Opening Soon?

The local movie industry is in a major slump and it could be years before it gets back on its feet again. By Lamia Hassan

of the 2010 Egyptian summer movies

 

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2010)

Every year during Eid El- Fitr, Ibrahim Said and his wife Hoda Kamal take their three children to the movies. For most of the last decade and a half, they have been going to the Miami theatre in downtown Cairo, where massive banners outside the theater entrance usually advertise scores of top-flight Arabic-language movies.

But this Eid was different. There were only four locally-made films playing, none of which were in the running to win any awards.

“This Eid […] none of the movies are a good value,” says Said. “It’s not like in the past when people waited for the holiday season to see good, new Arabic movies.”

Miami is not the only Cairo movie theatre to face a shortage of local films. At the Galaxy theatre in El Manial, eight of

the nine movies showing at the end of September were in English. This marked the first Eid in recent memory where Arabic films took second billing.

Producers, actors and other film industry insiders say this is emblematic of a larger decline in local movie making. They blame the falloff on increasingly close ties between major studios and theaters, which have edged out smaller production houses, the global economic crisis and a short summer season punctuated by the World Cup and Ramadan. Some believe it could be years before the industry is back on its feet.

“The movie production business has been declining recently, and will continue to decline going forward,” says producer Gamal Al-Adl of Al-Adl Group. “This past summer season witnessed the success of only a couple movies, while all the others were failures.”

For years, the summer and the two Eid seasons coincided with the release of new Arabic movies. Between 2006 and 2008, the Egyptian cinema industry was booming; in 2008, over 50 films were produced, 41 of which made it to theaters. But in 2009, that number dropped into the 30s before bottoming out in 2010 with just 16 Egyptian films released through Eid El-Fitr.

Al-Adl says the main reason behind the recent drop is a fundamental shift in the way movies are released. In the past, production companies, distributors and theaters were separate entities. But now, several large companies own and control all three layers, squeezing smaller filmmakers out of the game.

“The market is dropping because these production companies are monopolizing the market and giving their movies better distribution, leaving out the other movies,” says Al-Adl.

Meanwhile, producers planning to release their movies this summer held back out of fear that a season shortened by Ramadan and the World Cup would diminish their chances of success at the box office. Some have postponed releases until Eid Al-Adha, when people traditionally have more time to see movies. Those films include Ahmed El-Sakka’s Ebn El Qonsol (The Son of the Consul), Adel Emam’s Alzheimer and Karim Abdel Aziz’s Faswel Wa Nowasel (A Break and We Get Back).

Broader economic trends have also taken their toll on the country’s film industry.

“Right before the economic crisis, the cinema industry in Egypt was booming. The revenues of the movies were doubling as compared to years before that, but the crisis came and brought everything down,” says Adel Adeeb, CEO of Good News production company.

Miami Cinema, one of Downtown Cairo's busiest cinemas (photo credit: Panoramio)

About 80% of a locally-produced film’s revenue comes from Gulf countries, which were hit especially hard by the downturn.

At the beginning of the 2009 summer season, revenues for the film industry were down 30% year-on-year. By the middle of the season they had dropped 50% and by the end they had plummeted 70%.

But while filmmakers blame things like piracy and the short seasons on the decline of the movie business, audiences place responsibility on studios which they say produce lackluster movies. “Most of the movies that I have seen at the movie

theatres recently are chick-flicks, and even those that are not have repeated plot lines and lack quality,” says Engy El-  Etreby, a frequent moviegoer. “Out of 10 Arabic movies that I have seen recently, I can only say that maybe one or two were good.”

Throughout its history, the Egyptian cinema industry has had its share of peaks and valleys. It flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, a time known as the “Golden Age” of Arab film, sagged in the 1960s, entered a transitional period in the 1970s and eventually picked up again in the mid-90s.

But local cinema’s current stagnation doesn’t spell the final chapter of Egyptian filmmaking. Adeeb sees the industry recovering a few years down the line. While some filmmakers are looking towards Eid releases this month for signs of a slight improvement, El-Adl is skeptical that the few movies that do come out will make a difference.

“The three or four movies that will be released will not really make a difference and the market will still be left without good movies,” says El-Adl.

