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

A question of audience

With independent cinema gaining audiences worldwide, will Egypt's filmmakers be able to tap into the new taste for independent film, asks Hani Mustafa

Click to view caption
Basem Samra in Basra

The term "independent cinema" has only become common currency in Egypt over the past two decades. Until quite recently, Egyptian feature films were mostly made by commercial production companies, and production values were all about projected receipts at the box office. However, things began to change when a number of Egyptian filmmakers started to part ways from commercial cinema and explore the possibilities offered by independent filmmaking.

Independent cinema first appeared in the US in the 1940s, when directors started to look for alternative sources of finance for their films in order to break the hold of Hollywood's Big Five studios over the film industry (Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Paramount, RKO and Twentieth- Century Fox).

These trail-blazing filmmakers were not necessarily rebels, however. Indeed, many of them had very little option other than to look for alternative sources of finance for their films, since the studios, including the Big Five, would often turn down their projects. Some independent producers and directors of the time -- a group that included Orson Welles, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and Alexander Korda -- came together to form their own production company in the shape of United Artists.

Elsewhere, the struggle between the studios and independent filmmakers in France culminated in the development of French New Wave cinema in the 1960s and the flourishing of directors such as Jean- Luc Godard, François Truffaut and others. This New Wave cinema in turn inspired Egyptian filmmakers, and following the Arab defeat in the 1967 War Ali Abdel-Khaleq made Oghnia ala al-Mamarr (Song on the Passage) and Ghaleb Shaath came up with Zilal ala al-Ganib al-Akhar (Shadows on the Other Side), both significant independent films. However, both films were seen as acts of rebellion at the time, and they may not provide models for today's independent cinema.

Over the past few decades independent filmmakers in Egypt have tended to stay away from feature films, deeming them too expensive to produce, and it was only with the emergence of digital technology that independent filmmakers ventured into making feature films. One of these is Yousry Nasrallah, who shot his film Al-Madina (The City) in digital format and won the Special Jury Award at the Locarno Festival in 1999. Basem Samra, the lead actor in Nasrallah's film, was also named Best Actor at the Carthage Festival in 2000.

However, while Al-Madina was screened commercially in Egypt, Samra's subsequent appearances in digital film have been less successful. He appeared in another feature film shot in digital format by Mohamed Khan, but this film has not been released commercially due to the high cost of turning digital images into 35mm film.

Nevertheless, other independent feature films have been made, including Ibrahim El-Batout's Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun). This film unfortunately could not be shown at the Cairo International Film Festival since it had not received permission to shoot from the censorship authorities. One of the most recent independent films to be made in Egypt is Basra, named after the Iraqi city and a popular card game. This film, written and directed by Ahmad Rashwan, has a clear political aspect to it.

After having failed to secure funding for his film, Rashwan decided to produce it himself. "I was in Dubai working on some documentaries when I received yet another rejection slip from a producer. As I couldn't wait any longer for funding, I spent money on the film from out of my own pocket, asking actors interested in making independent films, including Basem Samra, to work with me on it. I'm happy to say that they agreed," Rashwan says.

"Everyone who worked on Basra got paid," Rashwan adds, "some people agreeing to work for reduced wages and others preferring to defer the bulk of their payment until the film was released."

For Rashwan, the hardest part of being an independent filmmaker is that he has to handle all the red tape of the production himself, including arrangements for locations and for permissions to shoot. Independent filmmakers also tend to rely more on a relatively inexperienced crew and actors, which can be a daunting experience. While almost everyone who worked on Basra had the right attitude, they all had less experience than they would have had had the film been a commercial production. "This made things harder for me," Rashwan says, "and I had to double up as both director and producer."

When a television company bought the rights to the film, promising to convert it into 35mm format for public screening, Rashwan was able to sit back and start enjoying his work. He would be willing to try independent filmmaking again, he says, but this time only as a director. Should he find himself making an independent film again, he will hire a production team, he adds, since for this kind of work alone one needs "more than 48 hours in a day."

Some Egyptian production companies, such as Mawred and Simat, offer funding for independent films, but most of this goes to short films and documentaries rather than to full-length features. However, Egyptian directors who have taken the independent route say that production is only part of the problem. Distribution can also prove particularly tricky for independent cinema.

Nevertheless, if the shift in the mood in the US towards independent filmmaking is anything to go by there is perhaps reason to be optimistic about the future of independent film in Egypt. Some US- made independent films have won major international prizes and made large amounts of money. Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape is one example, an outsider film that went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. As a result, some Hollywood studios have started to develop connections with independent filmmakers in order not to miss out on this potential source of revenue and prestige.

Today, the question remains of whether Egyptian and Arab independent filmmakers can attract large cinema audiences in the same way as has been happening abroad. Will independent films remain merely films for the elite and films make for film-festival audiences that do not have wider appeal? Or will they begin to attract mainstream audiences?

Only Egypt's independent filmmakers can provide the answers to these questions, since much depends on their stamina and determination when confronted with the vagaries of the marketplace.

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