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Egyptian filmmakers imagine a fertile future

February 15, 2011 |  7:30 am

Populist revolutions tend to be good for filmmaking cultures, which a decade or two later will often examine the repression through a fictional lens.

In Germany, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave rise, 15 or more years later, to a crop of top-tier movies including "Good Bye Lenin" and "The Lives of Others." Romania's overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu birthed a New Wave movement responsible for hits like "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

It's far too early to say when or whether Egypt will go through its own renaissance. But it would hardly be a surprise if it did. in a story in The Times on Monday, we spoke to filmmakers from within the country -- and there are many -- and around the Arab world to gauge the filmmaking future after the Tahrir Square uprising that led to the fall of a regime.

The Hosni Mubarak era wasn't an especially bright time for Egyptian filmmakers, or artists of any stripe. Directors often had to perform end runs around government censors -- see: Marwan Hamed, the director behind 2006's acclaimed "The Yacoubian Building," who had to convince Parliament that his movie, which depicted prostitution and police brutality in Cairo, should be allowed a release.

"Filmmakers in the Arab world always have to zigzag," said Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese filmmaker whose movie "West Beirut," a coming-of-age story set against the country's 1975 civil war, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. "There's so much censorship that most people don't even bother to write screenplays about interesting subjects; they just stay aloof and shallow. We can't make our 'JFK' or 'Nixon.' We can't have our Oliver Stone or Sidney Lumet. We can't have 'The Last Temptation of Muhammad.'"

On top of that, Egypt has only two distribution companies, which choke off independent filmmaking in favor of the broad comedies and harmless melodramas that populate the country's film industry.

But there are reasons for optimism. Already a number of filmmakers have begun to shoot documentary footage and react creatively to the events of the last three weeks. The revolution, after all, was informed by technology and expression, the exact factors that undergird filmmaking. And while many say the revolution has unleashed their democratic and economic aspirations, creative ambitions are also at the fore, with stories that have been held back for 30 years now finally able to be told. "I know there's a lot of reason to be cynical in the Arab world," Hamed said. "But Egyptian people are rediscovering themselves, and I think artists are going to help them do that."

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Egyptian soldiers in Tahrir Square. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times


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