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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Creative struggle to rediscover past glories

"There's a movement; you can sense it," says the director Hesham Issawi about Egypt's independent cinema scene. "Certainly this year."
The Egyptian director Hisham Issawi and actor Mohammad Ramadan at a press conference in Dubai for their film Cairo Exit, which screened at DIFF.
The Egyptian director Hisham Issawi and actor Mohammad Ramadan at a press conference in Dubai for their film Cairo Exit, which screened at DIFF.

"There's a movement; you can sense it," says the director Hesham Issawi about Egypt's independent cinema scene. "Certainly this year."

Issawi's Cairo Exit was one of a number of independent Egyptian films showing at the Dubai International Film Festival, which closes this evening, many of which were receiving their world premieres. The gritty tale of lovers caged within class and religious boundaries in the Egyptian capital was given a full gala screening at the event, as was 678, Mohamed Diab's debut feature. Other notable entries from the country included Zelal, from Marianne Khoury, and Ahmad Abdalla's Microphone.

The sizeable Egyptian presence across the festival's schedule gave more than just a suggestion that the country famed for a flourishing film industry some half a century ago was finally finding its creative cinematic feet once more.

The question is, can it keep going? "These films have all done well in festivals," says Issawi. "But they haven't gone out to commercial markets and made any money back."

Among the many issues facing budding filmmakers in Egypt is a distinct lack of independent film producers. "In fact, there are only two," admits Issawi. "There's Sherif Mandour, who produced mine, and Mohamed Hefzy, who worked with Microphone."

Issawi first found Mandour after watching Heliopolis, one of the success stories from Egypt's independent cinema scene over the past couple of years. Abdalla's debut, detailing the unfulfilled dreams and frustrating aspects of life for various Cairo residents in the once-glamorous neighbourhood of Heliopolis, picked up a number of awards on the festival circuit.

Abdalla's second outing, Microphone, takes the director to Alexandria, lifting the lid on a world of underground artists, musicians and filmmakers struggling to pursue their creative ambitions. Despite being a drama, the film features real-life musicians and bands from the city, and their continued battles to find venues to perform in or to get support from the local authorities are very real.

Microphone is comical in parts, with chases down the cobbled streets seeing cassettes flung in all directions and an all-girl band whose faces remain elaborately hidden throughout, but it doesn't detract from the issues it highlights.

"There are many problems," says Hany Adel, who plays in the film with his band Massar Egbari. "But we try to deal with them in a sarcastic manner to avoid being melancholic."

Subject matter often considered taboo or rarely discussed openly in Egyptian society was a running theme across the selection. Alongside Cairo Exit's class struggles, 678 saw the thorny issue of female harassment given a dramatic full-length feature, while the sobering documentary Zelal focused on the state of Egypt's mental health institutions and the conservative policymaking that often sees those afflicted stigmatised and forgotten.

"Of course, it's countering what the government is doing," says Issawi. "The government is not allowing us to talk about these subjects, so the artists and filmmakers are going to do exactly that. If we were to talk about these issues everyday in the media nobody would want to cover it."

And naturally, such apparent censorship plays a role in how the filmmakers go about their business physically. Cairo Exit was, according to Issawi, shot entirely guerrilla-style, with the script officially rejected simply on the grounds that it features a romance between a Christian and a Muslim. "We were hunted by the police everywhere we went," says Assawi. "They wanted to arrest the producer; it was ridiculous."

Such is the situation in Cairo, says Issawi, that the mere revealing of a video camera on the street arouses the interest of the police. "But there can be a huge fight and nobody will care."

Despite such issues, the number of films from Egypt featured at the festival shows that the drive and passion to create is certainly there, while the collaborations between those in Egypt's independent film movement is helping provide the support perhaps not available through official channels.

"There's a lot of dialogue between us Egyptian filmmakers now," says Iman Kamel, whose debut Nomad's Home - documenting the life of a Bedouin woman living a trying existence in the Sinai Peninsula - was also given its world premiere in Dubai. Kamel's tutor at the festival's producer-training programme three years ago was Khoury, whose film Zelal is competing in the same Arab Documentary category this time around. "I don't feel like it's a competition; it's more like a community," says Kamel.

Whether such debut Egyptian directors, or those returning with a second offering, can continue without the commercial support to take their ideas to an international audience beyond film festivals is something that, the filmmakers acknowledge, remains to be seen.

"Let's talk about this in five year's time," says Issawi.