The American University in Cairo’s (AUC) recent screening of independent films was an opportunity for people from different worlds to come together, but the event fell short of achieving that aim.
Under the title “Cinema of the Other, the AUC hosted four nights of independent film screenings last week. The first two nights featured a video performance by Sherif Al Azma, the current resident artist at the AUC, and works by five of his students. The third night featured shorts by filmmaking apprentices of the Jesuit Film School and the final night showed four works made in 2007 by independent Egyptian filmmakers Ahmed Khaled, Ayman El Amir, Karim Fanous and Ramy Abdel Jabbar.
El Azma’s work “The Psychogeography of Loose Associations is an English-language lecture-performance exploring the urban landscape of Cairo in a manner that traverses different media. His presentation smoothly submerges the audience in an hour of oration, live music, live drawing and video.
According to film critic Iman Hamam, El Azma’s work “opens up a space for artists to work in the visual medium free from the narrative and institutional constraints of mainstream filmmaking, as he redefines the use of media in a skilful manner. And it is a quality reflected in the works of his students.
In “His and Hers by Khaled Matter, “Toy by Ziad Abou El Nasr, “Ai Si by Hani Sami, “Division by Ahmed El Abd and “Refractions by Nork Zakarian, the filmmakers comment on their immediate environment in a non-narrative form, exploring the dual complexity of the split-screen format. The outcome is introspective and atmospheric, but most importantly playful.
This can also be said of the works of the filmmakers from the Jesuit Film School. Unlike AUC students, the Jesuit “exercises in filmmaking borrow heavily from techniques of mainstream filmmaking, yet succeed in maintaining an independent and playful approach to some otherwise culturally oppressive themes.
For example, “Every Step by Michelle Youssef tackles the taboos around masturbation and “Here and There by Manar Kamel examines conformity within Egyptian society and the requirements of trying to fit in.
Unfortunately, this playfulness is lost in the works of the featured independent filmmakers. Three of the films shown relate the lives of the dwellers of the city’s gloomy nights. In “Fish Eye, Ahmed Khaled explores the hallucinations of a manic depressive insomniac; while in “Clean Hands, Dirty Soap, Karim Fanous portrays the Prufrock-like indecisiveness of a night-time bathroom attendant; and in “Dead Money, Rami Abdel Jabbar charts the adventures of two hustlers operating within the shady night-businesses of Cairo.
In contrast, Ayman El Amir’s “Sweetie’s Hanky highlights the vicious cycle of the oppressed vs. the oppressor through the story of a school teacher, doubly traumatized by separation from his daughter and the pangs of economic deprivation, which he takes out on students while proctoring secondary school examinations.
The works and the event in their totality reflect the schisms of the filmmaking scene in Cairo, which mirrors society itself. If one were to look at the audiences attending each of the four evenings’ performances, it would be difficult not to discern the social landscape.
The first two nights were dominated by artists and students interested in watching the work of Al Azma and his students, drawing mostly from the socially exclusive AUC community. Attendees of the third evening were aspiring filmmakers, with hardly a single body from the university in sight.
The final night, on the other hand, seemed to be a page out of Facebook, with the audience comprised of friends supporting their peers.
This is indeed unfortunate, since actual friends of the protagonist of “Clean Hands for example – other bathroom attendants – probably never knew about the screening because they’re not on Facebook in the first place.
Thus, instead of creating a discourse among different moviemakers, each of those evenings remained isolated from the others. That each of the four sets of performances offered something of value to its audiences goes without saying, but they all missed out on the growth opportunities of cross-fertilization of ideas.
It is hard to imagine how a vibrant, true cultural community in Cairo can exist without an intermingling of the social, the ideological, and the physical. For without such intermingling, parallel universes will continue to pass each other by – feeding off but not nourishing one another.
This is where we are at today – save for that small group of “cultural interlopers known as ‘the other,’ who slip between these worlds, flitting from one artistic performance to another gathering threads, fuelling thoughts, and somehow remaining voyeurs in a cultural world unwilling to acknowledge the validity of the “other.