Dear Egyptian audience,
For the past four years, I’ve been unremittingly singing your praises in these pages, asserting that you have finally come of age. For the past four years, I’ve witnessed the seeds of a real artistic renaissance growing into a vibrant, rich culture.
Your choices have become smarter; your active participation has radically increased. Edgier projects that didn’t have any place in here before have become unexpected successes, thanks to you. Alternative culture has thrived against all odds; cultural centers have never been more popular, festivals across the nation have grown every year, and talents from distant cultures have found a hospitable, appreciative terrain in Egypt. The promising signs were all so very clear, or I so thought.
Apparently, I was gravely mistaken, or, to be more precise, deluded, for the gulf between alternative and mainstream cultures is too wide to mend. Although you’ve indeed made a major stride from the recent past, creating a proper climate for new talents to emerge; you, like most world audiences, remain as idle as ever, waiting for everything to come your way, reluctant to explore new artistic avenues that will cease to exist if you continue to remain so passive. The events leading to last week’s fiasco proves my argument.
A fortnight ago, Palestinian filmmaker Najwa Najjar made headlines with her debut feature film, “Al-Mor wa Al-Rumman (Pomegranates and Myrrh), only the second Palestinian film to acquire theatrical release in Egypt. Few films of late have received such unanimously glowing reviews that greeted “Pomegranates and Myrrh. The country’s biggest film critics gushed out their love for the film, urging you to snatch this rare opportunity. But clearly, you didn’t heed the call, and after one week of release, “Myrrh was abruptly bumped out of theaters.
Optimistic as I was, I can’t say I was completely surprised. After all, anyone with even a vague idea about the sorry state of film marketing and distribution in Egypt could see the writing on the wall.
Distributed by Arab Radio and Television network (ART), “Myrrh had no marketing strategy whatsoever to back it. Apart from a decent premiere which boosted the film’s profile, ART didn’t spend a single penny to promote the film. No ads, no flyers, no trailers, no posters, no press kits . nothing. In addition, the film contained no English subtitles, denying the 250,000 foreigners residing in Cairo the chance to watch it. The timing of the film couldn’t have been any worse. The March/April timeframe is widely considered a dead season for films. All Egyptian movies scheduled for release this period were pushed to May, the beginning of the lucrative summer season.
The chance for “Myrrh to have reached a wider audience was little to non-existent. Without a hint of doubt, ART decided to dump the movie, confirming the naysayers’ claims that Arab films have no commercial appeal. It didn’t even wait for the word of mouth to spread, to grant the film sufficient time to hold its own.
The lack of publicity is partly to blame, but it doesn’t exempt your indolence.
“Myrrh premiered in Egypt last November at the Cairo International Film Festival. All three screenings of the film were sold-out, inspired primarily by strong word of mouth. Like past Arab films before it – Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now, Philippe Aractingi’s “Bosta, Nadine Labaki’s “Caramel – some observers believed that “Myrrh could replicate the success it found in festival circuits in commercial release. Like the three aforementioned films, all massive festival hits, “Myrrh has a strong popular appeal and a subject matter most Egyptians are personally attached to. The prospect of the film becoming a sizable hit was not as farfetched as ART deemed it to be.
Critics believed they possess sufficient influence to sway their readers to watch the film. As always, we, critics, overestimated our authority, proving, once again, that film criticism is growing irrelevant by the day.
In his superlative 2001 book, “Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See, former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum states that the American media, and now the global one, has seized control of the filmgoers, instructing them on what to watch, how to watch and what to like. What Rosenbaum failed to mention is that in the process, filmgoers have given up their ability to decide, opting for the comfort of familiarity, transformed into indistinguishable members of a large cattle flocking to watch the next “Twilight sequel or pointless Hollywood remake (ironically, “Myrrh was replaced with the critically panned romance “Remember Me , starring “Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson).
The norm is, you, Egyptian audiences, don’t seek films anymore. Films have to seek you. And unless they do, you give them the cold shoulder. What else can explain the failure of every Arab film released in the past five years to attract you?
Arab films have witnessed a major artistic breakthrough in the past decade, presenting a different cinema brimming with innovation and urgency. More than their western counterparts, Arab filmmakers have constantly struggled to draw you in to convince you that their films are no less accomplished than American movies. Yet, time and time again, you continue to turn their back on them. “Myrrh is not case of a mere Arab film failing to make an impression at the Egyptian box-office; it’s a case of an entire film industry fading before starting.
The consequences are not as slight as you presume they are. According to our sources, plans for releasing a number of Arab films in Egyptian theaters have been axed, while the release date for Elia Suleiman’s sensational fest favorite “The Time That Remains has been deferred until further notice.
You have continuously complained about the lack of diversity in theatrical releases, yet the fact is, the reason why the market has grown so standardized is because you don’t go see these movies in the first place. Not only did you have a great opportunity with Arab films, but with art films screened via Cinemania, the first art-house theater in Egypt. Few weeks after its opening, Cinemania was forced to shut its doors due to exceedingly low attendance.
I probably sound like a broken record by now, but the reality is, Arabic films will cease to be made unless you start supporting them. Your apathy forces filmmakers to compromise, to resort to the West for finance. “Myrrh is just one example of something truly exceptional happening in Palestine, home of some of the most exciting new talents to emerge from the Arab world in the past decade.
If you’re content with the garbage Hollywood throws your way every week, just dismiss my message and bring in your hate mail. If you’re a serious film lover, striving for atypical cinema, then now is the time to act. The ball is now in your court.
Sincerely yours,An angry film critic.