By Joseph Fahim
CAIRO: A few days after former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, a number of local publications invited some artists to discuss their thoughts about the future of culture after the revolution.
On the one hand, skeptics like actress Elham Shaheen and scriptwriter Karam El-Naggar, said that local culture is heading towards major slump, TV and cinema will be hard hit, driving the largest entertainment industry in the Middle East into the ground. On the other hand, optimists such as producer Marianne Khoury, director Khaled Youssef, and novelist Mohammed Salmawy, were confident that the culture scene will prosper like never before, bolstered by more liberties and the inevitable disbandment of the censorship authority.
The future of the Egyptian culture scene is somewhere between those two extremes. The sense of hopefulness and promise for a brighter tomorrow is certainly in place. The corruption that ran rampant for decades in the various culture institutions will be eradicated, opening the doors for numerous talents to play a significant role, and channeling the unchecked resources of government organizations into worthwhile projects. More freedoms will be granted to artists; the days of forced self-censorship will likely come to an end. The new-found interest in everything Egyptian, could push Egypt into the forefront of both Arab and world cultures.
However, a radical change in the foundation of the entertainment industry, which continues to be controlled by private, self-serving establishments, is highly unlikely. Most cultural figures do not possess the game-changing vision needed to lift the culture scene out of its doldrums, which could obstruct progress on the structural, institutional level. The economic slump brought about by the revolution might not pose a tangible threat on the long-term, but it does represent a difficult challenge for culture producers now. The yet unknown direction — socially, politically and economically — Egypt will take will ultimately determine the future of Egyptian culture and so for now, the future remains unwritten.
What Next for the Ministry of Culture
The appointment of new Minister of Culture, Emad Abu Ghazi, former general secretary of the Supreme Council of Culture, was met with wide approval by most figures in spite of his connections with former culture minister Farouk Hosni.
Abu Ghazi — a professor in the Library Science, Information and Documentation Department at Cairo University — has extensive experience with administrative work and knows the ins and outs of the ministry and it is expected that his first steps will be to clean out the various departments of the ministry of the fraud, nepotism and incompetence that have plagued it for decades.
An overhaul of the 15 various arms affiliated with ministry, a new and relevant cultural agenda, as well as transparent policies and significant initiatives to restore faith in the ministry must also be implemented.
A bigger, more problematic challenge is that of how to deal with the cultural palaces scattered around the nation’s governorates. For many years, these small culture hubs have been neglected, lacking even elementary safety equipment. The ironically-dubbed “palaces” have been receiving little to no funding from the ministry, standing now as expendable ruins in need of drastic restoration. The appointment of Saad Abdel Rahman as the head of the Culture Palaces body could prove to be a step in the right direction.
The biggest challenge facing the ministry, however, is the probable slashing of its budget. The internal economic crisis will automatically push culture to the bottom of Cabinet’s priorities list. An additional stumbling block is its separation from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, whose revenues provided approximately 60 percent of the ministry’s budget, forcing the ministry to explore new and creative ways to support itself to survive.
International fairs will require a major shakeup as soon as the nation gets back on its feet. Having lost both prestige and popularity, the ministry’s various festivals — like the Cairo International Film Festival, the Dance Theater Festival, Experimental Theater Festival, the Ismailia Documentary Festival and the Cairo Biennale — have been overshadowed not only by similar fairs in the Arab world, but also by the blossoming independent organizations inside Egypt. The unpopular directors of these fests and their staff — mostly members of the old guard — who have held positions for many years may soon find themselves out of work.
Whether these festivals will be held on schedule or called off this year remains to be seen.
As expected, TV production has been significantly scaled back. The numbers say it all. According to reports, nearly 70 percent of productions slated for Ramadan, the month with the highest viewership rating of the year, have been cancelled. The production sector of Egyptian television has decided to produce only six serials for Ramadan and back away from a number of co-productions including Kamla Abu Zikri’s highly touted adaptation of Son’allah Ibrahim’s novel “Zat” and Khaled El-Haggar’s “Dawaran Shubra.”
The budget cuts have also forced present executives in charge of the production sector to cease employing Arab directors and to resort instead to their Egyptian counterparts, partly to combat the rising redundancy and to face financial challenges.
The absence of advertisers and sponsors has left nearly all Egyptian satellite channels with no cash, thus the demand for TV dramas has radically decreased. Egyptian TV’s spending spree is a thing of the past; with the LE 400 million spent by the publicly-funded body on the acquisition of drama productions last year leaving it in serious debt.
Notable absentees from the forthcoming season are mega stars Youssra, Laila Elwi, Yehia El Fakharany and Mahmoud Hemeida. The lucky few who managed to make the cut were pushed, or willingly volunteered, to accept smaller pay checks. The era of irresponsible spending, according to observers, is fast approaching an end.
Thematically, the current crop of series scheduled for Ramadan is largely extraneous to the January 25 Revolution for the simple reason that nearly all of these shows were already in production at the time the protests kicked off.
