A new wave of Egyptian filmmakers came under the spotlight at the recent Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) – writers and directors who are working outside Egypt’s major studios and tackling controversial subjects and themes.
Among the Egyptian films screening at the festival were Hesham Issawi’s Cairo Exit (pictured) about the social and cultural taboos affecting a young couple; Mohamed Diab’s Six, Seven, Eight, which broaches the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt; documentary Zelal, which turns the camera on the country’s mental asylums; and Ahmed Abdallah El-Sayed’s Microphone, about Egypt’s underground music scene.
While it’s not easy to raise finance for independent productions, these filmmakers have been encouraged by the lower costs of digital production, the emergence of private investors in Egypt and other Arab countries and growing links with international co-producers, film festivals and funds. All three of the Gulf’s major film festivals – in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha – now have funds to support Arab films.
“Budgets are low, so risks are low,” says Issawi whose Cairo Exit received post-production support from DIFF’s Enjaaz fund. “We’re also seeing that talent from the mainstream, including some quite big actors, want to be part of the independent movement more and more. The new generation travels, sees what is happening and wants to be part of it.”
Egyptian filmmakers also have a long history of working with Europe, in particular France, and are increasingly tapping into European funding. “Egypt is well positioned for a lot of foreign funding – it’s a francophone country, so is in consideration for most of the co-production funds, as well as other European funds that stipulate that the country has an established industry,” said documentary filmmaker Wael Omar, speaking on a DIFF panel.
The Egyptian government is also starting to back film production. The Ministry of Culture has invested $3.5m (EGP20m) in five projects including Ahmed Mayer’s The Traveller which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2009.
But as independent filmmakers are tackling taboo subjects, they’re also more likely to butt heads with local film censors – an issue that was discussed on the DIFF panel. Sensitive topics include relations between Egypt’s Muslim majority and Christian minority. Cairo Exit, which features a relationship between a Muslim boy and Christian girl, ended up shooting without a permit and may not be released in its home market.
“Censorship is a problem in all developing countries, and although it’s important, it can also limit creativity,” said Egyptian Film Centre chief Ali Abu Shadi, who was formerly chairman of the country’s censorship department. “However, it is not just from government – the public is becoming more conservative.”
Speaking from the filmmakers’ perspective, Omar agreed that audience reaction can be a problem: “I think the boldness of the new independent movement is part of this issue – which is that a lot of indie filmmakers find themselves stuck in the middle between official censorship and the self-censorship of the Egyptian street.”
The rising number of indie filmmakers complement Egypt’s mainstream film industry – by far the largest in the region – which produces around 30-40 films a year, many of which travel across the Middle East. Most of these films are comedy, romance or action titles produced by local studios and employing a well-established firmament of local stars. Homegrown productions have a market share of around 80%, which is protected by a quota system that limits the print count for imported films.
Due to their relatively safe subject matter and local conventions, few mainstream productions find an audience outside Arabic-speaking territories, although in recent years there have been exports such as Good News Productions’ The Yacoubian Building which bridged the gap between artistic quality and broad appeal.
Independent films – in general more daring and arthouse friendly – have more potential to make waves overseas, although distribution channels are limited outside the festival circuit and most struggle to reach theatres even in Egypt. “We don’t know if we’ve reached international standards yet – but we’re watching what has happened in Korea and Brazil – they make good movies that are seen all over the world,” said Six, Seven, Eight director Mohamed Diab who has scripted several mainstream films.
“The problem is we’re thinking about the Egyptian market before worldwide so we’re stuck on whether this is going to be commercial or not. Will the stars want to do this? Six, Seven, Eight was made without any pressure – so it’s the first film I can say is really mine.”
One factor helping these filmmakers is that the world is interested in Egypt – both for its history as an ancient civilisation and the political and cultural changes of the present day. “There’s a general fascination with our country that gives documentaries a huge opportunity to penetrate foreign markets. The Egypt fetish extends beyond ancient Egyptian history,” said Omar.
Issawi also notes that Egyptian cinema, indeed Arab cinema in general, is more likely to travel as it matures and explores diverse stories and themes. “Arab cinema today is a cinema of problems, of issues – we need to develop our own grammar of telling a story and we haven’t got into that yet. We need to start examining human relationships and not just issues in the culture.”
Population: 80 million
Production: Around 25 films were produced in 2010. Budgets range from below $1m (EGP7m) to $5.5m (EGP30m)
Distribution: Total box office for both local and foreign films was around $55m in 2009.
Exhibition: Egypt has around 400 screens of which 150 only operate in the summer.
Source: DIFF’s Focus 2010 World Film Market Trends