As Egypt’s dire political situation receives belated attention from Western media, festivals are beginning to look at a small number of films coming out of the country. But what are the criteria for selecting these films? Are they chosen for their artistic merit, or do they become a means for programmers to shine a spotlight on different cultures? More troublingly, are Egyptian and other Arab films selected merely as a way for the festivals to display their political affiliations? Much as affirmative action remains a testy subject in the U.S., so too for filmmakers from the Middle East and North Africa, where directors are delighted to be chosen by European and American fests but also question whether their inclusion owes as much to their country of origin as to their movies’ merits.
Understandably, few filmmakers want to accept that burden of responsibility.
“At the end of the day I’m not in charge of representing 300 million people, I’m in charge of representing myself,” says Tamer El Said, whose debut feature, “In the Last Days of the City,” receives its world premiere in the Berlin film festival’s Forum. “Of course I’m part of Egypt, I’m part of the Arab region, I’m part of this culture, but also I’m part of the world. And I have the right to express myself as part of the world.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by other Egyptian directors whose films are in the Berlinale this year. Many expressed concern that the expectations of programmers can lead to a minefield of constricted themes.
“I definitely think that European festivals seek out the political in Egyptian films,” says Heba Amin, director of “As Birds Flying,” playing in Forum Expanded. “Perhaps it’s an extension of the media narrative, or a longing for insight into something that appears confusing and contradictory from the outside. But then again, what is a non-political work? What does that look like?”
This conundrum is echoed by Said, who says, “Everything has politics. It comes anyway. In the end of the day I don’t make films because I have a political message — I make films because I feel there are things that I want to share. The political aspect comes from within. This is something I can’t control.”
Islam Kamal, director of the short “Expired” in Forum Expanded, expressed similar apprehensions.
“When European audiences pass by key words like ‘Middle East,’ a high percentage of them have a flash response of a sociological political film,” he says. “So where does that leave space for directors to make works that are true to their vision, rather than subject to an outsider’s expectations of what that vision should be?”
“Everyone has expectations from a film’s nationality,” adds Maged Nader, director of “Fathy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” also screening in Forum Expanded. “But the problem is those expectations are mostly about content more than artistic style or aesthetics. That makes untold pressure to make political films, especially in this moment in our history.”
On top of this pressure from the outside, there’s the challenge of making movies in a state actively engaging in a war against perceived envelope-pushers.
“You look at your work and try to see to what extent everything you do puts you in danger,” says Said. “You become crazy, asking yourself, ‘Am I taking this decision because I’m scared of the consequences, or because it’s good for the film?’”
Mark Lotfy, producer of “Expired,” hopes Egyptian filmmakers won’t bow to a sense of defeat due to a lack of creative encouragement.
“It serves as a resilience mechanism for us not to fall victims to frustration,” he says. “Yet, in the end, content shouldn’t be dictated by political events at home or expectations from abroad.”