Zawya: The ins and outs of showing alternative film

On Zawya’s opening night in March, two men from the local neighborhood came by to check the cinema out, asking, “Are these ‘aflam mahraganat’ (festival films)?” Alia Ayman tells me. Then they left.

“We’re concerned with alternative, art house films, which is challenging enough,” says Ayman, a filmmaker and Zawya’s special features curator. “But we don’t want to be an elitist project.”

Zawya, meaning “perspective,” is a 170-capacity single-screen cinema at the back of Cinema Odeon — off Talaat Harb Street in downtown Cairo — that was initiated by Misr International Films (MIF) and opened in March to screen alternative films. But “Zawya is more of a concept than a place,” Ayman says.

Nadim Salem, the education and cinema coordinator, tells me about an exciting event that took place in in the Delta city of Tanta on May 22. Marianne Khoury, manager of MIF and the annual Panorama of the European Film, approached a group called “Out of the Box” to organize a local screening of Saudi film “Wadjda” (2012), written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour.

“They organized everything,” Salem tells me. “We just provided the cinema contact, the film and a few posters.” This one-off event attracted over a hundred people. It’s an experience Zawya would like to repeat.

There are plans for three upcoming screenings at Alexandria’s Cinema Green Plaza in June. Possible films include “Wadjda,” “Le Passe” (The Past, 2013) by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi and Rani Massalha’s “Giraffada” (2013), which have all shown at the Odeon venue. The details are still being worked out in collaboration with a team of six Alexandrian directors and two production companies — Fig Leaf Studios and Rufy’s — who all worked on the experimental feature “The Mice Room” (2013).

Salem says the ideal is the decentralized model implemented in Tanta, which happened more organically, although in a big city like Alexandria there are always going to be lots of logistical details that need taking care of.

Mada Masr wrote about the vision for Zawya Odeon when it first opened. Two months into the project, I have become a regular, and I’m curious to know who’s been coming, the feedback received, the challenges faced and plans for the future.

“A significant number of audience members are from the extended circle that we all run around in,” Ayman says, including many filmmakers that come regularly. Sometimes the cinema is full, especially during limited screenings or directors’ talks, but other times it is almost empty — it depends on the film and time of day.

“People are pleased the place exists,” she says. “They are happy to pay money to support the project, even if they’ve seen the film.”

The challenge of expanding outside of this “cultural scene bubble” is something the Zawya team is well aware of, Ayman adds, although certain films — such as Egyptian director Hala Lotfy’s Al-Khoroug Lel-Nahar (Coming Forth by Day, 2012) and Syrian director Mohamed Malas’ Soullam ila Dimashk (Ladder to Damascus, 2013) — have attracted new faces.

Members of the team recently attended a workshop on art house cinema management organized by the Network of Arab Art House Screens (NAAS) and Metropolis Cinema in Beirut.

The attendees, programmers of initiatives similar to Zawya across the Arab world, agreed that a major issue is sourcing affordable subtitling, Ayman explains. This has been a particular challenge for Zawya, as it is trying to make films accessible and still keep ticket prices low, at LE15-20.

There are three aspects to Zawya’s programming. Theatrical releases are usually screened for a few weeks and sourced from distributors. Special features and events are coordinated by Ayman and often accompanied by a director’s talk or discussion. The educational component, which they are keen to expand, engages schools and universities in discussions and events.

Salem tells me they worked with over 1,000 students from 9 or 10 schools in screenings and discussions around Wadjda, including the Sacre Coeur, New Generation, MES (IB) and Oasis International. He says Zawya has a particularly good relationship with the French-speaking and other international schools, and that so far the education program has just included private institutes. However, with the revenues generated, they hope to engage public schools and provide transport and free screenings for their students when the program restarts after the summer.

I ask Ayman to explain the types of films sourced — what does she consider to be “art house” or “independent” cinema?

“I would unfortunately have to define it by what it’s not,” she says. “Films that are not commercial in the sense that they don’t follow the market formula of success. So, not Hollywood blockbusters. Zawya would never screen ‘Batman’ for instance. Locally, we are talking about films that are not your average celebrity-featuring action/comedies — films that are more experimental in form and content, and by experimental I only mean playing around with the rules, doing things differently.”