“But the producers who are monopolizing the business are like supermarket vendors. They will soon realize they are out of quality produce and they’ll have to start looking for solid products again.” bt

MENA’s Hollywood?

With nation’s first private studio, film company hopes to entice foreign movies makers back to Egypt By Lamia Hassan

Screenshot- Yacoubian Building

(Business Today Egypt Magazine, November 2009)

  The upcoming blockbuster about the builder of modern Egypt, Mohamed Ali, was originally scheduled to shoot both here and in Syria.

But with production costs at Egypt’s state-owned film lots running almost double those of Syria, the maker of the LE 50 million film, Good News Company, moved shooting out of Egypt.

The decision was perhaps the ultimate condemnation of Egypt’s bureaucratized state-run studios — and it was far from the only one. Since the golden era of Egypt’s film industry in the 1970s, foreign and domestic filmmakers alike have been steering  clear of the increasingly costly local scene.

It is a situation that Good News hopes to change through the creation of the country’s first private studio.

Good News, which was behind hits like the Yacoubian Building, Haleem and Ibrahim El-Abyad, is planning to build 14 studios in Sixth of October City, with the first phase of construction slated for January 2010.

The plan represents the culmination of a two-year struggle for Good News CEO Adel Adeeb. For decades, the Egyptian government had denied applications by private companies to build film lots. At the same time, rates at the country’s handful of state-run studios were steadily rising.

Adeeb discovered, though, that there was no legal basis for the rejections.

“I found out that this had been just a custom and not law. I kept after it daily for two whole years. [I was hoping to] to change the situation for the benefit of the cinema industry,” he says.

Good News eventually got the sign-off from Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni,

Baby Doll Night movie poster

Minister of Trade and Industry Rachid Mohamed Rachid, Minister of Investment Mahmoud Mohieldin and Minister of Information Anas El-Fiqqi, allowing the company to begin the LE 35 million first phase of the studios.

With the ministerial go-aheads, as well as approval from the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, Good News got busy. In August, the company signed a deal with ARRI Group, the world’s largest camera manufacturer, during a press conference in Cairo.

ARRI will work as consultants for Good News, supplying camera equipment, training local staff, maintaining and upgrading gear and consulting on studio construction.

“I want our studios to provide better special effects, more space to be creative and technology that will save you time. This is the added value that we will be providing to the market,” says Adeeb.

Bringing Back Business

Once renowned as an international shooting location due to both its scenery and studios, Egypt as a filmmaking destination has been in decline since its peak in the mid 70s, when it was nicknamed the “Hollywood of the Middle East.”

Adeeb says his main goal for the new studios — which will be filled with digital equipment — is to lure international filmmakers back to Egypt. For years they have favored locations such as Malta and Syria.

“They will be saving almost 50% because the cost of using digital equipment is much cheaper than normal equipment,” says Adeeb. He also says that cheaper Egyptian currency will reduce costs for filmmakers.

Adeeb’s cost savings received a boost early this year with the government’s decision to exempt filming equipment from customs duties. The decision will ensure that international and domestic filmmakers can use the latest technology here.

But luring international films back to Egypt is not just about costs and technology; Egypt’s infamous bureaucracy represents another major hurdle.

When foreign companies shoot in Egypt, they have difficulty getting permission to film at historic locations, waste time waiting for the censorship bureau to approve scripts, and sometimes get harassed by police when filming on the streets, says Adeeb. “Even when the police cooperate with us while shooting on the streets, people keep on harassing us [wanting] to appear in the movie, or make noise to ruin the shot.”

According to Adeeb, local filmmakers pay LE 10,000 per hour to shoot at a site with antiquities, “and the hour does not start from the moment we start shooting, but it starts from the moment we enter the site.” Foreigners are charged around double, he says, claiming that prices in nearby Syria are around half of those here. “When I asked there [in Syria], while shooting Leilet El Baby Doll [Baby Dolly Night], for battle tanks, they charged me $20 per day for each, with ammunition. Can you believe that?” he asks incredulously.

