CAIRO, March 12, (Agencies): Filmmakers in Egypt are defying a largely conservative society with television series and movies that deal with modern relationships between men and women and the empowerment of the young.
In its heyday between the 1950s and the 1970s, Egypt had one of the largest and most dynamic movie industries in the world.
The golden age of Egyptian cinema starred fiery, determined women and love scenes that rivalled those of Western movies at the time.
“Things started to change in the 1980s” as social freedoms regressed and society grew more puritanical, leading Arab film critic Tarek El Shenawi told AFP.
Under the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood group and Arab Gulf countries, conservatism expanded steadily in Egyptian society during the time.
Braving criticism from conservatives, young directors are now becoming more daring in their work.
Such productions often stir controversy, but they still attract millions of viewers online.
In the film “Balash Tebosni” (Kiss Me Not), young director Ahmed Amer makes fun of the taboo on passionate kisses in contemporary Egyptian cinema.
“Comedy makes the people a bit more open to the theme,” Amer told AFP.
In the “adults only” movie, Amer tries to shoot a kissing scene but the actress refuses to comply, stressing that she wants to become a more devout Muslim.
The “film within a film” satirises the dogged resistance of his starlet in what has become an increasingly puritanical society.
Yasmin Raeis, who plays the actress, said she remembers how such scenes used to be “totally normal” in Egyptian movies she watched as a child.
“Then as I got older, suddenly people started saying that this shouldn’t happen” in movies anymore, she said.
Raeis said she could not understand the taboo on kissing when audiences stream to watch thrillers and action movies packed with scenes of violence.
“That’s what’s strange. We should be condemning violence, not romance,” she said.
The idea for Balash Tebosni originated in a short film which Amer had tried but failed to complete in real life because the leading actress was disgusted by the idea of an onscreen kiss.
Family comedies have also become a hit.
Watched by millions on YouTube, “Sabaa Gar” (Seventh Neighbour), a series which airs on the private CBC Entertainment channel, has faced a storm of accusations that it corrupts Egypt’s youth.
A single woman living alone and seeing men out of wedlock, or another who smokes in secret, Sabaa Gar shows the young demanding control over their own lives.
This contrasts with the stricter social norms that the older generation still holds on to and highlights the generation gap in Egyptian society.
The goal was not to spur controversy, said Heba Yousry, one of the series’ three all-female co-directors.
Sabaa Gar has “allowed people to understand each other and to learn about how the new generation thinks”, she said.
Among the story lines is one of a young woman who wants to have a child, but does not want to share her life with a man.
She agrees with a work colleague to get married for the sole purpose of having a baby, and then to get divorced.
A similar theme was the subject of hit comedy “Bashtery Ragel” (I’m Buying a Man), released in Egyptian cinemas in February 2017 on Valentine’s Day.
At the same time, however, many Egyptian actresses refuse to be filmed in kissing scenes or to play roles that could be regarded as immoral.
Some have even quit the industry for religious reasons.
Egyptian authorities under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in power since 2013, have clamped down on activities deemed immoral.
In the latest case, Egypt last month banned the Arabic version of US television’s “Saturday Night Live” for use of “sexual expressions, phrases and gestures… which violate ethical and professional standards”.
The fourth edition of Qumra, the annual industry event by the Doha Film Institute, has commenced in Qatar, bringing together more than 150 acclaimed filmmakers, industry professionals and experts to nurture 34 films – the Qumra Projects – by first and second-time filmmakers from 25 countries that are in various stages of development. The six-day event is held at Souq Waqif and the Museum of Islamic Art.
Fatma Al Remaihi, Chief Executive Officer of the Doha Film Institute, said: “Qumra is founded upon a commitment to the mentorship and creative development of emerging filmmakers from across the world. As in earlier editions, the Qumra Projects by young filmmakers present compelling stories that need to be heard, especially at a time when film and story-telling are used to distort reality and negatively impact the world. We believe that while films are a source of entertainment, they are also a powerful tool to build empathy and bring people together. That further underlines the need to support new voices in cinema, as storytelling is both an artform and a growing responsibility. If we do not tell our stories, others will, in a manner that suits them.”
