22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Ghada Adel and Alaa Waliyyeddin (right) have Mohamed Heneidi (left) to thank for their stab at stardom. But not everyone is ecstatic about the light comedies currently dominating the scene
Films for a fast-food worldTarek Atia tours an industry in the midst of some serious soul-searching
Finding a clear line of thought regarding the state of Egyptian cinema in July 1999 is difficult, to say the least. There is so much being said and written, so many strange phenomena happening at the same time, that it would be easy to just label it all a crisis, as so many people have, and walk away.
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But that would be too easy. And it wouldn't explain why two big businessmen are building new cinemas at a rapid pace. It is precisely all those new cinemas, in fact, that have inspired much of the rhetoric regarding the alleged crisis that the industry is currently wallowing in.
Why are all the films showing in these cinemas from Hollywood? Why are the only Egyptian movies selling a lot of tickets clones of the Ismailia Rayih Gayy formula? Why are so many "serious films" unable to find enough cinemas willing to show them, so that they stay unreleased for years, or else tour film festivals abroad?
Is the cinema industry in a crisis? It depends on who you talk to, and who you believe. Everybody seems to want someone else's definition of cinema to go away. No single camp will be able to satisfy the tastes of the huge cinema-going public that everybody dreams will soon materialise.
The public would have to live, breath and eat movies in order for cinema as an industry to flourish and thrive. Hollywood and the tentacles it throws out -- into the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the way we talk and act and approach life -- does just that. In the '40s, '50s and '60s, cinema in Egypt approached something like that influence.
"There was a period when the industry was rich," says director Sherif Arafa. "What does rich mean? It means that the ratio between successful comedy, tragedy, action and drama was equal. Ismail Yassin was successful, Ezzeddin Zulfiqar was successful, Youssef Wahbi was successful."
The manager of one of the new multiplexes agrees. "It's not necessarily the action and violence of American films that draw people in," he says. "It's the na'im [smooth, appealing] storyline... Very few Arabic films these days are like this. We're not opposed to Arabic films, there just aren't enough that would pull in a good audience."
It is precisely this inconsistency that the multiplex manager says allows the foreign films to dominate his theatre's primo halls, the 350-seaters. Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson have been sitting up there for a while.
"We showed Al-Kafeer for two weeks... It just wasn't what people wanted. The audience wants something light, something where they know the guy will get the girl in the end. Egyptian producers and directors seem to just want to tell the story their own way. They don't attempt to think about what the audience wants," the multiplex manager said.
"Abdel-Halim Hafez was the last really good na'im draw," pipes in the distribution guy from Fox, who is sitting in the manager's office, checking on how his company's films are doing tonight. "Abi Fawq Al-Shagara showed for an entire year in Cinema Diana," he says.
The Fox guy practically lives in the cinema; he reports back to the head office after every show, to tell them how things are going. "We are not trying to dominate the market," he tells me when I ask him how he would feel about more Arabic films reaching the primo halls; "but we are carefully studying what people want."
So are Heneidi and his clones. Mohamed Heneidi's sudden ascension to the box office throne has thrown the cinema industry into a tizzy. Is the diminutive Heneidi a saviour or a scapegoat? Will his meteoric rise inspire more people to make movies and open the field to newcomers, or is this the beginning of an era of fear?
Last month I was on the set of Abboud 'Ala Al-Hudoud (Abboud on the Border). The cast and crew were in hyper-speed, trying to finish up the film so it would have a few weeks on its own in the cinemas before Hammam fi Amsterdam came raging into town.
"Everyone knows Heneidi is going to break all records," Ghada Adel told me, "so we're just trying to get in before he takes over." Adel is the female lead in Abboud. Her previous film credit was as Heneidi's love interest in Sa'idi fil-Gam'a Al-Amrikiya.
On the way to a large Nasr City mall with a multiplex last Thursday night, it was clear that Heneidi was almost here. His latest tape, released early to help hype up the upcoming film, was blaring from every car. "Ya tata ya nana," Heneidi sings, hilariously mocking Cheb Khaled and the "Kings of Ray". In the mall itself was a reflection of the Egypt presented by Heneidi in Sa'idi, the crowds oozing casualoo to the nth degree...
