Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Autumn’s tides

If in the unfolding decade 2011 was the spring, then 2017 must be a kind of autumn. From new horizons for film production to a resurgence of state-supported theatre and the unexplained closing-down of art events, Al-Ahram Weekly’s critics review the year in culture

Sheikh Jackson
Al-Ahram Weekly

For several years now the Egyptian FILM industry has suffered from weak production, writes Hani Mustafa; “cowardly capital” is a notion that applies with particular force to the cinematic financial year, which reflecting cinema’s dual nature as an industry and an art may be a little longer than other financial years. Following the second stop on the course of the Arab Spring – the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, which gave way to turmoil – businessmen were afraid to invest their money anywhere in the country for three years until President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power in 2014.

But even then, while those who work in the field expected producers to pump money into the industry in the hope of reviving it, only a few dared take the risk. Al-Sobki and to a lesser extent Al-Adl companies did not stop making films. But, relying on action and/or comedy no matter what the story was, none of these genre productions were of even minimal artistic standards. 

Other approaches to production did emerge in 2017. They have resulted in – among other films – The Originals, directed by Marawan Hamed and written by Ahmed Mourad. The Originals was the second narrative film to be produced by Safieddin Mahmoud (whose first production was Hala Khalil’s Nawwarah in 2015). It was followed by Tamer Ashri’s debut Photocopy, which premiered at the first El Gouna Film Festival, receiving the best Arab film prize there. Likewise filmmaker Mohamed Ali’s remarkable romantic comedy Bashteri Ragel, written by Inas Lotfi: it was producer Dina Harb’s first venture which, being thoroughly enjoyable and artistically sound, was a relative commercial success, too. 

Some late 2016 productions were not screened until 2017. These include Sherif Al-Bendari’s Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim, which premiered at the Dubai Film Festival in December 2016 and received a best actor award for Ali Sobhi’s performance. This film is worth mentioning for being produced by Mohamed Hefzi, who is achieving a firmer and firmer grip in the field using mechanisms that differ from those of the Egyptian market’s and transcend its stifling dictates. Another film Hefzi produced is Amr Salama’s Sheikh Jackson, which is representing Egypt at the Oscars; its world premiere was in the Special Presentations Programme at the Toronto Film Festival and its Arab premiere was at El Gouna. An equally important 2016 production screened in 2017 was Magdi Ahmed Ali’s Mawlana, based on Ibrahim Issa’s eponymous novel.

Among the most important films to be screened in 2017 is the independent film Withered Green by Mohamed Hammad, who received the best director award at Dubai. A unique piece of work in terms of rhythm and acting as well as direction, Withered Green was mostly self-funded according to the director. The sad fact about such productions is that they have nowhere to be screened commercially except the Zawya Art House in downtown Cairo, the space which producer-director Marianne Khouri has transformed into Egypt’s only hub of alternative and independent cinema.


Withered Green

2017 productions that have not yet been screened include Hala Elkoussy debut Cactus Flower, which premiered in the Rotterdam Film Festival’s Bright Future competition in February and was screened in the Dubai Film Festival’s official competition a few days ago. They also include Mohamed Lotfi’s narrative debut Experimental Summer, which premiered in the Berlinale’s Forum section. Ahmed Amer’s debut Balash Tebossni is taking part in the Arab Nights section of the Dubai Film Festival, while Talq Sinai, the directorial debut by screenwriter Mahmoud Diab (who wrote, among other films, his brother Mohamed Diab’s 2016 Clash) is also being shown on the fringe.

Optimistically speaking we might say 2017 is an important year for serious talents who started out on long and arduous journeys, but it is in the arena of film festivals rather than productions that 2017 stands out. The launch of El Gouna Film Festival (22-29 September) took place under the patronage of businessman Naguib Sawiris and his brother Samih (the founder of the resort town of Gouna), with the participation of Boushra Rozza, Amr Mansi and Kamal Zadeh as well. And its success in terms of organisation and film selection no doubt reflected the passion and commitment of the team led by festival President Intishal Al-Tamimi.

In its tenth year Marianne Khouri’s annual Panorama of European Film (8-18 November) – a proud achievement by any standard – expanded out of Cairo to Alexandria, Ismailia, Port Said, Zagazig, Damietta, Minia, Assiut and Qena. As for the Luxor African Film Festival, the president and director Sayed Fouad and Azza Al-Husseini are overcoming the challenge of limited resources and working to establish the event as one of the most important of its kind. In his first year as president of the Ismailia Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, on the other hand, critic Essam Zakaria has lent credence to the decision to separate the festival from the National Film Centre by presiding over an excellent round; and having had his contract renewed he is already preparing for next year.

