Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ein Shams receives top awards

Egyptian director Ibrahim El-Batout's film Ein Shams reaped the top awards at the Taormina and Rotterdam film festivals this week, writes Samir Farid in Taormina

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El-Batout (centre) at Taormina

The two awards received by Ibrahim El-Batout for his film Ein Shams this week -- the Golden Tauro in Taormina and the Golden Hawk in Rotterdam -- could not have come at a better time or found a better recipient. However, though the two prizes are a well- deserved tribute to Egyptian independent cinema in the person of one of its most innovative filmmakers, the film itself had to be entered in both competitions as a Moroccan and not an Egyptian film, highlighting the dilemma of many independent filmmakers in Egypt.

Shot in 2006 in digital format, Ein Shams was later converted into 35mm film by the Moroccan Cinema Centre after the Centre's director, Nur Eddin Sayil, saw the film and agreed to finance the conversion in order to make El-Batout's work more widely available in the Arab world and beyond. It was only when Ein Shams was available in 35mm format that El-Batout applied for the film to be screened commercially in Egypt, and it was then that the problems started.

In order for Egyptian films to be screened in commercial cinemas in Egypt the screenplay has to be submitted to the censorship authorities before shooting starts and prior approval obtained. However, El-Batout did not do this, and though the head of the censorship authority, Ali Abu Shadi, offered to grant the film "backdated" approval, El-Batout refused to accept Abu Shadi's offer. He had made the film without submitting the screenplay to the authorities in advance, he said, and being given permission by the authorities after the film was finished would be absurd.

The result is that if El-Batout's film is ever screened in Egypt, it will be treated as a non-Egyptian film. This is ridiculous given the fact that the film deals with the daily lives of poor families living in the lower-middle-class district of Ein Shams in Cairo.

At the centre of the drama are Shams, an 11-year-old girl who dreams of visiting downtown Cairo, and her father, who works as a taxi driver but also moonlights as a chauffeur to a wealthy businessman, as well as other members of her family and her teacher and doctor. Setting the film in Ein Shams, built on the ruins of the ancient city of Heliopolis, provides El-Batout with an opportunity to contrast the reality of life for many in today's Egypt with the faded glory of the ancient past, while at the same time dealing with many of today's problems, including political apathy and corruption.

El-Batout was born in 1963 in Port Said, and he graduated from the American University in Cairo in 1985, majoring in physics. He has worked as a director, producer and cameraman since 1987, and has also directed numerous documentaries for international TV channels, such as ZDF (Germany), TBS (Japan) and ARTE (France). His documentary work has received many international awards, including the Axel Springer Award in Germany (1994 and 2000). In 2004 he moved on to produce feature films, his first being Ithaki (2005) and Ein Shams his second.

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