A few weeks back, a particular news item regarding Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon caught me by surprise. In the brief, Antoine Zend, one of the biggest foreign films distributors in Egypt, announced that the best picture Oscar nominee will not be released in theaters because, according to him, it’s not commercial enough.
“Frost/Nixon, a flawed yet highly entertaining account of David Frost’s legendary 1977 interview with Richard Nixon, is the latest high-profile American film to be denied release for a number of social and commercial factors that continue to grow.
At least five of this year’s Oscar contenders didn’t have a remote shot of being granted a public release. For starters; Gus Van Sant’s “Milk, for which Sean Penn won the best actor award, candidly tackles gay rights, a major persisting taboo in Egypt.
At the center of “Vicky Christian Barcelona, Woody Allen’s highest grossing film in more than two decades and for which Penélope Cruz won best supporting actress, is a ménage à trios relationship, which prevented it from opening the last Cairo International Film Festival and, consequently, acquiring a theatrical release.
In John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a Catholic priest suspected of having an affair with a young black boy. Although the film focuses primarily on the nature of doubt and elusiveness of truth, the touchy subject matter could have drawn condemnation from Egypt’s churches.
Meanwhile, Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader, which saw Kate Winslet win the best actress award, and Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler feature instrumental scenes of sex and nudity that would never pass the Egyptian censorship.
All five pictures are heavy-weight productions that carry considerable commercial clout. The other less-known, and artistically superior, Oscar contenders had no chance of making it into Egyptian theaters either. “Rachel Getting Married, “Happy-Go-Lucky, “In Bruges and “Frozen River belong to the latter category, which also encompass other critically acclaimed, and more challenging films such “Synecdoche, New York, “Wendy and Lucy, “The Visitor and “Chop Shop among others. The list is quite long, and I didn’t even get to non-American films.
The number of this year’s prestigious productions released in theaters is a far cry from last year’s when all five best picture nominees were released (only two of which made it this year).
The radical drop in the number of these films is a worrying reflection of the sorry state of the country’s slapdash film distribution that has no interest whatsoever in serious films, and the pseudo-open culture it operates in.
For all the recent baseless praise showered on the Egyptian censors for its new-found openness, the fact of the matter is the governmental body is functioning the same exact way it did before. The long-held taboos of sex, politics and religion are yet to diminish as the nation’s faithful protectors continue to dictate what’s appropriate for the public to watch and what’s not.
Distribution is a more perplexing affair. The boom of new theaters and the hunger of Egyptian moviegoers for diversity propelled distributors in recent years to increase the number of specialty films. The financial outcome has been mixed, due, in part, to lack of marketing.
The success of the misbranded difficult films such as “No Country for Old Men, “Atonement, “There Will Be Blood and France’s “La vie en rose proved, once again, that there’s an audience for serious films in Egypt.
Marianne Khoury’s foreign film festivals have proved to be the most successful endeavor at populating alternative cinemas in Egypt. Khoury’s niche strategy attracted droves of diverse audience for March’s Swiss Film Week – I was quite stunned by its success.
Khoury’s formula was actually quite simple: Get good movies, inform the right audiences about them and they’ll come. But Khoury is the exception to the rule. To put it bluntly, film distributors have neither the vision nor, as it seems, the interest in presenting different films.
Instead, and apart from a few high-caliber films like “Slumdog Millionaire, “Gran Torino and “Revolutionary Road, what the Egyptian audience have been getting week after week is the same Hollywood rubbish of horror, comedies and actioners.
Local productions aren’t filling the void either. The number of Egyptian releases has dwindled for the first time in years; while finding a truly good Egyptian film is becoming increasingly difficult – only two decent Egyptian films have been released in the last 12 months.
Why am I so upset? Well, consider this: The summer season officially starts next week followed shortly by the usual cluster of Egyptian blockbusters. The holy month of Ramadan arrives in August, followed by Eid in September and Eid Al-Adha a couple of months later when local productions dominate the market. That leaves only four to five months to squeeze in a handful of award-winning dramas.
Even the Americans, who usually throw their award-worthy productions in the last four months of the year, are finally breaking the trend with a multitude of top-notch indies and foreign releases scheduled this summer.
The reason why I’m truly disgruntled is simply because I believe that Cairo, the cultural hub of the Arab world, and its inhabitants deserve better. The standards for assessing any culture is determined by the wide range of cultural products and activities it offers. Culture institutions are doing their best to fill in the gap left by the commercial side. But the gap is growing and Egyptian audiences are getting weary with what they’re offered.
This year was a milestone for cinema in terms of financial grosses in the US, Asia and Europe. Most countries have seen a surge in revenues, thanks to a mixture of local productions and international releases. Egypt is yet to benefit from the global boom, and I doubt that the next few months will reverse the situation.
There are literally dozens of great movies released every week in every corner of the earth; interest in foreign and serious films is on the rise. Egypt is missing all of that, and unless distributors wise up and take chances; unless the censorship realizes we’ve grown old enough to judge films ourselves, the country will continue to be another dump for Hollywood wastes.