During a series of March meetings between the Egyptian Cinema Chamber, producers and heads of artistic syndicates, Moneeb Shafie, head of the chamber, discussed ways to draw filmmakers here.Shafie listed three major steps that need to be taken: decrease custom charges, speed up censorship bureau script approval — it currently takes 30 days — and reduce prices at shooting locations.

Change is slowly taking place, as the decision to remove customs on equipment is showing results.

One notable success was the filming of sections of Transformers II — one of Hollywood’s biggest hits this year, earning $200 million in its first five days — at the Pyramids, in Luxor at the Valley of the Kings and at the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) studios.

“It was generally a very enjoyable experience but there are things that definitely could be improved,” says Ilt Jones, the film’s location manager, of shooting here.

European filmmakers, with lower budgets than their American counterparts, are also being encouraged to come back. “We shot part of a feature film in Egypt, mostly at EMPC last summer, and our experience was positive,” says producer Roy Anderson of the Norway’s Nordisk Film. “The production went smoothly because Egypt has a very talented crew regarding the film industry.”

He called the venture “cost effective” and the location convenient. “I would like to film in Egypt again if the possibility presents itself in the future.”

Good News hopes its cutting edge technology and professional expertise, along with state-backed legislative changes, will usher in a new golden era for the Egypt’s cinema industry.

Already, the reviews have been good.

“Good News provides great facilities, offering a great potential for the film industry,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with Good News on The Yacoubian Building. “It should make it easier for production companies around the world to come shoot here.” bt

Safety On The Set

As the stunts that fill the cinema seats get better, so do the dangers of filming them. Yet 2009 recorded no major accidents, compared to the high-profile mishaps of years past. Egypt Today goes behind the scenes to fi nd out what is going right in the world of stuntmen. By Lamia Hassan

actor's safety (courtesy Andrew McKenzie, international stunt)

(Egypt Today Magazine, October 2009)

Actors lead a dangerous life. In this summer’s controversial hit Ehky Ya Shahrzad (Tell Us, Scheherazade), Mona Zaki’s character was brutally beaten up and dragged by her hair across a room by her husband, played by Hassan El-Radad. Later in the year, the actress was hanging off the back of a car with actor Ahmed Helmy as they were dragged through a parking lot. She walked away from both scenes with barely a scratch

Action star Ahmed El-Sakka was not so lucky during the filming of his 2007 thriller El-Gezira (The Island). In a mishap with a prop handgun, El-Sakka was shot in the eye and had to undergo surgery. He was off work for three months while he recovered.

The big-budget action thriller is still a relatively new genre for local filmmakers, with 2002’s Mafia, directed by Sherif Arafa and starring El-Sakka, considered the first Egyptian-made smash-bang flick to hit local theaters. Audiences flocked to see it, and Mafia grossed more than LE 10 million in box office receipts alone. Since then, explosions, car crashes and fight scenes have become a staple of not only thrillers, but also comedies, TV series and even commercials. But no one is actually supposed to get hurt.

Egypt has earned a reputation for its well-developed film industry with talented set designers, camera crews and directors, but high-profile accidents in recent years would suggest that safety standards have been left on the storyboard. That is slowly beginning to change.

Bringing in the Big Guns

Directors and actors have long complained about dealing with local stuntmen or stunt coordinators. Most are adventurous young men hired off the street with little training or knowledge about proper safety measures. In a June 2007 article, Arafa told Egypt Today “With action films, you need people to help you, with special effects and Egypt still doesn’t have those people — we have to work mostly with foreigners. But we have to start somewhere.”

The foreigner most directors turn to is Andrew McKenzie, international stunt coordinator and the nation’s only film safety officer.

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

On the set of the Chevrolet’s Optra commercial, where Helmy and Zaki are taken for a drag around CityStars, the stunt coordinator could easily be mistaken for the director, as he barked out directions, double-checked riggings and ushered Helmy and Zaki into position behind the car. “Obviously if you do this […] you will lose all the skin on your chest, arms and legs, but we have got a little technique here that enables us to do it safely and make it look real too,” says Mckenzie, declining to give away any industry secrets.

McKenzie’s stunt team first worked with El-Sakka in South Africa during the production of Mafia. His first project in Egypt was for El-Gezira: After El-Sakka, who insists on doing his own stunts, injured his eye on the set, McKenzie came to coach the actor.

