If media in Cairo is an indicator, a revolution hasbegun in Egypt. Satellite dishes crowd the downtown rooftops. Production courses at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo are churning out graduates on a regular basis. Just outside the nation’s capital, a new Media Production City (an information and media complex) recently opened, with 35 million square meters of space.
But, Egypt is best known in the Arab world for its movies and television serials. Docs have always lagged far behind. Viola Shafik, author of Arab Cinema, points out that Egyptian documentaries and newsreels date back to the 1910s. ‘But, the documentary was somehow confined in quality,’ she notes. ‘[Egyptian] television is state run and shows only its own productions. No serious documentaries ever pass there.’
Deprived of financial support from broadcasters, independent filmmakers – including Shafik – are turning to inexpensive digital equipment to capture their ideas.
Her 37-minute doc The Planting of Girls tackles the controversial practice of female genital mutilation. The practice is forbidden by law in Egypt, but official statistics reveal that nearly 96% of women in Egypt are circumcised.
Despite Shafik’s lack of a TV outlet, her film secured extensive distribution through educational groups and non-governmental organizations. She heard that girls in Upper Egypt, when interviewed by a genital mutilation task force, referred to the act as ‘the planting of girls’, after the film’s title. ‘I was amazed,’ Shafik comments, ‘but I cannot tell how and where the film was shown.’
Shafik’s next project, Journey of a Queen, will address the transfer of artifacts from Egypt to the West. It explores how an ancient Egyptian bust of Queen Ti traveled from Egypt to Germany and throughout the world. ARTE has agreed to fund part of the US$50,000 budget and her German producer Fechner Media is seeking the rest.
Few venues exist in Egypt for local doc producers, but even fewer exist outside. With that in mind, John Sinno started Arabfilm.com in Seattle, Washington, 10 years ago. His goal is to bring Middle Eastern feature films and docs to Western audiences. ‘We want Arabs to represent themselves instead of being represented by others,’ he explains. His company sells to the education and home video markets, in addition to sponsoring an Arab film festival in Seattle.
Among the Egyptian docs in Sinno’s catalog are Fadwa El Guindi’s ethnographic films El Moulid and Ghurbal; Yousry Nasrallah’s sociological study On Boys, Girls and the Veil; and Michael Goldman’s biography of Egypt’s most popular singer Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt.
Contemporary Egyptian issues are gaining international exposure, but audiences remain fascinated with Egypt’s past, shown by the popularity of docs such as The Great Pharoahs (A&E); The Hidden History of Egypt (Discovery); and Egypt Beyond the Pyramids (History Channel).
American doc-maker Robert Gardner has produced several projects in Egypt including Islam: Empire of Faith (PBS); Egypt: Quest for Immortality (NBC); and Search or the Lost Ark (National Geographic). For producers unfamiliar with the territory, he offers some advice. ‘You can’t expect everyone to fall in line,’ he says. ‘You have to open yourself to the rhythms and nature of the place.’ Baksheesh, meaning ‘tip’, is one of the first Arab words any visitor to Egypt learns, says Gardner.
Even when baksheesh has been paid, he warns, it doesn’t ensure you’ll get what you need. Gardner once paid ‘a tremendous amount of money’ to film King Tut’s gold in the Cairo museum after hours. In the middle of shooting, a group of business executives arrived, having paid someone else for the same exclusive privilege. Gardner argued with the guards while his cameraman kept filming. ‘If you bring Western expectations and time frames, you’ll always be disappointed,’ he concludes.