Egyptian films return to ensemble tradition

Recent rise in group stories recalls golden age

Egyptian box office may be down this summer (the season’s 13 new offerings, produced at a sum of $35 million, have earned just $22 million so far), but filmmakers from the region have found a formula that could improve their chances, both at home and abroad.

By producing high-budget ensemble dramas that give a panoramic view of contemporary society, players such as Good News Group and Elsobky Brothers are not only hooking the local crowd but sparking acquisition interest among festival buyers and Arab satellite TV (whose revenues represent 65% of most films’ total earnings).

One such film, “One-Zero,” will play the Venice Film Fest. Produced by the National Cinema Organization and directed by Kamla Abou Zekry, “One-Zero” follows several characters before a winning soccer match; it opened to good reviews and box office in an otherwise average year in Egypt.

Other pics, such as Ahmad Abdalla’s “Heliopolis” and Ahmed Maher’s “Al Mosafer,” which world preems in competish at Venice, also hark back to Egyptian cinema’s golden age in the 1940s and 1950s, when intelligent, adult-oriented dramas were commonplace.

This summer, Elsobky Brothers, who usually produce light comedies and commercial film, delivered “El-Farah” (The Wedding), a well-received ensemble drama that takes place in an alley hours before a wedding.

Good News tested the ensemble model to great success with “The Yacoubian Building” in 2006, which debuted at the Berlin Film Fest and went on to play sprocket operas around the world. The company’s like-minded follow-up, “The Baby Doll Night” (which assembled multiple, unrelated characters in an airport on New Year’s Eve), however, failed to attract either Egyptian auds or festival interest. But such films can do wonders in other respects.

Given their varied casts, ensemble dramas give audiences a wider range of characters with whom to identify, potentially broadening such films’ appeal.

“From a financial perspective, production companies discovered that having a colorful cast on the artwork will likely attract more people, even if some of the actors are unknown,” says Fawzi Elawamry, art director of “Yacoubian” and the forthcoming “Awled alam” (Cousins), citing the success of 2006 teen ensemble “Free Times.”

Because major Egyptian studios deliver a variety of genres for all tastes, independent features and digitally shot films are still relatively new. It took “Ein shams,” an indie Egyptian film that was digitally shot and then blown up on celluloid in Morocco, almost a year to get a censorship certificate for local release.

“The film cost $40,000 and nearly broke even with its seven prints last May,” says writer-director Ibrahim El-Batout. “Egyptian indies like ‘Ein shams,’ ‘Heliopolis’ and Ahmed Rashwan’s ‘Basra’ need new specialized arthouse screens around Cairo to find another type of audience.”

And while Egyptian filmmakers are moving back toward more serious fare after years of box office domination by saccharine laffers targeting families, they still face difficulties in finding enough screens in Cairo to make them commercially viable for their producers.

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