Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1205, (10 - 16 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Only films are left alive

‫P‬roducer and director Marianne Khoury tells Soha Hesham about her latest venture, Zawya

Al-Ahram Weekly

One can describe her as a cinephile who also makes (documentary) films, except that Marianne Khoury is a business woman too. Her 1999 debut The Times of Laura and 2002 Women Who Loved Cinema are remarkable films, but equally remarkable is her role in giving the Egyptian audience access to the best of world cinema first through the Panorama of European Film (launched in 2004), which showcased award-winning films from Europe alongside some of the best festival fair made in Egypt that no one had paid enough attention to. As such she is a businesswoman in a not very profitable business, but every forlorn film lover in Egypt is by now grateful for her acumen and energy.

Her latest project, whose venue is the now eponymous screen at the Odeon Cinema in downtown Cairo, is Zawya. “Zawya’s scheme is to provide a space for screening non-commercial films from all over the world. It builds on the success of the Panorama of European Film that started ten years ago based on the same concept of annually screening a variety of non-commercial films over a ten-day period, but with no fixed venue. With my growing interest in the idea of building an audience I came to the conclusion that having a  permanent space was a necessity.”

Khoury smiles and continues after the power cut. “When you have an event like the Panorama, I think it’s not enough to build an audience, we need continuity over time in addition to regular events. In Zawya, we have people heading to the Zawya Theatre who are accustomed to a new type of programming and aware of the fact that Zawya is not just a venue, but a growing project that eventually should encompass  every cinema complex in Egypt. We’re soon starting Zawya in Tanta, Ismailia and Alexandria. However, in these places we cannot start at the same speed as Cairo. It’s like a laboratory of learning what are the best screening times, the best locations. All these factors are being examined on the ground, and the project is not just about programming, we’re also starting to pay attention to the infrastructure.”

In itself Zawya’s downtown location has pros and cons: “Choosing Downtown as a location was entirely the choice of the young team directing Zawya, they insisted on Downtown.Personally I didn’t recognise the significance of the location at first. On the contrary, I was worried about to the constant clashes happening in the area, but they insisted on the location, and eventually I came round to thinking they made the right choice. Downtown has to be the anchor of the project, it attracts a huge number of young people who hit Downtown daily for the cafés and nightlife and among them are cinema fans. Of course they’re not the only audience but they make up an important audience. Somehow, the young can gather together and address each other through the various social media sites.”

She smiles the smile of someone who knows her project is on the right track. “There is a plan to spread Zawya to Sheikh Zayed and Heliopolis, we have to create a huge audience. There will be no problem in the programming process of the releases but we need people to handle the new projects. Those new projects need patience, efficiency and a lot of hard work.” Nor would it be the first time. Zawya Heliopolis recalls Cinemania, another project based on the same concept that was held at the City Stars Mall cinema. “Cinemania, was launched six years ago, the location wasn’t right, the timing wasn’t right, there was no social media available, the youth available now for Zawya for daily management weren’t available at that time,” she explains.

“The experience of Zawya,” by contrast, “is unexpectedly successful. People who have been coming to Zawya are much greater in numbers than what were expecting in our feasibility studies before the inauguration on 12 March. The main aim of the project is to break the traditional cycle of presenting the usual and the expected genres of film. Zawya presents two or three films per day, but of course we need better communication – as you were commenting before the interview – which can sometimes cause problems and inconvenience for people. Yet Zawya offers more than one film to watch per day without intermission in addition to special focuses for short and documentary films that help to draw in more audience. At the same time the location of the cinema with the street café located outside is important in attracting an audience as well.”

And for people who avoid Downtown like the plague, there are plans to establish a Zawya venue in Zamalek — another kind of city centre.

“Establishing a Zawya theatre in Zamalek is essential,” Khoury says, “but it’s very difficult to find a place in Zamalek with the necessary requirements for a film venue. We’ve been scanning and searching the whole district with no success till now, but the searching process is still in progress. We might have to go through the process of building the infrastructure as well as the audience, but that would be very costly to be honest. But we’re considering.”

