The power of Egyptian cinema - online

The country's first online film festival has brought the next generation's work to a broader, virtual audience.

    Egypt's first online film festival has united technology and art to promote local cinema [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]
    Egypt's first online film festival has united technology and art to promote local cinema [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]

    As one of the powerhouses of Arabic-language film, Egyptian cinema has captivated audiences for nearly a century. Now, its films are premiering in 21st-century fashion: online.

    "There is something about an Egyptian face, an Egyptian smile, and an Egyptian reaction that captures me," said Ali Faramawy, founder of Egypt's first internet film festival.

    Masr Dot Bokra, a non-profit organisation dedicated to skills building, launched the competition in 2015. The Masr Dot Bokra Film Festival aims to give Egypt's lesser known filmmakers an opportunity to showcase their work.

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    "We want to encourage young people to do what they actually want to do," said Nadine El Derini, the festival's director. "Working in film in Egypt isn't a very easy thing to do."

    Earlier this year, the nine best movies were screened at the Best of the Fest event in Cairo. Three filmmakers each received 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,100), while the audience favourite took home 5,000 Egyptian pounds.

    Director Khaled Khelia, whose film 130km to Heaven won best narrative, said that receiving recognition for projects motivates him.

    "It's a great gesture from the world to tell me how they appreciate what I'm doing and that I must go on," he told Al Jazeera.

    Khaled Khelia won first place for in the category of narrative film [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]

    "Egyptian cinema has always been central to Arab cinema, as by far the largest film industry," said Laura Marks, a professor of Arab cinema at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

    Inspired by Egypt's cinematic heritage, Masr Dot Bokra decided to diversify its activities by supporting the arts.

    "I believe the real hope for Egypt and the real capital of Egypt is human capital," Ali Faramawy, who is also a corporate vice president at Microsoft, told Al Jazeera. "That's our real treasure. And the more we give [young people] opportunities to learn and share, the more we have a chance for them to be better and for us as a country to be better in the future."

    In order to reach out to Egypt's next generation of filmmakers, Masr Dot Bokra launched the initiative with Ali's son Mo, a young US-based Egyptian filmmaker, as the festival's artistic director.

    "Art is not necessarily a very lucrative profession, but the power that comes with it is pretty remarkable," Mo said. "There is so much talent in Egypt that's under-exposed."

    Mo Faramawy transferred his experience gained applying to different film competitions to create a festival that catered to young talent. He was also determined to help participants develop their skills through feedback, workshops, and a production fund of 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($5,600).

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    Netflix, Amazon, downloads, movies on demand - the ways in which audiences consume content continues to evolve each year. The internet has become a space for movie-making, a development that has transformed the film industry and its relationship with film festivals.

    "The way that we watch movies is extremely different than it was even five years ago," Mo said.

    Egypt's first online film festival has united technology and art to promote local cinema. An online space became the ideal platform to help amateur Egyptian filmmakers reach a larger audience.

    "The breadth of Egyptian cinema is a lot more creative, smarter and funnier than the commercial scene suggests," Marks told Al Jazeera. "If more Egyptians could see this work, I think they would feel proud and encouraged."

    Ali Faramawy, Masr Dot Bokra's founder, wants to use technology to bring Egyptian cinema to a broader audience [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]

    In 2011, the Arab Spring emboldened dreams of revolution around the Middle East, including in Egypt. From Alexandria to Cairo, young Egyptians decided to take their country's future into their own hands. Masr Dot Bokra was founded the same year.

    "We feel that Egyptian youth are going to write the Egyptian story of tomorrow," Ali said. "Maybe we're just helping them tell it."

    Even before protests in Tahrir Square ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, successive governments have been accused of limiting freedom of expression, especially among dissenters. Marks says the current political situation can impact non-commercial filmmakers.

    We want to encourage young people to do what they actually want to do.

    Nadine El Derini, festival director

    "The government has harassed some independent film production companies and exhibiting organisations," she said. "At best, it wastes their precious time."

    Since waves of arrests began in July 2013, many artists and journalists have been arrested by authorities, including film industry professionals.

    Hossam Eddin el-Meneai, a 36-year-old Egyptian documentary filmmaker, was arrested in 2014 on charges of spying and spreading rumours against the military government.

    Filmmaker and activist Aalam Wassef was also arrested after a police raid on his home. Wassef is one of the founders of Masmou3, a political campaign to rally Egyptians against military rule.

    Despite international concerns over growing artistic repression, Masr Dot Bokra organisers say officials, including the country's censorship committee, have welcomed the event.

    "[The government] is really supportive with what we're trying to do and really supportive of these young talents, so we haven't had any problems," Derini said. She did not give any details on the level of support the festival receives from the government, but explained that the censorship committee, which monitors the material aired in the festival, has not stood in their way.

    Khelia, however, believes opportunities such as the Masr Dot Bokra competition are important for filmmakers to participate in, given what he considers to be a lack of official support for the country's talent.

    "The government doesn't help, or I have to go through an endless bureaucratic process [when producing films]," he told Al Jazeera.

    Nadine El Derini and Mo Faramawy are both eager to support young filmmakers in Egypt [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]

    The competition's organisers believe Egypt's talent is underexposed on the world stage. While the festival plans to accept entries from across the Middle East in the future, the focus remains on promoting Egyptian films.

    "[The films] show different Egypts, sometimes with very small budgets and places people don't expect - beyond Cairo and Alexandria," said founder Ali Faramawy.

    The film festival accepts entries addressing all subjects, ranging from personal narratives to broader social themes of mental health and sexual harassment.

    In her film Fake Faces, Sawsan El Kasrawy explores the lives of patients living with mental illness in an effort to challenge the audience's misconceptions about this segment of society. Her efforts won her the competition's top prize in the documentary category.

    Sawsan El Kasrawy won first place in the documentary section for her film about the lives of patients with mental illness, a taboo in Egypt [Egypt Online Film Festival/Al Jazeera]

    "I feel proud to see that I have reached my objective," she told Al Jazeera. "In Egypt, we judge before interacting with these people. My message is to remove the stigma of being mentally ill in the Middle East and Egypt."

    When asked about what makes Egyptian cinema unique, festival director Nadine El Derini believes it is the different ethnic, religious and cultural groups that impact the films made in Egypt.

    “I would say we're actually quite diverse and it shows in these young people's work."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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