Egypt’s new wave opts for edgier films

Controversial themes challenge preconceptions

A new generation of Egyptian filmmakers is helping to edge the Arab world’s oldest and most established film industry back to something resembling its golden era of more than half a century ago.

Helmers such as Marwan Hamed, Ibrahim el-Batout, Khaled Youssef, Rami Imam, Mohammed Mustafa and Kamla Abu Zakry are making bold, often controversial films that are challenging the decades-long dominance of saccharine, family-skewed comedies at the Egyptian box office.

Those often anodyne pics were largely funded by the influx of Gulf coin in the Egyptian biz through Saudi-owned TV channels such as ART and Rotana, big supporters at the time of the so-called “clean cinema” school of filmmaking, which forbade scenes of kissing and violence.

Recently, however, even those Gulf investors have shown a willingness to move with the times as Egyptian auds lap up racier fare. The trend began with Hamed’s 2006 “The Yacoubian Building.”

The big-budget pic — its estimated $3.5 million price was at the time the highest ever for an Egyptian film — was based on Alaa Al-Aswany’s bestselling novel about life in a downtown Cairo tenement. Boasting an all-star cast including enduring Arab box office draw Adel Imam, pic tackled everything from terrorism to police brutality and homosexuality and was a huge box office hit.

Its success gave filmmakers and investors the confidence to move forward with a number of edgy pics.

Last year Youssef’s “Heena maysara” (Until Things Get Better), Sherif Arafa’s “Al-gazira” (The Island) and Youssef Chahine’s “Heya fawda” (Chaos) all generated plenty of ink, and box office coin, with their depictions of corruption, poverty, crime and sexuality. Trio of pics also drew the ire of the conservative religious establishment.

That trend is continuing this year with Abu Zakry’s “One-Nil,” about a Christian divorcee who finds herself unable to remarry because of the strict edicts of her local Christian Coptic church. Pic, which has performed strongly since opening in March, has also sparked controversy, with some commentators criticizing its portrayal of Christian society in predominantly Muslim Egypt.

Hamed also has completed “Ibrahim the White,” his keenly anticipated follow-up to “The Yacoubian Building.” The pic, which will bow in Egypt this summer, is a no-holds-barred portrayal of Egyptian street life and criminality.

“There has been a shift among the audience away from comedy to more edgy films,” Hamed says. “You can’t tell the same joke twice, and that is what these silly comedies have been trying to do for years. It’s good for us as filmmakers because we can make films that are more relevant to us.”

And while there has been a discernible shift in the attitudes of Gulf investors, tensions still remain. Pay TV platform ART, for example, is one of the biggest funders of Egyptian cinema, Last year, the net inked a three-picture deal with leading indie shingle Misr Intl. to co-produce Chahine’s “Heya fawda,” Yousry Nasrallah’s “The Aquarium” and Samir Habchi’s “Beirut Open City.”

All three pics are adult-oriented dramas that tackle taboo subjects such as sexuality and governmental corruption. And while ART execs were more than happy to give each of the filmmakers final cut when sending their pics to international film fests, it’s a different story when it comes to airing them on their film channels. Youssef served ART with a lawsuit in April after he discovered that “Heena maysara” was going to be aired in a watered-down version. That compromise, however, is something other filmmakers are getting used to.

“What these TV channels do with these films is their business,” Nasrallah says. “The fact is that by buying it for their channel, they’ve allowed me to make it. I will definitely refuse if they come and ask me to cut parts of the film to make it look more artistic. That’s not my job. I am not going to do your censorship. You do it yourself. But the film will still exist and be shown in many places the way it was made.”