Egypt’s cinemas face uncertain future amid closures
Cairo - The area outside of the renowned Faten Hamama Cinema in southern Cairo is as busy as ever. The roads are jammed with motorists and pedestrians warily crossing them while street hawkers sell their wares.
Only one thing is missing: The Faten Hamama Cinema — a mecca for Cairene moviegoers for decades — is closed. For Rhoda Island in the Nile, which is home to Cairo’s El-Manial district, the historic cinema had been a major draw.
The Faten Hamama Cinema closure is part of a trend that has seen hundreds of cinemas and theatres across the country shut down over the past few years.
“The closure of movie theatres is a national catastrophe,” said film and television director Mohammed Fadel. “It says a lot about Egypt’s receding cultural importance and about the problems the cinema industry is facing.”
In its cinematic heyday of the 1980s, Egypt had as many as 500 cinemas, with at least one theatre in each of Egypt’s 27 provinces. Today, there are fewer than 80 cinemas in Egypt, with many under threat of closure. At least 16 provinces do not have a single movie theatre.
The trend is indicative of a wider malaise in Egypt’s once-thriving film industry. Egyptian cinema used to produce hundreds of movies each year, enshrining Egypt’s position as a regional cultural powerhouse, but the entire industry is in decline in Egypt.
Opened by the Ministry of Culture in 1984, Faten Hamama Cinema was bought a few months ago by a real estate developer who plans to demolish the historic building and replace it with a lavish apartment building.
Many historic cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria have suffered the same fate. Some point out that the older movie houses were replaced by more modern cinemas that offer multiple screens — such as Star Cinema in Cairo’s City Star mall and Vox Cinema in the Mall of Egypt near 6th of October city but purists argue the new cinemas lack the character and feel of Egypt’s old theatres.
They also say the decline in the number of cinemas reflects a decline in Egypt’s cultural influence.
“You cannot rule out the importance of cinema as a component of a country’s appeal, especially outside national borders,” said Egyptian cinema critic Ali Abu Shadi. “For many years in the past, Egypt’s cultural importance boiled down, among other things, to the quality of the films it produced.”
The films, along with Egypt’s cinemas, are in decline, resulting in fewer jobs for Egyptians who work in the film industry, whether as directors, actors and writers or on the crew as lighting engineers, make-up artists and costume and set designers.
A smaller film industry not only means that fewer films are made, it also means that the scope for innovative and artistic movies is greatly reduced by the pursuit of profits over art.
This is an opinion Fadel agrees with. His most recent movie, a biopic of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, was released in 1999. Since then, the director of the television series “White Flag” and the film “Nasser 56″ among other works, has opted not to return to the director’s chair.
“I cannot destroy my history by being part of the ongoing artistic scandal,” Fadel said. “Few producers call me these days but I refuse to participate in works that are far below my standards.”
Among the factors behind the decline in cinemas is that fewer people go to the movies in Egypt compared to the past. Internet piracy allows the tech-savvy to watch the same films at home for free. Globalisation also means Arabs who do go to the cinema may not go to watch Arabic-language movies, which have a hard time competing with Hollywood films.
Egypt’s cinema industry took a downturn in the early 1970s when the government stopped producing films, leaving the scene to the private sector.
This is why scriptwriter Bashir al-Deek called for a twist that few other artists would endorse: The return of the state. He described the private sector in Egypt as a “hopeless case” because it only cares about profit.
“This is why the state must return to cinema production,” Deek said. “I know governments are not there to produce films but state sponsorship of the cinema pays off, at least in Egypt’s context.