By Joseph Fahim
Last year started with the usual attractions: A batch of award-winning films and a couple of commercial fares for the mid-year vacation season, a number of independent theater productions, the standard slew of assorted musical offerings and diverse exhibitions representing different art schools.
Then the revolution erupted and the entire spectrum of Egyptian culture started to change, or so it seemed.
The gulf between the works released immediately in the wake of the Jan. 25 uprising and those created in subsequent months is huge. The clarity of Egypt’s picture in the weeks that followed Mubarak’s ouster became murkier as the military strengthened its grip over power and political Islam swept the social scene.
The challenge of capturing the essence of the time proved to be more complex, more arduous for mainstream and independent artists drowning in a tsunami of chaos and confusion.
In these pages, we warned about the inevitable superficiality of emerging artwork claiming to chronicle an unfinished revolution, asserting that every one of these films, records, performances and paintings will be rendered irrelevant and obsolete in five years time.
Alas, the durability of these works proved even more short-lived than our predictions.
Whether or not we like to admit it, digital technology, in its numerous forms and uses, has largely shaped and defined the Jan. 25 uprising. No other revolution in history has been so profusely documented as ours. A flood of video footage was available from the moment protestors began marching to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25. Every single moment was captured by hundreds of curious cameras craving for a piece of the unfolding history.
Hundreds of journalists, aspiring and professional filmmakers and regular citizens alike produced numberless home movies shot all across the country. Egypt, in the span of those 18 days, became a spectacle, the biggest reality show on the planet.
A proper context was thus vital; a thorough analysis and profound insight even more so. What we initially saw during the course of the uprising and its immediate aftermath was celebratory, reactionary art cashing in on the victorious spirit of the moment.
International media was no different, capitalizing on the mounting global interest in Egypt. Pages upon pages, programs upon programs were dedicated to the so-called ‘art of the revolution,’ providing reports as shallow as the artwork itself. Assessment of the actual art was always beside the point.
Mainstream musicians such as the notorious Hamada Helal, Ihab Tawfiq, Ali El Haggar and even Tamer Hosni, who was famously kicked out of Tahrir for his pro-Mubarak stance during the uprising, chanted the praise of the revolution and its martyrs with trite, cheap songs exploiting the audience’s empathy with the victims’ families.
Independent musicians like Ramy Essam — dubbed “singer of the revolution” by the media — Cairokee and many others channeled their efforts into easy, undemanding protest songs that concealed their weakness beneath a veneer of triumphalism.
An outbreak of undistinguishable photographs by amateur and professional photographers alike invaded the nation’s art spaces, and later the publishing houses, collected in glossy, memorabilia-like volumes.
Veteran and aspiring filmmakers found an abundance of material in Tahrir, jump-starting new projects catered for speedy mass consumption — the omnibus picture “18 Days,” the documentaries “The Good, the Bad and the Politician” and “Born on the 25th of January” — or tying loose ends of stories unrelated to the revolution altogether — “El-Fagoumy,” “An Ant’s Cry.”
Everyone with a camcorder became a filmmaker, finding multiple outlets for their identical works both in cyberspace and local documentary film fests (such as El-Sakia’s and Cam Fest) that came calling. Seeking to share the limelight of the revolution, prominent international fests like Cannes — which named Egypt as its first ‘guest country’ last year — added Egyptian films to its line-up for the first time in years.
Contrary to expectations, revolution-themed mainstream films released in the summer tanked at the box-office, propelling producers to pull the plug on dozens of similar projects that were in development at the time. Trivial facets of the revolution surfaced in a few subsequent productions — most notably Mohamed Saad’s much derided comedy “Tick-tick bom” — before it was shunned altogether with the autumn and winter releases.
The result was box-office gold. Hungry for escape, distraction and comfort, Egyptians flocked to the movies, shattering previous box-office records and rendering, against all expectations, the Eid and autumn seasons the most successful in recent years.
The critical and commercial failure of the revolution film releases was a warning for other branches of the entertainment industry. Recording artists dropped their flags and returned to their habitual serenades of love and devotion. Producers of TV drama steered clear from the issue (none of the serials slated for the next Ramadan season are revolution-related).