“I mainly work with El-Sakka, but I have also worked on other movies, some television stuff as well as commercials,” the stunt coordinator says. McKenzie’s local projects have included Ibrahim El-Abyad with El-Sakka; El-Dealer, which i s being shot in Ukraine; 1,000 Mabrouk (A Thousand Congratulations); Mona Zaki’s two new movies, Awlad El-Am (Cousins) and Khalf Aswar El-Kamar (Behind the Moon’s Gates); and Amr Waked’s Moshtabah Zero (Suspect Zero), among others. Internationally, he has also done stunts for the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, with Nicholas Cage, and the 2005 remake of The Poseidon Adventure, as well as work on TV series and other films.

Hiring foreign professionals to work on local productions is not a popular option for the budget-conscious studios, which would rather bring in much cheaper local talent. But cutting costs on safety may ultimately end up hurting the bottom line more.

“We are here to make sure that work is done professionally. We do not charge much more than the others and we are not here to make money. We want to make better movies, and if you look at the movies that were made in 2000 as opposed to what we are doing today, they are completely different,” says McKenzie. “We have taken the action right up to give it a more international look, and we can do it safely. Some people might save money from working with other people, but when you hurt an actor you don’t get to shoot for six weeks.”

When actors such as El-Sakka refuse to have stuntmen do the scenes for them, they must rely on a good team behind the scenes to do these stunts safely. McKenzie feels that injuries like El-Sakka’s are avoidable. “There is no reason to get hurt; you could do all the action and come out of the movie with only the usual bumps and bruises you get sometimes while shooting.”

The Art of Stunts

Being a stunt coordinator is more involved than just telling others which stunts to attempt. “Stunt coordination is a science, a specialization that requires a lot of training, but what we have here in Egypt has nothing to do with this science,” says director Marwan Hamed, who worked with McKenzie on this year’s Ibrahim El-Abyad and with another foreign team on his debut film Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building, 2006). “That is why I prefer working with foreigners.”

McKenzie explains that elsewhere in the world, if  someone aspires to be a stunt coordinator they study and train for many years before actually going on the set. “I was a stuntman for 20 years, and then I was an assistant stunt coordinator for maybe six or seven years,” says McKenzie. “I worked with very well-known stunt coordinators in the world, like Dan Bradley who did James Bond and Independence Day. They trained me every single day for five years before I worked on movie sets being a stunt coordinator.”

In Egypt, there is no guild or other professional organization that trains or certifies stuntmen. Anyone who has worked as a stuntman in two or three movies may call himself a stunt coordinator.

Since moving his entire business to Egypt a year and a half ago, McKenzie has been working to improve not only safety standards, but also the quality of stunt scenes in the local cinema industry. “I look at camera angles, I help the directors [decide] where to put the camera, the best way to shoot. Action needs to be shot in certain ways, and it takes years of experience to learn these things,” he says. “All these things you have to be aware of.”

He is also training Egyptians to be professional stuntmen, teaching them stage combat techniques and fight choreography. McKenzie says there is still a lot of work to be done. “Out of the 20 people that I am training, there are only two that I could rely on 100 percent and five guys that I could use a lot.”

Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

One of McKenzie’s protégés, Mohamed Azab made his debut as a stuntman in the 2004 movie Tito. He then worked on several other movies and commercials before becoming a stunt coordinator. He has also worked as a fight choreographer for the movie Al-Hassa Al-Saba’a (The Seventh Sense, 2005), directed by actor/director Ahmed Mekky and starring Ahmed El-Fishawy.

“Working with McKenzie on Ibrahim El-Abyad, we started training really hard for four to six months before they actually started shooting the movie,” says Azab. “And I actually owe him a lot. After I successfully did a stunt where I crash into a car door on a motorcycle and fly over the handlebars through the air, I felt really confident about doing action scenes. This encouraged me to take a huge step [in my career] and handle El-Fishawy’s next movie Telk El-Ayam [These Days] on my own.

“While working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I watched [McKenzie] and tried to learn from what he did everyday. I believe one of the most important things in action is eye-contact and timing,” he continues. “And the most important thing with safety is having your equipment, like vests, mattresses and wires ready. After working on Ibrahim El-Abyad, I started buying my own equipment.”