She added: “The young filmmakers at Qumra will benefit from the deep experience of our Qumra Masters and industry experts who guide them to take their projects to a global level. Over the past editions, Qumra has helped push the boundaries of first and second-time filmmakers, who may otherwise do not have the opportunity to tell their bold tales with conviction and integrity, and have enabled them to gain international acclaim for their films. We are confident that the Qumra talents this year too will emerge from this six-day event with stronger insights on the industry. This is our humble contribution to the world of cinema — to invest in new talents and to watch them grow.”
This year, Qumra is headlined by six modern legends in cinema mentoring the young filmmakers in their role as Qumra Masters. They are: Oscar(R) winning actor Tilda Swinton (Isle of Dogs, Michael Clayton, We Need to Talk about Kevin); Sandy Powell, Order of the British Empire (OBE), Oscar(R) winning British costume designer (The Young Victoria, The Aviator, Shakespeare in Love); Oscar(R) nominated director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball, Foxcatcher); Venice Golden Lion winning Russian director and writer Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, Loveless); Cannes Palme d’Or winning Thai filmmaker and visual artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives); and the only documentary director to win the Berlinale Golden Bear, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea).
There is also an exciting showcase for the public, who can watch the Modern Masters screenings of films by Qumra Masters and the New Voices in Cinema screenings by young talents, including Qatari directors. They can also attend the Masterclasses by the Qumra Masters and take part in Qumra Talks, a series of insightful discussions led by acclaimed photographer Brigitte Lacombe, renowned artist Simon Wilkinson, and new media expert Jon Kamen.
The fourth edition of Qumra started off on an inspiring note with the first Modern Masters screening on Thursday of Okja (South Korea, USA/2017) directed by Bong Joon-ho, featuring Tilda Swinton. Interacting with the audience after the screening, Swinton discussed the making of the film and shared her views on the compelling narratives that it puts forth — on human compassion, nature, corporate profiteering and more.
“A true master in her craft, the diversity and range of Swinton’s work is inspirational to both audiences and filmmakers alike,” said Fatma Al Remaihi. “The participation of our Masters is integral to Qumra. While very different in their approach to making films, each are renowned for their innovative approach to their craft, and are an inspiration to us all.”
On Friday, Tilda Swinton held the first Qumra Masterclass this year, moderated by Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival. The Modern Masters Screening of Fire at Sea (Fuoccoammare) (Italy/2016) directed by Qumra Master Gianfranco Rosi, was also held. A Masterclass by Rosi will be held on Saturday (March 10) at 10.30 am at the Museum of Islamic Art Auditorium.
Apart from the preparatory meetings and workshops for the talents associated with the Qumra Projects, on Saturday (March 10) the public can join in screening of Qumra Short films in the New Voices in Cinema segment at 4.30 pm, and the Modern Masters screening of Footprints by Qumra Master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, at 7 PM, both at the MIA Auditorium.
Six short films will be screened including four by Qatari directors and filmmakers who call Qatar home. These are: Tshweesh (Lebanon, Germany, Spain, Qatar/2017) by Feyrouz Serhal; The President’s Visit (Lebanon, USA, Qatar/2017) by Cyril Aris; Language (Iraq, Qatar/2017), by Iraqi novelist Mortada Gzar; 1001 Days (Qatar/2017) by Aisha Al-Jaidah; Domestic Acoustics (Qatar/2017) by Majid Al-Remaihi; Chaos Antidote (Qatar/2017) by Hadeer Omar and Idris Elhassan; and Embodiment (Qatar/2017) by Khalifa AlMarri.
Visit www.dohafilminstitute.com for online and in-person ticketing details. Tickets are priced QAR 35.