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All quiet on the culture front
Published in Daily News Egypt on 23 - 12 - 2008

Last year, Egyptian alternative culture took over the helm from mainstream culture to lead the Egyptian culture scene. This year, the foreign culture invasion was in full swing, thanks to a multitude of various-sized events that managed to attract a brand new audience different from the standard elite and foreigners constituting the primary target for these events.
Egyptian cinema took a major blow in 2008, suffering its worst losses in years. "El Gezira (The Island) and "Hena Maysara (In Time), released at the end of last year, provided robust business at the early months of the year. Up until the beginning of the summer season, only "Tabakh El Rai's (The President's Chef) and "Wara'et Shafra (Paper Riddle) managed to do some medium-size business. The following months proved to be even more disastrous.
The thanaweya amma exams, European Football Championship and the Summer Olympics had a grave negative impact on the overall box-office. Apart from Ahmed Helmy's acclaimed blockbuster "Asef Ala El-Ezaag (Sorry for Disturbance) and Khaled Youssef's controversial "El Rayes Omar Harb, nearly all summer releases underperformed. The biggest unexpected flop of the year was the star-studded, critically derided "The Baby Doll Night, a reportedly LE 40 million production that only managed to gross a measly LE 10 million. Subsequent fall releases also failed to lure Egyptian audiences back to theaters.
For the most part, controversy was the title for Egyptian cinema in 2008. The notorious Youssef pushed the envelope with his frank sex scenes in "Harb. Comedy star Adel Imam and Egyptian legend Omar Sharif made headlines with the shallow "Hassan & Morkos, the first Egyptian mainstream film to tackle the sectarian strife between Egypt's Muslims and Christians. The cast and crew of Khaled El Haggar's "Kobolat Masrooka (Stolen Kisses) faced a wave of media attack for the alleged large number of love scenes.
Yet the crown for the most controversial figure of the year goes to the Acting Union president Ashraf Zaki whose decision to limit the number of Egyptian films/TV serials an Arab actor can participate in to just one, has attracted a near-unanimous condemnation from press and artists alike and strained relations with Arab producers.
On the independent film front, Ibrahim El Batout took the entire movement to a different level with his award-winning "Ein Shams. After spending most of the year battling the censors to pass his movie, which was filmed with no shooting permits or the Acting Union's authorization, "Ein Shams was bought by the company Al Arabeya - one of Egypt's powerhouse distributors - and currently awaits commercial release after becoming a major cult hit.
In the festival circuit, Cairo International Film Festival continued on its downward spiral, concealing its corroded infrastructure with the Hollywood stars it hosted in its last edition. On the other hand, the Cairo Independent Film Festival - hosted by Goethe Institute - was a smashing success, drawing large crowds while offering an impressive line-up of short films from around the globe. The same cannot be said about Egyptian Indies that reached a creative dead-end with nowhere to go.
In theater, the advent of Rawabet playhouse opened up a new space for young playwrights and directors to showcase their work to a wider audience. It still suffers from notable lack of publicity, however, but its audience is growing every month and the energy it injected into Egyptian theater might lift it from the current stale state.
The highly successful adaption of Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's "Oscar and the Pink Lady - which debuted earlier this year in Rawabet - was arguably the best theatrical performance staged this year.
The American University in Cairo Theater offered a few stellar, if not innovative, performances, the best of which was Naomi Watts' audacious "The Fever Chart. The future of the theater is currently on hold after the university's move to the new campus in New Cairo.
Audience turnout for the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater plummeted slightly this year despite the participation of several accomplished performances.
More successful was Bibliotheca Alexandrina's World Culture Forum, presenting a wide versatile selection of experimental performances, some of which were adapted on plays translated for the occasion and, consequently, reviving the theater translation movement that stopped in the early 80s.
Governmental theater, on the other hand, saw a notable rise in revenues, thanks to a number of commercial performances. The most successful of those was the critically disdained "Raweh starring veteran belly dancer Fifi Abdo.
Yet the surprising success story of the year was none other than "Ahwa Sada (Unsweetened Coffee), a social satire produced by the Artistic Creativity Center workshop, which has been performed for six consecutive months and still running strong.
In music, sales of cassette tapes, the dominant format of music albums in Egypt, plunged to new record low. New releases by Ellisa, Nancy Agram and Hossam Habib fared better than established acts like Samira Saed, among others.
Mohamed Mounir's hotly anticipated comeback album cemented his reputation as the country's sole creative mainstream artist working today, despite the fact that the albums' sales fell short of expectations.
On the one hand, the alternative/underground music scene witnessed an invasion of new bands and artists vying for audiences' attention in an expanding marketplace. Kayan, Baraka, Soot Fel Zahma, Mraya and Like Jelly were among the swarm of artists who made their debut performance this year to warm audience reception.
On the other hand, mainstream and independent music are continuing to show serious signs of creative fatigue. While nearly all mainstream music is orbiting around the pop sphere, independent music is still affixed to the same dated formula of fusing genres, particularly oriental with rock. The latest addition was introducing socially-conscious lyrics that sorely lack depth and maturity.
The dissatisfaction with homegrown arts paved the way for the culture departments of foreign embassies and cultural centers to offer a variety of different performances embraced by Egyptian audiences.
Cultural departments of the Mexican, German, British, American, Indian, Japanese and especially the Spanish embassy brought to Egypt an impressive line-up of music concerts, art exhibitions, book seminars and dance performances.
Among the several highlights of the year were performances by Spanish flamenco dancer María Pagés, "The Hours by Tania Pérez-Salas Mexican dance company, legendary British group STOMP and, perhaps most impressive of all, Víctor Ullate Ballet's "Samsara. All performances were sold-out days in advance to give the Opera House and El Gomhuria Theater another record-breaking year.
The Culture Source proved to be a great addition to Egypt's culture scene, drawing an eclectic number of musicians, writers, poets and dancers from across the world for its Spring Festival and another group of established Arab artists for their summer events.
Its most substantial contribution though was the Jazz Factory, Egypt's first international jazz festival. And while the audience turnout was lower than expected, it ultimately managed to introduce a brand new audience to a genre that has radically evolved along the years. Most performers were exceptional, especially radio.string.quartet.vienna who, arguably, gave the best concert of the year.
Yet the most significant culture event of 2008 was a sad one; the passing on of foremost Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine at the age of 82, one of Egypt's most important cultural icons in the 20th century.


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