No more the ‘Hollywood of the East’
Cairo - Jury members adjudicating films of the National Festival for Egyptian Cinema had a difficult time finding a film deserving of the event’s prize.
Fourteen films participated in the festival, an annual event that aims to encourage Egypt’s cinema industry. However, none were deemed to have any artistic value, which led jury members to call on the Egyptian government to intervene to save the country’s cinema industry.
“Good cinema is something of the past in this country now,” Youssef al-Qaeed, a novelist and the chief juror of the festival, told The Arab Weekly. “Wherever you go, you can find nothing but trivial films that have no artistic value at all.”
Deep under what some cinema critics describe as the “fiasco” of the festival, which ran for 12 days in mid-October in Cairo, is the demise of the local cinema industry as a whole.
Egypt for decades was called the “Hollywood of the East” but does not seem to be worthy of the title any longer. A film produced in Cairo in the past and starring iconic entertainers, such as Omar Sharif, Faten Hamama and Abdel Halim Hafez, used to resonate across the Arab world. Egyptian cinema stars were household names in all Arab countries. Films produced by directors such as Salah Abouseif, Youssef Chahine and Atef E-Taieb influenced millions of people across the region.
Now, however, things are changing in quantity and quality and Egyptian cinema is being eclipsed by that of other Arab countries.
More than 120 films used to be produced in Egypt every year. Now, 15 films at most are produced each year and the few films produced are scarcely up to previous standards, even as production costs soar to $3.1 million-$6.2 million each, astronomical amounts compared with what films of the past cost.
Qaeed and fellow jurors watched the 14 films in the competition closely in the hope that one would deserve the prize. But none of the participating films deserved the prize, according to them, even as they had to select one for it. The top prize finally went to Excuse My French, a comic film written and directed by Amr Salama that tells the story of a Christian boy sent to a public school after the death of his father and mistaken for a Muslim.
Critics say the crisis of Egypt’s cinema industry is all about money, while the government plays no role in encouraging the business.
The government used to have its own production making films which counterbalanced commercial and profit-oriented cinema.
“This has ushered in a situation where the national cinema industry is totally left in the hands of a few moneyed producers who care only about profit,” veteran cameraman Ramses Marzouq said. “These producers employ every absurd tool — in terms of artistic value — to earn money.”
Egypt’s most qualified directors, assistant directors, actors, camera operators and producers are all staying home, leaving the field to unqualified people, who make films to make money, he said.
The local cinema scene is monopolised by a handful of production companies, including one owned by a well-known meat seller, and these companies race against each other to produce the meanest of films.
Films produced these days contain no endearing characters, good stories or realistic genres. Belly dancers who readily take off half of or almost all their clothes, untalented performers are winning the day in Egyptian cinema.
The few producers making films dwell on regurgitated themes of adultery, betrayal and violence, giving a bleak impression to outsiders about life in Egypt.
Thirty years ago, there were almost 400 movie theatres in Egypt and going to the theatre was a weekly custom for families in Cairo and Alexandria, where most of Egypt’s entertainers hail from.
Now there are only 140 movie theatres and that number will shrink in the years to come while local cinema industry goes from bad to worse.
Qaeed said he had seen the danger for the industry four years ago when — as the chief juror of the festival — he noticed a marked decline in the quality of films produced at the national level and entered to compete for its top prizes.
He called on the government to get involved in producing quality films but film producer Mohamed al-Adle said he does not pin hopes on the government to do anything to rescue the cinema industry.
He says he is in contact with everybody concerned in the industry to establish a shareholding cinema production company in the hope that it will be able to bring back the glories of the past.
“We will do everything possible to get the cinema industry out of the morass in which it is mired,” he said.
Some specialists say that to get out of its current problems, Egypt’s cinema industry needs about $37.5 million. However, Adle says he and his colleagues can get the cinema industry out of its problems if they have only 25% of that amount.
“Give me only a quarter of this money and I will solve the problems of the industry once and for all,” he said. “We have whatever it takes to redress the balance but where is the money?”