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Egyptian cinema tries to find its place

Post-revolution cinema in Egypt has found it must walk a fine line and ensure that it is criticizing the right people, as "The Island 2" currently in cinemas does its best to.

CAIRO — After seeing the widely acclaimed film "El Gezira 2" ("The Island 2") in the Egyptian cinema, one might wonder how political events in Egypt affect art and how art affects public opinion politically. In this case, "The Island 2" bore certain political messages regarding the period between the January 25 and June 30 revolutions.

The first part of the film, "El Gezira," which was released in 2007, tells the story of Mansour al-Hafni, one of the biggest drug and arms dealers in Upper Egypt who rules the village of Gezira in the 1970s. Hafni makes a deal with the security apparatus so that it will allow him to eliminate his competitors, as long as he helps it take down extremist terrorists. As the terrorist threat is eliminated, Hafni's relationship with the security apparatus becomes shaky and they fight a bloody battle for security forces to arrest him and end his rule over Gezira.

The second part, "El Gezira 2," which is now showing in cinemas in Egypt, tells the story of Hafni’s escape from prison after Egypt's prisons were invaded on Jan. 28, 2011, and his attempt to regain control over Gezira. The film conveys political messages represented by the Gezira residents’ revolution, led by Hafni, which alludes to the January 25 Revolution. The families who were ruling Gezira before the residents’ revolution represent the regime of Hosni Mubarak. The group of travelers (Rahhala), a religious extremist group aiming to control Gezira, represent the Muslim Brotherhood. The film ends when all conflicting parties unite to end the Rahhala’s rule over Gezira, in reference to the June 30 Revolution of 2013.

Film critic Nader Adly told Al-Monitor that the film might refer to the situation in Egypt and its messages can be viewed from different angles, in which the Rahhala might refer to the Islamic State. “The messages might have certain meanings that we [have] yet to realize,” he said.

“Criticizing religious movements first started in the 1980s and increased in the 1990s in the film 'Toyour El-Zalam' ("Birds of Darkness"), 'Al-Irhabi' ("The Terrorist") and others, then reached its peak with the series 'Al-Gama’a' ("The Group") that criticized the Muslim Brotherhood from its establishment until Mubarak’s rule,” film critic Tareq al-Shennawi told Al-Monitor.

"Film productions criticizing religious movements significantly increased during the past couple of years with the series 'The Preacher,' 'Adam’s Apple' and 'The Countdown,' and finally, the film 'The Island 2,'” said Shennawi.

“It is difficult today to talk about the period between the January 25 Revolution and the June 30 Revolution, since there are several political facts that are yet to be revealed,” he said.

“There is no doubt that 'The Island 2,' as well as other works, contain clear criticism regarding the January 25 Revolution, represented by the opening of prisons. However, we cannot say that the artists behind these works are against the revolution since they are only criticizing without being hostile,” he added.

Adly said, “One cannot impose censorship on artists to prevent them from making films about the past three years, because the artistic community was affected by the momentum from 2011 until now, and one cannot say 'The Island 2' holds an explicit stance against the January 25 Revolution.”

Film director Ezz Eldeen Dwedar told Al-Monitor, “Over the past couple of years films have misrepresented the January 25 Revolution and the rule of the Brotherhood, glorifying the June 30 coup and attempting to create sympathy with the security apparatus.”

Dwedar added, “Filmmakers, from [the time of Gamal] Abdel Nasser to Mubarak, tried to glorify security forces by not criticizing them in any of their works. After the viewer’s consciousness grew in relative terms after the January 25 Revolution, filmmakers began to try sympathizing with security forces through their plots by introducing corrupt characters from the security apparatus as well as noble officers who finally succeed in eliminating corruption.”

Shennawi said that many films and drama productions, including "The Island 2," are trying to get viewers to sympathize with the character of a police officer. However, Adly believes that current productions are trying to show the humane side of police officers, as well as their bad side, which is normal for a balanced embodiment of the character.

“The artistic community is constantly trying to show what the authority wants to see, to avoid any conflicts with the censorship apparatus. Showing the negative side of the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathizing with the police is exactly what the authorities want today,” Shennawi said.

Dwedar said, “Film production is monopolized by companies and satellite channels whose owners support the June 30 coup and the security apparatus, because they either agree with them on the intellectual or political level or simply out of fear of getting into conflicts with them and having their films banned. At times, the government interferes in modifying certain works of art, by removing or adding elements that serve their interests.”

“Whether the works of art criticize the January 25 Revolution or the Brotherhood, or even try to create sympathy toward the security apparatus, other works of art would appear, showing a different point of view because there is no censorship on the freedom of creativity,” Adly said.

Shennawi said, “The political vision for works of art does not judge it — what controls the impact of artwork is its artistic value. Some films and drama productions have criticized the Brotherhood but were not a success, while 'The Island 2' criticized the Brotherhood and achieved remarkable success because it carries the elements of a good production, far from any political vision.”

“Political films have a controversial nature and they change the views of the public depending on the political situation. The controversy of the film does not mean failure, it means that it carries a vision with which one may agree or disagree, depending on the viewer’s consciousness and his perception of political life,” Adly said.

According to Dwedar, “The impact of film and drama productions that are trying to distort the political reality are limited to groups that do not have a specific political position, while the coup’s supporters or opponents will not be influenced by these works. The period between January 25 until now should only be presented after all its details unfold. The supporters of the coup should not monopolize the artistic production and should provide an opportunity for their opponents to express their vision, for the public to judge.”

Film production in Egypt tends to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood and tries to create sympathy toward the police. However, the position of film and drama production in relation to the January 25 Revolution remains vague, while the stances of the producers are in line with the positions of the state — likely because it fears the state itself. The impact that political works of art have will always depend on the artistic quality, rather than its political content.

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