"The audience wants something fast and easy, something they don't have to think about," says one cinema fan. "They're not going to the movies to be preached at, or told a lesson, or to think about the broad political and social implications of the film. The American cinema industry understands that, but we do not."
Except, of course, he makes sure to mention, for the Heneidi team. "They saw that the Ismailia formula, no matter how silly and superficial it was, worked, and so they did Sa'idi, and now they're doing Hammam. People want nonsense, and that's what they're giving them."
Araq Al-Balah (left) and Kawkab Al-Sharq (above) didn't last long in cinemas. 'Fifteen-year-olds are deciding the future of Egypt's cinema industry' is the way it looks to Radwan El-Kashef, Araq Al-Balah's director
He relates it all to the "take-away lifestyle... It's fast food, because the family doesn't gather together anymore... the mall is an integral part of this, it supports the cinema and vice versa. Everything is sandwiches these days. Even if we're not really busy, we pretend we are... It's the rhythm of life now, it doesn't allow us the luxury to think about things, or look into anything in any depth."
Magdi El-Hawari, the producer of Abboud, knows this. El-Hawari is one of the new generation of film producers who are trying to ride the Heneidi wave. He has set himself up with a good director, Sherif Arafa of Terrorism and Kebab fame, and a lovable comic, former Heneidi teammate Alaa Waliyyeddin.
Abboud, Hammam and Ashraf Abdel-Baqi's Ashyak Wad fi Roxy (The Chicest Guy in Roxy) all rely on a popular "new generation" comic, and a cast of up-and coming characters who hope to headline their own films in the next wave if this one succeeds.
There's a chance it might. But that isn't necessarily great news to the film community as a whole.
"We're digging ourselves into a hole," says one aspiring director. "The only thing anyone is going to risk producing now is a silly comedy with low production values, a mediocre story line and a hyped-up, low-quality star." It is true that the industry is star-driven: even Nasser '56, for instance, presented as "a serious film", was pegged on Ahmed Zaki's box office pulling power; and Heneidi fans are just that: they would laugh if they saw him walking down the street. As one cinema-goer put it, "I want to see a hysterically funny movie, and Mohamed Heneidi is just the funniest guy around." There is a catch-22 to this, however: producers have come to fear that a movie without a guaranteed star will flop; but the only way to create a star is to let new faces into the business.
Although these may be the gripes of the more artistically- rather than commercially-minded filmmaker, the status of the industry during the one-year reign of Mohamed Heneidi's Sa'idi fil-Gam'a Al-Amrikiya lends credence to this claim. Several completed films lay waiting for Sai'idi's popularity to abate. It didn't, and those films remained in the can. Many industry experts fear they may never even see the light of day.
Or, perhaps worse, that they might, as one film did, see it for just one day.
That's exactly what happened to Kawkab Al-Sharq. The film version of the life of musical giant Umm Kulthoum was recalled barely half-way into its first day of release. Although it happened so fast that most people didn't notice, the press certainly did.
It was a perfect illustration of the confusion dominating the cinema industry these days. That confusion was already clear a few months ago, when I visited film producer Gaby Khoury in his downtown office. Khoury's company, Misr International Films, is co-owned by director Youssef Chahine. Along with Chahine's epics, Misr International Films is the clearinghouse for the half a dozen or so art films that are produced in Egypt each year. When I met Khoury, the company had just wrapped up the production of Radwan El-Kashef's Araq Al-Balah (Palm Wine), and was right in the middle of filming Chahine's Al-Akhar (L'Autre).
That day, Khoury heaped praise on El-Kashef's long-awaited new film. His previous effort Leih Ya Banafsig (Violets Are Blue), though only moderately successful in the box office, had established El-Kashef as a filmmaker with vision, a careful craftsman of image and style. Araq Al-Balah was beautiful, Khoury said, and might even do okay in the box office if it was handled the right way.
I asked him when it would hit the screen.
At the time, Misr International's group of downtown cinemas, along with the rest of the country's cinemas, were making loads of money showing Sa'idi.