Since Ibrahim El-Abyad, Azab has worked with McKenzie on Awlad El-Amm (The Cousins, in production) and on Lahazat Harega’s (Critical Situations) second season.

Stunts are all the rage not only in action movies, but also in comedies like 1000 Mabrouk. According to McKenzie, action in comedies is demanding because “to be funny, it needs to be really hard.

“With 1000 Mabrouk I sat down with director Ahmed Nader Galal, and he said, Andrew, we need to kill [actor Helmy] 20-30 times. What can we do?’” McKenzie recalls. “I got a good team and we got to play with stuff that has never been done before here in Egypt. We used dummies that were very similar to the actor, we had masks made for this, and we did tricks with rigging.”

With advanced equipment, special effects and stringent safety measures, an actor can do any scene and avoid injuries that could ruin a career, delay shooting or even worse. For 1000 Mabrouk, McKenzie had Helmy suspended in mid-air by only a five-millimeter cable. “I think I’m lucky because they [trust] in what I do.”

Choreography is an essential part of the big-screen magic, as evidenced by the fight scene between Zaki and Al-Radad in Ehky Ya Shahrzad. “That’s pretty much what we do,” says McKenzie. “We make things look violent while keeping the safety level at a maximum.”

Drive to Stay Alive

In a country notorious for poorly maintained roads and real-life traffic fatalities, car chase scenes pose their own special problems for filmmakers. There is more to being a stunt driver than just aggressive driving habits.

To make sure everyone walks away safely from a crash, directors call Amr Mahmoud, better known as ‘Amr McGyver.’ Nicknamed after the brainy hero from the late-1980s American TV action series, the 32-year-old heads the nation’s only professional stunt driving company, McGyver Team, which specializes in car and motorbike chases, crashes and rolls

“I have worked with McGyver,” says McKenzie, “and really, I could rely on him for everything with cars.”

Safety Rigging - Courtesy Andrew Mckenzie

McGyver started his film career in 2001 with singer Mohamed Fouad’s movie Rehlet Hob (Love Journey). “Before 2000, we did not have any real car chases in Egypt, but I started the chases in this movie in 2001. A foreign guy did the roll,” says McGyver, whose industry credits now include 55 movies, 10 television series and multiple commercials. “I have a team of 20 professional drivers that do everything, but for the rolls I prefer to do it by myself because I’m used to it.”

McGyver is constantly trying new things in each project. “Working with McKenzie increased my knowledge because he has been working for years in this industry and has studied the physics of the different speeds, dimensions and weights,” he explains. “We actually tried new things together, like in Mohamed Heneidy’s last movie Ramadan Mabrouk Aboul Alamein Hamouda [2009]. For the first time, we made a car roll while hitting the ramp from the side and not head-on.”

Worse for Wear

This year has seen few major accidents reported from the movie industry and no fatalities, a marked improvement over years past. The 2008 Ramadan serial El-Fanar (The Lighthouse) was particularly accident prone: Actors Ahmed Rateb and Tarek Lotfy were filming a scene in Port Said in which Lotfy’s character is drowning and his father, played by Rateb, jumps into the water to rescue him. Rateb actually slid and almost drowned, because not a single member of the cast noticed until the coast guard rescued him. Other El-Fanar actors also missed work from injuries incurred during filming.

While McKenzie’s work within the industry appears to be paying off, actors and directors admit that stunt professionalism is still a serious concern. For director Tarek Abdel Moaty, it was a lack of professionalism that delayed shooting on Agamista (2007) for an entire day. Starring Sherif Ramzy, Khaled Aboul Naga and Donia, the movie is about a man (Aboul Naga) who, while in the North Coast, befriends a young man (Ramzy) on the run from drug dealers.

For a scene involving a car chase followed by a figh, Ramzy recalls, “The director hired someone to bring stuntmen to this scene, but right on the set, just as we were about to film, they refused to do the scene. I actually did the scene after the stuntmen refused and I got hurt. After finishing the most difficult scene, we went on with the rest of the movie without using stuntmen.”

