Independent cinema blossoms in Egypt

Depending on simple cinema equipment and low budgets, independent filmmakers are filling in the void.

CAIRO - When Neveen Shalaby started making films, she was on a shoestring budget and had to use a simple video camera she had saved for months to buy.

More than a decade later, she has made significant progress and has no trouble producing films that invite the attention of both local and international audiences.

“There are a large number of agencies and institutions ready to bankroll independent film-making,” Shalaby said. “When I embark on a film, I always put available financial resources into consideration.”

Shalaby, in her early 40s, has directed 120 films, including 15 independent ones. Many of her independent films have won awards at local and international film festivals.

Behind her success, she said, is the growing space independent cinema is occupying on Egypt’s artistic stage.

Known as the “Hollywood of the East,” Egypt’s film scene is turning to independent works at a time when traditional studio films are having trouble increasing production, keeping high artistic standards and reaching the public.

Depending on simple cinema equipment and low budgets, independent filmmakers are filling in the void, despite the funding challenges and licensing problems they face.

Much of their success is likely due to a change in public mood, critics said. A decade ago, few audiences were interested in anything “independent” but now the label draws viewers in.

“Those going to a cinema theatre to watch an independent film know they are going to see something different,” said film critic Nader Adly.

Independent films are attractive because they are known to challenge the thematic and structural rules of studio cinema, touching on taboos and the thorny social topics that mainstream films often avoid.

By the same token, these films can evade state control, unlike studio cinema, which is more strenuously monitored by the government.

While independent films are only screened by a small number of chain cinemas, their content is having a big effect on society.

Film critic Samir Saeed said “it is still early to say that independent cinema has reached the level of competing with studio cinema” but that it is “well on the road to getting there.”

Dozens of independent films, some produced with the help of the public, hit the big screens in Egypt each year.

Shalaby said the public’s support was especially crucial in her film “Open the Message,” which addresses corruption and disinformation in media.

Hoping to film some scenes outside of a villa, she sought help through a Facebook posting. Within minutes, dozens of people invited her to film outside their homes.

Another time, she wanted to film a scene with a luxury vehicle. Someone else reached out to her on Facebook to help.

“Everybody wants to help,” she said.

The film won the Jury Award at the International Film Festival in Djerissa, Tunisia, in June 2018, as well as other awards and certificates of recognition.

Despite Shalaby’s success, life is not easy for most independent filmmakers.

Some state institutions do not recognise independent cinema, although the Egyptian Ministry of Culture is introducing independent filmmakers to cinema lovers through a series of events, including independent film competitions.

Independent filmmakers do not have a guild or a union to defend themselves or liaise between themselves and authorities. This has led to problems during the film-making process, including regarding licensing and the use of video cameras in public places.

Those challenges will not hinder independent film-making, filmmakers and producers say.

“There is nothing to stop independent film-making and, day after day, directors are gaining new experiences in overcoming the problems they face,” Shalaby said.

Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.