But while some festivals bore signs of hope others saw a sharp decline. Suffering a lack of financial support, the Cairo International Film Festival, for example, had numerous problems. Its president Magda Wassef and artistic director Youssef Sherif Rizkalla were unable to pay those contracted for jobs in last year’s round for over seven months after it ended, and despite an increase in the figure contributed by the Ministry of Culture this year the end result is still a smaller budget in the light of the pound having been floated. Financial issues may be the reason the festival contracted DMC TV as its principal sponsor – the first time a private-sector network has participated in the budget of a cultural event of this magnitude. But none of this could possibly justify the technical and logistical problems that ruined some of the festival’s most important screenings.

An even worse debacle occurred at a Sharm El-Sheikh hotel where the baggage belonging to guests of the Afro-Asian Film Festival was confiscated by the hotel management after the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation failed to pay its dues. The problem was solved thanks to the intervention of a number of state agencies concerned for the tourist destination’s reputation, including the South Sinai governor Khaled Fouda.

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GFF's founders

In 2017, writes Nora Amin, there has been a true comeback of state-supported theatre. A clear abundance in new productions and a sustainability in performance nights mark this year as a turning point, with the Artistic House of Theatre disproving the tired cliché that the audience has abandoned theatre. 

Two very successful productions achieved gigantic ticket sales, proving that theatre can still compete with other entertainment media, and that it is still possible to generate income in the arts despite the economic crisis. Those two productions are The Forty Rules of Love (Qawaid Al-Ishq Al-Arbaoun) directed by Adel Hassan, and The Day They Murdered Song (Yawma An Qatalu Al-Ghenaa) directed by Tamer Karam. The ongoing success of the two productions is a sign that the audience seeks out theatre based in music and song, especially where a tone of spirituality prevails. Both are clearly musicals. While the first is based on the philosophy of Sufism, the second one the freedom of the human spirit in the face of fundamentalism. Worth celebrating is the fact that relatively young theatre directors are finally occupying centre-stage in state productions. It must also be added that, thanks to them and the way they address the audience, a sense of popularity has returned to the state stages. 


Minister of Culture Helmi Al-Namnam

The head of the Artistic House of Theatre Ismail Mokhtar is playing a vital role in listening to new ideas and improving policy and plans in order to develop the entire sector. Along the same lines, Adel Hassan, who was selected as the head of Youth Theatre, is launching a very ambitious long-term project for theatre training to inject new blood in the acting scene and provide new talents to nourish and Youth Theatre. Hassan’s initiative is somewhat similar to Khaled Galal’s long-standing project at the Creativity Centre under the Cultural Development Fund at the Cairo Opera House, where he has enriched the artistic scene with dozens of talented actors – the new stars of video and cinema. The hope is that Hassan will be able to produce theatre stars.

In 2017 the Ministry of Culture also encouraged the discourse of fighting terrorism with art, and so many artistic productions adopt a counter-terrorism, counter-fundamentalism discourse or tone, but the ministry still needs to develop its policy in order to achieve outreach and seek out unprivileged areas where such enlightenment is needed. There is also a persistent demand that these theatre productions should expand through collaboration with the ministries of education, health and youth. Such protocols of cooperation already exist between those ministries but they need to be activated and implemented. A brilliant children’s play – also a musical like the one the Malak Opera Theatre presented should tour all the governorates and go to schools, youth clubs and orphanages. Another performance, like the religious chanting piece As If Youre Seeing Him, produced by the Taliaa Theatre should to visit outdoor areas and insinuate itself into gatherings around famous mosques and during religious celebrations. There are many more examples.

In 2017 Egypt came back to the arena of festivals at full force. The Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre returned for the second year after a long hiatus, and this time with a lot of improvements. I especially salute the presence of creative women in key positions within the festival’s management: Dina Amin, Mona Soliman and Asmaa Yehia. It is indeed rare to find such a trio of female leaders in any arts institution is Egypt. I hope that in 2018 the festival will be better equipped to draw in world-renowned productions with enough power to influence the Egyptian audience and theatre makers.

Another success in the festival arena is the Sharm El-Sheikh Youth Theatre Festival. This one can be easily described as a happy festival, it carries the hope, ambition and adventure of a young theatre festival while developing in giant steps. Mazen Al-Gharabawi and Wafaa Al-Hakim, its two directors, are creating a new model of what a festival could be, using public spaces, and sending peace messages to the whole world.

The Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival maintained its standard for another year. An event that resists all economic and political fluctuations, D-CAF keeps managing to bring over a huge number of foreign funders, partners, productions and prominent names. But the festival still lacks the vibrant connection to downtown Cairo and people on the street. The curatorial and managerial efforts in D-CAF are incomparable, yet the whole festival would reach a totally different level if it had more Egyptian art on its programme and attempted to touch on the history, architecture and socio-political issues of downtown Cairo.

In 2017 the National Festival for Egyptian Theatre generated a lot of discussion around playwrights. The question of whether the Egyptian theatre scene is void of playwriting talent dominated by an old generation of artists claiming authority over the current production and so imposing their taste and judgement and insisting that the key to the text will always remain with the elders: discussions and debates around this were a highlight of the festival season this year. The battle remains a significant example of authority and prejudice within the art scene, especially in theatre. One remains perplexed about the fact that the best productions awarded prizes by the festival jury were written by young playwrights who were totally ignored by the same jury.

This year of theatrical achievements ended happily in Alexandria, with an extremely promising project named Reflection for Arts, Training and Development. The Project, funded by South-Med and EU, centred on establishing an entity in Alexandria to provide professional consultancy, training and development support in the area of the performing arts. Unlike all the other initiatives for training, Reflection decided to work on a long-term basis, to select independent companies in Alexandria and to accompany them along the way to develop their artistic capacities in performance, support their professional managerial skills, create or develop their productions and help them through marketing, programming and diffusion. In brief, Reflection is functioning as a sustainable pool of development for independent groups, while forming a semi-alliance between all the parties involved to consolidate and upscale the art scene in Alexandria. This is an ambitious task that could have been left to the state, but unfortunately the Ministry of Culture gave up its responsibility towards the independent theatre groups when it deactivated the Unit for the Support of Independent Theatre that was launched in 2015 and only produced one event: the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the independent theatre movement. Was paralysing it done on purpose?

It would not be right to end this panoramic view of 2017 without thanking the Swiss Arts Foundation (ProHelvetia) for their mini festival in February: The Bus Days. It was a real leap forward in the concept of cultural cooperation and the amount of artistic collaboration, equality and mutuality. It opened new horizons for young theatre makers to deal with Swiss plays and develop their dramaturgical versions of them, and offered a public platform for the dissemination of related productions at Studio Nassibian Theatre (the Jesuits’ in Ramses). It is also necessary to salute the American Embassy which came back with a full programme of activities in theatre by funding and producing a series of performances that exclusively deal with female stories, female performers and female directors. Such projects are unique in the way they focus on and provide support for special issues that are usually underrepresented. 

My sincere hope for Egyptian theatre in 2018 is that it should build on the new popularity of state-supported theatre to provide equal opportunities to the young and promising, and to offer an outstanding level of artistic production. I also hope that all productions will tour nationally and go through the educational and social state institutions. And, last but not least, I hope that the Ministry of Culture will regain its role in independent theatre groups by rescuing the Unit for the Support of Independent Theatre before this failure becomes a permanent stain.

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Artsmart

Visual ART flourished in 2017, writes Rania Khallaf, with new names added to an already long lists of painters and sculptors, new galleries opened (the Capital Gallery in Zamalek, owned by established sculptor Salah Hammad) and others reopened or expanded (Khan Al- Maghraby and Picasso, respectively). But what does the buzz amount to? Collectors, art lovers, students and people like myself have often had to attend five openings in a row, but beyond the opening night few people visit or buy from galleries. For the vast majority, only seasonal “small works” exhibitions and the Artsmart fair on the Cairo-Alexandria highway provide an opportunity to buy any art at all. 

Veteran artist Samir Fouad says neither the galleries nor official cultural institutions have a coherent policy or vision. The Ministry of Culture discontinued both the Cairo and Alexandria biennales in recent years, and the Luxor International Painting Symposium and the Aswan International Symposium for Sculpture are the only two art events still supported by the state. In 2017 the only dedicated arts magazine, the Cultural Palaces publication Al-Khayal was suspended after being moved to the Plastic Arts Sector. Despite appearances, the economic recession took its toll. “The massive number of exhibitions held at private galleries is not necessarily a positive sign,” Fouad says. “There are no selection criteria. Many young talents have been frustrated and neglected. But I can single out the Youth Salon, held annually at the Opera House. It is a good venue to present new talents in a good way.”

