Egyptian Filmmaker Gives Context to the 2011 Revolution

America Abroad
The slow-moving, often dimly lit film, “Rags and Tatters” uses hardly any dialogue to tell the story of a convict who escaped in the chaos after Egypt's 2011 revolution as he tries to slip back into society. The 2013 film is the most recent by Egyptian filmmaker Ahmad Abdulla, who says he likes to keep things “subtle” in his films.

According to Manal Omar, an Associate Vice President at the the U. S. Institute for Peace, that strategy helps filmmakers tackle controversial topics governments may not want discussed.

She says artists throughout the Middle East are being forced to decide the best strategy to convey their messages. “Are they going to have their messages that are more understated and subtle in the messaging,” she asks, “or are they going go through something that maybe considered shock therapy that may be banned?”

Abdalla says his low-key style helps when it comes to Egypt's censors. His scripts tend to be light on dialogue and rich in details, leaving little solid evidence for censors to take issue with his films, even though they are rife with political themes.

“There is nothing they really feel they can get it in their hands and remove it,” he says. “They know that they probably do not like the film, but there's nothing they can say about it because the film is very subtle.”

Egyptian movie critic and film festival programmer Joseph Fahim says that subtley is one of several characteristics that make independent films here easy to differentiate from commercial films here.

“The narratives are different, the aesthetics are different, the production values are different, and the acting is different. Everything is drastically different from mainstream cinema.”

Independent filmmakers were some of the first to tackle the ups and downs of Egypt's revolution and its aftermath, although their films sometime have limited reach.

The Oscar-nominated film, “The Square” wasn’t widely shown here because of problems with censorship paperwork. Ahmed Awad, who recently resigned as head of Egypt's Censorship Authority, was in charge at the time, and he claims no one ever turned in the right documents.

Passing the censors here is a two-stage process: submitting the script for advance approval, then the finished movie for the final ok--- although not all filmmakers do this. Some go ahead and make the movie first, and try to pass the censors after the fact.

Awad says he didn't block any films during his six months in office. He also points out that most of the revisions the censorship board asks filmmakers to make have to do with social and cutural concerns, not political. “You can say it,” he says of political speech in films, “but we have a problem with the society censorship, not the governmental censorship.”

That “society censorship” in conservative Egypt is indeed the main concern for filmmaker Maggie Morgan. She's found that, with advances in digital technology, you can make a film on a small budget, “But you do need the openness in people's minds and you need the openness in society.”

Broad, almost fanatic support for president-elect Abdel Fatah el-Sissi has suppressed many opposition voices here, and makes film critic Joseph Fahim worried about the space for freedom of expression.

“The future of art in Egypt, and not just filmmaking, will depend on whether or not these filmmakers have the audacity and guts to change the system or not.”

Filmmaker Morgan says she ran into problems with people on the street challenging her while shooting her latest film, “Asham”. It was her first full-length feature film, and, in it, she follows several pairs of Egyptians as they pursue their hopes and dreams... from a bathroom attendant hoping for better work to a clown seeking to provide for his family.

Morgan represents the rising prominence of women filmmakers who are having a big impact on the independent film scene. Just in the last couple of years, there have been several critically-acclaimed films by Egyptian women, inlcuding Morgan's “Asham”, Hala Lotfy's “Coming Forth By Day”, Ayten Amin's “Villa 69”, and Nadine Khan's “Chaos and Disorder”.

Morgan notes that even though all of them have widely different styles, they do all bring a certain perspective to their films, and tell compelling stories about Egyptian women, in particular.

“I don't think any of the women making films are sitting there thinking, you know, how do I make a film that expresses women?”she says, noting that some of the focus on women is unconsious. “But I think that the stories and the stories and the kind of anecdotes and the focus of these films is totally different than any other type of film.”

Filmmaker Ahmad Abdulla says in addition to the stronger presence of female filmmakers, more Egyptians in general are using cameras to turn a critical eye on society.

“For me, that was one of the biggest achievements of the revolution,” he says. “Now, everyone has a camera and everyone knows that maybe it's the time to use his or her own camera.”

And more people are watching as well. Maggie Morgan lobbied to have “Asham” shown in major theatres here and succeeded, something she couldn't have imagined five years ago.

But before future films can be widely screened, producers and directors still have to pass the censors, and deal with conservative public opinion.

Abdulla says dealing with such restrictions is just part of the job.

“As filmmakers,” he says, “We were fighting during the Mubarak regime, and kept fighting after Mubarak regime, and will keep fighting. This is how it goes.”

Maggie Morgan is also ready to deal with the censors, but it's the Egyptian people... weary of protests, conflict, and instability... that she's worried about. She's concerned the pressure to conform might influence her art.

“For me, what's scary,” she admits, “is me censoring myself. The other scary thing is the tyranny of public opinion. It's very difficult to stand up to that.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.