Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre:

Off the record

By Nehad Selaiha

In its relatively short life the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre has whipped up a chain of violent controversies. They range from disputes over censorship, artistic criteria, the question of the contest, the choice of jury and the awards to the selection of guest shows and the inveterate governmental character of the whole event. Such controversies have become a perennial feature of the festival and, indeed, an important and welcome bonus.

In a country teeming with cultural contradictions and passing through a deeply unsettling transitional stage -- both socially and economically -- where freedom of thought and expression is heavily curtailed and has a precarious existence and different value-systems, world views and conceptual frameworks are interlocked in serious conflict, a festival of this nature was bound to become more than just a festive artistic gathering. Unwittingly -- or cunningly perhaps -- it has effectively managed to highlight in its structure, policies, management, rules and procedures (not forgetting that fearsome fleet of gigantic black vehicles that ferry the jury around) the basic paradoxes and tragic absurdities of contemporary Egyptian reality. Furthermore, it has provided an outwardly beaming, politically innocuous context in which Egyptian artists and intellectuals (and I dare say their Arab comrades as well) can freely and quite safely tackle such paradoxes and air their latent fears, grievances and multiple frustrations. To the cultural historian, if she cares to deconstruct the critical and media discourses it annually generates, this festival can provide valuable insights into current modes of thought and feeling in Egypt and similarly historically situated countries.

Images of the drama: troupes in and out of competition in the current round of the festival


Predictably, this year's festival contributed its share to the mounting stock of controversial issues, and it did so even before the festival started. At 1.00 am on 1 September (the day of the opening), at the Floating Theatre in Giza, the seven member committee appointed by the minister of culture to select the Egyptian entries in the international contest met to discuss what they had seen (18 shows crammed into six days) and inform the chairman of the festival of their verdict. They had short listed five productions: Al-Hanager's Epistle of the Birds; Al-Shabab's (Youth Theatre) Where Things Take Place and House of Flesh; Al-Tali'a's (Avant-garde Theatre) The Naked King; and the Cultural Palaces' El-Barrawi. Mohamed Shafiq's Where Things Take Place, though it got a majority vote (five out of seven) raised once more the tediously familiar question of whether movement and dance pieces qualified as theatre. Having summarily settled this by-now hackneyed dispute and quelled the dissenters, the committee had to come to grips with the more vexing question of art and nationality. To people in Europe, with so many multi-national companies around, this may seem ridiculously incredible. But the CIFET is a different kettle of fish; like many third world festivals it is deeply embroiled in politics by dint of its official nature; in its governmental context, such questions are inevitable.

The bone of contention this time was Al-Hanager's Epistle of the Birds -- an openly didactic invitation to rebellion against dictatorship, transmitted through a stirringly eloquent text and an austerely economical, well-disciplined, epic-style mode of performance. But since it was written, directed and designed by Qasim Mohamed -- an expatriate Iraqi artist living in the United Arab Emirates -- it raised doubts as to whether it could legitimately represent Egypt in the contest. The fact that the UAE was coming to the festival with a play also directed by Qasim Mohamed made the issue more sensitive. The irritating question was: whom does he exactly represent? In a different context, other than that of CIFET, the answer could have been himself and his group, and it would have sufficed. But here it would not do, and the mere raising of the question focused one of the major predicaments of this festival: shows are never accredited to their makers, but to their countries whose approval is conditional to accepting the show. Indeed, in many cases it is the country itself that appoints the show and without an official umbrella no Egyptian group can hope to take part. A prime example of this is the brilliant independent Temple troupe (Al-Mu'bad) who applied for their latest widely acclaimed production, Life is Beautiful or Waiting for My Uncle from America, to be viewed by the Egyptian selection committee and considered for the contest and were turned down because they failed to get the nominal patronage of any official governmental body.

Equally absurd was the decision of the festival board to exclude from the contest the British Frantic Assembly troupe on the grounds that it could not legitimately represent Britain (even though it has the official backing of the British Council) since its Versus was created in collaboration with the Egyptian Karim El-Tonsi group. Can you imagine a festival which blazons cultural interaction as its most cherished objective punishing a group of artists for having embraced the slogan and made it a reality?

Luckily, the Egyptian selection committee had only local shows to grapple with. Having dismissed the Epistle as too politically thorny and problematic on account of its dubious nationality, they turned with a sigh of relief to the Naked King and embraced him with open arms. It had the same political message as the Epistle but given in a different vein. The performance draws on the old tradition of Egyptian folk acting with its bawdy humour, grotesquery, witty repartee, verbal and gestural improvisation and use of masks, cross-gender dressing, puppets and shadow theatre. Sporting the banner of a return to the roots, it had the right national credentials and posed no problems. In its favour, too, were the overwhelming energy and virtuosity of the actors, its brightly colourful atmosphere and sunny, vivacious mood.

Compared to it the other Egyptian entry, Where Things Take Place, though equally brimming with physical vigour and permeated with the same spirit of cheeky defiance, seems poignantly sombre. The title itself is pointedly and bitterly ironical since the stage features a void peopled by lonely and alienated young men and women who fail to make anything happen and can only vent their inner rage and many frustrations through violence. This dismal message, however, is offset by the cheering fact that its director and choreographer, Ahmed Shafiq, a student of Walid Aouni and a member of the Opera Modern Dance Theatre company, is a brilliant young artist who is bound to go places -- hopefully places where things really do take place.

For a full programme, see On stage


Related sories:
Journeys within, journeys without

Around the merry-go-round 31 August - 6 September 2000
A question of merit 16 - 22 September 1999
Geisha with wings 9 - 15 September 1999

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