“Not Cinema Al-Sharea ('the street'), but Shareana ('our street'), because we have the right to enjoy art in a place that is ours, namely the street,” says Mustapha Hussien, founder and curator of the Cinema Shareana project which aims to bring art to Egypt's public spaces.
Hussein's initiative screens a variety of films, for free, in the streets of Al-Salam, a working class neighbourhood of Cairo.
In the famous lyrics of Salah Jahin, "the street is ours,” Cinema Shareana aims at reclaiming the public space in a way Hussien hopes will be sustainable.
The screenings will take place every two weeks for a period of six months.
Earlier this month, with the support of his wife Mona Soleiman and friend Mohamed Yousry, and aided by funds from the British Council, Hussien organised the first screening night, showing the Iranian film Children of Heaven (1997) by Majid Majidi.
“Many children attended and interacted, despite the fact that the film is in Farsi,” Hussien told Ahram Online.
On the second screening night, Hussien screened the French film The Little Girl who Sold the Sun (1999, by Djibril Diop Mambéty). Once again, the turnout was huge.
Cinema as an instrument of choice
Hussien says that besides his passion for film, the main trigger behind the initiative was to allow people to experience cinema outside the scope of commercial film productions screened on television, in movie theatres or found online.
“I wanted to help disseminate this different cinema to the public. I did not want to ‘improve’ the audience's taste, but rather to direct their attention to the abundance of available options; and allow them to craft their own personal taste in the process,” he explained.
A 2011 graduate from the Faculty of Law of Helwan University, Hussien has a profound interest in the arts, and has embarked on experimentations across different artistic fields, including theatre and cinema.
While all ages are welcome at Cinema Shareana's screenings, Hussien is specifically interested in reaching out to children.
“When you inform the child that there exists plentiful ideas in this world, you’re already cultivating this element of choice within him. As a child grows up, he’ll have a completely different approach towards life as a result will realise the power he has over his life and his decisions,” he said.
(Photo: courtesy of Mustapha Hussien)
Street intervention: opportunities and challenges
Cinema Shareana aims to reclaim the public's right to entertainment, one that has long been inaccessible.
“I’m coming to the people because I know they must be swamped with their daily lives. The other alternative would be to hold the screenings in Al-Salam’s cultural centres, but this way I will basically be asking people to 'come’ and watch the film, and not vice versa.”
As Hussien sees it, taking the screenings into formal cultural institutions could work as a tool of exclusion and strip the project of its meaning.
“I’m seeking to infiltrate a quiet area; one where not much 'entertainment’ is unfolding,” he added.
Hussein argues that holding screenings on the street asks people to set their differences aside, and come together as equals, even if only for the duration of the movie.
“If children from different social backgrounds are sitting together to watch the film, something so beautiful is at work. They’re slowly becoming aware that they are equal in their right to entertainment.”
But this attempt to speak back and to the street audience is not without its challenges. For some, Hussien says, “street art is still a phenomenon to fear and be worried about.”
The uncontrollable street setting, and the fact that Cairenes are not used to seeing cultural events take place directly in the street, creates difficulties.
Hussien argues that this lack of a culture that supports and respects art is fuelled by a negative stereotype regarding cinema and arts in general. Some teenagers approach the screenings with a constant need to ridicule the idea, or ask him to screen commercials, or, as they call it, more “open” cinematic material.
“But these teens are easy to deal with,” Hussien said, “because I’m from the neighbourhood and I’m familiar with the area’s internal dynamics.”
Catering to a heterogeneous entity
As a curator, Hussien strives to implement his vision while at the same time responding to the diverse nature of his audience.
“I’m screening in a street and my audience comprises all possible categories of people, whether young children still learning to read and write, educated old people, illiterate people, and so on,” he said.
To cater to this varied audience, he tries to choose films that he feels are relatable.
“This I believe is the most common pitfall we fall to in Egyptian cinema; in that at many times we show our audience a suffering, for example, that they cannot relate to. It's crucial that the film resembles what the society is experiencing.”
One filmmaker Hussien believes a Cairo street will respond to warmly is Charlie Chaplin. A Chaplin aficionado, Hussien plays one of the artist's works before every full-length screening, and hopes to screen Chaplin's complete filmography throughout his six-month long project.
“We always see the comical side of his project, but we don’t really look for the deeper underpinnings of his cinematic philosophy,” he argued.
“Everyone learns something from Chaplin. I remember how after our first screening, someone from the audience came up to me and asked for Chaplin’s whole filmography,” he added.
(Photo: courtesy of Mustapha Hussien)
Reclaiming ownership of the street
Hussien does not attempt to bring his audience out of their comfort zone, but rather helps them maintain it if they choose to watch the film from afar. He believes that eventually a distant audience member will feel more comfortable and move closer to the screening area, announcing his presence more audaciously.
“Call it a tacit agreement. You don’t have to be involved in an overt way; at least for now.”
For Hussien, allowing people to reclaim ownership of the street also includes empowering them to manage the project in the long run. After the culmination of his six-month project, he plans to choose a community member to act as the project manager and curator. For his part, Hussien will continue to sponsor the project in terms of assisting with curating and providing running costs.
“The idea is not to personalise the project. As time passes, the community itself must be the curators and managers of this initiative. They must manage the art they enjoy themselves because it’s theirs, the people’s project.”
Hussien plans to move to other aspired areas of intervention and create new venues for street screenings. He hopes to eventually take the project outside Cairo and across other governorates.
“I dream to see each of these established [street] venues not solely confined to film screenings, but rather home to a huge array of artistic events and performances.”
The upcoming screening of Mary Poppins (1964) will take place on Friday 29 May at 7pm
Taba Street, Al Salam neighbourhood