Film criticism in Egypt: Observing blossom out of challenge

By Rowan Abdelrahman Ahmed Mahmoud El Shimi

Talent Press participant 2017 Rowan El Shimi

Egypt has a long standing cinema industry. It is one of the oldest in the world and is the oldest in the Arab region and Africa. While Egyptian cinema flourished in local and regional production and distribution from the turn of the nineteenth century until the 1950s, it was largely monopolised by the state for nationalist purposes to establish Egypt's new modernist socialist state in the 1950s and 1960s. The decades that followed saw a wave of realist cinema capturing stories from the margins of society. Since then the industry has largely fallen victim to several economic crises affecting both the quality and quantity of films produced – that's not to say there weren't several shining productions in the past decades.

There is a long history of film critics observing and commenting on Egyptian films and the industry's development. An official university programme that trains critics in Cairo, as well as established publications that offer space for their writing has paved the way for several generations of critics, who have their own association. However, film criticism circles are not bound by these academic credentials. Workshops and field learning account for most of the education young critics in Egyptian cities are exposed to.

Currently, the industry is largely shaped by comedies and crowd-pleasers. However, there are several significant contributions from filmmakers and producers in both the commercial and independent realm. While most do not enjoy commercial success at home, they receive wide critical acclaim and hefty festival runs abroad. Yet ongoing issues with both film censorship and restrictive legal conditions on production has made making films a challenge for artists within the commercial and independent industry in Egypt.

These restrictions tend to make film critics serve not only as commentators on the art form, but advocators of a certain plight of freedom of expression – both for themselves and the filmmakers they engage with. Social media has also played a role in creating more channels for film criticism beyond the traditional newspapers, whether through online media, film centred blogs, youtube channels or simply Facebook posts. These platforms have supported the creation of a whole wave of young critics eager to reach the public and are slowly establishing themselves within the industry.

This is where I find much of my writing pivoting: in a space between critical engagement with the films themselves and dealing with topics related to censorship, access to knowledge, centralisation of the industry and festival management. It really boils down to telling the stories of these artists who, in spite of their challenging environment, create their own communities and initiatives to bring their films to light.