The revolution reshapes Egyptian cinema

“After 25 January, Egypt changed,” has become a common pronouncement. And Egyptian cinema has started to adjust. Before the revolution, many films and plays tried to criticize corruption, state violence and poverty, but faced red lines. Some of the best examples were in theater. The famous comedic play “Takharif” (Nonsense, 1989), directed by and starring stage actor Mohamed Sobhy, depicted a dictator appearing on TV to announce that his reign will be democratic and promise that he will not rule more than thirty years. His first “democratic” decision is to throw his opposition in jail, in order, he says, to keep the cells occupied. Of course, it was obvious what leader Sobhy was satirizing (in another play, “Mama America,” Sobhy openly impersonated Mubarak), but at that time, censorship forced playwright Lenin al-Ramly to make “Takharif” a fantasy drama, set in a fictitious country called Antika.

In film — a much more commercial and popular medium in Egypt than theater — many screenwriters have had to maneuver similar regulations set by the censorship committee to prevent the writers from challenging the political system. In 2009, Ihab Lamei’s comedy “The Dictator” introduced themes similar to those of Sobhy’s “Takharif.” Hassan Hosny is a politician who, following his predecessor’s assassination, has climbed to the presidency of another fictitious country called Bambozia. After decades of rule, he dreams of handing his throne to one of his two sons. “Takharif” and “The Dictator” both show how, in spite of strict rules against criticizing Mubarak, artists were able play upon his iconic figure to satirize him.

Comedian Hany Ramzy starred in many films with sociopolitical undertones but two of them stand out for their portrayal of Egypt during the last three decades. In Ahmed Galal’s “Ayez Hakky” (I Want My Rights, 2003), Ramzy plays a taxi driver whose serendipitously reads the Constitution and discovers his rightful ownership of public properties.  But when he files a lawsuit against the government to demand an apartment for him and his fiancé, he is arrested and thrown in jail. When the movie was released, it found little success in theatres, but found an audience on satellite channels. The plot seemed farfetched, and the script was too weak to make the film an effective satire. But following the revolution, perhaps the movie will grow in popularity.

Ramzy also played the main character in “Zaza, President of the Republic” (2006), about a poor man who is chosen by the aging president to become a presidential candidate in order to make upcoming elections appear free and fair. In the opening credits, the filmmakers had to specify that the characters and events were fictional and, as in “Takharif,” the movie is set in a made-up country. Both films were written by Tarek Abul Gelil, who tried to compete with the summer blockbusters and inspire the audience to think. If the film-viewing habits of Egyptians have changed, one can hope that stronger scripts will be produced. But even these weaker, commercial ventures might offer some insight into pre-revolution Egypt.

Last year, Mohamed Amin’s “Bentein Men Misr” (Two Girls from Egypt) discussed recent events like the Red Sea ferry accident and corruption in hospitals — headline news — while exploring its main theme of being single, female and middle-aged. One repeatedly used shot of an oven in the ferry on the verge of exploding symbolizes a society on the brink. Amin successfully dramatizes the challenges of daily life where other directors have failed to do so.

Another film, Khaled al-Haggar’s dark drama “Lust,” winner of the Golden Pyramid Award in the Cairo Festival, reflects societal oppression through the story of one poor Alexandrian mother, played by award winning Sawsan Badr. After losing a child to kidney failure, she forced to become a beggar in Cairo to protect her two remaining teen daughters. In the mother’s desperation, the movie might be read as more than family drama. Even films of far less acclaim, like “Al-Kobbar” (The Big Ones) by Mohamed al-Adl, may be read as political commentary. The movie portrays an idealistic lawyer who, out of despair and with little choice, gradually sacrifices his principals. Khaled al-Sawy, the acclaimed character actor who is also an activist and poet, gives an outstanding performance as a corrupt businessman, someone very similar to the Egypt’s political figures currently on trial.

The revolution has provided inspiration to filmmakers. Since 25 January, Egyptian filmmakers of different generations have begun working on screenplays inspired by Tahrir Square. Director Magdy Ahmed Aly, who won many awards at regional and international festivals, plans to incorporate some of his own documentary footage into a project he calls “Al-Midan.” The film stars his son Ahmed Magdy, who previously acted in Ahmed Abdullah’s acclaimed “Microphone.” Director Sameh Abdel Aziz, known for ensemble dramas like “Cabaret” and “al-Farah” will focus his new film, “Hazr Tagawol” (Curfew), on neighborhood patrols formed by civilians to protect their homes after police forces withdrew from the streets. Abdel Aziz also hopes to screen his film “Sarkhet Namal” (Scream of an Ant) soon. The film stars Amr Abdel Gelil as an unemployed Egyptian citizen who decides to sign a formal complaint to the president.

A set of ten short films depicting the revolution by different generations of Egyptian filmmakers –Youssry Nasrallah, Kamla Abu Zekry and Sherif al-Bendary among them — are currently being wrapped up. The short film “Block 25” from newcomer Wessam al-Madany depicts a prisoner breakout during the revolution.

Actor Khaled Abul Naga intends to produce several documentaries with footage shot while he was among the protesters, and “The Last Days of the City” by Tamer al-Said will star Khalid Abdalla in his first Egyptian film after his appearance in American films “Green Zone” and “The Kite Runner.” Abdalla, who is also co-producing the film, plays a struggling filmmaker living in downtown Cairo who works on the complicated task of depicting the Egyptian revolution on film.

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