The chimes of doom erupted in every Egyptian film studio earlier this year in anticipation of what several film industrials heralded to be the breaking point of Egyptian cinema’s recent exhaustive malaise. Long thought to have ended, the global economic crisis appears to have finally taken its toll on Egyptian cinema thanks to shaky Arab economies and haphazard finance strategies.
The danger alarm was ringing for quite some time now, but even the biggest pessimists didn’t expect that the largest film industry in the Middle East would be hit so hard.
With only nine movies released over the course of the past three months, the size of the 2010 summer crop is officially the smallest in more than seven years. By the end of the year, the total number of theatrical releases will be the smallest in nearly a decade.
The roots of the current catastrophe have been elaborately discussed over the past couple of years. The drying up of Gulf money, represented by the two biggest TV conglomerates in the region, ART and Rotana; the escalating cost of production and marketing; and the stagnant state of the local market.
Apart from a handful of star vehicles such as Ahmed Helmy’s “Black Honey,” Ahmed Mekki’s “No Retreat and No Surrender” and Tamer Hosni’s “Light of My Eyes,” the majority of the year’s productions have failed to recoup their production costs, hampered not only by the aforementioned factors, but by a growing lack of interest from the movie-going public.
The early arrival of Ramadan this year has caused the most lucrative cinematic season of the year to shrink substantially, leaving the nation’s producers with only two months and a half to lump their costly pictures.
The season wasn’t entirely a bust though. According to reports, both “Black Honey” and “No Retreat” managed to cross the LE20 million barrier, while Mohammed Amin’s stark drama, “Egyptian Maidens,” did a respectable business for a film with limited commercial appeal.
Although deeply flawed and generally unaccomplished, “Black Honey” and “No Retreat” offered glimpses of originality that were sufficient enough to draw the masses. The rest of the star-studded films on offer simply didn’t, and accordingly, the public turned their back on them. No box-office records have been broken the past few years while attendance remains largely flat.
From an economical standpoint, the principal calamity facing Egyptian film industry lies in the sheer fact that the local market is no longer self-sustained.
Before the economic crises hit the Gulf two years ago, Egyptian producers relied on Rotana and its ilk to cover production costs and perhaps make some profit. The situation has been reversed now. With no alternative at hand, producers were forced to sell their films for less than half what they used to as the Gulf entrepreneurs started to back out from finance.
The regional market proved to be no saving grace for Egyptian film industrials. Mega stars such as Helmy and Adel Imam continue to perform respectable, if not spectacular, business in the Arab world. Less popular names still don’t stand a chance in a limited marketplace dominated by Hollywood imports.
The main problem though, as one major distributor recently confessed, is that Egyptian culture no longer holds the prominence it once did 30 years ago. With the rise of indigenous Arab cultures, Egypt lost its long-standing reign over the region’s popular culture. Clueless Egyptian producers didn’t improve the situation either, taking on slapdash marketing strategies to penetrate a market we owned for nearly half a century.
That’s why several film figures have started to set their sight on the global market, not only for exposure and prestige, but also for expanding the reach of Egyptian films to a more diversified audience. Young producers like Mohamed Hefzy and Sherif Mandour have been hunting projects with an “international” appeal and art-house films with attractive ingredients for foreign viewers.
The question is: Do we presently have the talents, and the mentalities, to break in international festivals?
Last year, Egypt witnessed a major breakthrough in terms of international fests participation. For the first time in Venice Film Fest’s history, three Egyptian films — “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story,” “One-Zero” and “The Traveler” — were selected for the fest’s various sections, including the main competition. The same three films made it to Toronto shortly after along with “Heliopolis.” Several critics, including myself, believed that this could be the starting point for international recognition for a cinema that has long been identified with a sole filmmaker: Youssef Chahine.
Alas, that turned out to be pure wishful thinking. By far, only two Egyptian films have garnered slots in international fests this year: Daoud Abdel-Sayed’s critically lauded “Messages from the Sea” (Taormina) and Marianne Khoury’s “Zelal” (Venice). Ahmad Abdallah’s sophomore indie effort, “Microphone,” might make it to the next round of fests, but overall, the dense of participation is negligible compared to last year.
Abdel-Sayed’s misunderstood masterpiece aside, the quality of this year’s dramas has proved that mainstream Egyptian films have no place outside these shores. Plenty of hope has been placed on the so-called ‘new indie wave,’ represented by Ibrahim El-Batout (“Eye of the Sun”), Abdallah, Tamer El-Said (the unfinished “Last Days of the City”) and Tamer Ezzat.
In the February issue of Sight & Sound, Shane Danielsen defines the concept of a new wave as “the emergence of a small group of recognized ‘global’ directors who quickly transcend their national origins to become international stars.“ When measured against this description, our conception of this emerging ‘new wave’ is thus rendered meaningless.
As much as I admire those aforementioned Egyptian filmmakers, I don’t believe we’ve reached a level that can allow us to have a prolonged, tangible presence on the international film scene. Atheistically, Egyptian films are still lacking, governed by a certain timidity passed on by our long history of commercial formulas.
No Egyptian movie released in the past 20 years for instance has exhibited the kind of unbridled inventiveness and beauty seen in the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Raya Martin (Phillipines) or Michelangelo Frammartino (Italy).
What we have here is a seed for something that could indeed turn into a ‘wave’ if this new breed of independent-minded filmmaker decides to take more risks and refine their craft.
Egyptian cinema is far from dead. Egypt still possesses the largest film industry in the region with a healthy domestic market share. But the crisis is nowhere near over. Significant changes must occur, and that excludes the much-discussed intervention of the government to save the industry. Distributors must learn to think outside the box, to capitalize on every potential market in the world. Most imperative of all though, the quality of the films themselves must improve, and that won’t happen unless the way films are made is revolutionized.
Daoud Abdel-Sayed’s “Messages from the Sea.”