x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Buried treasures

As the Cairo International Film Festival begins, a number of enthusiastic Egyptian directors talk about the hurdles the well-established Egyptian film industry still faces.

There is a paradox at the heart of the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), which starts today: of the 150 films to be shown, only two are Egyptian. In a country that sees itself - not without reason - as the heart and soul of Arab cinema, that proportion has raised questions and provoked recriminations. It could have been worse. Three weeks ago, there were no Egyptian entries at all, a situation so embarrassing that the president of the festival, Ezzat Aou Ouf, gave a press conference in which he berated Egyptian filmmakers for not taking part.

"This is a phenomenon which has to be examined," he said. "I don't understand what the Egyptian film industry's problem with the CIFF is." For Egyptian filmmakers, the festival's greatest benefit is the connection to world film it provides. "Where else can I see Volver on the big screen?" asks the director Youssef Hesham, 24. But Egyptian directors prefer, if they can, to hold their premieres abroad. This includes those sponsored by the Egyptian ministry of culture, such as Ahmed Maher, who unveiled his film The Traveller, starring Omar Sharif, at the Venice Film Festival rather than at home.

The CIFF is also facing stiff competition from generously funded new film festivals in the region, such as the Middle East International Film Festival in Abu Dhabi, the Dubai International Film Festival and the Doha Tribeca Festival. "There is this temptation we get from the Gulf," says Mohammed Abu Seif, a director himself and the son of the late legendary Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif. "There's a lot of money if you win."

The first prize in Cairo is 100,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh67,000), whereas the prizes at the festivals in the Gulf are in hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Then there's the widespread perception that "films that show at festivals will be labelled artistic rather than commercial", says Hesham, whose feature film The Glimpse was shown at the Alexandria Film Festival. Producers and distributors actively discourage directors from entering their films in festivals, fearful of what might be called "the Youssef Chahine syndrome" - after the renowned Egyptian director who was a frequent and popular participant in international festivals, but whose films often performed poorly at the box office back home.

In any case, in the end, the CIFF organisers were able to announce that two local films would take part. The Egyptian entry for the international competition is Nile Birds, by Magdy Ahmed Aly, based on a novel by Ibrahim Aslan and focusing, like much of the author's work, on the urban poor. Egypt's entry in the Arab film competition, meanwhile, is the independent film Heliopolis, by Ahmed Abdalla, 31, which follows five parallel stories in and around Cairo today. Abdalla developed the dialogue with the actors and included documentary footage, wanting to "make things as real as I can". The film features a mix of stars (Khaled Abul Naga, Aida Abdel Aziz) and unknowns. It was shot over 17 days and was made for a fraction of a standard commercial budget, with actors forgoing pay and the crew "sleeping on the street", says Abdalla.

Arab filmmaking first flourished in Egypt. In 1896, just a few months after the Lumière brothers had given their invention its debut in Europe, their films were shown in Alexandria and Cairo. The first local films were produced in the late 1920s, a time when the cinema milieu was dominated by expatriate Arabs - mostly of Levantine origins - and by the Jewish and Greek minorities that made up a great part of the populations of Cairo and Alexandria.

The Egyptian industrialist Talat Harb established Studio Misr in 1934, setting the foundations for a national film industry. By 1948 Egypt had six studios and had produced 345 feature films. So popular and profitable was the cinema industry that in the years after the Second World War its revenues were second only to the cotton sector's. During the 1950s and 1960s, the black-and-white eloquence of such directors as Salah Abu Seif and enchanting stars such as Suad Hosni made Egyptian cinema beloved across the Arab world. The classics of this time are on a par with anything produced since.

Then Egyptian cinema went into a sharp decline. Some say the studios, nationalised after the 1952 revolution, had not kept up with the latest technologies, and eventually it started to show. Others blame not socialism but capitalism, and point to the privatisation that followed, two decades later, under President Anwar Sadat. "In the 1960s the government was 100 per cent backing the film industry," says Abu Seif. "They understood the real role of art - to export your culture to others. Later it became all private-sector, and there was no mercy."

According to Abu Seif, a superficial, quick-buck mentality came to dominate, and there was "a collapse of values, collapse of art appreciation". Still others blame the advent of television satellite channels and the spread of bootleg DVDs. What's sure is that the number of Egyptian cinemas declined steadily, from 360 in 1954 to 70 in 2002. The industry reached its nadir in 1997, when only 16 films were made, down from 70 in 1992. And - with notable exceptions - the quality of the films was unimpressive.

