Egypt has not always been a place of artistic freedom, but Rachel Williamson, a freelance journalist in Cairo, meets some independent filmmakers who are changing all that.
Basile Behna (pictured) slouches down in the straight-backed chair and lights a cigarette. At first glance the balding man in the ordinary blue jeans, brown leather jacket and navy jumper looks like any other retiree. The skin under his eyes sags like that of an old bloodhound, and a scruffy white beard is tinged reddish-brown above his lip.
But Behna is the wealthy scion of a family that once ruled over the Arab world’s glitzy, star-studded cinema industry. He grew up in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and in the Paris of the East, Beirut, was educated at the Sorbonne, and is a man used to getting his way.
The bare, dusty room in which he held court to describe the Behna family history is part of the 12-room apartment once at the nerve centre of the family business. From these once-luxurious offices in Alexandria they distributed films to Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria.
Once Egypt cinema led the Arab world during the early days of film; today its independent filmmakers are beginning to re-emerge regionally and globally. Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (pictured above) was nominated for an Oscar, and Alexandrian production The Mice Room debuted at the Dubai Film Festival in December. Some Australians may even have heard about Egypt-born director Alex Proyas and his feature film Gods of Egypt, to be shot in Sydney this year.
But Egyptian independent filmmakers, like filmmakers everywhere, need a bit of help, and this is where Behna and his family comes in.
The last time Egypt’s cinema industry was as innovative as it is today was during the 1930s to ’50s, when it was the powerhouse of Middle Eastern film production and distribution. Back then, Alexandrian society was very different. The city was a multicultural, cosmopolitan melting pot of Mediterranean immigrants, and it was in this environment that a wheeler-dealer Armenian immigrant — Behna’s uncle Rashid — began importing French films to Egypt.
In the beginning, Behna explains, movies were a way to make money, become famous and live the “jet-set lifestyle”. In the ’30s the Behna Brothers produced the first Middle Eastern animated film Mish Mish Effendiand the first “talkie”, the financial disaster Song of the Heart.
But the glittering Gatsby-esque lifestyle couldn’t last. In 1952 General Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk and embarked on a stringent socialist agenda for Egypt, which included nationalising successful, privately owned businesses.
Behna said his father and uncles thought they had good ties with the revolutionary committee members and were taken by surprise when, in 1961, the company was confiscated. The government ran the business into the ground, then tried to return it — and the enormous debt it had incurred — to the Behna family in 1974. Basile Behna refused the offer and embarked on a legal battle to have the company and properties restored to the family.
He won in 2010, but is still embroiled in the “Kafkaesque” processes of bureaucratic Egypt.
Today, Behna and Gudran for Art and Development, the organisation restoring the apartment, intend to turn half of the apartment into a museum and half into a production studio for independent filmmakers. The apartment, located in the heart of Alexandria yet hidden inside a 19th-century building designed, ostensibly, as an inner-city castle, will open to the public on March 14.
Local filmmaker Ahmed Nabil says it’s coming at just the right time, as local directors are beginning to hit their stride after the independent film scene began to grow legs in 2004. “Slowly and deeply people are having their own society and trying to be independent,” he said. “It’s a huge step for filmmakers in Alexandria.”
Nabil says Alexandria’s three independent studios are turning out movies that are very tonally different from those produced by studios in Cairo. The mood from Cairo has been captured in movies such as The Square, Rags and Tatters (2013) and Winter of Discontent (2012), all of which deal with the events around and after the 2011 revolution. From Alexandria, you’re more likely to find films dealing with the human condition, such as Lust (2011) and Microphone (2010), which focus on the ordinary lives of everyday people.
Behna agrees this is the right time to launch a new studio as well as showcase the heyday of Egypt’s film history, but for different reasons. In Arabic and halting English, Behna says art and culture are the only ways people can change a society. Now, he says, Egypt has thrown off the chains of Hosni Mubarak and is ready for some social readjustment.
“It’s a revolution from [the] conservative system and against anyone who wanted to restrict freedom. Egypt is ready for a place like this because they’ve already disagreed with the system [in 2011],” he said.
Behna refuses to engage on the question of whether the current Egyptian government is impinging on freedom of speech and art, in part because he still needs yet another committee to approve some paperwork. But there is little doubt the kind of films that will come out of the restored Behna studio will not be rehashing government propaganda or the military boosterism so favoured by the Arabic language media now.
The young artists in Gudran, who have been working on the apartment for over a year, are Behna’s tool to achieve this. He met one of the group’s charismatic leaders at a party in 2006 and liked what he saw: Gudran’s credo is to use art to create “social transformation”, either by disseminating ideas or actually raising people out of poverty and preserving local artistic traditions, as they did in 2000 with a small fishing village called El Max.
Scriptwriter and producer Mamoon Azmy is in charge of the Behna project and says reusing the old apartment as a new space for artists to work is a “social responsibility”. “We try to not teach people art but try to make people taste art. Try to make artists show them art,” he said.
“I don’t think government is only responsible for the culture activities and artistic activities. We have responsibility, our social responsibility, for the people around us … to understand what is art, what is film, what is a different kind of film.”
Azmy says the 2013 film Jews of Egypt is a case in point. It was the first documentary to be shown in Egyptian theatres, and many movie-goers didn’t understand what they were seeing because they’d never seen a documentary before.
Although a regeneration began in the early 2000s, Behna is still highly unimpressed with current cinema offerings. Hence his aim is to support the kind of “nice, artistic cinema” that’s being produced lately by the independents. “[I’m] proud that an Egypt documentary was nominated for an Oscar, and it’s a good sign for us to produce more and more because we have lots of ideas and need to support it in different ways.”