Young Egyptian film-makers are emerging to portray their lives on the big screen. As Cannes prepares to pay tribute to Egypt as its first guest country, Screen asks if there is a market and finance for this new Arab generation

When Hosni Mubarak bowed to mass protests and stepped down as Egypt’s president on February 11, the world witnessed a watershed moment which ended three decades of economic stagnation, rampant corruption, state-controlled propaganda and movie censorship. But as sudden as this reversal appeared to the outside, the truth is revolt was in the air well before the crowds thronged to Tahrir Square — as evidenced by a fearless brigade of young Egyptian film-makers who had been rattling cages ever since The Yacoubian Building made its debut in 2006.

Typical of this new breed is Mohamed Diab, whose Cairo 678 was showcased at the prestigious New Directors/New Films series in Manhattan having made its world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival last December and then playing in Rotterdam in February. Like The Yacoubian Building, whose kaleidoscopic view of urban Egyptian life included a gay relationship between a newspaper editor and a police officer, Diab’s film offers an unflinching take on another of Egypt’s taboo subjects: the sexual harassment of women.

‘I was just lucky to find a production company to fund my film. There is no mechanism whatsoever’

Mohamed Diab, director, Cairo 678

Despite the “enormous risks”, Diab felt compelled to make an “alternative” to his country’s cinematic mainstream “because regardless of circumstances you have to be able to make a film that you believe in”, Diab told a panel discussion in Dubai where he echoed an Arab desire for personal empowerment widely expressed at the festival. “I have faced financial insecurities and experienced years with no projects, but it’s not about profit. I’m lucky to have a chance now to focus on reflections of real issues. I was just lucky to find a production company that accepted to fund my film because there is no mechanism whatsoever. It’s just random.”

Just six weeks later and Diab would find himself on the front lines of the protest movement where his vocal participation in urging Mubarak’s removal prevented him from attending Rotterdam. Not surprisingly, given the growing strength of the renegade spirit in Egypt, Diab was not the only film-maker seen agitating for change — a fact that did not go unnoticed by the police forces.

Dangers for film-makers

“Two of our clients were beaten up by police,” says Alaa Karkouti, whose Cairo-based film marketing company MAD Solutions typifies a wave of lively entrepreneurial start-ups which are fast rewriting the rules for business across the Arab region. “One of them, Omar Shargawi [the director of Tiger Award-winning Go With Peace Jamil] was taken into the desert with a group of other people. They eventually released him when they found out he’s Danish — but that trip was the scariest moment ever. He didn’t know what would happen to him.”

Now the dust has settled, life might well be awkward for those among Egypt’s well-established entertainment community who were identified in the public mind with the previous regime.

“There’s a sort of blacklist now for stars who were pro-Mubarak,” says Karkouti. Superstar singer and actor Tamer Hosny — the Arab world’s answer to Justin Timberlake — was among those who publicly criticised the pro-democracy movement before trying to recant in a tearful display of contrition which went viral on YouTube. “The revenues of Hosny’s next movie Omar & Salma 3 will give a clear sign about the effect of revolution on the box office,” says Karkouti.

There is little doubt box office will remain depressed for the next few months at least in a country still adjusting after curfews put an end to the late-night show-times which generate most of the income for Egyptian movies. Hollywood will have to wait to see whether its brand of entertainment will serve as welcome respite from the turmoil, or will end up losing out to local films that capture the zeitgeist and satisfy an Egyptian need to see local stories told on the big screen.

For the time being, outbreaks of looting and a general atmosphere of social unease means Egyptians are staying at home where they are glued to their TV and computer screens for the latest developments as the country prepares for elections in November.

There might not be much to watch other than the headlines and political analysis in any case — even this August when the start of Ramadan would normally prompt a ratings bonanza. The Islamic holy month devoted to daylight fasting and religious contemplation is typically the most lucrative season in the Arab television calendar. For those 30 days, Muslim families across the world eat only after dusk and then gather round their television screens to feast on a primetime schedule of period soaps, biographical dramas and entertainment specials. This is Christmas, the Super Bowl and television ‘sweeps’ month all rolled into one as both local ratings and advertising rates go through the roof.

Only this time, there will be a programming vacuum. Because most TV producers had come to rely on the state networks for co-finance — and the occasional inflated licence fee in a business beset with corruption — that stream has run dry. Chat shows, however, are sure to be a major draw, assuming audiences are not suffering from Jasmine Revolution fatigue. Karkouti, who is also one of the region’s leading media journalists, is hopeful an entirely new entertainment industry will emerge from the ashes of the old. “There will be huge chances for new companies and youth. Quite simply, Egyptians and Tunisians did the impossible. So people there now have unbelievable power and energy to do what they want.”

‘Egyptians and Tunisians did the impossible. The people now have unbelievable energy to do what they want’

Alaa Karkouti, MAD Solutions

The question is whether the investment will also be there to underwrite this new chapter once the banks re-open, local stock exchanges recover and foreign investors regain their confidence. The loss of those autocrats has also meant a loss of stability — conditions which tend to spook business. Nouriel Roubini, the New York economist nicknamed Dr Doom after predicting both the global housing and financial collapse, anticipates similarly poor prospects for economies in the Arab world, at least in the short term.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be easy,” he told Dubai’s Middle East Investment Summit in March. “In this environment, it’s very hard to make long-term investments unless you know the region well.”

Roubini compares the rebuilding period to the “decade” it took Eastern Europe to recover after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From cinema’s perspective that was a decade in which film-making in that European region suffered massive cuts and struggled to find its international voice after being defined so long as one of socio-political subversion. It was only towards the end of the period that big-budget films emerged out of Poland and Russia, that privatised studios started attracting epic shoots and that films such as Kolya, Underground and Before The Rain gained international traction. These days, of course, Romanian film-makers are winning top festival prizes and films such as The Lives Of Others can talk of life under dictatorships with bracingly fresh eyes.

Revolutionary road

Already a slew of Jasmine-scented projects is emerging from the aftermath of revolt. The first to hit screens is likely to be Sarkhet Namla (literally, ‘An Ant Screaming’), which cleverly worked in 10 minutes of clips from the real revolution into a storyline about economically marginalised Egyptians shot last December.

Marwan Hamed, the director of The Yacoubian Building, is also producing an anthology of 10 shorts each by different film-makers. And, perhaps understandably given his own desert ordeal, Shargawi has been working on a revolution documentary of his own.

The real test is whether Egyptian cinema, which had already suffered a drop from 85 movies a year in the 1980s to 16 by the end of the 1990s, can reclaim its proud heritage beyond the coming wave of opportunistic films. There is no clear picture right now, only a tantalising mezze of rumours, hope, excitement and tension. As MAD Solutions’ partner Maher Diab observes of the current mood: “It’s like having a cold and hot shower at the same time, all day.”