Country has three films at Venice this year

After years of suffering under the weight of saccharine laffers targeted at family auds, Egyptian filmmakers are once again gaining critical attention and international exposure.

Three Egyptian films are at Venice this year, with debut helmer Ahmed Maher’s “The Traveler” leading the way in competition.

Master Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah’s “Scheherazade Tell Me a Story” plays out of competition, while Kemla Abou Zekry’s “One-Zero” has been selected for the Horizons sidebar.

While all three pics differ in subject matter and themes, they all share an intelligence and sophistication that harks back to the golden days of the Egyptian film biz in the 1940s and 1950s, when the number of pics produced in the country was bested only by Bollywood and Hollywood.

Key to this recent shift in subject matter has been Egyptian auds’ fatigue with the mindless, commercial fare offered for much of the past 30 years. Even the notoriously bureaucratic Egyptian government has stepped in to help. The $7 million “The Traveler,” which stars Omar Sharif as a man reflecting back on a life of love lost, was entirely funded by the country’s ministry of culture. Maher’s script, which he began writing in 2001, was championed by two of Egypt’s most powerful film critics, Ali Abou Shady and Samir Farid, who convinced Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni to support the film.

“The problem I had for years was that Egyptian producers only wanted to make commercial films,” Maher said. “This (production) has a big budget for an Egyptian film and it took me three years to actually go from pre-production to finishing the film. We have had problems with Egyptian culture in recent years, not just in the film industry. We need to tell our stories and discuss our society if we want to develop.”

For years, some of the biggest backers of the Egyptian film biz were predominantly Saudi-owned satellite channels whose owners would shy away from adult-oriented material, such as sexuality and politics. That way of thinking, combined with Egyptian producers’ own insularity, led to the development of the so-called “Clean Cinema” where even kissing between a male and female lead was nixed. The success of films such as Marwan Hamed’s “The Yacoubian Building” in 2006– at the time the most expensive Egyptian pic ever with a budget of $3 million — helped to change that. Pic, which tackled everything from homosexuality to Islamic fundamentalism and government corruption, made its world premiere at the Berlin film fest and also turned a tidy profit in Egypt, where it was the country’s biggest hit of the year.

Since then, producers and filmmakers have become bolder in choosing subject matter. For now, at least, auds have followed. Zekry’s “One-Zero,” for example, is a kaleidoscopic journey through a bustling Cairo society replete with alcoholic TV presenters, a beautiful pop singer who sleeps with her manager to provide for her family and a Christian woman barred from re-marrying by her church.

Similarly, Nasrallah’s pic is a sophisticated, feminist drama about a TV presenter who launches a show dedicated to women’s issues and rights.

“There was a hammer on our head constantly telling us how films ought to be like, with this co-called clean cinema, where there was no kissing, no sex and only family-oriented comedy,” Nasrallah told Variety. “At one point people began to feel they were being treated like chickens and rebelled against that. These films are reflecting that.”

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