Yet the situation has improved since the dark days of the late 1990s. New genres have emerged, giving the industry, if not its former lustre, at least some of its vitality. First to lure audiences back were the slapstick comedies featuring popular comedians and musical numbers - sometimes known as sinima al-bangu, or "stoner cinema" - which are deplored by the critics but adored by younger viewers.

The success of the 2003 film Sleepless Nights launched a wave of light dramas focusing on the romantic, professional and even sexual problems of young Egyptians. In 2006, The Yacoubian Building, the film adaptation of Alaa al Aswany's book, with its unprecedented budget of $3.5 million (Dh13m), introduced the idea of the blockbuster. It also showed how profitable it could be to tackle taboo subjects, a lesson put to use a few years later by Khaled Youssef in his film Heyna Maysara (When Things Get Better), a great hit thanks to its sure-fire mix of sex, action and topical sensationalism.

Alongside this revitalised mainstream cinema, auteurs such as Osama Fawzy and Youssri Nasrallah continue to put out more challenging work. Fawzy's 2004 I Love Cinema is a coming-of-age tale that touches on religious fanaticism and romantic frustration; Nasrallah's 2009 Sheherazade, Tell Me a Story focuses on the coercion, intimidation and violence that women suffer and react against in Egyptian society today.

Egyptian filmmakers are not only exploring a wide range of genres, but also benefiting from relatively relaxed censorship. Abu Seif watched his father struggle for decades to get permission from the censorship board to make a film about a young couple's sexual problems. Only in 2002, after his father's death, was Abu Seif able to make The Peacock and the Ostrich, about the tribulations of a clueless husband and a frigid wife.

Now - with satellite channels dedicating entire programmes to the subject and films featuring homosexuality and other taboo themes - the subject of this long-delayed film hardly seems shocking. In the end, according to Abdalla, censorship is not such a problem. "You can tell whatever you want to tell without clashing with the regime," he says. A much greater hurdle is bureaucracy, he explains: it took 33 steps to obtain a permit to film street scenes. The Egyptian cinema world remains hierarchical and centred on a few state-controlled institutions: the High Cinema Institute, the filmmakers' union, the ministry of culture.

However, the idea of "independent" filmmaking is catching on. Abdalla, whose background is in music, says he was inspired to make Heliopolis by the "very big movement in Cairo and Alexandria in the last four or five years: young people are making films in their houses, with their friends". Technical limitations are disappearing: a digital camera and a laptop are enough to get started. Some directors are gamely making films without any permits or permissions, although this can lead to endless headaches. Semat, a production and distribution company launched by a group of young local filmmakers, has become a force in independent film-making. It makes documentaries and short films and hopes to encourage work that exists "in parallel to but independent from the existing state institutions".

Existing state institutions, however, aren't always welcoming. Cairo's Independent Film Festival - scheduled to run concurrently with the official festival - was shut down last year by the ministry of culture for not having all the required permits. Some suggested that the authorities wanted no side attractions detracting from the main event. The festival's organiser, Mohammed Abdel Fattah, says it will be held in February: "We chose a different time from the official festival so there would be no friction."

This year, the CIFF is spotlighting Indian and Algerian film. The 33rd session of the festival will conclude with a screening, at the pyramids, of Shadi Abdel Salam's lyrical and majestic 1969 film The Mummy, newly restored by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Foundation. The restoration of this classic is a happy occasion, but also a reminder that greater efforts are required to safeguard Egypt's cinematic heritage, much of which has passed into foreign hands. The Saudi-owned Rotana entertainment company has acquired 3,200 Egyptian films, dating from the 1930s to the present, or 40 per cent of all the Egyptian films yet made. The films are broadcast - with scenes censored - on the Rotana Cinema channel.

Many other films are difficult to find. There are no cinematheques or accessible archives in Egypt, and distribution is haphazard. "I want to watch the work of early important Egyptian directors - but how can I do this?" asks Hesham. Cinephiles must head to areas such as Cairo's Shawarby Street - lined with vendors of bootleg DVDs - in search of classics. Even recent works can be hard to track down, and the quality is extremely variable. But the great films, from all decades, that one happens upon nonetheless, explain what all the fuss with Egyptian cinema is about.