Egypt's cinema revolution

Two of Egypt's top filmmakers talk about what the Arab Spring means for cinema in their country.

Ahmed Abdullah, director of "Heliopolis".

Courtesy of Cairo International Film Festival *** Local Caption ***  al10no-JpFilmFestival2.jpg
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In the end it turns out the late Gil Scott-Heron was wrong about one thing. The revolution wasn't just televised, it was filmed, recorded, tweeted, blogged, poked and finally, just three months after Hosni Mubarak fell, it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. When the world's all-powerful popcorn lovers decided to start a new initiative celebrating the cinema of one country at the festival, they symbolically chose Egypt for the inaugural event.

Stifled for decades since its golden age in the middle of the 20th century, Egypt's once world-famous cinema industry could be set for revitalisation. The hat tip from the Croisette is one of several signs that the future for the country's independent filmmakers, who previously struggled under layers of bureaucracy and strict censorship laws, could be an exciting one. Several Egyptian directors plying their trade overseas have hinted that they are planning to return to their homeland, while there is optimism that films that would previously have been banned can now be screened or put into production.

"Hopefully, things are going to change," says Ahmad Abdalla, who directed 2009's Heliopolis and the recent award-winning Microphone, which was being promoted at Cannes. "Everybody is now talking about changing the whole censorship system to a ratings system."

"And we hope the permission process will be made easier so people can go out and shoot on the street, or maybe even cancel the whole permission hassle."

Many directors filming in Egypt have expressed similar hopes. Hesham Issawi, whose independent feature Cairo Exit was premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last year, was forced to adopt guerrilla tactics in making his film, which features a controversial relationship between a Muslim boy and a Coptic Christian girl, giving the state censors a fake script and filming using mainly small, hand-held cameras.

Issawi has lived and worked in the US since 1990, but is now planning to move back to his homeland for a year or two. "If I don't go back now and try to be in the US and go once or twice a year, I'll lose the momentum. You have to be in the middle of things - I think that's very important. As a filmmaker or artist, who else are you looking for?"

Cairo Exit, which centres on a story of Egyptians desperately wanting to emigrate - something Issawi says was a dream for millions - could now even be shown in the country, although he admits that with the recent wave of violence centred between groups in the Coptic Christian and Muslim communities, the characters could still pose a touchy subject. Issues of cultural sensitivities, he thinks, will take time to adjust.

"The revolution was great and changed things politically," he says. "There is more freedom towards opposing the system, more freedom to criticise the president, the PM, to criticise whomever you want, to talk, to write. But I don't know if there is more freedom for people to be who they are. We need a social revolution, like what happened in the US in the 1960s, the civil rights movement. We still need an ideological change."

But just as the civil rights movement was soundtracked by a colourful backdrop of protest songs, jazz and soul with now-classic films of the time also bringing the counterculture revolution to mainstream channels, it's now the role of Egypt's creatives to help spread the ideological ideas they want for their society. "I think cinema will be even more important now," says Abdalla. "Many directors are afraid, because they keep saying that we are not ready yet. And I totally respect this opinion. But there is another thought saying that we need to comment on our lives and what happened. I think filmmakers should be making films all the time, not waiting until the revolution calms down."

"We need movies that challenge the society," echoes Issawi. "We need artists that push the society towards liberalism. We have to make movies, we have to write books." And with Egypt in its current state, Issawi says it's important to do so immediately, in case less tolerant forces gain prominence. "We need to be extremely active now."

With that in mind, Issawi is already writing the script for a film based on his experiences of the revolution. Having premiered Cairo Exit in Dubai last December, he flew to Egypt, where he intended to stay for a month before returning to the US. But when the protests erupted he found himself immersed in the activity in Tahrir Square (unfortunately his copy of Cairo Exit didn't make it past customs, as it didn't have the required stamp of approval).

"My story is being built around three characters, each one from a different class, who all meet in the protests. It's going to use real footage, so there's going to be some documentary with the fiction."

Screened at Cannes as part of the Egyptian celebrations was a similar film, 18 Days, named after the length of time between January 25, when the demonstrations began, and February 11, when Mubarak finally stepped down. The film is made up of 10 shorts from 10 directors - including Ahmad Abdalla - each telling a story from the revolution. The proceeds from 18 Days, which was made without a budget and on a voluntary basis, will go to providing political and civic education in Egypt's villages.

Abdalla's entry, titled Window, received some of the strongest reviews - a silent film shot entirely in a bedroom as an Egyptian watches the revolution unfold on his computer screen. But while independent directors such as Abdalla, along with the noted and outspoken filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, were included in the line-up, 18 Days became the centre of controversy because of two other directors involved in the project, Marwan Hamed and Sherif Arafa, both accused of having shot TV commercials for Mubarak's National Democratic Party in 2005. An online petition was started criticising these figures for not having denounced their activity, while several big names from the Egyptian delegation boycotted the screening.

But Abdalla dismisses the idea that these filmmakers are attempting to benefit off the back of the revolution. "We decided not to establish the idea of deciding who should or shouldn't be speaking for the revolution. I think it's very dangerous to start thinking that way. These people are not with the regime, they changed from the first day of the revolution and had very radical changes and decided to support it. But people don't want to forget, they want to continue to have prejudices."

Abdalla, who was in Tahrir Square during the protests and witnessed some of the killing of protesters first-hand, says he doesn't yet have the peace of mind to start another long feature. Instead, he's getting involved in the process via other means. "I'm making political-awareness videos, videos about the military trials. I don't put my name on them; I just want to help young activists to do stuff and put them online. Our media isn't free yet, so we still have to use the internet to show people what is going on."

But when he does turn his thoughts back to filmmaking, it's likely that the world will be listening. With renewed international interest in Egypt, the organisers at Cannes aren't likely to be the only ones wanting to focus on the country's cinema. Issawi's Cairo Exit - which had several sold-out screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York - was recently bought by WDR for the French and German markets, a sale he says was probably given a push by the interest surrounding the revolution.

While some may dismiss cinema as trivial during such a time of political upheaval, it's likely to play an important role in helping shape Egypt's future. The revolution will undoubtedly encourage more independent Egyptian filmmakers to make their own films, some about the uprising itself, others that perhaps push in directions they might not have been able to before. Perhaps it's still far too early to say what will happen, but it's difficult not to be optimistic about the possibilities.