It was Abdel Moaty’s first experience as a director, and he found using stuntmen was almost impossible. “In the international cinema, stunt work has rules, but here in Egypt they know nothing about it, and at the end of the day, I cannot force stuntmen to do the scene,” says Abdel Moaty, explaining that most Egyptian stuntmen are amateurs.

“It’s the stuntmen’s job to do the action scenes, and they should be trained to do so,” Ramzy adds, “but here in Egypt they do it by luck.”

It is not only the lack of professionalism that create  problems, but also a lack of experience and training. Pressured by deadlines and budgets, producers often do not give enough time for actors to adequately prepare for stunts.

“In the movie El-Eyal Herbet (The Kids Ran Away, 2006), I had to drive a motorbike and I was hurt because I was not given enough time to train well for it,” says Ramzy.

This carelessness can even extend to filming commercials. “At the beginning of my career I was in one of Chipsy’s old ads, and I was supposed to break through a glass wall,” recalls stuntman Mohamed Azab. “But because of the lack of experience of the people who were responsible for it, they forgot to make sure that it is powdered glass and not real glass. I ended up [cutting myself and] bleeding for a while.”

McKenzie says that attention to detail and proper preparation saves lives. “We were shooting Leilat El-Baby Doll [Baby Doll Night, 2008] in Syria, and we had two cars crashing into each other. Everyone was in a hurry and they have seen us do it and it doesn’t look dangerous, and they wanted us to put the actors in the car,” recalls McKenzie. “I said there was no way that I would put an actor in. I put the stuntmen in the cars. I was [installing] seatbelts, and the producers said it’s not dangerous, you do not have to do this. I said, ‘If I am doing this job then I will do it properly.’”

The stunt coordinator finished installing the safety belts and made sure his team was driving the cars. Sure enough, during the crash scene, one of the cars rolled. “If there weren’t seatbelts, [the stuntmen] would have been dead.”

Despite these difficulties, McKenzie has no intention of taking his business elsewhere. “Egypt probably has one of the best camera departments in the world, the directors of photography and everything with the camera departments is world class. The directors are also very talented, [and] the set designers are close to the best in the world.” says McKenzie. “Overseas we generally get told what they want and it is very boring, people aren’t looking to try new things. In Egypt, we get to design a lot of action and there are certain things we have done in Egypt that have not been done anywhere else in the world, which is great.”

Building up the profession of stuntmen will go a long way in securing the Egyptian film industry’s place in the spotlight. “If people get hurt or injured or killed on sets in Egypt, people hear about this worldwide, and [this] takes [away from] everything that the cameramen are doing, the directors and everything big [production] companies like Good News are doing, what they have built in Egypt … It takes all of that away and it makes people in Egypt look like amateurs, and they are not.et

The Censor’s Scissors

 Egypt Today sheds light on how the censorship process really works By Lamia Hassan

(Egypt Today Magazine, February 2010)

In a conservative society, with prohibitions that come from deeply held beliefs, honest attempts to discuss social problems can sometimes offend. Last month’s controversial hit film Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya (With Natural Colors) addresses one such important source of tension in society: The relationship in society between religion and art.

The movie approached the issue of drawing live models and the conflicts between the religious and liberal students at an art school. When art students criticized the movie, claiming it defamed them, Osama Fawzy, the film’s director, said that he was using art to show the larger struggle in society between religion and the arts.

“They always talk about the three taboos: politics, sex and religion, but I believe that a taboo is what violates social harmony,” says Said Khattab, who was appointed the director of the Censorship Authority in October 2009.

The film and its ensuing controversy once again raise the question: Should certain types of art be prohibited?

To Cut or Not to Cut

Censorship has varied over time as societal norms have changed. For example, many of the stories that criticized President Gamal Abdel Nasser did not directly refer to him; some stories that were critical of Nasser were only released after his death.

When Yusuf Idris published the short story Akan Labod Ya Lily An Todi’y El Nour (Did You Really Have To Turn On The Lights, Lily?) in his 1971 collection Beit Min Lahm (House of Flesh), the book was banned. The story was well-known to be a criticism of Nasser’s policies concerning the Israel/Palestine conflict, especially when he started negotiating with the Israelis to give back the Palestinians some of their lost land in exchange for recognizing Israel. The book was later allowed on the market.