Asked about censorship, Ayman says they have been able to get away with a lot more than mainstream, commercial cinemas because the authorities also see them as a “festival venue.” She says MIF and Zawya had a good relationship with the previous head of Egypt’s censorship board, Ahmed Awaad, who resigned last month after Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb banned Lebanese diva Haifa Wehbe’s new film Halawet Roh (Sweetness of Spirit, 2014).

“We will have to see if Awaad leaving will change things for Zawya,” Ayman says, especially after the censor recently rejected Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, which was to have been included in a Kechice retrospective starting June 1.

The director knows what to show people

On my first visit to Zawya I was helpfully pointed in the direction of the funky looking single-screen building with its iconic zigzag façade by locals who assumed I wanted the “art cinema,” rather than Odeon. The area is also home to the contemporary art space Townhouse and its Rawabet theater, and is a hub for artists and musicians. Locals are used to seeing many of the faces that frequent such cultural events in Cairo.

Zawya, outside

Eager to get feedback after the screening of Yousry Nasrallah’s Somersaults (1988) on May 25, I sip espresso in the Zawya lobby café and open a conversation with two young men I don’t recognize.

Mohamed Tarek, a 23-year-old from the crowded, lower-middle-class neighborhood of Faisal, is an intern at the Ministry of Health. He says he’s been to Zawya eight times since it opened, and that lack of choice at commercial cinemas attracted him to it.

“They are showing us movies we don’t see,” he explains.

Obviously really into art house cinema, he mentions several Francophone movies and short films, which he says aren’t easily accessible online. He and his friends have visited “culture houses” previously to see films like this, and he is opposed to censorship.

“When a director makes a film, he knows what to show the people,” he says.

He praises Zawya’s efforts, but adds, “We need more cinemas like this, not just in downtown, because downtown is downtown, it can’t reach the people.”

His friend Mohamed Khafagy, also 23 and a pharmacist from Qalyubiya, just north of Cairo, is visiting Zawya for the first time. Thinking of friends lost during the 2011 revolution, he says venues for art films are important, but when we view them, “we live inside our heads, in a utopia, not in the real world — a kind of nostalgia.”

“There is a step missing. Problems aren’t solved by movies, we need to work on real problems. I respect it, this kind of art,” Khafagy says, but “It doesn’t stop it [the violence].”

“But art gives our lives meaning,” Tarek interjects.

“Give me a film in history that has changed something,” Khafagy says.

Tarek says that Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 10-part miniseries The Decalogue (1989) once prevented an execution, but Khafagy replies that such works are not for everyone.

“You have to show people films about reality they know.”

Zawya is scheduling a strong program for June, including a series of shorts. They aim to screen Sayf Sabaeen (Summer 70), Egyptian director Nagy Shaker’s experimental film from the 1970s, which wasn’t shown commercially in Egypt. It’s a 70-minute black-and-white silent film. There are also plans to screen a number of autobiographical films, including Autoportrait (1971/2012), a Lebanese-French film by visual artist Simone Fattal.

I ask Ayman about Zawya’s relationship with Cimatheque — another downtown-based initiative to screen and discuss alternative film, due to open later this year. She says some staff members are involved in both projects and they’ve had several discussions about collaboration. There are obvious complementary aspects. Over the past couple of years Cimatheque has been developing a film archive and a huge, purpose-built venue for creating and watching films. Zawya, meanwhile, opened a single screen following six successful years of MIF’s Panorama, immediately showing independent films to a niche audience hungry for such a space in a city where, for a long time, such screenings were restricted to festivals and cultural centers.

Why were these the only places to see such films before?

“I know how costly it is to source films that are risky in terms of commercial potential,” Ayman says. “Screening fees and minimum guarantees are high, rights acquisition for films is expensive, and cinema is a profit-driven industry, so it’s only natural for distributors to prefer ‘safe’ films that will at least cover their costs and preferably generate revenue.”

“It’s a chicken or the egg situation,” she adds. “If all cinemas across the country show these films, audiences will get used to them and their popularity will increase, but then again, cinemas choose to screen what’s already popular, so it’s a cycle.”

Zawya is affordable, and purchasing a ticket in a purpose-built cinema feels different than attending a free screening and talk at one of Cairo’s many — mostly foreign-funded — cultural institutions.

How important is it for culture venues in general to seek new audiences or broader base appeal? Is this linked to an insidious desire to “culture” the masses? One of the things I admire about Zawya is the boldness to just open and start screening to whoever comes through the doors.


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