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Egyptian cinema post-2011: Politics, City, and the Rise of New Independent Cinema

By Mohammed Tarek

2020 was a good year for Egyptian cinema. It started with Morad Mostafa’s short film Henet Ward making it to Festival du Court Métrage de Clermont-Ferrand, and Ahmed Elghoneimy’s The Promised making it to the Berlinale. In addition, two other Egyptian films were part of Cannes Film Festival’s official selection: the feature film Souad by Ayten Amin, and the short I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face by Sameh Alaa. The latter made history by winning the Palme d’Or, thus becoming the first Egyptian short to win the prestigious award. Another significant film Lift Like A Girl directed by Mayye Zayed premiered at Toronto International Film Festival. 

Back in 2013, you would find Sameh Alaa’s name as an assistant director in training with director Ahmad Abdalla on his dark tale Rags and Tatters, which is set during the January 2011 uprising and revolves around a prison escapee. The film is a silent observation of what happens to a prisoner and how he sees the socio-political changes in the suburbs of Egypt at this time. Rags and Tatters came after Heliopolis and Microphone, which Abdalla made after having worked as a film editor. He has indeed worked to create his own unique artistic cinema.  

Still from Rags and Tatters

In Microphone – a film about independent underground music makers in Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria - he blends documentary footage with a fictional narrative. He employed this mix of genres in Heliopolis, using real interviews as constituted footage shot by the photographer character in the film. 

Other Egyptian directors had already mixed fiction with documentary. These include Youssry Nasrallah in his film The City in the early 2000s, and before that, the visionary 1980s director, Khairy Beshara. It was not until Ibrahim El-Batouf – considered by many as the godfather of the Egyptian new independent cinema – that this cinematic device became a wave of cinema. He paved the way for other filmmakers to tell their stories in more innovative and experimental ways in terms of form and production (the film was shot digitally on a small budget and with unknown actors). The authorities refused to grant the film screening permission as a local film on the grounds that it had been shot without the required permits. Instead it was suggested that it would be labeled a ‘foreign’ feature.

In the film, In the Last Days of The City, Tamer El Said tells the story of downtown Cairo before the revolution, seen through the eyes of his main character. He connects the city’s decay to that of other Arab cities such as Baghdad and Beirut. El Batout does the same in his film, Ain Shams, in which El Said was an assistant director, but the difference lies in the gaze itself, as El Said looks nostalgic and passive through his depressed protagonist, while El Batout’s gaze -despite his protagonists also struggling - might carry more anger and hope.  

Still from The Last Days of the City

This new generation of filmmakers introduced a new approach to filmmaking in Egypt. They produced low budget films shot on small cameras with small crews and non-professional actors, who all worked for free. In addition, they were less interested in stories relying on one major plot, instead favoring docu-dramas or storylines with many plots, while giving significance to the aesthetics of the reality and the environment in which their characters live.

Hala Lotfy is one of such filmmakers. In Coming Forth by Day, she uses non-luxurious locations and non-professional actors to delve deep into the life of a young woman taking care of her severely-ill father and whose decay is parallel to the decay of the city. Lotfy creates a visual atmosphere composed of one old flat, orange tones and slow long shots to transfer this feeling of depressed characters. It is no wonder that the film won the award for Best Director from the Arab World in the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s New Horizons Competition, and gained a special mention at Thessaloniki Film Festival, despite not performing very well at home. 

Still from Coming Forth By Day

Despite this, Lotfy continued to influence the Egyptian independent scene, directing films and founding Hassala Production House, which produced several award-winning documentaries. One of the new directors introduced by Lotfy is Mohamed Rashad with his first feature documentary Little Eagles, and Nadine Salib with Mother of The Unborn. Hassala also produced The Profession, directed by Ramez Youssef and produced by Mohamed Rashad. 

The latest film from Hassala Productions is Ahmed Abdalla’s fifth film, Ext. Night – a rare comedy about an independent filmmaker, who, during one night in Cairo, discovers that he knows nothing about the characters in his film. Kiss Me Not by Ahmed Amer is another comedic film – a mockumentary film about a director unable to finish his film since his female star becomes religious and refuses to participate in kissing scenes. The film is a criticism of the “clean cinema” - a term that emerged in the late 1990s to describe films without kissing, sex or nudity. These films were supported by mainstream cinema producers for the sake of attracting more religious audiences.   

But what influenced this new generation? Was it the rapid political change after 30 years of the presidency of Hosni Mobarak? Or the digital evolution? Funding opportunities and co-productions through film markets? The evolution of the cameras and access to learning? Perhaps the emergence of digital platforms offering new modes of distributing arthouse cinema rather than just screening them at film festivals? 

There is no certain answer to the birth of this new independent cinema generation, although all of these factors contributed to its creation one way or another. That said, we hope that the new filmmakers continue to make unique films.