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Redefining cinema in Egypt

Some heavy-hitters in Egypt's cinema world have helped create a home for independent movies.

An old concept is breathing new life into Cairo's cinema scene.

When the emergence of 3-D films threatened to flatten attendance at the Odeon Cinema in downtown Cairo, the old theater added a new dimension of its own: "A cinema for movies not screened in the cinema."

That is the slogan of Zawya, an art-house theater that opened inside the Odeon in 2014. Zawya has developed a following by screening independent and documentary films, both old and new, that cannot be found in old theaters.

Marianne Khoury, a niece of the late film director Youssef Chahine, is head of the Panorama of the European Film in Egypt project and the producer at global Misr International Films, which founded Zawya. Khoury said she had been contemplating for years the idea of launching a theater dedicated to independent movies.

“Cinema lovers and producers should continuously screen these types of movies,” she said.

She added that in less than two years, Zawya has managed to attract a large number of people from different segments of the populace and the number of Zawya’s followers on social networking websites has reached 40,000. Zawya is not limited to the Odeon Cinema theater, as it has held screenings at cinemas in various governorates, including Alexandria, Minya and Al-Gharbiyah. The project also was extended to European countries such as France, where a week was dedicated to short feature films at the Arab World Institute in the presence of a number of Egyptian directors.

Zawya also offers matinees that target students as well as people with special needs, Khoury said. She pointed out that Zawya prepared special movies for the blind, using an “audio description” feature that describes the scenes and the performance of actors for the audience.

“Zawya is, in short, an experiment where we test all sorts of visual arts and movie ideas to increase the number of our fans," she said.

Youssef al-Shazly, general manager of the new cinema project, said the theater offers a venue for all kinds of independent movies, "be they Egyptian, Arab or foreign," documentaries or narrative films, long or short. There is no specific film selection criteria, he said, but his team rejects purely commercial films because those films can be seen in other theaters.

The team has acquired experience in selecting quality movies that can attract a good turnout at Zawya, whether they are new or old. These movies, he added, failed to attain the desired success when they opened originally, which is why Zawya seeks to rediscover them. Some of the movies shown include "Bab al-Hadid" ("Iron Door") and "Al-Yawm al-Sades" ("The Sixth Day"), Shazly said.

The Odeon Cinema has a small back door that leads to Zawya. The theater's atmosphere is different from that of other cinemas — the carefully selected photos hanging on the walls make it look like a photo gallery.

“Zawya is thus far a voluntary work,” Zawya Cinema executive director Mohammed Saeed said, crediting a group of young people seeking to promote cinematic and cultural ideas they believe in.

“To be able to succeed, we needed to make concessions, so we decided to give up on the financial return in order to preserve the artistic and intellectual aspect,” he explained.

Saeed added that in the beginning, the goal was to attract people who enjoy watching nonprofit independent cinema. However, nearly two years into the launch of the Zawya project, those behind the idea are now trying to reap some fruits.

“In the first six months, the turnout was low, especially considering that the first movie was the [internationally acclaimed] Saudi movie 'Wadjda,' but with time, we started to offer ratings for movies, and we set clear movie selection terms with the help of a number of senior Egyptian filmmakers such as Mohammad Khan, Daoud Abdel Sayed and Yousry Nasrallah,” he added.

The diversity of films offered has encouraged different segments of the public to welcome the idea. Also, distributors are starting to approach Zawya to screen their independent films.

"But the turning point was when we set specific periods for the screening of independent short films; the makers of these films started promoting Zawya on social networking sites and social media," he said.

Saeed pointed out that Zawya operates like other cinemas, although its box office sells tickets at no more than about $3, which is cheap compared with commercial cinemas. The films shown at Zawya go through the proper governmental and administrative procedures related to permits and artistic classifications and the process is smooth. It helps, he said, that the project operates under the name of the global Misr International Films and producer Khoury.

Safaa Youssef, a Zawya patron, said that when she and her friends want to watch a movie they only go to Zawya. “The founders of the Zawya theater respect the public and offer them real movies that live up to their taste. For me, no movies are worth watching outside of this cinema.”

Ahmed Fares, another frequent visitor, said the concept is a great and bold experiment as it is nonprofit and, while it may seem crazy to potential investors, the Zawya founders had the courage to undertake such a project. Fares stressed that Zawya offers a cultural service that interests only a certain segment of viewers. Zawya is far from being an investment project aimed at screening commercial movies that attract the largest segment of the public, he added.

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