In Idris’ story, a young sheikh is put in charge of a small mosque in an area known for drug dealing and addicts. All the men in the neighborhood are in love with a young girl named Lily — all except for the sheikh. Lily tries to seduce him while he is calling the people to prayer over a microphone. He fears he is falling in love with her and when he weeps, all the drug addicts awaken and go to pray, while he leaves the people behind, having finally fallen for her.

Naguib Mahfouz wrote short stories criticizing Nasser as well, including Taht El Mazala (Under The Umbrella, 1969) and Beit Saye’e El Soma’a (House Of The Notorious, 1965). In Awlad Haretna (Children of Our Alley), Mahfouz tackled sensitive religious issues, and the book was eventually banned because the characters personified God and his prophets. It is also said to be part of the reason an Islamist extremist attempted to kill Mahfouz in October 1994 by stabbing him in the neck. The assailant later confessed he had not actually read the book, he had only heard about what the book implies through its characters. Islamist groups say they had nothing to do with the attack.

According to Mostafa Faramawy, head of procurement for El-Shorouk Bookstores, there are two forms of censorship for books. Foreign titles go through the Department of Censorship of Publications under the Ministry of Information, but local titles are not subject to this process.

“Books in Egypt are given a deposit number from Dar El-Kotob, and then they are available at bookstores,” says Faramawy. “Books are almost never banned before being available at bookstores. They are sold, then when controversies arise, the books get banned until [the government decides what to do about them].”

If a book is banned, authorities collect the books from the stores.

Faramawy also says that the government requires that all copies of the Qur’an be approved by Al-Azhar. “We sometimes get the Holy Qur’an from Lebanon, so I make sure that all of the books we have are approved by Al-Azhar.”

Faramawy says that Egypt is somewhat flexible with books compared to the rest of the region. Some titles are allowed here that are outlawed in some of the Gulf countries, for instance. “We usually do not have a lot of books banned, but the government told us not to sell books by the Moroccan author Mohamed Shoukry,” he says. “But really, I do not believe that any books should be censored because we should know our thoughts and the others’ thoughts. If a person has decided to read a book, then he or she is aware of what is written in it. There are even people who do not have enough money to live and still manage to buy books, so we should respect that and give people the freedom to read whatever they want.”

The Censoring Process

From the controversial movie "Bel Alwan El Tabi'ya"

According to Khattab, television and radio have their own censorship departments, while music, movies and plays are under the main Censorship Authority. “Most series are shot at the Media Production City, which is considered a free zone, and those that are aired on satellite channels or Nilesat — outlets over which we have no authority.,” says Khattab. “We only get the scripts of a very few of them that need permission to be exported, but they follow our law, which is law 430 for 1955.”

For movies, the scriptwriter first files his or her script with the censor, who gives permission to start filming. The production company must get permission to screen the final film after the censors approve its content. If the Censorship Authority bans the film, it cannot be shown in local theaters or on the free-to-air channels.

“Every movie is seen by three censors and the director of the department, and if it is a controversial movie they form another committee. If part of the committee approves a movie and others do not, then I interfere and form another committee and get other censors from other committees,” says Khattab. “When there is a movie with a huge probability it will be disapproved, we summon the filmmaker and sit down with him and discuss the issues to find solutions [so the movie can be approved].”

For plays, the manuscript must first be filed, then the censors are invited to see the play on its first night. Musicians must file a song’s lyrics, before they get approval to record and sell it.

The Struggle to Be Seen

Films have been going through different forms of censorship ever since cinema came to Egypt. Movies represent the time they were made in. During the 1950s, many films were about the rise of the peasants and removing the king, whose image (on a photo in the background, for example) was blacked out. In the 1970s, most films were shallow, marking the period of aflam moqawalat (contractor films) — low-budget productions focused on quantity over quality, often with lots of sexual innuendos. Many were banned, but are still shown on satellite channels.