Ranging from social and historical dramas to biopics, comedies and remakes, this year’s line-up looks no different from previous years. The dissociation of these works from present reality might turn off many viewers, yet the entertainment value could ultimately prove to be the real decisive factor.
The thematic impact of the revolution on television dramas will not be felt until next year. Already in the works are a biopic of steel tycoon Ahmed Ezz, at least two serials about the events that led to the revolution and countless dramas about political and social corruption, which have been Ramadan staples for decades. A number of dramas that were in production before Jan. 25 have had their scripts re-written. Fifteen more episodes were added to the original 15 of “Zat”, for instance, to reflect the revolution.
More than any other medium, TV is the most likely to reap the benefits of the new political reality. In the past few years, television witnessed a revolution of its own, both aesthetically and in terms of narrative. The medium is developing rapidly, aided by bigger budgets than those available for cinema productions as well as more breadth to dramatize the intricate stories of the revolution. Although it hasn’t fully blossomed yet, the leap it has taken is exceedingly promising, heralding what may possibly become a new golden age for television.
The music scene is the least likely to be affected by the revolution on the long run. Egyptian musicians, both mainstream and independent, reacted fast to the events, cashing in on the new-found sense of patriotism and national pride, even though the results have, by far, been pitiful.
Every popular Egyptian singer — Amr Diab, Tamer Hosni, Amr Mostafa, Hamada Helal, Ehab Tawfik, Shereen, Mohamed Mounir to name a few — seized the occasion to sing the praises of the martyrs, celebrate the new Egypt and urge the public to unite and rebuild the country. Alas, these trifle efforts lacked any intelligence, art and, most importantly, passion. Instead of creating an immortal soundtrack for the revolution, Egyptian musicians hastily delivered disposable works that have already been forgotten.
Independent musicians, however, have fared better. Their work was infused with more urgency, spontaneity and fervor and are more socially-conscious. Yet despite their good intentions, the music still lacked the umph and skill of classic Egyptian revolution songs. A sole exception is the Choir Project, a group of amateur musicians who succeeded in perfectly capturing the spirit of the revolution.
The market is stagnant at the moment and will remain dormant for the rest of the year. Release dates of major records already produced before the revolution are expected to be pushed back till the end of the year. One wouldn’t be surprised if a year from now, Egyptian pop stars will go back to business as usual, churning their hackneyed love songs as if the revolution never happened.
Indie music, on the other hand, will prove to be the more relevant option, and with their rise in popularity, producers will eventually take notice.
The revolution has placed Egyptian cinema at a crossroads. The existing state of emergency, exemplified by the ongoing curfew, has nearly killed the chances of releasing local films for at least the next three months. The few movies released right before the revolution — “365 Days of Happiness,” “El Shooq,” “Fasel wa Na’oud,” “Microphone” — overcame colossal difficulties to make to have any impact at the box-office.
Oscar/El Nasr/Massa and Al-Arabiya — the two film conglomerates controlling distribution channels in Egypt — have decided to halt all productions and are debating whether to release the handful of finished films under their sleeve in the summer or skip the season altogether.
At least five films directly tackling the revolution have entered production including Madgy Ahmed Ali’s “El Midan” (The Square), an experimental film by “The Island” director Sherif Arafa, a project by “The Wedding” director Sameh Abdel Aziz and an omnibus film helmed by five different filmmakers including “The Yacoubian Building” director Marawan Hamed and veteran filmmaker Youssry Nasrallah and starring Asser Yassin, Youssra, Mona Zaki and Hind Sabry.
Relishing in the widespread buoyancy and confidence induced by the success of the revolution, Egyptian films released in the near future may shun the bleakness and pessimism that defined the so-called ‘slum movies’ that flourished in the past five years. The outcome is anyone’s guess; these projects could either turn out to be mere knee-jerk efforts or profound deliberation on the collapse of Mubarak’s Egypt.
Outside the industry, several indie projects about the revolution are also in the making, utilizing the plethora of available video footage.
The biggest beneficiaries of the revolution will certainly be the indie filmmakers. Freed from the shackles of the former authoritarian regime and energized by the spirit of change sweeping the nation, independent filmmakers have found their calling, and the rawness and authenticity they’re set to bring will find a bigger audience than ever before. Major producers have expressed great interest in working with young filmmakers. Al-Arabiya head Essad Younis has recently announced plans to collaborate with young filmmakers and produce short feature films about the revolution, a well-thought strategy considering the scarcity of capital at the moment.
Possibly out of political curiosity, international film festivals will race to acquire Egyptian movies and co-productions could increase. Mohamed Diab’s “678” and Ahmad Abdallah’s “Microphone” have already been chosen for the New Directors/New Films series in New York this month while Hesham Issawi’s “Cairo Exit” is making an appearance next month at the Tribeca Film fest. It wouldn’t be surprising if the next Venice selects Tamer El-Said’s much anticipated debut feature “In the Last Days of the City.”