On the polar opposite was public theater whose efforts almost solely concentrated on the revolution in the same shallow fashion that defined film and music before it reverted to commercial productions in an attempt to lift the sector out of its slump.
Independent theater was quicker in catching up with the street pulse, yielding gripping, enlightening stories such as “Solitaire” and, to a lesser extent, the “Tahrir Monologues” that were far more thoughtful and original in theme and form than film.
The most promising independent production staged last year was Hala company’s “Last Days of Om Dina,” a smart, cynical and honest portrait of post-Mubarak Egypt, touching upon a variety of subjects that ranged from the sensationalistic, manipulative media to the tyrannical, callous military — a taboo subject no other art-form has dared to tackle.
The publishing industry was also quick to profit from the January uprising. Along with the aforementioned coffee-table books, scores of non-fiction titles such as Samir Ameen’s “Egypt’s Revolution,” Ahmed Sabry Abol Fotouh’s “Sayed Al-Agenda” and Alaa Al-Aswany’s “Has the Egyptian Revolution Done Wrong?” filled bookstores across the country. More exciting, if equally insubstantial, is the expanding wave of comic books, the most prominent of which was Mohamed Hisham Obayah’s “18 Days.”
Because the funding had dried up most major festivals were forced to cancel their editions last year. The Cairo International Film Festival, the Dance Theater Festival, the Experimental Theater Festival and the TV and Radio Festival were stalled as the disorderly Ministry of Culture continued its prolonged clean-up. In a strange move to encourage tourism, a number of festivals sprang up, including the Luxor Fest for African Films (held next month) and the Hurghada Fest for European Film. The desirable outcome of both is anybody’s guess.
The current signs of cultural proliferation brought about by an increasing number of independent projects and art festivals have no direct relation to the true impact of the revolution; the local culture scene had enjoyed considerable prosperity long before the revolution in spite of bureaucracy and censorship hurdles.
The question on the minds of all artists and intellectuals is the extent of the influence of the new Islamist-led parliament. Most artists have expressed concern over a ruling party that views art in specific, unbending terms; a group calling themselves the Egyptian Creativity Front organized a march to parliament on Monday calling for the protection of creative freedoms.
The relationship between the entertainment industry and both the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party as well as the ultra-conservative Al-Nour Party has always been fraught with antagonism (several producers and directors such as Samy El-Adl and Inas El-Degheidy have vowed to leave Egypt if the MB took power).
Islamists have been the punch bag of several film and TV directors, theater-makers and novelists for the past three decades; a sudden truce between the two sides seems unforeseeable, especially since most industry insiders are convinced that the FJP in particular is yet to show its true colors.
Egypt’s entertainment and art industries — still the biggest in the Middle-East — never formed a strong lobby in parliament, an anomaly that may change soon.
Artists and critics alike were confident that in the footsteps of Jan. 25, essentially a political revolution, a cultural revolution will ensue. But this didn’t turn out to be the case.
A nation-altering wave à la the Spanish Movida Madrileña — a movement, born after the death of Franco and the collapse of fascism, characterized by unconditional freedom, taboo-breaking, extreme lifestyle forms and embracing the transgressive — requires a social revolution to occur in tandem, and that will take years to accomplish.
For the past 35 years, this country has increasingly lost its sense of beauty; while an entire culture of ugliness — bred by poverty, oppression and bad education — has arisen, crushing the Egyptian soul in the process.
A considerable bulk of the creative endeavors the Jan. 25 revolution generated is admirable for its enthusiasm, passion and sincerity, but the fact is what we had over the past year was little more than an a celebration of inflated mediocrity. A real cultural revolution needs daring ideas, artistic audacity and, most of all, true invention.
In a recent discussion organized by film magazine Cineaste about the prospects for political cinema, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas wrote the following:
“Movies potentially allow you to be confronted with contradictions; they give flesh and blood to what you don’t want to hear, what you ignore, and even what you are deeply hostile to. Only at that cost do they trigger any kind of idea — I mean new idea, not just the confirmation of what you already know — worth the time you invest in them.”
This statement perfectly sums up everything the Egyptian arts, not just movies, requires in what is possibly the most decisive moment in the history of this nation.