Cairo storefront cinema a home for alternative films

Zawya, built into an annex of a one-time movie palace-turned multiplex, sells several dozen tickets per day, while special premiere screenings have filled it beyond capacity.

Egyptians stand outside of the Zawya cinema, centre, between auto parts shops on a busy street in downtown Cairo. The cinema brings rarely seen alternative art cinema to an Egyptian audience that has seen one of the world’s oldest movie industries fall into decline. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
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Squeezed in between auto-parts shops and cafes off the crowded avenues of downtown Cairo, no blaring marquee announces this cinema. Instead, look for a small blue doorway, marked by a discreet neon calligraphy sign and, sometimes, an old Peugeot parked across the street playing films projected onto its windscreen.

The car once belonged to the late Youssef Chahine, Egypt’s most-lauded movie director, who, in a career that spanned six decades, made films with a social conscience that challenged censors and broke with the dominant big-studio system.

Behind the door, a project launched by the production company he founded aims to bring films in that tradition to a new audience. The 170-seat Zawya cinema hopes to generate a market for alternative, international or independent films in Egypt, where one of the world’s oldest movie industries has fallen into decline.

Egypt currently produces only about 20 films a year, less than a quarter of its peak late last century. Its funding and profits have been hit hard by DVD pirating and downloads, as well as growing religious conservatism. Three years of instability following Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising only worsened the picture. The films that do get made are largely geared towards a quick buck – slapdash comedies and over-the-top melodramas with poor production values.

The project hopes to bring quality films to the streets of the Arab world’s most populous country.

Zawya – which means angle, corner or perspective in Arabic – was partially born out of the revolutionary spirit of nearby Tahrir Square, says Marianne Khoury, Chahine’s filmmaker niece and producer at Misr International Films. Tahrir was the epicentre of mass demonstrations that helped bring down the longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, then his elected successor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, last summer.

“The revolution actually sparked interest and boosted our chances for a project like this,” she says, as film nerds, hipsters, curious mechanics and even diplomats in suits crowded the entrance on opening night.

“The idea was to create a space where you can watch films the way they should be watched,” she says.

Pro-democracy activists may have seen their political hopes dashed this past year amid a crackdown on Morsi supporters and on free speech in general. But some cultural initiatives inspired by the revolutionary fervour of the past three years have survived.

Zawya opened with Wadjda, the first Saudi feature film directed by a woman, which tells the story of a young girl's quest to ride a bicycle – an act forbidden by the kingdom's clerics. Later, it played Jim Jarmusch's vampire-chic Only Lovers Left Alive, and Asghar Farhadi's drama The Past.

Zawya, built into an annex of a one-time movie palace-turned-multiplex, sells several dozen tickets per day, its box office says, while special premiere screenings have filled it beyond capacity.

With its downtown location, it aims to reach out to groups not normally targeted by such an eclectic selection. It also fits into a push to revitalise Cairo’s rundown city centre – a Herculean challenge given the grave disrepair into which many of its 19th- and early 20th-century buildings have fallen.

Zawya, for example, hosted films from this year’s edition of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, which seeks to revive the area as a cultural centre and expose a wider section of Egyptians to the arts.

It has also attracted European film bodies hoping to promote their films in a market that has long been poorly tapped.

“We’ve been trying for a long time to do something for French movies here and, until now, nothing has worked,” says Jean-Christophe Baubiat from UniFrance Films. “This project arrived at just the right moment – not only for French but also for European and American independent movies. It’s the first art house cinema in Egypt.”

Others are also trying to boost downtown’s appeal to art-cinema fans.

Due to open later this year a few blocks away is another alternative film centre, the Cinematheque. It bills itself as a space for filmmakers and film-lovers to watch, learn about and create cinema, as well as draw in a broader public.

Located next to Cairo’s old synagogue, it will feature screening facilities, workshop spaces, an international archive and a processing lab for analogue film.

The appeal of alternative cinema to Egypt’s 90 million people remains to be tested.

At a cafe outside Zawya one recent night, the waiter Hamdy Mido served dozens of men chatting away, seemingly oblivious to the movie house next door.

“Some of our customers have gone there, and I plan to go see that police film, Zero. But in general these films are on a very high level and sometimes in foreign languages, and most people here prefer to hear Arabic.

“It’s not for everybody,” he adds.

* Associated Press