Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

To entertain or not to entertain

As the National Film Festival starts, Nahed Nasr meets Samir Seif

To entertain or not to entertain
To entertain or not to entertain

In its 21st round, the Egyptian National Film Festival (NFF, 18-26 October) expanded its activities across six governorates other than Cairo. An annual celebration of local productions, the NFF is divided into two sections: long fiction films; and short (fiction, documentary and animation) films. This year 21 long and 86 short films competed for a total of LE1,184,000 in prize money (17 awards in the first and 11 in the second section). Despite improvements — a wider geographic scope, more films by students and aspiring filmmakers and more publications to document notable achievements — the festival is still far from being on a par with the American Academy Awards or the French César Awards. 

Born in 1947, Samir Seif has been a professional filmmaker since 1976. He has made 25 critically acclaimed films, most of them commercial hits, and won seven best director awards, working with some of the greatest stars of the times. His latest award was the Artistic Achievement Award for Mediterranean Countries at the 33rd Alexandria International Film Festival (7-12 October), which he received for directing the Tunisian-Algerian film Augstine, the Son of Her Tears. As this year’s NFF president, the celebrated filmmaker and Higher Cinema Institute professor Seif had his own vision for the festival as a nationwide forum for national production.  

“This year we started with six governorates — for the first time of the festival’s history: Alexandria, Luxor, Minya, Daqahleya, Sohag and North Sinai. It is a matter of cultural justice to let people all over Egypt, especially where no film theatres exist, to enjoy their national film productions and to interact with filmmakers and critics,” he says. He hopes the NFF can regain its position as a prestigious regional event, indeed perhaps eventually becoming comparable to the Oscars. This, however, is in the hands of the filmmakers themselves, he says: “I cannot understand why our stars and filmmakers might ever be reluctant to take part in festival activities. Some of them don’t even show up to receive their awards.” 

For the first time this year the Cairo programme is limited to short competition films, while the long films will be screened elsewhere. “In the last few years we found the audience are not interested in attending the long films a year after they are screened commercially. One reason for this could be that the festival’s dates changed from April to October, but I believe the main reason is that established filmmakers and film stars do not attend the screenings to meet their audience. This was not the case 10 years ago. Who will promote the NFF if not the pillars of the national film industry?”

According to Seif, the NFF aims to support and celebrate national film production against the financial and bureaucratic odds. As well as high-quality and valuable book publications including a commemorative volume on director Abbas Kamel (1911-1985), the financial value of the awards has been doubled and so has the number of awarded films. The honourees include actress Lubna Abdel-Aziz, filmmaker Khairi Beshara, cinematographer Mohsen Ahmed, and editor Laila Fahmi. “As a festival run by the Cultural Development Fund,” Seif says, “we did as much as we could.

“For young filmmakers it is an opportunity to feel the feedback of the audience and to interact with them. I am especially proud of this section because round after round the festival is winning the trust of more and more young filmmakers and students who have limited opportunities for public screening; and this year their films will be watched in seven governorates including Cairo.” With this in mind the motto of this year’s edition is “Cinema, Tomorrow’s Beam”: “Cinema was and will always be a means to light enlightenment. This is not a matter of theory but also a proven fact in the history of the Egyptian cinema.

“The current production situation is completely schizophrenic,” he says, speaking of the divide between commercial and critical success, which he has always managed to bridge. A “take-the-money-and-run” mentality pervades the industry, with most productions being of very poor quality — too low to represent Egyptian cinema. “We never used to have quite so many bad films a year, when you find two or three decent productions you say, ‘Wow!’ Few producers have any passion for the art of cinema, and this has never been the case since the 1930s.” This, on the one hand; and on the other filmmakers with no interest in any audience, for whom festivals and awards are enough.

“This extreme gap did not exist before. Most successful and popular films in Egyptian cinema have also been artistic. What we have now is an imbalance because the majority of aspiring filmmakers do not care about audience or producers. On the other hand, the majority of producers and the conditions of the industry cannot endure any kind of risk. The filmmakers’ concepts and orientation need to be reviewed.” 

Seif recalls how even an auteur like Youssef Chahine, let alone Salah Abu Seif, always strove to reach a wider audience. “There is nothing wrong with making a film that fulfils your artistic ambition and exists in the memory of the audience at the same time. This is the only way to improve our film industry taking into account that producers and distributors need to make money.”  

Seif gives an example of recent films that were able to achieve that kind of balance: “A film like Leisure Time, made in 2006 by Mohamed Mustafa, proved very popular although it had no stars. Also La Moakhza, Amr Salama’s 2014 production, had the same success and popularity despite the fact that it had no film stars. Popular films are not only commercial and not only artistic but they have this mix. And this is what Egyptian cinema lacks.”  

For Seif entertainment is the keyword because cinema is in the first place the art of entertaining; through entertaining a filmmaker can introduce deeper layers, but if the film lacks the basic aspects of entertainment it loses its audience, and most importantly it loses its place in the history of cinema. Even Albert Einstein, he says, would rather see a film that entertains him. And given the current, unstable conditions, “Either you have a hit or nothing at all. In times of stability films that are moderately popular can survive but in the current situation the producers will not be motivated to finance a film if they are not sure it will bring in more than what they’re paying.”

Seif respects the choice of filmmakers who devote their lives to artistic films. “But when we talk about a film industry we have to remember that cinema is a mass entertainment art,” he says. He recalls his advice to his students, what he calls the Three Commandments, “I always quote the Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman: you should be entertaining all the time; you should obey your artistic conscience; and you should make every film as if it is the last.

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