Khoury's answer was that he wasn't ready to take the risk of releasing the thoughtful El-Kashef film when Heneidi's brash antics had been dominating the box office for several months already, and looked set to stay strong for a while.
Slick multiplexes are being built at a rapid pace in an attempt to erase the cinema-going public's memories of the decaying halls of yore. Is it just clean cinemas the public wants, or a richer variety of films? In Egyptian cinema's heyday, the crowds flocked to see serious films like Naguib Mahfouz's The Beginning and the End
So while Sai'di went on pulling in the crowds for the rest of an entire year, Araq Al-Balah toured the world, patiently waiting its turn, collecting over a dozen international film festival prizes along the way.
Two weeks ago, it was finally released. With almost no advertising, the film did rather poorly in its first week. It did get a lot of press, however, mostly accusations of being a film for "foreign rather than local" consumption. Nonetheless, the few people who saw it that first week began to spread the word that this was a film to be seen. A lot of people around town were planning on checking it out. Many of them soon got a shock: they had already lost their chance. Why? Because Misr International Films had promptly pulled the film out of circulation after that first bad week.
"After all that hype about the prizes it won everywhere, they should have given it more of a chance," was the feeling on one side of the industry fence. The other side wasn't surprised.
"Fifteen-year-olds are deciding the future of Egypt's cinema industry" -- or at least, that's the way it looks to Radwan El-Kashef.
The 15-year-olds hanging out in an ever-increasing choice of malls are indeed the target audience of today, and the future. The multiplexes are where the money is going to be made, and no multiplex wanted any part of Araq Al-Balah.
The film's rapid commercial demise came as a shock to El-Kashef, whose serious style is trying to find a niche in a system with a one-track mind.
"And that collective mind has decided that what the kids in the malls want is what everyone else is going to get. They want American films, let's give them a bunch. They want Heneidi, let's give them a bunch of him."
El-Kashef is not bitter, he's perplexed. "If you had a hundred films being made a year, wouldn't you want at least five or six of them to be serious?" He wishes there was an art-house scene where a film like his could show for a few months; but given the industry's current thirst for profit, this is highly unlikely -- at least until fear (whether the serious directors' fear that they will be labelled superficial by their peers, or the mass market directors' fear of commercial failure) no longer reigns.
The problem, at present, is that there are only a dozen or so films being made a year. And they all fall into one of the two camps. The way scriptwriter Ahmed Ghanem, who worked in cinema distribution for two years, sees it, the cloned comedies and failed art films dominating the market at present will soon be giving way to something like the multi-genre market envisioned by El-Kashef. Ghanem himself is currently working on a screenplay for director Tarek El-Erian. He describes his film-in-progress as a "portrait of a murderer".
"This is the time to get serious," says Ghanem, "if you want to succeed in the coming period. It's going to be cut-throat, but it's going to be active, and there are going to be a lot of films being made."
It seems safe to bet that most of these films will be produced and distributed by the titans who have gained a foothold in the market thanks to the law granting advantageous terms to investors who put over LE200 million into the industry. These giants, as the only players able to control the production and distribution process, will no longer face the problems that plague any release at this point.
The current confusion in the market, Ghanem says, should be seen as the inevitable feature of a transitional stage to a new level in the cinema game.
"The biggest difference is that the 'hold-over' rule has been abolished," Ghanem says. "Now, when a film does poorly in its first week, no warning is given to producers that the film will be removed in a week's time. It's just removed."
That means, of course, that the new film market will have to depend mainly on hype, much the way Hollywood does. It will be all about the smart marketing campaign that packs the theatres on the opening weekend, so that even if the film gets panned, the producer has already made his money back.
Hype, after all, is half of what cinema really is. And the other half is giving the audience what it wants.
"People want to watch movies in Arabic about their lives, which are high quality. Movies that make them happy, that make them sad," says Sherif Arafa. "The industry went backwards because we ignored it. When the craft was ignored, the amounts of money being spent were minimal. And the labs started to decay. And the marketing started to decrease. There is no monopoly of American films. There is only 1+1=2. No American film did as well as Sa'idi fil-Gam'a Al-Amrikiya."