema in Egypt: Challenges and Opportunities" may not have articulated clear-cut solutions for the multitude of problems facing Egyptian cinema today, but it did offer a wealth of questions that are necessary for filmmakers, film educators and film enthusiasts alike to ponder during the critical impasse the country finds itself in now. That, in itself, is worth the effort.