Between finding audiences and moving people: AFAC Film Week raises discussion

Angie Balata, Tuesday 28 Apr 2015

As part of the AFAC Film Week, which finished in Cairo last week, two panel discussions raise issues of local distribution, digital alternatives, social justice, and how films can create change

Rima El-Mismar represents AFAC at Zawya (photo: courtesy of AFAC)

The AFAC Film Week, launched last year in Beirut, with a second edition completed in Cairo last week, is an attempt to bridge the gapbetween films and the general lack of visibility for the local audiences.

According to Rima Mismar, AFAC’s film programme manager, the initiative isn’t presented as a solution, but rather, a ‘traveling exhibition’ that will visit different countries every year, to showcase some of the AFAC-supported films.

From Shocking Statistics to Harsher Realities

“There are approximately 360 million people living in the Middle East and we have 980 theatre screens, which is less than in Poland. One third are in the UAE, one-third in Egypt, and the remaining one-third in the rest of the region,” said Khalid Abdalla, actor and co-founder of CineCima. “The healthy ratio of theatre screens to people is around 1/10,000 to 1/30,000. In the Arab world it is about 1/300,000.”

And with these gloomy statistics began the second of AFAC’s panels on Arab film distribution. Moderated by Rima Mismar, with four panelists that included Abdalla, Mohamed Shawky Hassan from the Network of Arab Arthouse Screens (NAAS), Youssef Shazli from Zawya and Diana El Jeiroudi, joining on Skype from DOX BOX.

The discussion revolved around issues of film distribution, various attempts and initiatives to increase film visibility- particularly from alternative and independent cinema- and technical obstacles to distribution, including funding.

For AFAC, the aim of the panel was to help wider audiences understand the dynamics of local film distribution as part of the long term plan to develop a programme for distribution.

For those attending, the panel highlighted deeper issues on accessing films, the complicated processes filmmakers are constantly involved in, and the possibilities for change.

All agreed that while historically the region did have an active film industry and high audience attendance for films, the advent of the satellite industry has resulted in higher viewership.

Consequently, audiences have become one-way consumers of film, watching whatever programmers at satellite channels offer.

Are there other options for distribution?

Diana El Jeiroudi highlighted the financial costs related to local distribution versus audience support. For DOX BOX, much of their dependency has been on international distribution and/or going through the cycle of moving films through international festivals and then television, with local theatres being a last resort.

She explained how local theatres are problematic because of costs related to distribution, marketing, transfer of films and other government fees making it very costly, particularly without mass audience support to help overcome this dilemma. 

“Users of online content have increased from 77 million in the region in 2010 to a current 135 million,” says Abdallah. A positive statistic that would seemingly open the door to digital alternatives but has not yet translated into increased consumption of films online.

More specifically, as El Jeiroudi points out, the online viewing remains very niche in the Arab world--a situation that is the result of two major issues: 1) the inability to pay for films because most people in the region do not own a credit card, let alone have a bank account; and 2) internet connections that are often too slow and too unstable for proper streaming connections.

Alternatives like Zawya and NAAS arose from the obstacles of distribution and the need to develop alternative and independent film scenes in the region.

While the attempts until now are far from being considered a ‘local scene’, Youssef Shazli said that the greatest gain Zawya has seen since its year of inception has been a consistent audience.

It is not great, he admits, but the model Zawya has developed, which focuses on a varied programme between mainstream popular films and alternative films, has helped increase the theatre’s exposure.

For Mohamed Shawky Hassan, NAAS has contributed to the development of the scene by creating a network of mutually enforcing arthouse cinemas across the region, which has resulted in greater cross-collaborations on programming and on finding solutions to common issues.

By the end of the panel, frustrations began to surface. Abdalla passionately highlighted the other serious problems facing filmmakers and arthouse/theatre directors in the region: the continuous cycle of playing so many different roles without enough resources to sustain a team of specialised staff.

Like all the other arts, both filmmakers and directors have to be the PR and marketing teams, the programmers, the managers, the content creators and producers, the financial managers, the lawyers and the activists; and when they are not trying to juggle all of this, they are also chasing the funds and the sponsors just to make sure they survive.

zaywa middle
Audience for AFAC film week at Zawya (photo: courtesy of AFAC)

Audiences as Change Makers

Can films lead to social justice? Can documentaries be both educational and artistic, or is it one in exchange for the other? Can we find better meanings or alternative options for reality through film? These were some of the questions posed by AFAC’s first panel, Documentary Films for Social Justice, and which were addressed by a panel that included Cara Mertes, director of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms Initiative, producer Orwa Nyrabia and filmmaker Nadine Salib.

Documentaries are complicated--they tell important stories, no doubt, but the format often challenges the general local views on entertainment. Can documentaries have an audience?

Nyrabia’s opinion is that films, and in particularly documentaries, expose different views and create a connection between the audience and what is important. An example of this is Nadine Salib’s film Um Ghayeb, which tells the story of women who can’t have children in Egypt, from the Saeed region.

Dealing with the heavy social issue of being barren and being female in Egypt is not an easy topic, often one that is treated as taboo locally. The approach of the film, according to Salib, was not to deal with the issue as an anthropologist or with women’s rights film, but rather as a film with artistic qualities and which spoke of a desire and the inability to achieve one’s desires.

Hanan, the main character of the film, tells Salib that “the baby I want is like your film, you want to do this film to feel like you exist and I want a baby to feel like I exist.”

Agreeing with Nyrabia and Salib, Mertes illustrated the point by playing a showreel of a few of JustFilm’s latest works. As a partner in AFAC’s documentary program, JustFilms places emphasis on supporting initiatives that raise the voice of local communities, but this does not negate the quality and artistic aspects of the films chosen and presented.

Can films, especially documentaries, lead to social justice? Can they change people? According to Mertes, filmmaking is returning the humanity back to film and while the change is there, it is difficult to prove or quantify.

The true impact is very personal in the sense that it is most reflected in the audiences connection with the story. And in this lies the possibility for change. “I work with many people who’d be hesitant to say that cinema can change the world, giving it too much credit, but, I would say that cinema can change you and you can change the world,” said Mertes.

With a heavy dependency on foreign funds and state funding, which, in addition to other obstacles, pose serious questions on creative control and ownership. Alternative methods, like crowdfunding, are still not delivering on expectations locally, so the power of film to have an impact remains heavily affected by exposure and availability, which is tied to distribution.

It is unclear what, if any, conclusions can be drawn from these panels, beyond the usual woes and obstacles. It is also uncertain if the conversations that have taken place will lead to better alternatives. However, AFAC has undoubtedly started a path in the local film industry that is difficult and requires greater foundation building on the industry side of development.

Will these film weeks be mere yearly occurrences or will they develop into audience-developing initiatives? Will the panels become the basis for more concerted efforts to develop local distribution channels or are they just spaces for conversations? Will filmmakers walk away from these events and invest effort in greater regional collaborations and networks? And, will foreign funders and partners like JustFilms consider deeper interventions by supporting more venues and local industry-building? 


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