Summer 2011: The great escape

Joseph Fahim
10 Min Read

The following week marks the official end of the strangest and shortest summer season in Egypt in recent history. The first post-Jan. 25 film season was bound to suffer from a sharp decline in revenues, lower attendance and absence of box-office magnets that have sustained Egypt’s status as the largest film market in the region in past years. No film this summer has managed to cross the LE 8 million barrier for the first time since 1996, the apex of the great cinematic depression in Egypt.

The harbingers of impending doom, the critics, once again raised the black flag, overusing the word crisis to describe the current state of the industry.

Egyptians have stopped going to the movies, many have claimed, but in truth, this is far from reality.

First, the facts: The number of films released from the beginning of May until the first week of July — nine in total — is the same as last year. The box-office gap between 2010 and 2011 tells a drastically different story. The entire domestic box-office revenues didn’t exceed LE 20 million this year, a negligible figure compared to the over LE 100 million netted last year (A single film, Ahmed Helmy’s “Black Honey,” sold more tickets than all nine films released that summer).

Each and every one of the summer’s disparate, critically-drubbed batch is a 2010 production originally planned for release in less competitive, low-key periods, primarily between February and April. None of these films were expected to draw large audiences from the outset.

When the popular uprising began at the end of January, all major projects such as the Ahmed El-Sakka/Ahmed Ezz crime drama “El Maslaha” and Ahmed Helmy’s comedy “X-Large” to name a few, were immediately scrapped.

A number of factors persuaded producers to halt their operations until further notice: a curfew that was only lifted in May; the undetectable mood of the nation; the dried up funding and the dismal returns generated by the few unfortunate films released shortly prior to and during the revolution. The losses so far have been staggering, if not totally unexpected. Producers and distributors were thus reluctant to take any major risks in an effort to minimize the damage. Hence began the great dump of the summer.

With several medium-sized productions waiting on the shelf, distributors ventured to use 2010’s substandard leftovers to test the market, hoping that moviegoers would catch the bait. But they didn’t, thus increasing the woes of the ailing industry.

Producers have attributed the failure of their films — which were accompanied by no publicity whatsoever — on the unstable state of the country that stopped people from going out. Others cited factors including the postponement of school and college exams, which ended in mid-June, and the early arrival of Ramadan when people watch television.

The security vacuum may have indeed made some people reluctant to stay out late, but, judging by the impressive performances of Hollywood blockbusters in Egypt theaters, the movie-going public has not abandoned cinemas as observers initially believed they would.

Playing on less than quarter the number of screens given to local productions, special effects-laden fantasies “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” have out-grossed the likes of the local “El Fagoumy” and “El Markeb” (The Boat) and “El Feel Fel Mandil” (The Elephant in the Handkerchief). In fact, both aforementioned films have made more money in their first week of release (LE 760,000 and LE 640,000 respectively) than the entire run of “El Fagoumy” (LE 600,000), “Elephant” (500,000) and “Safari” (LE 300,000).

Egyptians, for the first time in the new century, have chosen foreign entertainment over subpar homegrown films.

The biggest flop of the summer was the aforementioned “Elephant,” a low-brow comedy produced by the king of crass Ahmed El-Sobky and starring disgraced comedian Talaat Zakaria. Known for the pro-Mubarak propaganda “Tabakh El Ra’is” (The President’s Chef) which raked up more than LE7 million in 2007, Zakaria earned himself a prominent spot in the black list of the revolution for claiming to have witnessed acts of sexual transgressions and drugs consumption in Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising that toppled the regime. A call for nationwide boycott of his latest film has clearly resonated with the public, possibly sounding the final death knell of his career.

The sole survivor of the summer massacre was Akram Farid’s comedy “Samy Oxide El-Carbon” starring Hany Ramzy. At LE 7.5 million and counting, not only is “Samy” the highest grossing film of the summer, it is Ramzy’s biggest hit to date, surpassing the LE 7 million raked in by “Nems Bond” in 2008.

Critics were scratching their heads over the success of the film, deeming it as another sign for deteriorating public taste. But on closer examination of film history, the success of “Samy” doesn’t appear so farfetched after all.

It’s a well-established fact that in times of crisis, people watch movies to escape. In America, the anxiety of World War II was met with a rise in popularity of musicals. Four of the five chart-topping films of the war years were lighthearted musicals: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), “Song of the South” (1946) and “Easter Parade” (1948). In Italy, the public preferred the so-called “runway melodramas” of Raffaello Matarazzo over Roberto Rossellini’s hard-hitting neo-realism following the end of the war.

Egyptians, like any other people emerging from severe turmoil, wanted to escape. The success of “Samy” was therefore not shocking; despite its modest artistic value, it was the sole entertainment to offer the purest form of escape. It didn’t matter that the film is out of tune with the rapidly changing social politics of the country or that its characters are naïve and passive. It didn’t matter that the narrative borrows from tired formulas that seem somewhat dated. There’s comfort in familiarity, and that’s what Egyptians craved this summer.

The hostile critical reaction to “Samy’s” success is eerily similar to the inhospitable reception that met Hassan Al Imam’s musical “Khally ballak men ZouZou” (Take Care of ZouZou) in 1972 when ‘trifle’ entertainment was branded immaterial. Filmmakers were encouraged to directly engage with the reality of the people and assist in the rebuilding process of the country. What critics did not understand then and are yet to acknowledge now is that the cultural climate of the country will always favor escapist fares over serious stories, especially in such uncertain times.

Even those stories that do appear to address urgent problems such as the May release “Sarkhet Namla” (The Cry of an Ant) which earned LE 3 million, are peppered with marketable ingredients like sex, melodrama and humor. By comparison, Ibrahim El-Batout’s indie feature “Hawi,” a challenging, stark drama presenting a faithful picture of Egypt in the waning days of the Mubarak regime that, nevertheless, remains strikingly relevant today, made a paltry LE 100, 000.

Can the 2011 summer season be seen as indicative of the future of Egyptian cinema? Certainly not. Khaled Youssef’s “Aswar Al Amar” and Mariam Abou Ouf’s “Bibo and Beshir,” scheduled for release later this year, are expected to reverse the fortunes of the industry. Viewers might not come in droves as they did in previous years, by they will come nonetheless.

This is a time of financial austerity, for both the local film industry and the public at large, but people still need movies as they always did. The majority of the summer movies flopped simply because they were not good enough. Well-made entertainment is what the audience seeks now, and that’s what producers should work on delivering.


Disgraced comedian Talaat Zakaria took a major blow with the colossal failure of his latest release “El Feel Fel Mandil”.




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