Independent Cinema in Egypt
Independent cinema emerged as a resistance of sorts against the common understanding of artistic and aesthetic ideas. It set the stage for alternative aesthetic values and singular artistic experiments characterised by creative ideas, formal innovation, and new cinematic sensibilities, as well as a new world vision of humanity and the human condition.
Can we use the same term to refer to independent efforts in Egyptian cinema that started several years ago?Undoubtedly, this is a key question that must be articulated, especially as there are acute differences between the film industries in the US and Egypt. The former depends on gigantic entities that own the necessary means of production, including studios, machinery and equipment, theatres and distribution companies. On the other hand the Egyptian system relies heavily on the public sector, which used to own almost all the studios and means of production, and used to produce the majority of films. The public sector has now abandoned this role, as part of the deregulation project and the sale of the public sector to give momentum to the private sector – in other words the privatization process. Furthermore, small independent enterprises owned by individuals or families do not tend to own studios or production means, and so largely resort to rentals and to distribution companies.
How can independent cinema become independent from a system of production that is not independent itself?The question would seem reasonable had the system of production in Egypt remained as it used to be. However, the merging of a number of mega production and distribution companies to produce a powerful entity that now controls the cinematic market has complicated the possibility of small production companies breaking free from the shackles and cuffs of that system. These changes have rendered the question of financial independence a reasonable and legitimate one.
Another aspect, which is more significant and which has caught the attention of many artists and independent filmmakers, pertains to the aesthetic and intellectual definition of independence. This trend is embodied in the experimental choices of some filmmakers, with a cinema that is more attentive to the marginal, the different, the unspoken and the individual, thus deviating from major companies’ interest in superficial commercial idioms and breaking free from the authority of censorship.
Manifestations and BeginningsThe informal, unorganised and organic nature of independent cinema has made it difficult to specify an accurate starting point. The year 2000 can be regarded as a starting point, with consensus on at least some formal qualities and key features, and an output of films to speak of.
In terms of sowing the seeds of production, marketing and institutional support for independent films, in 1997 SEMAT for Production and Distribution was established. Their first production was Rotating Square (Muraba’ Dayer, 1997) directed by Ahmad Hassouna. SEMAT contributed to the promotion and understanding of independent cinema in the press and mass media.
In 1990, three non-governmental initiatives started providing a platform for education in cinema and in the production of films, and many consider this date to be the starting point of independent cinema. There followed a key incubation period for the scene during which courses, workshops and film productions were organised. These three institutions were Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Arts Council), the Goethe Institute, and the Cinema Palace in Cairo, which produced its first film, Bathroom Shelf (Raf El-Hamam), directed by Ayman Khouri within the framework of its independent study programme in 1991. Companies and other entities that support independent film eventually followed the trend.
Starting in 2000 however, we can monitor the true start of independent cinema in Egypt as a well-defined movement started to formulate, and a period of intense production began – and these independent films acquired a degree of official recognition. In 2002 the International Ismailia Festival for Feature and Documentary Films programmed a fringe screening of independent film productions, and a book was released on independent cinema in the Arab world.
In 2004, the Egyptian National Cinema Festival screened a number of independent films and Ahmad Abu Zaid was awarded the prize of best short fiction film for From Afar (Men Ba’eed).
Features and CharacteristicsIt is problematic to define a distinct set of features for a project or a trend that has not thus far been fully formulated. Yet despite how new the movement is, and the myriad differences in these directors’ forms of expression, as production proliferates an observer can begin to distinguish characteristics.
These films and experiments can be considered as having their own special and distinctive discourse which breaks from the dominant one, so the following is an attempt to articulate some of the patterns:
- This category of cinema restricts itself to documentary and short fictional films, with the exception of A Grain of Suger (Habet Sukar) by Hatem Fareed and Ithaki by Ibrahim El-Batout. Both Klefti by Mohamed Khan and The City (El-Madina) by Yousi Nasrallah are examples of commercial feature films that borrow from the forms of independent films.
- Digital technology is used as the main medium, primarily in order to bring down costs of production in those low budget films. The digital revolution will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the future of independent cinema.
- The desire to be different does not preclude the fact that there are still many independent Egyptian films that have not broken out of the mould of the dominant discourse, in form, aesthetics or content.
- Literary adaptations: here two trends are noticeable, firstly a reliance on classical literary texts, and secondly, the profound attachment the films have to the literary works. Thus these films are similar to commercial cinema in that they have a total submissiveness to literature as though it is of a higher artistic order, and they do not transform literary codes into filmic codes. In addition there is a tendency toward superficiality and commerciality at the level of treatment. Having said that, there are some interesting literary adaptations such Rami Abdul Jabbar’s House of Flesh (Bayt men Lahm) and Galeed.
- Making use of digital video’s documentary capabilities: access, mobility and the ability to document the informal. Furthermore, this medium minimises the high costs of renting of locations and the need to build sets, in a tendency that resembles the “reality cinema” trend.
- The three taboos (religion – sex – politics) have often been tackled. While the depiction of sex is the most frequently broken taboo, very few attempts are made to deal with the political taboo.
- Independent films are mostly interested in self-expression and personal issues at the expense of more collective social issues and the problematics of marginalised groups, with the exception of women’s issues, which female directors have presented in many films. This can be attributed to the fact that most filmmakers belong to a social and economic stratum that falls at the top of the economic and social scale and most of them were educated in foreign schools or abroad.
- There is a limited roster of actors, and it is common to work with amateurs. Also special crews have developed for independent films, made up mostly of amateur actors. Meanwhile, independent filmmakers often help each other out in terms of acting, writing, directing, or by working pro bono.
Participation and PrizesDuring the last few years, a number of independent films have received recognition and prizes in local and international film festivals. Monday, directed by Tamer El-Saeed, was awarded many prizes including best short feature film prize by the Egyptian National Film Festival, the second prize from the Rotterdam Arabic Film Festival in the Netherlands, and the Silver Bear in Ibnesi Festival in Austria, all in 2005.
Hadeel Hanzy’s The Escalator was awarded the golden prize in the Rotterdam Arabic Film Festival and the Shady Abdel-Salam Prize in the Egyptian National Film Festival (both in 2005), as well as several other official accolades.
Rami Abdel Jabbar’s Galeed and House of Flesh (Bayt men Lahm) both participated in several international festivals such as Le Carnot Festival in Switzerland, Clair Mont Veran International Festival in Spain and Ismailia International Festival in Egypt (all 2005).
Thus it is clear that these films – taking into consideration that they are experimental both in form and in content – are capable of participating in international festivals and gaining recognition and prizes, proving that there is another point of view that should be given the opportunity to survive.
A final question arises regarding the future of independent cinema in Egypt: will marginalised social, economic and political powers be capable of employing such cinema to express their needs and visions in light of the low cost of production and the prevalence of digital technology? Or will they continue to lack awareness and recognition of the significance of independent cinema?
(cited from an article by the critic and director Mohammad Mamdouh published on March 28, 2006)