At the beginning of this year we watched as Egypt’s population united in its resolve for change, taking to the streets to protest against a government no longer in tune with its people. On the 11th February we saw a revolution take place, with Hosni Mubarak resigning after a 30 year presidency. All the recent attention on Egypt has renewed interest in its film industry, with debates raging as to whether Egyptian filmmaking is going through a resurgence, similar to its Golden Age during the 40s-60s. Seemingly overnight a new generation of politically focused young filmmakers have emerged, ready to tackle issues of gender, religion and cultural change indicating that a fresh era of Egyptian cinema is upon us.
Knowing very little about Egyptian cinema, I decided it was time to take a closer look and find out more about the films and filmmakers leading this revitalisation of a nation’s cinema.
Egyptian cinema has thrived on revolution before. The Arab world’s oldest film industry, in terms of film production Egypt is also the most productive Middle Eastern country. Once christened the ‘Hollywood of the Nile’, the changing political climate of the early and mid 20th Century saw a cinema that embraced a nationalistic message and prospered. The end of colonial rule, the 1952 ousting of King Farouk and events like the 1956′s Suez Canal Crisis and 1967′s Six Day War provided political material for a cinema rejecting the cultural hegemony of Europe. Notable examples from this era include the work of celebrated directors Henry Barakat (Fi Baitina Rajul/ A Man in Our House) and Youssef Chahine (El-Hadid/Cairo Station).
However the freedom to make politically charged films in Egypt became increasingly difficult after President Nassar nationalised his country’s cinema industry in the 1960s. Bring in a new era of censorship, the government could now influence what subject matters could be tackled in films, with scripts needing to be sent to state censorship board for approval prior to shooting. Whilst patriotic, anti-colonial films that promoted an Arab unity were encouraged, films with a political message outside of the government’s remit were not allowed.
A lack of funding after nationalisation saw not only a steep decline in the number of locally produced films, but also in their artistic and technical quality. The Egyptian film industry began to wan, and by the late 80s the sheen of the Golden era had well and truly worn off.
Whilst repression and censorship has meant that political films are harder to get made, with topics such as sex and religion taboo, there is also another reason that academics point to for the growth of melodramas and saccharine comedies during the 80s and 90s- the Egyptian people have been looking to cinema for escapism, wanting a distraction from the stresses of everyday life. Who wants to watch a film about economic hardship when you are already living it?
But the artistic doldrums of Egyptian cinema seems to be coming to an end, with recent productions showing not only the innovation of new filmmakers, but a real need to tell stories about life in contemporary Egypt.
Prior to this year’s uprising, Egyptian filmmakers had already taken up the mantle to express the stories and voices of dissent. With Independent filmmakers making use of cheaper digital filmmaking technology, to explore the social and political realities of their country.
Here are some example of films and filmmakers in recent years who have chosen to question issues of poverty, corruption, sexual harassment and unemployment, as well as the bureaucracy of the film industry in Egypt.
The Yacoubian Building- Marwan Hamed, 2006
“Truthful cinema reveals society’s weaknesses and ventures into forbidden areas, which naturally entails risk. This is especially true given that for the past five years Egyptian cinema has not produced a single film with serious content, only light comedies. Of course viewers are startled when they’re shown something serious.” Hamed, TheArabWashingtonian.org
This scathing portrayal of modern Egypt, uses its downtown Cairo apartment setting and its inhabitants to represent the microcosm of modern Egyptian society. Dealing with corruption, police brutality and homosexuality, the film, adapted from a novel by Alaa’ Al-Aswany, questions the lost promise of Egypt since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952.
A local box office success, Egyptian politicians weren’t so keen with 112 members of the parliament demanding that several homosexual sex scenes be cut from the film, claiming they would damage Egypt’s image. That didn’t stop The Yacoubian Building being submitted as Egypt’s official entry to the 79th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
Eye of the Sun- Ibrahim El Batout, 2008
This low-budget exploration of Cairo’s most neglected neighbourhoods was the first independent film to get a (limited) release in Egyptian theatres. Set in the impoverished neighbourhood of Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun) the film follows intersecting stories of its inhabitants.
A hero of indie filmmaking in Egypt, El Batout couldn’t send his script to the censorship board for approval because it was written during shooting, and without censor approval there was no way to obtain shooting location permits. Instead he manoeuvred outside the official system. His sidestepping of bureaucracy caused outrage in the film establishment and initially they blocked the movement of 35 mm prints of the film into Egypt, stopping the film being screened domestically.
Microphone- Ahmad Abdalla, 2010
Looking at the underground art scene in Egypt, this Independent film mixes documentary and fiction as it follows musicians, skateboarders and graffiti artists in Alexandria. Giving a voice to the country’s youth Abdalla looks at different ways for self-expression in a country where independent art isn’t fostered.
Cairo 678- Mohamed Diab, 2010
“My film is about breaking the silence, and there’s a new attitude that people don’t want to shut up anymore. Everyone wants to stand up for their rights now.”- Diab, April 2011 CNN.com
In June Cairo 678 played in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival, with the jury selecting it for a special mention due to its powerful message. Diab‘s film follows three women from different social and religious background as they search for justice after experiencing sexual harassment and assault in Egypt’s capital. Met with pressure to stay silent and not tarnish both their reputation and Egypt’s, one of the women- the conservative Fayza (played by Egyptian Singer and the film’s producer, Bushra) fed up with being groped on her bus trips to and from work, starts using a pin to the groin as a deterrent to assailants.
A 2008 survey carried out by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that 83% of Egyptian women had experience some form of sexual harassment. This film makes it clear that the harassment of women in Egyptian society is a problem that must be addressed and that the first step is acknowledging it and discussing it in a public arena.
While the recent revolution has placed an emphasis on the importance of documenting events and expressing your views in Egypt. It remains to be seen how Egypt’s new government will tackle censorship and if the reforms Egyptian filmmakers are clamouring for will eventuate.