Where is post-revolution Egyptian cinema heading? Critic answers

Menna Taher, Sunday 10 Jul 2011

Ahram Online talks to Amir El Emary, Egyptian film critic, who is looking to revitalise film and film criticism through his website Eye on Cinema

Amir El Emary
Egyptian film critic Amir El Emary

“Film criticism is not appreciated anymore and is looked down upon,” the film critic Amir El Emary, whose opinion is that currently there is no in-depth criticism of film in Egyptian press, told Ahram Online.

El Emary, one of the veteran critics in Egypt, explains this downfall in its progression in his books Hayah Fil Cinema (Life in Cinema) and Shakhseyat we Aflam Men Asr El Cinema (People and Films from the Cinema Era).

In a long discussion with El Emary, followed by a lecture on his book Shakhseyat we Aflam Men Asr El Cinema, many issues were touched on; from the nature of the Egyptian audience, to a comparison between film now and films from Egypt’s golden age in the 40s and the 50s.

He also talked about his latest project, Ain Aal Cinema (Eye on Cinema), an online magazine website that features film reviews, studies and news. The website is one of many initiatives he has tried to reinforce a platform of constructive film criticism.

His Eye on Cinema website, still at its beginning, has proved successful so far, with so much as 4000 clicks per day sometimes.

“Online journalism reaches a vaster audience. With magazines, we print around 500 copies that don’t all get sold,” he explained.

“The problem with Eye on Cinema is that it relies on self-funding,” he said “it is very difficult to get ads.”

In hope to instigate film criticism, El Emary believes that a festival should be held every three months for new films, with the youth as the main reviewers.

“It is a shame that cultural journalism has been reduced to news,” said El Emary “and the main concern for editor-in-chiefs in different newspapers is the political section,” he lamented, recalling how the Al Ahram daily would send Louis Awad on excursion abroad to write about the cultural scene in different countries.

“Many put cinema in the entertainment section, not the arts section,” he said and continued by criticising the culture sections in many publications by only covering international festivals when Egyptian films are participating.

“Take this year’s Cannes for example,” he told Ahram Online “Mostly the interest was in the Arab films that were participating, although there were many interesting topics to write about.”

Terrance Malick, American film director, screenwriter and producer, is a great topic for exploration, asserts El Emary. Malick made his last film - since The Tree of Life - six years ago. All Malick's films take place in the past, it is as if he cannot relate to the current times. "Even The Tree of Life,” which El Emary says is a masterpiece “goes back to the fifties.”

In his book Hayah Fil Cinema he writes that the importance of film criticism as an art can be seen in the reviews that have been published in Egyptian and international press about Youssef Chahine’s El Eskendereya Leh (Alexandria Why?). 

Film criticism is not an art detached from the outside world, and it should reflect criticism upon social and political issues, he maintained.

The active cinema club scene in the sixties and seventies was integrated with the political events in Egypt and was not just a detached entity, which is one of the reasons that they were constantly in danger of being shut down.

In Hayah Fil Cinema, El Emary explains the dwindling interest in and regression of cinema over time as well as how under Sadat’s regime the regime vehemently fought the development of serious art.

When the Egyptian writer Youssef El Sebai became the minister of culture during Sadat’s presidency many cultural magazines including Al Kateb and Al Talea were shut down, while many of its journalists and editors were detained.

“When film the Z [by Costa Gavras] was first screened in Cinema Cairo during the student movements Sadat thought that the film would trigger protests, so he sent an order to stop the screening of the film,” wrote El Emary in his book Hayah Fil Cinema.

Other films that were banned during that period include Zaaer El Fagr (The Visitor at Dawn), which until now has not been released in its original version, with many scenes cut out. Another example is Youssef Chahine’s Al Asfour (The Bird).

“Sadly, in the past 20 years Egyptian cinema has become a form of escapism,” he lamented.

El Emary bifurcates the entirety of contemporary Egyptian Cinema and claims that both reflect the political situation in the country.

The first are the silly films that make fun of everything in a naïve manner and serves as a tool to get people to release the inner bitterness.

The other type is the stark opposite and gives a very bleak picture of Egypt in a very upfront manner in attempts to show that there is corruption in every aspect of Egyptian life. The result is the viewer feels somewhat hopeless. The films of Khaled Youssef fall into this category. El Emary criticised the second type for always trying to out-do the previous films in terms of bluntness and boldness without heeding the visual quality of the film. He described them as a political cabaret.

Egypt’s current revolution, he feels, will affect the film industry, similar to the neo-realism movement in Italy, which erupted right after World War II.

“Before the war Italy had what they called ‘white telephone cinema,’ deriving the name from the white telephone that exists in large mansions and villas,” he said “then after World War II, all studios were damaged and directors had to stray away from the man-made constructed setting.”

The circumstances took Italian directors to the streets to capture the grim reality of life, while portraying real people and their daily struggles. That’s where neo-realism began.

“However, some other directors would capitalise on the current political events in a contrived manner and make films that have no revolutionary ideas,” he continued.

The future of Egyptian cinema was discussed in the lecture on his book Shakhseyat We Aflam Men Asr El Cinema.

While in his two books he mourned nostalgically the golden era, where films were watched in halls and not on the computer, the discussion still led to the (positive) progressive methods in cinema and the digital age.

Though he commended the digital movements El Emary still believes that it would not obliterate the 35 ml camera.

As for some fears that the Muslim Brotherhood, now that their political practices are out in the open, would put pressure for a more religious-leaning and “clean” cinema as is the description of cinema; meaning no sexual content.

El Emary has no concerns regarding that issue since he believes that the political awareness is currently very high and that the different political forces would allow for a balance. He also said that the 85 million Egyptians, who were raised on cinema cannot denounce it easily or accept the art to be infused with preachy messages.

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