Egypt: Leaving the Past Behind
Real Screen April 1, 2002
Docs find an audience using conventional outlets
by Thom Powers
If media in Cairo is an indicator, a revolution has begun in Egypt.
Satellite dishes crowd the downtown rooftops. Production courses
at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo are churning
out graduates on a regular basis. Just outside the nation's capital,
a new Media Production City (an information and media complex) recently
opened, with 35 million square meters of space.
But, Egypt is best known in the Arab world for its movies and television
serials. Docs have always lagged far behind. Viola Shafik, author
of Arab Cinema, points out that Egyptian documentaries and newsreels
date back to the 1910s. "But, the documentary was somehow confined
in quality," she notes. "[Egyptian] television is state
run and shows only its own productions. No serious documentaries
ever pass there."
Deprived of financial support from broadcasters, independent filmmakers
- including Shafik - are turning to inexpensive digital equipment
to capture their ideas.
Her 37-minute doc The Planting of Girls tackles the controversial
practice of female genital mutilation. The practice is forbidden
by law in Egypt, but official statistics reveal that nearly 96%
of women in Egypt are circumcised.
Despite Shafik's lack of a TV outlet, her film secured extensive
distribution through educational groups and non-governmental organizations.
She heard that girls in Upper Egypt, when interviewed by a genital
mutilation task force, referred to the act as "the planting
of girls", after the film's title. "I was amazed,"
Shafik comments, "but I cannot tell how and where the film
Shafik's next project, Journey of a Queen, will address the transfer
of artifacts from Egypt to the West. It explores how an ancient
Egyptian bust of Queen Ti traveled from Egypt to Germany and throughout
the world. ARTE has agreed to fund part of the US$50,000 budget
and her German producer Fechner Media is seeking the rest.
Few venues exist in Egypt for local doc producers, but even fewer
exist outside. With that in mind, John Sinno started Arabfilm.com
in Seattle, Washington, 10 years ago. His goal is to bring Middle
Eastern feature films and docs to Western audiences. "We want
Arabs to represent themselves instead of being represented by others,"
he explains. His company sells to the education and home video markets,
in addition to sponsoring an Arab film festival in Seattle.
Among the Egyptian docs in Sinno's catalog are Fadwa El Guindi's
ethnographic films El Moulid and Ghurbal; Yousry Nasrallah's sociological
study On Boys, Girls and the Veil; and Michael Goldman's biography
of Egypt's most popular singer Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt.
Contemporary Egyptian issues are gaining international exposure,
but audiences remain fascinated with Egypt's past, shown by the
popularity of docs such as The Great Pharoahs (A&E); The Hidden
History of Egypt (Discovery); and Egypt Beyond the Pyramids (History
American doc-maker Robert Gardner has produced several projects
in Egypt including Islam: Empire of Faith (PBS); Egypt: Quest for
Immortality (NBC); and Search or the Lost Ark (National Geographic).
For producers unfamiliar with the territory, he offers some advice.
"You can't expect everyone to fall in line," he says.
"You have to open yourself to the rhythms and nature of the
place." Baksheesh, meaning "tip", is one of the first
Arab words any visitor to Egypt learns, says Gardner.
Even when baksheesh has been paid, he warns, it doesn't ensure you'll
get what you need. Gardner once paid "a tremendous amount of
money" to film King Tut's gold in the Cairo museum after hours.
In the middle of shooting, a group of business executives arrived,
having paid someone else for the same exclusive privilege. Gardner
argued with the guards while his cameraman kept filming. "If
you bring Western expectations and time frames, you'll always be
disappointed," he concludes.
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