Yet how has the programming itself differed since the Panorama? “Ten years ago,” Khoury says, “the Panorama started with two weeks of film screenings at the Galaxy Cinema in Manial, afterwards we stopped for two years, then it was resumed in the form of the Spanish Film Week and the Swiss Film Week, and the Panorama proper resumed starting in 2009. The Panorama is basically screening European films only, with some coproductions. For Zawya it’s much more diverse, we’re programming films from all around the world. We can screen European, independent American films Jim Jarmusch’s, Egyptian or non-Egyptian Arab films. Last year,” Khoury adds, “the Panorama screened 50 films and there was a Nordic focus with documentaries. The panorama last year attracted something in the range of 10 thousand people. The major unseen obstacle of the project is the high cost of the films,” she with concern.

“The rest of the obstacles can be summarised in the distributor who bought the film. In many cases we have to wait for a world premiere or an Arab premiere so that the film can be released, in other cases it’s censorship as in the film La vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) that was going to be screened in the retrospective of the Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. In some cases the obstacle is the availability of subtitles; if there are no subtitles we need to produce our own and that is very costly. Zawya’s status falls between that of the festival and the theatrical release, which is why the censorship authority regulations are not the same as in commercial cinemas, they pass many films. Of course some films are rejected for explicit sex, frontal nudity or even intensive politics, but the Panorama of European Film was smoother due to its status as a festival, allowing more films than Zawya.”

Cinema education remains Khoury’s main concern. “Changing or developing the audience necessitates hard work, which is why we’re starting a project of cinema education in schools. This is part of the principal aims of the Zawya initiative — to form new generations who appreciate new genres of art. The cinema education project is carried out in agreement with schools to screen certain films for students followed by discussions. The Saudi-German film Wadjda was screened for students at different schools, it was brought to them to the nearest cinema complex near their school and screened under the slogan ‘Brought to you by Zawya’, in Heliopolis and Sheikh Zayed. We made agreements with private schools and government schools and with government schools we even offer them buses for transportation,” Khoury reveals.

“Amazingly, people are not familiar with an unusual drama like Coming Forth by Day by Hala Lotfi, for example. The audience in the theatre was waiting for the final scene of the film when the film was already over. I think Zawya needs more events to attract more viewers and it needs to develop its communication skills, the management team of Zawya are all young people. I’m just a consultant and I leave the daily management and the coordination to them.” Khoury introduces her 24-year-old son, a graduate of McGill University in Canada, Youssef El Shazli.

As the director of Zawya, he has had experience in the Panorama, he says, “participating in its growing success and witnessing its annual achievement in attracting more people every year. I felt that I want to embark on an even bigger step in this direction and set a permanent space as an investment in the idea of screening non-commercial films during the whole year and not for an individual event held annually. We’re a team with a special responsibility for everyone, so there are three of us who choose films and there a million reasons why to choose a film and one of the major factors is availability. There are some films that are extremely highly  priced so we cannot afford them, others are more affordable for us as we always work with very limited budgets. So any film that is not commercially released can be screened in Zawya,” El Shazli explains, “but we need to have varied types of films regarding genre and geographical origin.”

El Shazli goes on, “In the commercial releases, the most successful ones are the alluring ones that have acclaimed filmmakers or actors like The Past by Asghar Farhadi and Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch, these were very successful. Also, the Egyptian film Al-Khoroug Lel Nahar (Coming Forth by Day) by Hala Lotfi, but maybe because that was the only Egyptian film that was screened in Zawya and it was such a significant experience.”

It was left to El-Shazli to conclude the conversation: “I regard the whole experience behind Zawya as full of positive aspects, audience attendance was unexpectedly high and puzzling. There were a lot of people talking about Zawya, there people we were astonished to find out they knew about Zawya, but still we opened on 12 March. It’s been only three months since the launch, and we’re still expecting more exposure and more audience attraction. Over the ten years of the Panorama of European Film we built a lot of contacts with partners, distributors and funders that helped us in the Zawya project. Nonetheless, Zawya will be in recess during Ramadan, preparing for the new season, hopefully featuring a Palestinian Film Week.”

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