Another positive initiative was the sixth Madinaty International Symposium for Painting and Sculpture (founded in 2008 by Madinaty residential compound owner Hisham Talaat but suspended for two years). Presided over by Hammad, it is a vibrant and well organised event; Hammad says more events for students and young people and a wider range of genres will be introduced next year. The Ubuntu Gallery took part in Miami Art Week with Egyptian and Sudanese works, what is more, and sculptor Adam Henein launched a pan-Arab sculpture prize for sculptors under 35. All this would point to a greater role for the private sector. And according to the former chairman of the Plastic Arts Sector, painter Salah Al-Meleigi, it was through private donations that the two biennales were maintained anyway; the ministry had no coherent budget for them. And it seems he was forced to leave office after he restarted the Alexandria Biennale, which had been discontinued, in 2014. 

Al-Meleigi also takes issue with the lack of residency programmes, the real estate for which – the Rateb Seddik Museum in Giza and the Fine Arts Museum in Alexandria, for example – are left unused. But while Al-Meleigi blames corruption within the ministry for the absence of the state as major player, which he feels is necessary, artists like ceramicist Khaled Sirag think the ministry should collaborate with successful private galleries to boost the ceramics scene, which is suffering under higher prices and lack of interest from collectors and galleries. With a small community of no more than 80 artists, the ceramics industry could benefit from government support. And yet the General Cultural Palaces Ceramics Symposium was discontinued in 2015; and the International Ceramics Biennale hasn’t been held since 2002. “I wonder what Egypt’s cultural vision for next year might be,” Sirag asks bitterly. “Perhaps a few more closures?”

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Howeida Kamel

The state of BOOK publishing reveals itself in a meeting with Howeida Kamel, director of general and international relations at the Egyptian National Library and Archives, writes Nader Habib. According to Kamel, the famed Dar Al-Kotob – founded in 1870 under Khedive Ismail following a suggestion from Ali Pasha Mubarak, the education minister, to gather manuscripts and valuable books endowed to various mosques, schools and shrines – is the oldest library in the Arab world. 

The country’s archives were incorporated into the library in 1966, and they were both placed under a single official entity in 1993. It had already moved from Bab Al-Khalq, its location since 1904, to its present, much larger space on the Corniche in Boulaq, a modern building that makes room for microfilm and periodicals as well as miniatures and papyri and provides large numbers of readers and researchers with the necessary space. In 2012, when fire hit the Scientific Institute, the organisation kept and restored its documents. 

Today the digitisation of 60 thousand manuscripts and nearly 100 million documents is underway. As well as the Corniche building, the Library and Archives has headquarters in Bab Al-Khalq (opened in 2008, the building has been undergoing renovation since the explosion in the security headquarters opposite in 2014) and in Fustat, Old Cairo, where the state-of-the-art building is equipped with the means to preserve rare books and manuscripts and hold large-scale conferences. The organisation also operates a restoration centre, opened with support from the Spanish government (and in the presence of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia) in 1997, which has educated generations of highly qualified restorers and is among the best of its kind in the region. Work has been facilitated by the support of Sharjah ruler Sheikh Sultan bin Mohamed Al-Qassimi, who also donated some of his acquisitions. 

The organisation also has 82 libraries as well as six mobile libraries serving areas without book resources and (on the initiative of the current head of the Library and Archives Ahmed Al-Shoki) visiting public spaces like parks and zoos during holidays. The organisation is also in charge of ISBN numbers, with publishers required by law to provide 10 copies of every publication free of charge – a convention now largely respected after years of trying to enforce it – even as piracy (and digital piracy in particular) is still being fought. Until 30 November, the organisation had received 12,390 books since the start of 2017 (11,628 in Arabic and 257 in other languages). Despite increases in the cost of book production in the course of the year, numbers have not fallen. 

Ongoing and future projects include cooperation protocols with Azerbaijan and Kuwait in the fields of publication and restoration as well as working closely with the state’s Scientific Centres, which produce research in heritage, contemporary history, children’s literature, bibliography and computing. Events and conferences celebrating such events as the restoration of the Othman Quran or the upcoming 125th anniversary of Dar Al-Hilal are regularly held. Kamel regrets the lack of cooperation with the education ministries and the lack of media attention to the organisation’s activities, but despite the need for administrative innovation and fresh blood in terms of human resources, she feels the organisation is on the right track. 

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