Last time I met independent filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout, just a couple of months ago, he seemed wary regarding the prospects of a commercial release for his award-winning film “Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun).
He wasn’t just pessimistic; he appeared to be indifferent. I couldn’t blame him, to be honest; the battle for releasing “Ein Shams in Egyptian theaters has been long, mucky and strenuous.
For more than a year, El-Batout, a former reporter and documentary director who has covered nearly all major wars from 1988 to 2004, has fought to acquire a license for the theatrical release of his second full-length feature from the Egyptian censorship authority.
Shot on a shoe-string budget on a digital camera with mostly amateur, non-union actors, “Ein Shams was picked up by the Moroccan Culture Institute in 2007, which blew up the film into a 35 mm version.
A multi-character drama, the film tackles social and political apathy, corruption and the death of innocence through the story a young female resident of the Ein Shams district, whose only dream is to visit Downtown Cairo.
Since the film did not acquire a shooting permit, it bypassed the rules that entail submitting the script to the censorship authority and registering its actors in the union. But at the same time, the censorship refused to admit “Ein Shams as an Egyptian film; a decision El-Batout firmly resisted at first.
The unanimous rave reviews, smart media campaign and subsequent wins at various international film festivals turned the film into a media sensation. The battle between El-Batout and Ali Abou Shady, head of the Egyptian censorship authority, became a battle between creativity and an autocratic system.
After Abou Shady declared that not even the Minister of Culture can allow “Ein Shams to be screened as an Egyptian film, El-Batout threw in the towel.
The picture wasn’t entirely gloomy though. Al-Arabeya Productions, one of the two biggest film conglomerates in Egypt, picked up the film for domestic release last summer after El-Batout and the producers agreed to register it as a foreign Moroccan production.
Since then, Al-Arabeya has refused to set a release date for the film. Meanwhile, the film continued to make the rounds in various culture centers, accruing more fans along the way.
Last month, El-Batout and “Ein Shams fans alike were surprised to learn that Al-Arabeya has finally decided to release the film. In an astonishing turn of events, the film wasn’t released as a Moroccan production as Abou Shady insisted it would.
“I don’t know what happened, El-Batout told me over the phone on Thursday. “I’m still confused because I believed that the possibility of the film to be released in Egypt is very little. I didn’t expect it to be released as an Egyptian production, especially after Abou Shady made those statements.
The commercial release of El-Batout’s film is nothing short of a historic moment in Egyptian cinema. “Ein Shams is the first independent Egyptian film to be released in theaters.
So what does all this mean? “It means that if you’re a good filmmaker, have a good story and have determination, you can make it like I did. Money is not the issue anymore, he said.
“Making and releasing a small film like ‘Ein Shams’ in theaters was considered to be a dream. It’s not a dream now, it’s a fact, and I hope my movie will [encourage] other filmmakers.
Speaking to audiences
According to El-Batout, the reaction of the “normal audience has been “very positive. “It seems that people like the film. They read the film and it really speaks to them.
The growing popularity of the film is reflected through its impressive performance at the box-office. The film scored the highest grosses in all Al-Arabeya theaters on the first day of release. Last week, the film added one more important screen: Metro cinema, a large film theater whose audience is principally lower middle-class.
The early commercial success of the film also proved wrong assumptions that it would plummet at the box-office. The reasoning behind that was those eager to watch the film had already seen it at previous free screenings.
“The audience of culture centers and independent film festivals is small and limited, El-Batout said. “This audience is fixed, belongs to the same social strata and doesn’t change much. The wider public is much bigger than film festivals-goers, much more diverse, and I think there are many people who are yet to see the film.
The impact of “Ein Shams” success could prove to be much bigger than earlier expectations. As the economic downturn begins to take its toll on the Egyptian film industry – the number of summer releases has been drastically slashed this year while some films have halted production for lack of sufficient capital – digital cinema is emerging as an alternative economical choice for producers.
For instance, in recent weeks, film producer Safwat Ghattas announced a plan to produce a number of digital films with no stars over the next period.
“If producers are truly interested in investing in digital cinema, they should adopt a scientific approach to study what made ‘Ein Shams’ work and capitalize on it, El-Batout said.
Intricate structure and subtexts aside, El-Batout believes that his film, on a basic level, is a simple, Egyptian story and perhaps that’s why many people responded so strongly to it. He presumes, possibly out of modesty, that any of the current independent directors could make a film like his.
This is where we radically disagree.
First of all, there is no real independent “film scene in Egypt. The dozens of films produced over the last five years are either haphazard individual attempts or humble film school projects. While the increasing number of film schools in Egypt may lead to an establishment of a genuine indie wave in the long run, we’re nowhere near that right now.
There is a drastic difference between the works of El-Batout and those of the younger generations. He has traveled the world, met different people and witnessed dozens of stories during his time as a reporter. This broad worldview and extensive life experience is easily detected in both “Ein Shams and his splendid first film “Ithaki. His pictures may not be refined enough, but that is part of their appeal.
Most Egyptian indie films I’ve seen seep infantile themes; their worldview is narrow and somehow inconsequential. They sorely lack El-Batout’s maturity, his subtle hand and controlled approach, and his knack for calculated experimentation.
The shortcomings of indie filmmakers have nothing to do with budget, and there are tens of examples of filmmakers around the world who have managed to produce great works under circumstances much more indigent than Egypt’s.
Good filmmaking boils down to whether you’re good storyteller or not. So far, there are hardly any apart from a small group that includes Sherif El-Bendary, Maggie Morgan and Nadia Kamel.
El-Batout himself affirms that “Ein Shams is not the peak of his filmmaking and he’s not apprehensive on whether his next projects will meet the phenomenal success of his sophomore film.
“You have to get it out of your baggage, he said. “You can’t let it turn into a burden. It’s going to be a huge burden if I decide to make films mechanically and I don’t think I can ever make films that way.
Indeed, El-Batout is yet to hone his craft and there are still endless, virgin territories he’s yet to explore. His next project, an adaptation of Essam Youssef’s bestselling novel “1/4 Gram, could ultimately become a bigger success than “Ein Shams.
My obvious and justified excitement for El-Batout is rooted in my conviction that he could become the true voice of an entire generation. The success of “Ein Shams should hopefully open the door for equally talented filmmakers like El-Bendary and Morgan to change the stilted landscape of Egyptian cinema.