A new generation of Egyptian film-makers are at DIFF to showcase the films they are making despite - or perhaps thanks to - the ongoing upheaval at home. Melanie Goodfellow reports.
Egypt’s independent cinema scene swept into DIFF last year on the crest of the country’s revolutionary wave. Producers and directors were brimming with projects and plans to reform their country’s film industry.
A year on and few of these plans have been pushed through or many projects completed. It has been another tumultuous 12 months for the country, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi deposed and a new military-backed government installed.
However, Egypt’s independent film-making community remains remarkably upbeat about its prospects. The outlook is better, they say, for 2014.
“It has been difficult but it’s looking more promising,” says producer and actor Amr Waked, co-founder of Cairo-based production house Zad Communication alongside Salah Al Hanafy.
In spite of the protests, violence and curfews of recent months, Zad is completing post-production on Ibrahim El Batout’s organ-trafficking thriller The Cat after a brief hiatus over the summer due to the political troubles. El Batout’s previous feature, Winter Of Discontent, is Egypt’s Oscar submission this year.
Zad Communication plans to shoot veteran film-maker Ossama Fawzy’s Rosy Black, based on a script by Mostafa Zekry, early next year. “It’s sort of an Arabic Tim Burton film,” says Waked. The company has two further productions in development: Atef Hetata’s The Exile and Ahmad Maher’s In Which Land You Die, for which Zad is looking for an Italian production partner.
“In the past, Egypt had maybe one independent production a year. We’re going to start seeing three to four productions coming through,” suggests Waked. “We’re finishing The Cat, there’s Ossama’s film and Mohamed Khan’s Factory Girl, which premiered at DIFF. These are films that can be exported, with gravity and international potential, rather than just the local comedies we used to produce in the past.”
A major change for the better, says Waked, has been the decision by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture to set up a small fund for independent film production. He says: “After the January revolution, the Ministry of Culture opened the door and decided to fund more than 10 films. For the first time, the state has acknowledged it has a role to play in the country’s film industry.”
Producer Mohamed Hefzy of Film Clinic, the company behind Ahmad Abdalla’s ground-breaking 2010 film Microphone and more recent Rags & Tatters, following a prisoner released at the beginning of the revolution, is also hopeful about the future.
Hefzy was appointed a member of the powerful Egyptian Cinema Industry Chamber in September. He is using his position to lobby for even more support for Egypt’s fledgling independent scene.
“I am hoping we can do more at a political level,” he explains. “The chamber recently had a meeting with the prime minister [Hazem Al Beblawi]. We told him about our problems such as piracy, how we lack government support and the need to remove legislation that prevents foreign productions from coming to Egypt.
“He engaged in the conversation and said he would set up meetings with the five or six ministers related to the problems we have in the industry. We have set up a committee and are hoping to meet with the ministers shortly. It’s a step in right direction.”
Down the road
Like Zad, Film Clinic is pushing on with its productions in spite of the political instability. The company is presenting Sherif El Bendary’s Two Rooms And A Parlour at DIFF’s Interchange co-financing event. It is also working on the Cairo-set 3D horror picture Site 146, Ali F Mostafa’s pan-Arab road movie A To B and has just finished Amr Salama’s Excuse My French.
Not everyone is so upbeat. Low-budget director and producer Hala Lotfy, founder of the film-making collective Hassala Productions, expresses frustration that many of the reforms and initiatives announced last year, including the creation of a breakaway cinema union and the launch of an independent screen network, have failed to materialise.
“We need to learn to work together more,” says Lotfy, who won praise last year for Coming Forth By Day. “We have the seeds for something great but we’re not getting it together. It’s not only the fault of the situation. We’re all focused on our personal projects but these collective initiatives are important too.”
The cinema union’s draft manifesto called for more independent screens, an end to Egypt’s strict shooting-permit system, a cap on talent wages and increased support for young talent.
“We all need to sign up for the manifesto, not just film-makers at Hassala. It won’t mean anything otherwise,” she says.
On the production front, Hassala is busy. The company is working on 12 feature-length documentaries. Projects in post-production include Abdullah Al Ghaly’s Cairo-Arehebat, exploring the Egyptian-Libyan film-maker’s split cultural identity; Cinema Wahbi from Syria’s Nidal al Dibs, about an abandoned cinema theatre; and Nesrine El Zayat’s On The Stairs, focusing on the debate around the veil.
The production collective is also developing a series of storytelling workshops for the inhabitants of an impoverished village in northern Egypt.
One thing Lotfy is optimistic about is Cairo’s burgeoning independent cinema scene. She cites the creation of several new collectives such as the short-film focused Rahala and the all-female Plateau 84.
The film-maker also notes a growing hub in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria, led by companies such as Fig Leaf Studios and Rufy’s. That collective produced The Mice Room, which is premiering in DIFF’s Muhr Arab feature competition. It follows six different characters living in Alexandria as they struggle with everyday fears.
EGYPT AT DIFF
Egyptian films have a strong showing at DIFF this year.
Two films are competing in the Muhr Arab feature competition. Mohamed Khan’s gritty melodrama The Factory Girl mixes professional actors and amateur extras against real-life backdrops. Khan’s wife and long-time collaborator Wessam Soliman co-wrote the script about a young, single woman whose friends and family turn against her when she appears to fall pregnant. It is the first film in five years from Khan, a member of the so-called ‘1980s generation’ that included Yousry Nasrallah.
Meanwhile, The Mice Room is the first feature from Fig Leaf Studios, the nascent Alexandria-based film collective. It follows six different characters living in modern-day Egypt.
The country is also well represented in the Muhr Arab documentary competition. Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (Al Midan) captures the early days of the revolution. It made its world premiere to much acclaim at Sundance Film Festival in January.
Further documentary titles at DIFF include Salma El Tarzi’s Underground On the Surface, about three young musicians determined to gain social acceptance for their brand of underground music, and Mohamed Elkaliouby’s My Name Is Mostafa Khamis, which is about a worker who was executed after a series of workers-rights protests in 1952.
Chadi Abdel Salam’s 1969 classic The Mummy (aka The Night Of Counting The Years), which recently topped DIFF’s list of 100 greatest Arab films, is screening in the Arabian Nights section, as is Attia Amin’s contemporary drama The Ferry.
A major headache for Egypt’s independent film sector is the inability to secure cinema screens. Zad co-founder Amr Waked says the production house had to pay for the release of Winter Of Discontent into a handful of Egyptian theatres earlier this year.
“Our distributor told us very plainly they were not going to put a penny into our film,” Waked explains. “They gave us the screens but we paid for all the marketing, advertising and prints. We had to put in the same amount as the original movie budget to get it out. We had the resources to do that but 90% of independent film-makers would not be able to do a quarter of what we did.”
Meanwhile, Film Clinic’s Mohamed Hefzy experimented with a day-and-date style release on Rags & Tatters in November.
In co-operation with local distributor MAD Solutions and exhibitor Al Arabia Cinema, the film was released on seven screens ahead of an encrypted showing on Orbit TV. The theatrical release was intended to create publicity for the broadcast but was surprisingly successful for an independent film, generating revenues of $30,000 over two weeks.
“The success of Rags & Tatters confirms the readiness of the Egyptian film market to accept different genres of films,” said Al Arabia Cinema co-founder and CEO Isaad Younis.