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‘Love’ is breakthrough for Egypt

H'wood on the Nile seeks to reclaim former glory with stages, film schools

Just as Thanksgiving marks the time for Hollywood studios to wheel out their holiday hopefuls, so does the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday mark the time for Arab film producers to unload their big cinematic guns.

Increasingly, however, these producers have found they haven’t hit their targets.

While Arab TV has been the region’s success story of the last few years, film production remains lamentable, particularly for Egypt, historically the center of the Arab film world.

In its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s, Hollywood on the Nile ranked as the world’s third largest industry behind Hollywood and Bollywood.

“We’re down from producing 80-90 films a year to 25,” says Gaby Khoury, managing director of Misr Films, one of the most important production houses in Cairo. “Of those films, only five, or 20%, actually make any money. Every time an interesting film comes out of Egypt, it’s a miracle.”

With the likes of Saudi billionaire investors Sheikh Saleh Kamel and Prince Waleed Bin Talal pouring their money into TV stations such as LBC, Rotana and ART, film production has failed to find similar benefactors.

For Khoury, however, the main concern is not necessarily money.

“The problem is more intellectual than financial. It’s never been a problem to get the right script funded. We need to improve our technical ability and mentality. Society has changed so much since the 1950s and ’60s.”

He goes on to pinpoint the changes.

“The education and university systems are a mess. Fundamentalism has arisen and it has affected the way films are made. There is censorship and also self-censorship, which have resulted in the mediocrity of the output we’ve seen recently.”

Still, there are a few bright spots. Biggest hit so far in Egypt this year is “Halet Hob” (State of Love), directed by Saad Hendawi. It stars Hend Sabri, the most exciting Arab actress to emerge in recent years and arguably the best-equipped to repeat the cross-over success of Omar Sharif.

The film shot to No. 1 at the B.O. two weeks ago, and has grossed 1.5 million Egyptian pounds, about $250,000, since its opening.

“I’m optimistic for 2005 and 2006. Even though there are still directors making silly films, a new wave of more serious directors are coming through. This variety is very good for me and the industry,” Sabri says.

Production looks set to gain a boost from another corner of the Mideast.

Tarak Ben Ammar, who is developing a commercial TV channel, is also building film labs and soundstages in his native Tunisia, to go along with his Hammamat-based Empire Studios.

“I want to give local filmmakers, as well as big-budget Western productions, the technical means to make their films at prices they can afford,” says Ben Ammar. “I’m going to build a school to train 20-30 technicians as well.”

Despite first making his name in the late 1970s when he convinced George Lucas to film “Star Wars” at his Cartago Studios, Ben Ammar has shown increasing signs of getting more involved in Arab filmmaking.

Last year, he helped co-finance Randa Chahall-Sebag’s “Le Cerf-Volant,” taking the film to the Venice Film Festival, where it picked up the Silver Lion.

Ben Ammar’s Tunisia-based lab facilities will get backup from his operations in France, where his company, Quinta, recently announced a partnership with Thomson’s Technicolor Entertainment Services, a leading player in the field of film replication and digital post-production.

“The challenge for our Arab directors is to give audiences the same level of quality they are used to, whether the film cost $1 million or $100 million,” Ben Ammar said.

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