Despite the cancellation of last year’s Cairo International Film Festival due to continued political unrest, this year’s festival, now in its 36th year, possesses an optimistic energy that change is happening within Egypt’s film industry.

Working under the newly appointed Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour, festival president Samir Farid (also in his first year) has added a staff of fresh new faces to help pull together a programme showcasing films from over 50 countries, including both animated and short films for the first time.

Also new, a cultural sidebar has been included that features an exhibition celebrating film icon Henry Barakat, a showcase of works from female artist Najat Makki, a film publications symposium and a musical concert comprised of scores by composer Rageh Daoud. 

“Cinema, and culture, is a way of life for Egyptians, so how is it that our once beautiful cinemas have turned into shops, cafes have turned into banks and the nearby gardens have closed?” questions Farid.

“I want this festival to be for all of Egypt’s population – for those that once celebrated Egypt’s golden age of cinema to the younger generation that took part in two revolutions,” continues Farid. “And they are coming.” 

As the festival comes to a close, attendance figures are proving to be at an all-time high with over 1,000 tickets sold each day, which Farid attributes to a population that is in need of an outlet from the overthrow of two presidents in the span of four years. 

“While this is very positive, we must realise bigger changes are not in the near future,” adds Farid [pictured]. “It is still very difficult, we are fighting on many levels – there are deep roots in our society.”  

The festival’s Art Director Mohamed Samir, who also produced Egypt’s 2015 Oscar entry Factory Girl, voices similar disbelief.

“I have no idea how we reached this point. For a country like Egypt that has over 100 years of cinema history, a city like Cairo with over 22 million potential spectators, it is hard to believe what little amount of money is available for the arts.” 

He refers, in particular, to Egypt’s film scene that is dominated by the major distributors, who also own most of the 100+ cinemas, making it challenging for independently produced films to be shown to the general public. While a production fund of about $3m (EGP 20 million) is available through the government, there is little guarantee this will be available starting from next year.

Ticket sales are also difficult to monitor as many cinemas do not yet have a system that allocates money earned to a specific title, and worse for the public, ticket prices average up to $5.60 (EGP 40), costing more than many Egyptians earn in a day. 

“The problem is the governing body of film, The Chamber of Cinemas, is made up of many of the same people who produce, distribute and own the cinemas so this organisation too is monopolised, making independent producers work even harder to create room for progression,” adds Samir. 

Using Factory Girl as one example where transformation has manifested: Samir and director Mohamed Khan used largely non-actors, aside from the leads Yasmine Raes and Hany Adel, to tell a simple story of one woman’s plight in the poor, working classes of Cairo’s factories.  Relying less on domestic distributors, the film sourced funding via the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, grants from Dubai and Abu Dhabi and additional support from US and Germany. The film has since screened to international film festivals along with a theatrical release across Arab territories.

“I want to make more films that appeal to wider international audiences, and we can do this by focusing on co-productions and international distribution, but it is not easy to break away from existing practices,” reiterates Samir.

Building distribution channels

Egypt’s up-and-coming director Ahmad Abdalla, known for low-budget, socio-political hits Microphone and Rags and Tatters, would also like to focus on broadening the scope of his audience, but finds early distribution deals restrictive. 

In the case of Décor that is currently screening at the Cairo International Film Festival, Abdalla and producers Ahmed Badawy and Zein Kurdi secured financing with one of Egypt’s largest production houses, New Century. While this ensured cash-flow and tight-running production schedules, including securing Egypt’s renowned bureaucratic shooting permits, it also meant loosing a foothold on international rights. 

“If we want to make a bigger budget film in a place like Cairo, you have to pay the government a fortune in permits. On top of that, they (the government) don’t often grant us shooting access, so working with a production company like New Century makes your life as an independent producer much easier,” says Abdalla. “At the same time, these bigger production houses, in addition to cable companies, often take all international rights, leaving you with no control in the global market.” 

“The ultimate goal would be to fully finance independently, whether through grants, co-productions or working together with other filmmakers to help our films reach wider audiences,” adds Abdoulla.  

Other burgeoning Egyptian filmmakers are following Abdalla’s advice, and creating their own lower-budget films consisting of true stories based on their own experiences, in addition to using authentic actors, natural light and less expensive digital cameras. 

Many of the Arab film critics are referring to this movement as the new wave of Egyptian cinema, beginning with El Medina in 1999, through to more recent films such as Ahmad Abdalla’s Heliopolis (2007), Microphone (2010) and Rags and Tatters (2013), Ibrahim El Batout’s 2013 Oscar contender Winter of Discontent (2012) and budding female directors including Magy Morgan’s Asham (2012) and Hala Lofty’s Coming Forth by Day (2012). 

Participating in the festival’s industry workshops for young filmmakers, Ahmed Magdy screened several minutes of his low-budget independent film No One There to audiences and critics, eager to join forces with this burgeoning collective of filmmakers.

Set on the streets of Cairo, the film paints a realistic picture of what life is like for young Egyptians. Facing production issues similar to Abdoulla, Magdy has had to work his way around a complicated government system including obtaining work permits when none of his cast or crew are in mandatory unions, securing government money when few of his cast are recognisable names and avoiding censorship at both script and production stages.

“In 2011 when fighting erupted, most production was halted. But the group of resilient independent directors persevered, producing some of Egypt’s best cinema in decades,” says Magdy. “We have to work hard to make these films that appropriately reflect life in Egypt, and I want to be one of those filmmakers.”

Magdy is backed by Alexandria-based Fig Leaf Studios, one of two companies spurring on the independent movement outside of Cairo. Focused previously on short films, the production company has now produced last year’s The Mice Room in addition to this year’s I Have a Picture, directed by Mohamed Zidan, and Magdy’s No One There. 

The company is also co-producing several features including Marouan Omara’s German co-produced documentary Dream Away, as well as working closely with Fig Leaf’s neighbouring production outlet Rufy’s on Ahmed Nabil’s The City Will Pursue You, a portrait-doc set in Alexandria.

While Fig Leaf’s producer Mark Lofty is pleased with the development of the company’s projects, he admits there is still a lot more that can be done in terms of changing Egypt’s film industry. 

“It is clear that we are all trying to push boundaries within Egyptian cinema, but we can still do more,” Lofty says. 

He uses examples of better film schools, more involvement with international co-productions and filmmaking that continues to be bold both in its production style and content.

“I think people are too quickly saying change has been made. We are still working against a restricted government, and we are still faced with budgetary challenges. We need to continue thinking outside the box, and to not be afraid to try new things. Tiny steps have been made, but many more steps need to be taken before we can celebrate,” says Lofty.