The feared perils of the economic recession hit the Egyptian culture scene hard in 2009, a year that saw most culture centers scaling back their activities, the film industry receiving a major blow and the music industry continuing its downward spiral. This was also a year marred by controversies, many of which revolved around one man: Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni.
Hosni’s much publicized campaign for the presidency of the UNESCO came to a dispiriting ending when Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova snatched the position after a close race. Hosni cried foul, saying that a Western conspiracy “cooked up in New York was responsible for denying him the title. Local media reaction was mixed, with several outlets pointing out that Hosni has never succeeded in winning public popularity.
The antipathy towards Hosni was most evident last April when the Cairo Opera House decided to host famed conductor Daniel Barenboim. Oblivious to the Israeli pianist’s great efforts in support of the Palestinian cause, the media launched a stern attack on Hosni, accusing him of attempting to normalize relations with Israel and calling the concert a stunt to write off his infamous Israeli books burning comments that some critics claim to have cost him the position.
Cinema’s ups and downs
One of the most discussed culture stories of the year was the slump the film industry fell into. After enjoying a stratospheric rise in attendance and box-office receipts for the whole of this decade, the film industry’s unbroken lucky streak came to a halt this year, enduring heavy losses that forced several producers to defer the release of their films.
The rise in ticket prices pushed Egyptian filmgoers, already under the strain of the inflation, to be more selective with their choices. The H1N1 mania and the Thanaweya Amma exams, which wrapped up in late June, added to the industry’s woes, contributing to the decline of ticket sales. Things didn’t improve in the following months; all new Egyptian films released before December flopped. New hits from veteran filmmaker Sherif Arafa and comedy star Mohamed Heinidi succeeded in recapturing moviegoers’ attention, ending the year on a seemingly upbeat note.
The precise impact of these aforementioned factors on the box-office is difficult to calculate. What is clear is that Egyptian audiences weren’t swayed by the majority of this year’s disappointing offerings. The summer season was defined by the new “slum-movies sub-genre and excessive violence. Meanwhile, director Khaled Youssef cemented his position as the spokesman of the lower classes with the overwrought melodrama “Shehata’s Store.
And yet, in spite of the overall modest quality of this year’s crop, 2009 marked what could validly be regarded as the biggest turning point of the decade for Egyptian cinema.
Ahmed Maher’s much hyped debut feature “The Traveler became only the third Egyptian film in history to enter the Venice Film Festival’s main competition. “The Traveler was joined in Venice with the two most acclaimed Egyptian films of the year: Yousry Nasrallah’s “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story and Kamla Abu Zekry’s “One-Zero.
“The Traveler, “Scheherazade and independent filmmaker Ahmad Abdallah’s debut feature “Heliopolis were also picked up by the Toronto Film Festival a month later. The enormous controversy regarding the fest’s selection of Tel Aviv for its City to City sidebar propelled Maher and “Heliopolis producer Sherif Mandour to withdraw their films.
The global exposure these four films have had this year marks a major leap for Egyptian cinema that has now placed itself on the first step of international recognition.
Ibrahim El Batout’s award winning second narrative feature “Eye of the Sun made history this year, becoming the very first independent Egyptian film to acquire a theatrical release.
On the international front, the most high profile event of the year was the restoration of Shadi Abdel Salam’s 1969 masterpiece “Al-Mumia (The Night of Counting the Years), the greatest Egyptian film ever made. Abdel Salam’s first and only film was restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. The newly restored version premiered in Cannes to a raving critical reception.
Music and TV victims
The biggest causality of the recession was the music industry. Record sales, which have been on decline for the past five years, reached a new low. With the sole exception of Amr Diab, sales of all new high profile releases from the likes of Tamer Hosni, Angham and Shereen were below expectations. More companies shut down this year; others terminated their contracts with their stars for lack of sufficient financial resources and more stars chose to self-produce their records.
The single format continued to grow in popularity while several producers began to toy with EPs. Once again, live concerts were the bread and butter of the music industry. Ringtones emerged as a new sizable, and consistent source of revenues.
Creatively, the state of stagnation reigned; a handful of artists such as Angham, Mahmoud El-Esseily and Asala saved face for Egyptian music with commendable records.
Television didn’t fare any better. Most of the Arab channels abstained from purchasing Egyptian dramas, forcing the majority of Egyptian producers to resort to Egyptian TV channels which acquired most of this year’s high-profile programs at prices that barely covered the production costs in many cases.
Culture centers were another victim of the economic doldrums, cutting back substantially on their activities. The most regretful consequence of this downsize was the closing down of the British Council’s library, a decision erroneously justified for “the disinterest of Egyptian public in reading.
In spite of the obstacles, several culture centers managed to organize some of the best cultural events of the year. The American Embassy in Cairo presented a series of excellent blues and jazz concerts; the Indian Culture Center hosted a number of splendid art exhibitions; while the Japanese Culture Center managed to host Go Nagai, creator of the hugely popular animie series “Mazinger Z and “Grendizer.
As the guest of honor of the Cairo International Book Fair, the British Council raised the bar for future guest nations with their fleet of novelists, poets and publishers that included Booker Prize winner Ben Okri, “Pride and Prejudice scriptwriter Deborah Moggach and the Harry Potter publisher Nigel Newton.
No other foreign culture organization left a bigger impact on the local culture scene this year than the Goethe Institute. The German Culture Center was behind the sold-out Pina Bausch performance, the best dance show of the year. In addition to a solid German film week, Goethe launched film website Arabshorts.net, the most promising initiative for Arabic independent film to date.
The Cairo Opera House was probably the only cultural institute that made profit this year. Week after week, the Main Theater was packed with audiences, offering a stellar lineup of world-class acts. Along with the Pina Bausch company show, the best dance performances of the year are “The Best of Momix by American dance company Momix and “Russian Hamlet/The Karamazovs by the Russian St. Petersburg Ballet.
If there’s one lesson to be learned this year from the Opera House’s performances, it is this: Steer clear of American dance performances, unless they’re well-known acts like Momix. Two of the most popular shows of the year, “Take the Floor and the ill-begotten “Broadway Comes to Egypt, attracted legions of unsuspecting dance fans lured by a false promise of Broadway-like spectacle only to find amateur productions with little virtues to savor.
In literature, one name ruled the entire year: Youssef Ziedan. The revered historian became the second Egyptian to receive the prestigious Arabic Booker prize this year for “Azazeel, Ziedan’s second novel which dominated the best-selling charts for the second year running and spurred co
Two major Arab literary figures left our world this year: Great Sudanese novelist Al-Tayyib Salih and Haj Mohammed Madbouli, founder of the Madbouli bookstores and publishing house.
In light of the persisting economic conditions, the current situation doesn’t bode well for cultural products. More than half a dozen films are facing serious production problems. Producers, from different fields, are seeking safer projects. Emerging talents are struggling to find any establishments to back their work. Various cultural organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to draw international artists of the caliber the Gulf has succeeded in bringing. Whether foreign culture centers and other independent institutes such as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy can rescue the local culture scene and take it to the next level remains to be seen.C