At this particular point in time, Egypt’s film industry can be described in one word: recycled. Local filmmakers recycle plots, actors, sets, dance sequences, and heavy-handed humour.
What happened to films that actually meant something? Where are the visually and thematically appealing films? Where are the films that discuss social and political issues – things that are actually happening in the country? Where are all the films that could be labelled as ‘art’?
Audience appreciation of filmmaking has changed quite drastically over the last few decades in Egypt. We now look for films that can provide us with an escape, films that we can watch without activating more than 30% of our brains. To circumvent this, some choose to watch films that bring more to the table than catchy lines that we can regurgitate on a daily basis.
Independent Egyptian films are almost criminally underrated. We know so little about them that they can be authoritatively termed ‘hidden gems’. We’ve rounded up our five favourite locally-made independent films to expand your cinematographic repertoire.
Heliopolis was Ahmed Abdalla’s directorial debut, and starred mainstream actors Khaled Aboul Naga and Yosra El Lozy. The film premiered at Cairo Film Festival and received critical accolades.
The film explores the lives of eight characters from various social classes with nothing in common but residency in Heliopolis and unfulfilled dreams. Initially, the film’s events can seem monotonous and slow, however, this ties into Abdalla’s directorial vision of the film. The film showcases the uneventful lives of eight individuals in a single day, ultimately putting them in each other’s paths and binding them together.
At the film’s press conference, Abdalla stated that the film is ‘about those trivial details that define, in one way or another, our lives and tie us to our own past. The characters are unsatisfied with their present, so they delve into a parallel life with different dreams and alternatives.’
Heliopolis’s main characters don’t go through the typical narrative development arcs; their personalities remain rather consistent throughout the film. Arguably this feeds into the main idea that Abdalla tries to convey to Egyptian audiences: sometimes change never comes and when it does, it’s very slow.
This is Abdalla’s second feature film, also starring Khaled Aboul Naga and Yosra El Lozy.
The story follows Aboul Naga’s character as he encounters various artists from different fields (rappers, graffiti artists, filmmakers, etc.) in Alexandria’s underground art scene. The artists are all trying to make a name for themselves in a sink-or-swim industry.
The film received positive reviews from movie-goers and critics alike, receiving the award for Best Arabic Language Film from the Cairo International Film Festival, as well as other international awards.
The film can be viewed as a fictionalised documentary about the underground art scene of contemporary Egypt. The characters were played by themselves, adding authenticity and realism to a story already filmed on a hand-held camera.
During an interview with Abdalla in UAE newspaper, The National, he expressed his desire to give those artists in the film the sphere to express themselves — a microphone, dare we pun.
It can be agreed that Abdalla has shed light on the issue of how some of these artists struggle to make it in an artistic climate that promotes conformity; a recurring theme in the film is the artists’ struggle to create material that will appeal to a mass audience.
Ahmad Abdalla’s fifth feature film, Décor, sees him collaborate with Khaled Aboul Naga once more, which speaks volumes about the availability of ‘independent’ actors and directors in Egypt.
Working alongside Aboul Naga is Horeya Farghaly, who plays the role of the main character, Maha. Maha is a famous set designer who struggles to distinguish fiction from reality, often escaping to the fictional universe of the film she is working on.
The film was viewed as a tribute to the golden era of Egypt’s film industry 1950s — it is shot entirely in glimmering monochrome (in layman’s terms, that’s black and white). The film can also be considered a clash of eras, and deals sensitively with the controversial issues of women’s empowerment in a conservative culture, and in the film industry. Farghaly portrays a career-driven, childless woman in the movie’s ‘real world’ and a traditional 50’s housewife in her alternate reality.
Throughout the film, the viewer sees the journey of Farghaly trying to balance both lives. She attempts to negotiate the fine line between the notion of the ‘modern’ woman and the concept of the traditional Arab house-wife. She struggles with the dilemma of not knowing what is real, and with the idea that life, unlike the film, is not shot in black & white.
Fatat El Masna3 (2013)
Fatat El Masna3 is realist director, Mohamed Khan’s latest project, starring Yasmin Raeis and Hany Adel.
The film tells the story of a young, working-class woman employed at a textile factory, where she becomes infatuated with her new supervisor.
Khan’s film can be viewed as an empowering message to Arab women – focusing on a woman attempting to break out of social norms and traditions. The film explores the class and social dynamics at play when Egyptians hailing from different social backgrounds get involved, and presents the relationship with unflinching, often brutal honesty. The crux of the problem is that, in the film, her supervisor cannot commit to a girl from a ‘lower-class’ background.
Raeis’ character was subjected to crude and harsh accusations of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy from people at the factory, her supervisor, and her family. The film highlights (and criticises) society’s dangerous idea that an Arab woman’s most important asset is her virginal purity, and that its loss out of wedlock is the ultimate sin.
At the Dubai International Film Festival, Khan said, ‘I directed a film about a love story through which the heroine fights the idea of social discrimination to free herself.’
Al-Khoroug Lel-Nahar (2012)
The film is the directorial debut of Hala Lotfy, and stars Donia Maher. It revolves around Soad, a young woman who caters to her ill father’s needs — making it impossible for her to find an escape as she put her life, and her needs, on hold.
The premise for the film can be viewed as a metaphor for Egyptian society – inert, incapable of change, and with no avenue for escape. The film focuses on the relationship between light and shadow, with the apartment representing the dark and shadowy aspects, while the outside world is where all the light and noise can be found. Ultimately, this film portrays the relationship between life and death.
The apartment, the main stage, highlights how it is possible for time to stand still – accentuating the oppressive notion with a dark and dusty atmosphere.
The film, while very dark by anybody’s standards, is well worth the watch. It brings to life the real struggle of those in Egypt who have to put their lives on hold to care for those they love, and really strikes a chord.