Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The silver screen in the dark continent

Egypt was the gateway through which filmmaking came to the African continent, and it continues to play a crucial role today

 The silver screen in the dark continent
The silver screen in the dark continent

The origins of cinema go back to December 1895 when the Lumière brothers Auguste and Louis demonstrated their invention the “cinématograph” at the Grand Café in Paris. Since then, the film industry has presented its audiences with a wealth of realistic and more fantastic stories.

At first, filmmaking was linked to the European countries, but it later migrated to the US where it established itself in Hollywood in California. It was also widely believed that the new industry could be used to direct and influence its audiences, and while for many years cinema was limited to filmmakers in Europe and the US, its audience grew around the globe, including in Africa.

Egypt was the first African country to experiment with the Lumière Brothers’ invention. A few days after the demonstration in Paris, the experiment was repeated in Alexandria in January 1896 and a few days later in Cairo and Port Said. Egypt thus became the gateway through which filmmaking came to the African continent at a time when most African countries were still under European colonial rule.

Egypt began making films in earnest in the early decades of the 20th century, but the cinema industry did not spread to the rest of the continent until the decades of African independence, and thus the idea of collaborating on filmmaking was not as prominent as political and economic collaboration among the African countries until the end of European colonialism.

In fact, the idea of cultural cooperation was almost non-existent in the first half of the 20th century. Cultural ties were few even after the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the growing openness of states towards their neighbours after independence in the 1950s and 1960. The only exception was in the field of education, where Al-Azhar in Cairo held the lion’s share.

In the film industry, there was little cooperation between Egypt and the African countries, except through individual efforts with the Arab countries. The Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine, for example, produced and directed Al-Asfour (The Sparrow) in 1972, his co-producer being Ahmed Al-Rachdi, an Algerian scriptwriter, director and producer.

Chahine then continued co-producing with Algerian collaborators on several feature and documentary films, including Awdet Al-Ibn Al-Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son) in 1976. But collaboration on producing or casting a role in films with neighbouring countries in North or Sub-Saharan African was not systematic and for many years relied on individual efforts. For example, the great Egyptian actor Gamil Rateb played the starring role in the Tunisian film Chichkhan in 1990, directed by Mahmoud bin Mahmoud and Fadhel Jaibi, but this was an isolated event.

Collaboration on an institutional level was not the norm until the creation of film festivals on the continent, including the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia, set up in 1966 by the late director and critic Taher Cheriaa. This festival focuses on African and Arab films in various categories and sponsors workshops for projects and support for scripts. The Carthage Festival is the oldest on the continent, followed by the Pan-African Film and Television Festival in Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in Burkina Faso, beginning in 1969. This is best known by its acronym and began picking up acclaim across the continent after 1972.

Another effort to build cultural ties between Egypt and other African countries is the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF), which many film buffs across the continent avidly await in March each year. The sixth LAFF Festival was held two months ago. Sayed Fouad, a screenwriter and founder of the LAFF, commented that “I had been thinking of this idea since 2009, when Egypt and Ethiopia began experiencing differences. I searched for the roots of this disconnect and found that the cultural ties between Egypt and the African peoples had been largely severed, certainly being less than what they were in the 1960s under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

“I believe it is now up to each individual to find a way to reconnect. Cinema is one good way because of its reliance on images. There are fewer linguistic problems, and cinema can convey the concerns and dreams of different people.

“Many countries have now set up film festivals. Even China, which is thousands of miles away, now has an African film festival. As a result, I decided to establish the Luxor African Film Festival to connect with our African brothers and to promote Egyptian films in Africa, also opening a window for African films in Egypt,” Fouad said.

“I chose Luxor as the venue for the festival because so much of Egypt’s cultural life is centralised in Cairo. Luxor also has a world reputation and great logistical facilities. It is a gateway to Africa and the south,” he added. Luxor is a top tourist destination because of its unique antiquities and archaeological sites, and therefore the festival also promotes African tourism to Egypt.

The LAFF not only shows outstanding feature, documentary and short films from Africa, but also has ambitious projects for the film industry on the continent, hosting roundtables and seminars on African filmmaking. Most importantly for future African filmmakers, it sponsors workshops for young filmmakers overseen by American-Ethiopian director Haile Gerima, the winner of several prestigious awards, including the Special Jury Prize and Best Script Prize for his film Teza at the 2008 Venice International Film Festival.

Gerima now helps train young hopefuls at the LAFF each year, helping them to complete short films that are screened the day before the festival ends.

However, Fouad emphasises that if the LAFF is to fulfil its true potential increased funding is necessary. He feels that the government should increase its funding, since the festival serves as a key link between Egypt and the countries and peoples of the African continent.

“There is no permanent budget for the festival, as there is for the Cairo, Alexandria and Ismailia film festivals, and this means that each year we have to scramble for funding. This forces us to spend valuable time and effort on administration that would be better spent on improving the technical and cultural aspects of the festival,” Fouad said. “Since the LAFF is sponsored by an NGO, the Independent Shabab Foundation, it suffers when dealing with government agencies that sometimes do not recognise the importance of NGOs.”

Today, the LAFF is a pioneering effort by its founder and festival director Azza Al-Husseini to put Luxor on the map of important events for filmmakers across the African continent. However, it needs greater support if it is to fulfil its mission of acting as a strong link between African filmmakers.

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