Rebirth on the Nile

A bold new generation of filmmakers looks to shake up Egypt's storied film sector.

PARIS -- On the face of it, Egypt is the biggest fillmmaking powerhouse in the Arab world. With some 80 million inhabitants, 400 screens countrywide and an average ticket price of around $5, Egypt has a relatively vibrant domestic market worth more than $50 million annually, and the highest level of annual production of anywhere in the Middle East and North Africa -- albeit down on the heyday of the 1940 and '50s.

But Egypt has yet to really break out in the international film world in the same way countries such as Iran and, more recently, Lebanon have.

As a glance at this year's Dubai International Film Festival line-up reveals, there are signs that things are beginning to change in Cairo. Three Egyptian dramatic features will unspool in Dubai, plus a pair of intriguing documentary features and a handful of shorts, showcasing some of the leading new talents in the Egyptian industry today.

Among these is "Ein Shams" (Eye of the Sun) directed by Ibrahim El Batout, which screens here out of competition in the Arabian Nights section. The drama about a young girl trying to fulfil her dream in a poor neighborhood of Cairo scooped the top prize at this year's Taormina Film Festival in Sicily before going on to screen in other major festivals including London. The irony is "Ein Shams" was initially classified as a Moroccan film due to the provenance of funding used to blow up this digitally shot feature onto 35mm.

El Batout says he was compelled to make his film outside the Egyptian system due to its stifling complexity. "First you have to write the script and give it to the censors," he explains. "Then you go to the syndicate (union) to prove that all your cast and crew are members, then you go to the Ministry of the Interior where you get permission to shoot. Then you go make your film, edit it and come back again to square one -- the censors -- and if they approve your film it gets released."

"Ein Shams" could escape that system mainly because of the ease of making films now on low budgets. "We did the film with a digital camera on a very limited budget, so we could be free of all these bureaucratic steps and controls. The day the film went to the editing table we'd only spent $6,000. After it was blown up to 35mm, you're talking about $60,000 (60,000 US)," says El Batout.

Finally, in light of the film's international recognition, the Egyptian film authorities decided to treat it as a special case and grant it Egyptian status, which means the distributor has the right to screen the film in Egyptian theaters. For El Batout, this was a big victory. "The filmmaking system in Egypt was totally closed in a box. Only a few could come into that box, because of the very strong control they have on what we see and what we hear," he says. "Of course now if I want to go out and make a film it would be easier for me because now people know that we can make good films this way. I think that 'Ein Shams' has established some rules."

In terms of international success, it seems Egyptian cinema is the victim of its own popularity on home turf. "Given the size of the audience, the tradition of home-grown cinema, and the Egyptians' love of local star-power -- plus quotas that limit the number of foreign prints -- Egypt has long been the one place in the Arab world where local film rules," says Antonia Carver, Arab Program Consultant for DIFF. "This of course has encouraged the kinds of films that score at the boxoffice like quick-turnaround comedies."

But the success of Marwan Hamed's 2006 drama "The Yacoubian Building," which was number one at home, did well at festivals, and achieved relative box office success in certain Europe territories, proved that young Egyptian filmmakers could at once appeal to the domestic market and make a film that was respected and well-received internationally. "Throughout the Arab world, we're seeing a greater diversity of filmmaking. This is as true in Egyptian cinema as elsewhere, despite the pressures of having a strongly commercial domestic market. This year there's some really bold cinema coming out of Egypt, with young directors tackling formerly taboo subjects," says Carver. She cites Egyptian DIFF entries "Private File," a very frank documentary from Saad Hendawy exploring the issue of "purity" and sex before marriage, and Ismael Hamdy's short "Winter's Day Visits," a realistic and compelling narrative following a night in the life of a young man, his friends and his dealings with corrupt cops.

"The combination of new technologies, the new subjects and breaking of taboos, a burgeoning young generation bolder than the previous, and the traditional Egyptian style and long-established film schools makes for a heady brew," Carver observes.

Renowned Egyptian writer-director Yousry Nasrallah, whose film "The Aquarium" screens in Dubai, says things are improving in his homeland. "I think it's because audiences are changing and producers are responding to demand for more serious subject matter," says Nasrallah. The result is a wider range of genres on Egyptian screens, going from the familiar comedies through social dramas to thrillers from younger directors, he says.

Nasrallah could not accompany "The Aquarium" to Dubai because he is currently shooting his next picture in Cairo, with the working title "Tell Me a Story, Scheherazade." Written by Wahid Hamid ("Yacoubian Building") and produced by Kamel Abou-Aly, the film is a social drama telling four different stories about women, and it marks a significant departure for Nasrallah. The director has previously sought financing outside Egypt, more for reasons of artistic freedom than for any lack of funds at home. "Now, for the first time in my life, I've had money for a film completely from Egypt and Arab sources. And I am allowed total freedom - so far at least," he jokes.

But as El Batout points out, this kind of artistic freedom is the exception. "We are producing around 50 films a year but they are very similar in content, so we are kind of recycling ideas," he says. "Producers don't want to take risks, thinking that the public won't come to watch the film. But my theory is different; Because there are 80 million people in Egypt, we can definitely find an audience for artistic films, for commercial crap, for whatever kind of film you are producing, we can definitely find viewers [for all types of film], if we make the effort. But if we as filmmakers want to the make the films we like, we have to go outside the system."

Alaa Karkouti, Syrian film analyst and expert on Egyptian cinema, says the odd flurry of success on the international scene remains a random phenomenon. "There was 'Yacoubian,' and before that just the films of Youssef Chahine and his students," says Karkouti. "But we cannot say Egyptian cinema is really trying to be more international these days. Nobody has a clear strategy. The target market (for Egyptian-produced films) is only Egypt. What's more, I think Egyptian film now has real competition from Lebanon, Palestine and even Jordan."

Karkouti does however see signs of evolution. "Both audiences and filmmakers are changing. Producers are trying to go outside the star system and experiment with low-budget films with no stars. And if it's a hit, they make more in the same vein. There is a new movement, but nobody can know what the future of this movement will be. The success of 'Ein Shams' should inspire other people. But don't forget, that film was Moroccan not Egyptian. It's not easy to make what you want (in Egypt)."

"In Egypt there are certain taboos you can't defy: Religion is of course the big one," declares Nasrallah. "But also sexuality, and homosexuality. You have to be agile. One problem about having success abroad is that foreign audiences want the film to correspond to what they think of a country, to tackle the issues they're expecting," Nasrallah observes.

El Batout concurs: "International coproducers are expecting you to make a film that has the elements they know of the Middle East or Egypt. As soon as they see that there are no terrorists, there is not a man beating a woman, there's no circumcision and no homosexual issues, then it's not an appealing film for them."

El Batout says he thinks Egyptian filmmakers cannot seek solutions outside their homeland. "If we don't produce the films ourselves, they won't be our films. If I have to go to Europe or the States to find money to make my film, then I'm kind of twisting it a little bit."