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Moulding the market
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 09 - 2004

A programme of uncensored European cinema has taken Cairo by storm
Marianne Khouri, the woman responsible for Cinema Galaxy's ongoing programme of European film, says that Misr International Films (MIF) has been trying to open a venue for alternative cinema in Egypt for more than five years, but has faced challenges penetrating the Egyptian market. While Cinema Europe -- a programme that seeks to create space for European film in a market dominated by big-budget American movies -- has already achieved success in Lebanon, Khouri says that the expectation in Egypt is not the same just yet.
"One has to bear in mind that there are more Francophones in Lebanon than here," she says, adding, "Our market is very small. We have about 200 screens in the entire country (of over 70 million people), on which there is a very high demand for American and Egyptian commercial films; this means that there is little space for any new kind of cinema. To show any alternative to the US blockbuster, a market needs to be created."
As such, a two-week long panorama of European cinema was born to test the market, to be followed by another in six months' time. Since all films have subtitles in both Arabic and English, Khouri maintains, they pose no problems for the Cairene viewer. Electronic subtitling requires a special technique and a space below the film's frame, which entailed a lot of preparation with Anis Ebeid -- the leading subtitling company in Egypt -- prior to the opening.
Khouri has been camping at the Galaxy movie theatre for over two weeks now, tirelessly networking and sending out invitations, receiving guests, organising conferences, liaising between film-goers and filmmakers as well as critics and journalists. The mood at screenings is one of excitement, with the audience for this "alternative" cinema making its presence felt at overbooked 6.30pm and 9.30pm shows, including the weekday screenings. The only glitch thus far happened when a technician failed to appear for work and a morning show had to be cancelled.
At present, this writer has seen some eight films and has observed that the attitude of the audience towards the projected images and vibrating sounds is markedly different from its counterpart in all other screening halls, including five in the Galaxy multiplex showing mainstream commercial films. There was not a whisper, all eyes fixed on the screen, no ringing mobile phones or subsequent long conversations -- an increasingly predominant phenomenon in other theatres -- and, true to cinematic tradition, at the end of shows the theatre is filled with enthusiastic applause.
An additional draw to the movie-going experience is the chance for the general public to brush shoulders with stars and filmmakers present to take in recent important productions on the big screen, with veteran director Youssef Chahine and actor Mahmoud Hemeida each attending a number of shows.
Particularly well-received by the audience were:
Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (Mr Ibrahim and the Flowers of Quran, France). Based on the novel by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, directed by François Dupeyron, and starring Omar Sharif, winner of Cesar Award for best actor earlier this year, and Pierre Boulanger, the film, set in Paris during the early 1960's, follows the unlikely course of a friendship that builds between an elderly Turkish grocer and a Jewish teenager who makes a habit of frequenting prostitutes. A rapprochement between both religions ensues as the characters learn more about each other's beliefs and way of life.
Also showing is the recent European hit Goodbye Lenin! (Germany). Directed by Wolfgang Becker, the story revolves around a woman of strong socialist ideals who suffers from a coma during the fall of the Berlin wall. The film follows her son's attempt to create an alternative scenario in which socialism is victorious for his dying mother.
L'Auberge Espagnole (France), directed by Cedric Klapich, chronicles the coming-of-age of a 24- year-old Frenchman studying abroad. While living with five other roommates from various countries around the globe, the young man learns about independence and love.
Additionally, even relatively old productions like the 2000 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or and Best Actress winner, A Dancer in the Dark (Denmark), directed by Lars Von Trier and starring Björk and Catherine Deneuve, with its strong statement of disillusion with the American dream, was screened to a full house.
Other highlights included two invitation-only screenings of Exils (The Exiled, France), directed by Tony Gatlif, and winner of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival's best director award.
Early shows included the MIF-Euromed co- produced documentaries Quand la femme chante (When the Woman Sings, France/Tunis) by Mustapha Hasnaoui, Rai story (France/Algeria) by Madeleine Verschaffelt and Ahmed Rachedi, La dame du palais (The Lady of the Palace, France/ Lebanon) by Samir Habchi and Fama une héroïne sans gloire (Fama, a Heroine without Glory, France/Morocco) by Dalila Ennadre -- all part of the Arab Woman Pioneers (AWP) series released this year.
Conferences with the AWP filmmakers took place during the last week, and the feedback they received from commentators was generally positive even though, for the most part, their styles leaned more towards the traditional television documentary. For instance, the voice-over commentary articulating the elaborate historical research on Nazira Jumblat or the Lady of the Mukhtara Palace of the Druz sect in Mount Lebanon dominates the visual style of Habchi's documentary.
The panorama, organised by MIF, involves coordination with all parties interested in promoting European films in Egypt, including the EU's Europa Cinema and UniFrance, the Centre Français de Culture et de Coopération (CFCC), the Netherlands and Greek embassies and other organisations. Khouri adds that without the blessing of the Ministry of Culture, the panorama would not have been possible.
She stresses that the programme involved a conscious attempt to avoid the extreme of screening only "art" films; the selected films have proved commercially successful in Europe and elsewhere. After paying rights for each screening, publicity expenses and shipment fares, Khouri says, "The big challenge is to prove that these films have a market in Egypt and that this panorama can be repeated in the future. We seek to get young film-goers exposed to entertainment different from the redundant Hollywood productions."
The website for the event is: www.eurofilmsegypt.com.
For programme details see Listings
By Mohamed El-Assyouti


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