Why 2013 was a good year for Egyptian cinema

Yasmine Zohdi, Sunday 29 Dec 2013

In 2013, four Egyptian films stood out, each in its own way taking Egyptian cinema into uncharted territory, gaining both critical acclaim and awards

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Still from Ahmad Abdalla's 'Rags and Tatters'

The cinematic year in Egypt is ending with Qalb El-Asad (Heart of the Lion), a movie by El-Sobky Productions, on top of the Egyptian box office. El-Sobky is famous for films with catchy themes that appeal to mass audiences, rather than movies with depth or cinematic quality. Its productions always bring in the highest revenues in Egypt.

Yet despite Qalb El-Asad making LE16,483,784 so far (almost $2.5 million), it is safe to say that other movies stood out this year, if not in tickets sales then for their thematic and cinematic content, testifying to the important values defining Egyptian cinema in 2013.

The highlights were a young director releasing his third and most highly acclaimed movie to date, a remarkable woman filmmaker producing her debut, a veteran film giant making a comeback, and an Egyptian documentary generating an Oscars buzz for the first time in Egypt's cinema history.

Rags and Tatters: The power of silence

Arguably the best Arab film of 2013, Ahmad Abdalla’s Rags and Tatters is the most unusual cinematic take on the Egyptian revolution yet — and perhaps the most honest.

The film is focused a nameless fugitive who escapes prison in the aftermath of the violent events of 28 January 2011, following him as he moves between several Cairo slums, simultaneously on a mission to deliver something of value to a friend’s family, and on a quest for a safe place to take refuge.

Although the film zooms in on the individual and his small tribulations at the expense of the public and the grand-scale events unfolding around him, Abdalla’s revolutionary inclinations remain apparent. The film is in its own way a tribute to the nameless heroes of the revolution, those whose faces we never got to see on TV. It is also a harsh reminder that the poverty the people rose to fight, a value clearly etched in the protesters' demand for "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice," is still rampant, and that the poor were in fact the first to suffer during the revolution’s stormiest days.

While Rags and Tatters cannot be labelled "experimental cinema," it is in fact an experiment — the first of its kind in Egypt. The film, for the most part, is silent. The dialogue is restricted to sparsely placed conversations that never exceed two sentences. What it does not express in words, however, it evokes through sounds and images: soulful Sufi chants in a small mosque where the ground is covered in a colourful tapestry of adjacent prayer rugs; hidden glances of desire between a man and a woman; the protagonist and a friend smoking marijuana reflectively as they watch the black clouds rise from burning buildings across the Nile.

In one tracking shot, a truck loaded with a rusty children’s swing  a sign of joy in an otherwise desolate landscape  makes its way along a narrow, dusty road through the City of the Dead, Cairo's famous necropolis. This scene could perhaps be imagined as representative of the progress that films like Rags and Tatters are making within the Egyptian film market: a fresh perspective, patiently carving out a path among decaying ideas.

The film, initially scheduled to show in cinemas for only one week, was screened for an extra week after distributors noticed impressive and unexpected ticket sales on its first few days in movie theatres.

Rags and Tatters received the highest award in the International Mediterranean Film Festival of Montpellier, the Golden Antigone, was screened in the Toronto International Film Festival and competed in the London Film Festival and Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Read our review of the film and interview with Ahmad Abdalla here.


Villa 69: A camera breathing life into space

Although it had already received the Special Jury Award for a Film from the Arab World at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the team behind Villa 69 was still worried, days before the film’s Cairo premiere at the 6th Panorama of the European Film, that it would not appeal to Egyptian audiences.

However, by noon on the day of the screening, tickets were sold out, and organisers of the Panorama had to allocate an extra screening hall for the film.

Hussein (Khaled Abul-Naga) is a solitary man in his fifties who lives alone in a ramshackle villa that evokes a sense of faded beauty. Content in his self-imposed isolation, he is forced to deal with certain realities he had been refusing to address when his sister (Lebleba) and her grandson come to stay with him.

But director Ayten Amin’s debut feature relies on much more than the famous names in the cast. Perhaps even the remarkable acting performances of the cast were overshadowed by the film’s most imposing character: the villa itself. Members of the film’s crew have admitted that the owners of the charming old villa where the shooting took place had been rushing them during filming because the building was set to be demolished. However, through Amin’s camera, the site has been immortalised.

It is Amin’s masterful use of space — with the aid of art director and set decorator Shahira Nassef  that makes the film so memorable, promoting the location from a pleasant backdrop to an active presence in the film. Making sure to shoot every scene from a different angle, she allows viewers to discover a new corner of the villa each time, so that by the end of the film they feel as if they are as familiar with it as the people living there.