“The public morals change over time. In the 1970s, for example, women were able to wear whatever they want, ride buses and go to university wearing whatever they wanted, but now it is different. What you accept at times could be rejected at another time, and that’s what happens with the movies as well,” explains Khattab, adding that the level of tolerance for religious themes has changed. “[W]hat people used to accept before is rejected now in the society, and they do not want to accept it in what they are watching as well.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is to be a place where new ideas are born and have space to discuss and come up with new ideas and have the ability to diversify.”

Although the notion of censorship promoting creativity is dubious, Khattab insists that he is more liberal than his predecessors and wants to allow filmmakers greater freedom than they have had in the past.

While some criticize the Censorship Authority for approving movies that they feel are violating the morals of the society, filmmakers accuse the censorship bureau of being to strict. In 2003, for example, the Censorship Authority banned the movie Matrix Reloaded from screening in Egypt for religious reasons. There is no official explanation; some claim it is because the characters in the movie go to a city called Zion while others speculate that the Architect character was an attempt to personify god.

“Maybe the censorship is less conservative or let some scenes pass because they are important, but what is more dangerous to the arts than censorship is the audience, they are the real censors,” says Yosra Lozy, who starred in Bel Alwan El-Tabe’eya. “Sometimes I feel that society is against the arts. They take photos with the celebrities when they see them, yet they attack their movies even before they are out in the theaters. There are also some lawyers and members of the People’s Assembly that file lawsuits against some realistic movies.”

According to Khattab, the movie El Mozneboon (The Culprits, 1967) was banned immediately after its release, and the censors who allowed it were penalized because of the movie’s sexual content. Exploring the rise of corruption and nepotism, the film is about suspects who are innocent of a certain crime but cannot give an alibi because they were all doing something else illegal at the time.

Censorship existed in the late 1980s through the late 1990s, but there were no major controversies because movies tended to be light and avoided issues that might offend people. Then movies like Sahar El-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003), a realistic movie about the lives of four couples, started challenging standards of what was acceptable in film; it had trouble getting approval from the censors but was eventually released. Other films addressing different taboos had similar delays with the censors, including Heya Fawda (It is Chaos, 2007), Ehky Ya Shahrazad (Tell us, Scheherazade, 2009), Kobolat Masrooqa (Stolen Kisses, 2008), Bedon Reqaba (Without Censoring, 2009).

The movies addresses common issues, but segments of society thought it was inappropriate to discuss the problems so publicly. “The problem is not only with film censorship, but also different societal censors. Our society is more driven towards religion, and this religious society pressures us,” says Khattab. “My goal in censorship is

According to Khattab, the Censorship Authority is trying to implement a rating system similar to the type used in Europe or the United States, so that the viewer will be able to choose which movies he wants to see or show to his children.

“Our role is not to keep on cutting scenes from movies. We are a cultural institution, and I believe that with the rating system we are respecting the right of the viewer, ” says Khattab, trying to show concern over the damage that indiscriminate cutting can have on a film’s quality.

While controversial ideas are more likely to be discussed in film, directors must still be careful with how these topics are approached. “We could talk about anything — regardless if it will appear in a novel, movie, article or anything — the most important thing about it is to use the proper language for it,” says Marwan Hamed, director of 2006’s controversial movie Emaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building). “Part of the director’s skill is to know how to use the proper language from the cinema’s dictionary, and let it pass from the censorship and on to the viewer.”

Ibrahim El Batout, considered the father of independent cinema in Egypt and who made his feature debut with the award-winning Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2007), says, “Censorship is a rather out-of-date tool of control that has no efficiency nowadays. If it still exists in Egypt, it’s simply because we are out of tune with the whole universe and I see that sooner rather than later it will not be there.” According to Batout, all the technological developments that 2010 brings, especially in communication, will edge out any efforts to censor art.

Khattab says that in 2009 the censors allowed lots of controversial movies that tackle sensitive issues, like Awlad El-Am (Cousins, 2009), which deals with the Egyptian-Israeli struggle. While the censors say that they allowed a number of controversial movies this year, Khattab acknowledges that there are still movies prevented from being distributed such as Taht El-Niqab (Under the Veil), a movie about what women are sometimes forced to do under desperate economic conditions, and Haz West El-Balad (Downtown Belly Dancing), about sexual harassment. et