Lessons in manoeuvring: Zawya heads a scheme to decentralize film culture in Egypt

Decentralization is one of the biggest challenges facing artists and culture workers in Egypt. The bulk of the country’s services is concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria, leaving other governorates with random leftovers or, most often, nothing.

That’s why Zawya’s bringing together of a number of young cinephiles this month for a workshop on managing alternative screening spaces outside the capital is potentially a landmark initiative. Launched in March 2014 by Misr International Films (MIF), Zawya is a self-proclaimed art-house cinema initiative in Cairo screening films that normally wouldn’t find a place in the Egyptian market, through commercial releases, themed curated programs and director retrospectives. Last year its activities extended to Alexandria and Tanta.

The three-day workshop took place at Cairo’s Cimatheque, another project seeking to infuse the city with an alternative film culture, and was attended by 23 participants from almost every corner of the country, from Damietta to Ismailia to Qena. Some were already involved with more or less established initiatives in their cities, such as Fig Leaf Studios in Alexandria, a 10-year-old production company, Port Said’s ‘Ala Adeemo, which aims to revive the city’s cultural heritage, and Naghmasha, a multipurpose cultural space in Sohag.

As the participants introduced themselves — each speaking about their relationship to cinema, experience in organizing screenings, and the state of arts in their respective towns or cities — it emerged that a major problem is a lack of venues. In many cities the state’s cultural spaces (“palaces”) are either closed or practically useless. In some cities multipurpose cultural spaces keep popping up only to close before being able to build a following. In others there are no movie theaters at all. With no mainstream commercial releases to begin with, this means there’s barely any potential for cultivating an interest in alternative cinema.

Yet most participants have managed – with varying degrees of success — to find their way around the obstacles to hold regular screenings in a variety of contexts, mostly in the format of informal cinema clubs.

The workshop’s purpose was to arm them with the basic tools and knowledge to take their projects further, either independently or in partnership with Zawya.

The evolution of Zawya from one screen to distribution company

Sharing Zawya’s experiences was central to the workshop. Youssef Shazli, Zawya’s managing director, explained how Zawya came about as an extension of MIF’s annual film festival, the Panorama of the European Film, the practical steps of negotiating with the owners of downtown Cairo’s Cinema Odeon, how the project is funded and how it has progressed. MIF’s big name bestowed Zawya with a certain amount of credibility from the start.

“There are 15 movie theaters in downtown, yet they’re not doing well,” said Shazli. “Everybody goes to the big multiplexes in the suburbs now. Movie-going patterns in Cairo have changed substantially over the past few years, and that gave us an edge when negotiating with Odeon – we were offering a sort of revival.”

Zawya has just become a registered distribution company as well as a place that screens films, in order to help independent Egyptian pictures – as well as foreign films other distributors don’t normally show interest in – to find their way to screens around the country, not only Zawya’s.

Discussing the programming of Zawya’s commercial releases – the films screened at fixed times daily for one or two weeks and sometimes more, depending on how well they fare at the box office – Shazli gave examples of successes and flops, explaining how the team began to formulate selection criteria over time.

“Honestly, there is no rule,” he said. “Films we were reluctant to show at the beginning because we thought they weren’t really ‘art-house’, like Laila Marrakchi’s Rock the Casbah, did really well, and that told us something about our audience – it is not exclusively an alternative audience, and for our fan base to continue to grow, perhaps we need films like that to maintain the balance in our program.”

Shazli also spoke about films that they had predicted would be hits but were total misses, like the documentary feature Amy, and others that – despite being completely foreign to prevalent Egyptian cinema preferences – were surprising successes, like Xavier Dolan’s Mommy.

“We’ve come to realize that the films we choose for commercial release need to have something behind them,” Shazli said, “either star power, a well-known director, an Oscar nomination, awards from famous festivals – we need that to help market them.”

They make an exception for local films: “We can take a risk, because this is, above all, our responsibility as a screening space and a distribution company. We think our filmmakers deserve a chance for their work to be seen and appreciated.”

Zawya has distributed and screened Hala Lotfy’s Al-Khoroug lel-Nahar (Coming Forth by Day, 2012) and Nadine Salib’s Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn, 2014). Having already had considerable presence in the festival circuit on release, both did relatively well.

Zawya’s head curator, Alia Ayman, spoke of the one-off screenings as part of a themed program or retrospective. Such events are sometimes just hosted by Zawya, such as Cairobserver’s “Documenting Cairo on Film,” when several Cairo-centric documentary shorts and features were screened over three days, while others are put together entirely by Zawya.

One success was the Youssef Chahine retrospective, which screened selected films by the late director chronologically, with Q&A sessions after each with members of the film’s cast or crew. Another was Hybrid Reels, which explored the nature of nonfiction in cinema.

“They’re a good way of drawing more people to your space,” said Ayman. “People who don’t know all of the films being screened could still attend because they find the theme of the program itself interesting.”

Zawya’s experience in Tanta and Alexandria started last year when two students from Tanta, Ahmed Kastawy and Ahmed Salem, asked for a copy ofHaifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda (Zawya’s inaugural screening) to screen at their university. Zawya agreed, it was a success, and an agreement with Tanta’s Cinema Rivoli to screen films once or twice a week followed. This later halted due to communication problems with Zawya’s head office, but Shazli said they’re hoping to restart soon.