Overall, radical changes which many artists anticipate may not materialize any time soon. The kind of limitless freedom some filmmakers expect to transpire after the revolution could prove to be more elusive.
For starters, the censorship body is still operating as usual and has already rejected two scripts after the revolution, one by “I Love Cinema” scriber Hany Fawzy about the sectarian problems which the censorship authority deemed “irrelevant” to the current conditions; and the other by scriptwriter Mohammed Amin Rady, which was written off for containing “obscene” material. The idea of abolishing censorship is highly unlikely because clearly the authorities still believe that a gatekeeper is necessary to protect society from any moral or religious transgressions by filmmakers. The dual taboos of sex and religion will remain untouched. The rules will be loosened but censorship will prevail.
The commercial system by which the industry continues to operate will also remain intact. The Egyptian film industry has stood the test of time, enduring a coup in 1952 and a war in 1967. Commercial films always dominated scene, leaving little room for auteur-driven realist cinema. The monopoly by Oscar/El Nasr/Massa and Al-Arabiya is too strong to break; the question is how far they’re willing to nurture projects with little mainstream appeal.
Another big question mark concerns the basic artistic merits of these future projects. Revolutions do not necessarily make great cinema, nor does liberty lead to better art. The films of former Soviet states for examples rose to world prominence in the 1960s and 1970s in spite of — or perhaps because of — the repressive conditions of the time. The same goes for Iranian cinema and now Thai cinema. Austerity and not affluence have stirred the imagination of filmmakers from the developing world to create serious, sincere works that matter.
What Egyptian cinema requires to prosper on the long run is a funding system similar to the one adopted in France and Denmark, where businessmen are encouraged to invest in film by granting them tax breaks and devoting a percentage of revenues of Hollywood films and big local hits to fund small, art-house productions. However such initiatives will not see the light as long as the same forces and the many contentious figures of the old regime are still monopolizing the industry and retaining their leadership status.
Egyptian theater has steadily descended towards insignificance over the past decade, hampered by declining attendance, shortage of facilities and, above all, scarcity of good original scripts. Even the frowned-upon commercial theater has lost its popularity and is virtually dead.
A number of independent companies had injected new blood into the local theater scene over the past five years but soon faded into oblivion. Adaptations of both classic foreign and Egyptian texts lacked bite and inventiveness. In short, Egyptian theater suffers from a multitude of complex problems, the biggest of which is the dearth of creativity.
Yet new indie productions staged after Feb. 11 have revived the hope for a better future for theater. Like the other art disciplines, passion is the keyword. The limited resources have prompted theater-makers to seek different creative solutions, relying on the directness and forcefulness of their stories. The sense of camaraderie is the driving force behind the work of these artists, many of whom are making a comeback after having given up on the bureaucratic institution of theater as a whole.
The future of Egyptian theater is in the hands of those rising companies, if they excel in their endeavors, and in the daring texts that push boundaries, artistically and socially, and engage audiences. The old structure, represented by the government-controlled theater, has crumbled beyond repair, marking the end of stage professionals who had lost touch with the public.
What the ministry’s theater arm can do in the near future is work with these small companies while enhancing its corroding educational sector. Experimentation should be encouraged and innovative programming must be taken up. The conservatism which has defined public Egyptian theater for the past three decades, should irrevocably be left behind. The figures in charge of the theater realm have proven their incompetence, and no fundamental change will happen unless they go.
Over the past decade Egyptian literature enjoyed a marked renaissance, rising in prominence both regionally and internationally. After years of shunning books, Egyptians had returned to reading, embracing diverse works by venerable masters and new voices alike. Bestsellers, boosted by large-scale marketing campaigns, have been adorning the nation’s growing bookshelves for the past six years.
The realist genre has been the dominant form of fiction, a genre that has been exhausted to death by now. The feverish enthusiasm that welcomed the new wave of Egyptian novelists has subsided, cultivated with the near-absence of other genres. Acclaimed authors such as Youssef Ziedan (“Azazel) and Khaled El Khameesy (“Taxi”) fell short with their subsequent works while new writers didn’t succeed in attracting a large readership.
What the revolution could possibly do is rejuvenate the imagination of writers in attempting to analyze the past few months from a fresh perspective. In other words, the realist genre will continue to reign, but novelists could be compelled to experiment with structure and form. Historical fiction writers like Ziedan and Bahaa Taher could bring interesting twists to their dissection of the revolution.
Events that started on Jan. 25 will become a trending topic for Egyptian writers for at least the next couple of years. Their accounts could prove to be more sober, and less sentimental, than television or film, taking advantage of the bigger freedom granted to the written word. The gridlock in which Egyptian literature was stuck the past two years will soon be over.
But the revolution is not over, and the subsequent developments could prove to be more dramatically worthwhile than the actual period between Jan. 25 and Feb. 11.
Egyptians are hungry for works that speak about their reality as much as they are for pure entertainment that offers escape. There’s still a gap between the concept of liberty as perceived by intellectuals and the public at large, and that might ultimately prove to be the real challenge for artists in post revolution Egypt.