Comedies clean up at box office as gov't coin funds dramas

ROME — More than a year after Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, there are signs of a creative growth spurt in what is still the Arab world’s film industry powerhouse. Yet for local filmmakers, the path to the plex requires not only navigating a volatile market for their films, but also a turbulent political and economic landscape that might see the rise of harsher censorship on the heels of the May 23 presidential elections.

While the immediate aftermath of the revolution saw festivals eagerly snapping up films from the region — mostly docs on the uprising, as told from the square — Egyptian filmmakers are now deliberately avoiding trying to make a “revolution movie,” partly because it’s impossible to tell a story that is not yet resolved, and also because local audiences aren’t turning out for such films. In fact, comedies are dominating Egypt’s screens.

“There have been lots of attempts to (superimpose) the revolution onto films, and I think in most cases they have been failures, and audiences have stayed away,” says producer Mohamed Hefzy, whose Film Clinic shingle has spawned some of Egypt’s edgier pics, including Ahmad Abdallah’s 2010 “Microphone,” which followed a story about young rappers and graffiti artists in Alexandria who dream of leaving Egypt, and doc “Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician,” which, Hefzy says, “didn’t try to cover the revolution from A to Z.”

The only two Egyptian features to be completed since the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising, “R for Revolution” and Yousry Nasrallah’s “After the Battle” — both shot amid the uprising — are already on the fest circuit; “Battle,” about the romantic entanglement of an educated young female revolutionary and a poor camel herder being coerced by Mubarak supporters, has been tapped for Cannes competition. Nasrallah says the pic is not about the revolution, but rather is focused on human beings undergoing change.

Sahar El Sherbini, international sales manager for production and distribution shingle Al Arabia Cinema, sees the reason for such positioning due to the reality that no work of fiction can be more dramatic than the revolution itself. “You cannot really judge the revolution, or write a story about it, or be inspired, unless it’s finished — unless it has achieved its objective,” she says.

Meanwhile, Egyptian audiences have been increasingly flocking to laffers, many of them local. “X-Large,” for example, starring Egypt’s king of comedy, Ahmed Helmy, as an obese man on the make, has become Helmy’s top hit, grossing more than $5 million at the Egyptian box office since its late 2011 release.

More recently, transgender comedy “Banat El 3am,” about three young women who have morphed into men, produced by Film Clinic, is among this year’s top local hits, along with “Omar and Salma 3,” toplining pop star Tamer Hosny (who recently recorded a duet with rapper Snoop Dogg in the U.S.).

Pacha Pictures (Amr Salama’s AIDS-themed “Asmaa,” “Microphone,” Hesham Issawi’s “Cairo Exit”) is the first international film company that focuses on Arab pics to emerge from the Arab Spring. Its topper, Frederic Sichler, a Paris-based producer, says Egyptians are going to the movies to forget about politics, which dominate the TV airwaves. Rather, he says, the local film industry is surviving on its ability to deliver escapist comedies, which makes it much riskier to produce the kind of local auteur pics that might appeal to the West.

With risk-averse private investors willing to put their coin into comedies only, and with government film funding on hiatus due to the political impasse, other genres have taken a hit. But in March, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s development fund announced the first list of 12 projects that made the cut for the first round of funding since the revolution, meaning a fresh batch of Egyptian dramas is finally in the pipeline.

In a break with the past, more than half of these projects, which will get grants of between $200,000 and $350,000, are by young helmers. Just as significantly, three are by women. And none of them, strictly speaking, is about the revolution.

They include:

•”69 Messaha Square,” from femme helmer Ayten Amin, who helmed “The Bad” section of revolution docu “Tahrir 2011 — The Good, the Bad, and the Politician.” She also wrote “Messaha,” about a 62-year-old man living alone and his place in Egyptian society, before the revolution.

•”Excuse Me,” from filmmaker, writer and blogger Salama (“On a Day Like Today,” “Asmaa,” “Tahrir 2011″). Pic is about a Christian kid enrolled in an Islamic public school who finds himself forced to conceal his religious identity.

•”Factory Girl,” a docudrama by Mohamed Khan (“In the Heliopolis Flat”) explores the stories of women working in Egyptian factories.

•”Messages of Love,” by Daoud Abdel Sayed, a mood piece produced by Al Arabia Cinema, is Sayed’s followup to his Alexandria-set meditation “Messages From the Sea,” which was Egypt’s 2010 foreign-language Oscar contender.

•”In Which Land,” by Ahmed Maher (“The Traveller”), about an illegal Egyptian immigrant in Italy and his quest to bury his dead mother in Egypt, is being produced by Amr Waked (best-known to Western auds for his thesping roles in “Syriana” and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”).

•”Before Spring,” from helmer and film critic Ahmed Atef, a USC film graduate (“Omar 2000,” “Demons of Cairo”) Atef’s latest chronicles the complex struggle to communicate political views on the Internet.

•”Suicidal Moments,” the feature film debut of female helmer Eman El-Naggar, a graduate of the American U. in Cairo and the Vancouver Film School, whose short films have unspooled at several fests. Pic is being produced by Cairo-based shingle Misr Intl. Films, headed by Elie Khouri. Set in Cairo on the brink of the Egyptian revolution, “Moments” follows several people who have to choose to make our destiny or escape it. The film will go into production in October.

•”Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim, from helmer Ibrahim El Batout, about a man who loses his girlfriend in the 2011 uprising and believes her soul has been reincarnated in a goat. El Batout recently helmed “R for Revolution,” produced by Waked.

“All these projects seem to have fresh angles on Egyptian society; I think they will present a new face of Egyptian cinema,” says Arab film analyst Alaa Karkouti, who runs Cairo-based film marketing firm Mad Solutions.”The dictatorship had been blocking people here for 60 years; you can imagine what happens when you release that energy.”

Hefzy, meanwhile, is shepherding Abdallah’s new film, “Farsh wi Ghata” (Cover and Mattress), which takes its title from a Sufi chant, and concerns a prisoner who escapes from jail during the revolution.

More change is on the way for local filmmakers. In the run-up to what are hoped to be the country’s first fair presidential elections, the field is proving to be dominated by Islamists, who now have a majority in parliament, on one side, and the more secular former officials of the Mubarak government on the other.

Already, censorship of films is one of the issues surfacing in the campaign, and filmmakers can sense the new political mood.

“With the rise of the Islamists, (there are) new principles of cinema,” says film critic Mohamed A. Gawad.

“Cover and Mattress” producer Hefzy reports that Abdallah’s film crew was recently banned from shooting in a mosque, something that had never happened in Egypt before. “Censorship is a problem, and one of my biggest concerns,” he says. “Things are changing quite drastically in terms of where we can shoot and what we can shoot. I think it’s going to be a fight for the years to come.”

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