24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Egypt

In Egypt, it's the non-revolution films that speak volumes

December 19, 2011 |  8:00 am

An image from Mohamed Diab's "Cairo 678," which looks at an unspoken epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt..
It's hard enough for a director to react to global political events. Anticipating them? It might be easier to predict Tim Tebow's career arc.
But as violence engulfs Cairo for a fourth straight day -- with at least 10 protesters killed in clashes with the military near Tahrir Square  in this charged city -- two feature-film directors are dealing with their unlikely role as a sort of Mideastern political seer.

Maybe most striking is that neither of them made a movie about politics.

Amr Salama's "Asmaa," which is currently playing in Egyptian theaters, tackles the stigma of HIV, while Mohamed Diab's "Cairo 678," which played here earlier this year, looks at the unspoken epidemic of sexual harassment.

If neither seems the stuff of taboo-busting drama, consider that Egypt didn't even have a law against sexual harassment until 2008. AIDS is discussed even less.

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Near Egypt's Tahrir Square, a filmmaker looks for answers

December 17, 2011 |  6:30 am


It’s just after 7 p.m. on Friday night, and protesters and the Egyptian army are engaged in a violent confrontation in front of the Egyptian Cabinet building near Tahrir Square. On his narrow downtown Cairo balcony about 10 blocks away, Karim El Hakim, a U.S.-raised, Egypt-dwelling filmmaker, is shaking his head.

"It's the same playbook as November," he says, alluding to protests three weeks ago that escalated into street violence and claimed the lives of more than 40 Egyptians. "The army wants to divide and conquer."

An editor on the 2004 DGA-nominated documentary "Control Room," El Hakim says he knows first-hand how brutal things can get. He was arrested last Jan. 25, the first night of massive protests that would eventually topple Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Like many other protesters, El Hakim, 42, says he was beaten by dozens of men with rubber truncheons before being thrown inside a police truck that would take him to a desert holding cell.

But the arrest came with a silver lining: When he was released the next morning, he had an idea for a film. He would make a documentary about the revolution that would tell of his own experiences as events unfolded. He and his filmmaking partner, Omar Shargawi, would direct, and they and their friends and families would star in the movie.

"As I rode home, I knew that we didn't have to look far for the characters," El Hakim recalls. "We were the characters."

The resulting movie, titled "1/2 Revolution," will make its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next month. In it, one sees the revolution unfold through the eyes of El Hakim and a small circle of Egyptians, half-Egyptians and expats. There's his friend Phillippe, a Lebanese filmmaker; Shargawi, a Danish-Palestinian who moved to Egypt a few years ago; El Hakim's elderly father, Omar, who has lived in Cairo his whole life; and El Hakim's wife, Samaher, a Palestinian filmmaker, among others.

The movie follows them last winter in the charged atmosphere of the streets and in El Hakim's high-ceilinged apartment, where they smoke and discuss the nerve-fraying events around them.

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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


Egypt: Political upheaval may open opportunities for artists

Egypt: Partying and sweeping up in Tahrir Square

For one Egyptian filmmaker, a chance to swim against the tide


For one Egyptian filmmaker, a chance to swim against the tide

February 3, 2011 |  4:34 pm

Many journalists are contemplating their immediate future in Egypt -- Katie Couric just landed back at JFK tweeting how happy she was to be home -- but don't raise that point to Mai Iskander.

As others are heading out, the Egyptian-American filmmaker is heading in. Iskander is planning a trip to Egypt to shoot a documentary about women's role in the uprising. The director is working with a Cairo-based producer and plans on looking at a handful of women on the front lines of the protests against President Hosni Mubarak, as well as how the uprising has affected female roles in more traditional households.

"The BBC and other news media are only covering the day-to-day current events," Iskander said in an interview from New York, where she is preparing to board a flight to Cairo. "I'm planning to focus on a few people and where they're coming from rather than experience [the upheaval] on a superficial level."

Iskander, 37, came onto the independent-filmmaking scene two years ago with "Zaballeen," a documentary look at a group of Coptic Christian teenagers in Cairo. (The title is an Arabic word that translates as "garbage people"; the film's English title was "Garbage Dreams" and refers to the teens' job as recyclers and garbage collectors.) The movie earned rave reviews from Variety and the New York Times and also won a documentary prize overseen by Al Gore.

Born in the U.S., Iskander spent every summer in Egypt when she was a child and still goes back several weeks each year. She has about 25 cousins, aunts, uncles and other extended family in the country, mainly in Cairo.

Egypt has a robust film industry, but it's mostly designed to produce commercial comedies and melodramas; more serious work tends to be made by a small group of intellectuals in Egypt and abroad.

Iskander said she already has several subjects chosen and also aims to look at how the clashes have disrupted the rhythm of everyday life. Her goal is to document feminist leaders but also depict how women across the socioeconomic spectrum are being impacted by the political turmoil. "I'm going to look at conservative and secular, rich and poor, to show Egypt as a land of contradiction," she said.

Security across Egypt remains a concern, as numerous journalists report attacks and threats in the country's capital. On Thursday an ABC News crew said it was hijacked and threatened with a beheading on its way from the Cairo airport. Late Thursday, NBC's Brian Williams joined Couric in exiting the country.

Iskander said she remained concerned about the violence and would shoot inside homes at least part of the time to avoid more dangerous areas. And she added that, for at least one relative, the turbulence has provided a silver lining. Said the director: "My grandmother actually said she's happy with the uprising. The curfew means her daughters come home early."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from 'Zaballeen.' Credit: Dogwoof Pictures



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