Will Egyptian, African filmmakers inch toward co-productions?

With Egypt assuming the African Union presidency in 2019, it is looking to increase cooperation with Africa in various fields and the cinema industry is one of them.

al-monitor A promotional image for the Luxor African Film Festival, uploaded March 14, 2019.  Photo by Facebook/luxoraff.

Mar 21, 2019

CAIRO — Egypt assuming the presidency of the African Union (AU) in 2019 aims to boost the cooperation between Cairo and African capitals from politics to infrastructure, from the TV industry to soccer. Filmmakers, artists and organizers hope that the cooperation will extend to the cinema industry, with more African films screened in Egyptian film theaters and Egyptian films making a comeback onto African screens.

A key step in that direction is the eighth edition of the Luxor African Film Festival (LAFF) whicht took place on March 15-21. Held under the auspices of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the festival honored director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun from Chad, whose film “Dry Season” (2006) won the Grand Special Jury Prize in Venice and ”A Screaming Man” (2010) won the Jury Prize in Cannes, making Haroun the first Chadian director to enter as well as win an award in Cannes.

The festival was inaugurated by Minister of Culture Ines Abdel Dayem, who underlined that it was “an honor for Egypt to host this festival in parallel with two other events — the Arab and African Youth Platform in Aswan and Egypt's presidency of the African Union in 2019.”

LAFF Executive Director Azza al-Husseini told Al-Monitor that this year's festival is particularly important since it is the first to be held after Egypt took over the chairmanship of the AU. She noted that both the organizers and Dayem would like for this festival to be a breakthrough for cooperation between Egyptian and African cinema and a forum bringing together Egyptian and African filmmakers.

In parallel to LAFF, the African Cinema Clubs in Alexandria and Cairo show African films every Saturday throughout March. The screenings are followed by debates on the potential for cooperation between the Egyptian and African cinema industry. “Wallay” (Burkina Faso) was screened in Cairo on March 2, and “The Challenge” (Cameroon) on March 9.

In the last week of March, Egyptian embassies in African countries will screen Egyptian masterpieces with a symposium following each. These screenings and discussions are part of the Egyptian Film Week that runs from March 22 to March 29.

Egypt’s film industry, known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, has had a major impact in the region. Even during tough political times, Israelis, for instance, would remain glued to the TV Friday afternoons throughout the 1950s and 1960s to watch Egyptian films. Egyptian films — with their dramatic story lines, ribald humor and memorable music — have also been broadcast in Syria, Iraq and Iran.

In addition, Egyptian films have been shown in African countries. “Egyptian films were often screened in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan and various South African countries,” Kamal Ramzy, a film critic who writes for a number of Egyptian newspapers, told Al-Monitor. He said that Egyptian cinema has been one of the models — along with French cinema — when those countries started building up their own film industry. 

But Ramzy said that there had been only few co-productions. “In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of African countries were newly independent and had no film industry,” he said. When the film industry took its tentative steps in the 1970s and 1980s in Nigeria, Mauritania, Chad, Tunisia and Algeria, a political gap had already formed between Cairo and its African counterparts — Egypt was engrossed in its Middle Eastern problems and the African capitals felt that Cairo had failed to provide them with enough support in their post-independence period.

A few individual efforts of cooperation did exist, however. Ramzy cited “The Sparrow” and “The Return of the Prodigal Son” — two lesser known films by Egypt’s iconic director Youssef Chahine. These films, both critical of government policies, were not authorized by Egypt’s general authority on censorship, so Chahine produced them with funding of Algeria's national body for the cinema industry, the Office National pour le Commerce et L'Industrie Cinematographique. Some scenes were shot in Algeria, Algerian actors were part of the cast and the films, which were banned in Egypt, were shown in Algeria first. 

In 2001, Egyptian new generation director Amr Arafo shot “Africano” in South Africa with the participation of a small number of South African filmmakers and artists as assistants and producers, as well as actors in some secondary roles, Ramzy said. The film, which revolved around an ambitious veterinarian who works at a safari theme park in South Africa, had a South African cast and crew. One of the supporting roles was played by South African actress Tamara Ngozi, he explained, noting that she also played a bigger role in the Egyptian-produced “My Wife and My Lady” in 2014.

According to Ramzy, some African stars have received great acclaim as a result of their work in Egypt, notably Sudanese director Saeed Hamed and Tunisian actors Dorra Zarrouk, Hend Sabry and Dhafer El Abidine.

Nader Adly, a film critic writing for many newspapers and publications, told Al-Monitor that the stagnant cultural relations between Egypt and Africa were due to political reasons, rather than cultural barriers. The African capitals thought that Egypt had turned its back to Africa after President Gamal Abdel Nasser focused on its war against Israel instead of supporting their national independence. When Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978, this hardly made things better for Egypt-Africa ties.

“North African countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria boycotted Egypt after it signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1978,” Adly said.

He noted that Israeli cinema gradually replaced Egyptian cinema in Africa starting from the 1980s, which prompted Egyptian filmmakers to take a stand against African filmmakers because of their cooperation with Israel. This coincided with the attempted assassination of former President Hosni Mubarak in 1995 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, under orders from the Sudanese leadership.

Adly added that neither Egypt nor any African country officially instructed artists to stay away from each other, but the lack of awareness among some Egyptian and African filmmakers led to them confusing art with politics. He hopes that Egypt heading the AU could be an opportunity to deepen cooperation and overcome past differences.

Mahmoud Kassem, an author on cinema, told Al-Monitor, “Now that Egypt heads the AU and Egyptian films are showing in African countries and vice versa — in addition to LAFF bringing Egyptian and African filmmakers closer together — it would be great for filmmakers to create high-quality films together, thus enriching the Egyptian film industry with African talent.”

However, he said that few Egyptian filmmakers would likely be interested because most of them would rather make low-cost films. Cooperation with African countries in the film industry would be expensive in terms of transporting equipment and paying for crew accommodation in different countries.

According to Sudanese director Talal Afifi, part of the problem stems from Egyptian filmmakers’ attitude toward Africa. “Egypt's presidency of the AU is an opportunity to achieve cooperation in the film industry, provided that Egyptian intellectuals and artists address the roots of racism in the daily culture of some citizens, as they often lead to stereotyping African artists, giving them shallow or ridiculous roles,” he told Al-Monitor.

Many Egyptian films — such as "Saedi Fel Gamaa Al-Amerikiya" ("An Upper Egyptian at the American University in Cairo"), directed by Sudanese director Saeed Hamed or "Elly Baly Balak" ("The Secret Between Us") as well as "Africano” and "My Wife and My Lady" — typecast Africans in the roles of prostitutes and servants or include politically incorrect remarks on their skin or alleged marital practices.

Afifi noted that Egyptian filmmakers should treat Africa as a cultural resource that would enrich the Egyptian film industry. “Given that Egyptian cinema is the product of cooperation and multinationalism, it is very strange that Africa is not part of this diversity,” he concluded.

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