The characters have their fair share of impressive moments too, thanks to a screenplay subtly loaded with emotion and humour (written by Muhammad El-Hajj; Mahmoud Ezzat stepped in at a later stage) and acting that is honest and appropriately understated.

Villa 69 is currently in cinemas.

Read our review of the film and our interview with its director.


The Square: Ticket to the Oscars?

There’s always been a lot of speculation about when Egypt, the country with the biggest film industry in the Middle East, would finally be nominated for an Oscar. Apart from Omar Sharif’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role in Lawrence of Arabia in 1963, Egypt hasn’t had much to do with the Academy Awards. And while everyone had assumed that when a nomination finally came it would be in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it looks like the first film to bring Egypt the honour might be a documentary about the revolution and the political turmoil that ensued.

Earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that director Jehane Noujaim’s The Square is among 15 films shortlisted for the Best Documentary Award at the 2014 Oscars. So far, predictions have proclaimed it a favourite for a nomination, and perhaps even a win.

The film has already received the World Documentary Audience Award in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award in the Toronto International Film Festival and the Muhr Arab Documentary Award in the Dubai International Film Festival. It was screened in several movie theatres across New York and Los Angeles, but has not yet found its way to the screens of Cairo — the city where it all took place.

Following Ahmed Hassan — a young, idealistic Egyptian revolutionary  as its main protagonist, The Square documents events from the first 18 days of the revolution to Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. Among other characters in the film are activists like actor Khalid Abdalla, filmmaker Aida El-Kashef and singer/songwriter Ramy Essam, as well as Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who  after the Muslim Brotherhood took power  drifts apart from the group of friends he became so fond of during the uprising.

The film’s portrayal of the one and a half years of military rule that followed Hosni Mubarak’s resignation leaves nothing out. It’s raw, brutal and — needless to say  it includes depiction of the army that is far from flattering.

When the film’s highly anticipated screening in Cairo, as part of the 6th Panorama of the European Film, was cancelled, the announcement was surrounded by persistent speculation that the decision was the result of military censorship. It is true the film did cause substantial trouble with the censors, but the team behind Panorama denied that this was the reason for the cancellation. They announced in a statement that the censorship authorities had eventually given them a permit to screen the film, but that it would not be shown for technical reasons related to the copy of the film sent by the production company.

The team involved in the movie did not comment or release any official statement regarding any other possible reasons behind the cancellation of the screening than those presented by the Panorama organisers.

However, it is not yet clear whether The Square will be screened in Egypt any time soon, or ever.

The Academy Award nominations will be announced on Thursday, 16 January 2014.


Factory Girl: Khan is back

Mohamed Khan is undisputedly an icon of contemporary Egyptian cinema. Some of Egypt’s greatest masterpieces were a result of his vision and skill, and three of his films —  El-Harreef (The Street Player, 1984), Zawgat Ragol Mohem (The Wife of an Important Man, 1987) and Ahlam Hind w Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia, 1988)  were chosen among the "100 Greatest Arab Films" by the Dubai International Film Festival.

However, many of the master filmmaker’s fans were disappointed with more recent works of his, beginning with the films he made in the mid-1990s, such as Mr Karate (1993), all the way to Ayyam El-Sadat (Days of Sadat, 2001) and Banat West El-Balad (Downtown Girls, 2005). Some found a satisfying degree of his old flair in his 2007 drama Fi Shaqqet Masr El-Gedeeda (In the Heliopolis Flat), while others were not quite convinced.

It seems, though, that Khan’s latest venture, Fatat El-Masnaa (Factory Girl), is the definitive comeback: a film that few would disagree on. While it has not yet been screened in Egypt, the film premiered in the Dubai International Film Festival to rave reviews, winning the FIPRESCI award for best feature. Its lead actress, Yasmine Raees, walked away with the Best Actress Award in the Muhr Arab Feature Competition as well.

The film tells the story of one year in the life of Hiyam (a feisty, defiant Raees), a young woman working in a clothing factory who falls in love with her supervisor. Things start to turn sour when a false accusation is made and Hiyam, out of pride, refuses to defend herself, in turn paying a steep price. In its essence the film is about women who seek independence in a society that barely allows them to breathe.

Factory Girl is written by Khan’s wife, Wessam Soliman. In order to understand her characters, Soliman worked long hours in disguise at a clothing factory herself and used public transport every day for several months.

Produced by Mohamed Samir, a young but experienced film editor, with budgets raised through seven different funding bodies, it was Khan’s first shot at independent production. Although working on a limited budget is challenging, the veteran director says the constant need to adjust his vision to financial constraints without compromising was a useful learning process.

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