Zawya Alexandria was initiated by Abanoub Nabil, Ahmed Ragab and Mark Lotfy, founder of Fig Leaf Studios. When Zawya took up the distribution of a Fig Leaf production, Odet al-Firan (The Mice Room, 2014), an agreement was reached with Cinema Amir, Alexandria’s most popular movie theater. One year later, the partnership is still going strong and now includes Cinedelta, a documentary education program and another remarkable film initiative in Alexandria. “The Panorama was the most successful event we’ve hosted in Alexandria ever since we started our partnership with Zawya,” said Abanoub. “There’s a big fan base for the Panorama in Alex, people who would go to Cairo especially every year to see the films. To bring it to Alex was a really big deal.”

Zawya Alexandria is seeking a different visual identity from Cairo’s Zawya, and to show different content, too. They have already made deals with the National Center for Cinema, who allow them to use their archive, as well as distribution company MAD Solutions, who grant them access to their lineup in addition to Zawya’s films.

Eager to replicate these models elsewhere, Zawya’s Cairo team applied for funding to expand to other governorates, and this workshop was a beginning.

Censorship, legalities and Zawya as festival

A session on the challenges and steps of organizing film screenings featuredComing Forth by Day director Hala Lotfy. The glaring challenge everyone seemed to dread and encounter most was censorship.

“Before you buy rights for a film from its distributor and obtain a copy, you need to send a screener to censorship authorities first,” said Malak Makar, project coordinator at Zawya. “If the film isn’t passed by the censors, that’s a dead end – you can’t screen it publicly.”

“Now, with digital filmmaking being the norm and the fact that anyone can shoot a film without having to practically buy a license from the syndicate, the only way for authorities to stay in control is to deny screening permissions,” Lotfy added.

One participant asked how Zawya screens uncut films even though they often include content that normally wouldn’t make it to a commercial screen in Egypt, even as “Adults Only.” “We do send our films to censorship, of course, but with a letter stating that they are to be screened in a festival, since technically Zawya is an extension of the Panorama,” Shazli said. “Since the censorship board has different rules for films screening in festivals or special events, they often let it slide.”

This is a precarious situation. “Any moment now the censors could decide that Zawya no longer holds the status of a festival and is a regular movie theater,” Shazli explained. “And this is why we’ve registered ourselves as a company and are now a member in the Egyptian Cinema Industry Chamber. We’re preparing ourselves to acquire censorship approval for the films we distribute and want to screen in places other than Zawya.”

A session on the legal framework for organizing film screenings in Egypt was given by the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression’s Mahmoud Osman, also Zawya’s lawyer. To decide which legal steps need to be taken, four things must be identified: What’s being screened, who’s screening it, where and to whom. If it’s a public screening, it must pass censorship, and if you bypass that there are penalties that could include jail time, which is unconstitutional and yet stated by law. “There are ways of maneuvering,” Osman said. “You can hold a public screening but require everyone to RSVP and enter with invitations so you have a guest list – if you do that you can always claim it’s a private screening if you’re confronted by authorities, even if it’s held in a public venue.”

From idea to viewable product: Distribution in Egypt

Shazli, aided by Ahmed Sobky, Zawya’s head of acquisition and sales, spoke about the traditional film cycle: A director has an idea or a script, they pitch it to a producer, the producer sells the film to a distributor, the distributor makes sure the film reaches its target audience either through commercial release, TV and DVD deals, or – more recently – video on demand (VOD) platforms. Both Shazli and Sobky were keen on highlighting the differences between how this model works in Egypt and in other countries, mainly the US, it being the world’s largest film industry.

“In Egypt, very often, especially with independent pictures, the director is the writer and the producer and the distributor. They practically do everything,” Shazli said. “This is precisely what we’re trying to change by establishing Zawya Distribution. We want to offer filmmakers an efficient system to work within, so that they can focus on their work as artists and leave marketing and promotion and all of that to the distributors.”

“The first step in a film’s distribution journey is the festival circuit, trying to get it into festivals that are right for it,” said Nawara Shoukry, Zawya’s festivals and distribution coordinator. “We get a sense of the audience’s reaction and the film gets reviewed, and it also helps as a selling point later when releasing the film in cinemas.”

Sobky explained the remaining steps, from commercial release in cinemas to TV, DVD and VOD distribution. “In the US, for example, the film’s theatrical release is basically promotion for its later release on DVD and VOD, which brings in even more profit – yet here we don’t really have a DVD culture at all.”

But VOD is finding its way into Egypt, and there’s relatively good space on it for independent pictures. “VOD platforms, like airlines, are always in need of new films, which makes them a ripe market for indies,” Sobky said.

Meanwhile, Cimatheque’s Tamer El Said screened his film In the Last Days of the City, which has not yet been released in Egypt, for the participants. He was seeking to think up ways to distribute the film outside of Cairo, and plans to release the film in other cities first. Not only that, but he wants the cast and crew to tour the cities with the film and hold discussions with audiences. “I wish we could market the film in a way that suits it and suits the specific city in which it’s being marketed,” he said. “This current uniformity that’s imposed upon us, standard formulas for everything – it compromises our ability to be human, to be who we are.”

One concern voiced by participants was that the film is essentially linked to Cairo, so marketing outside the capital could be challenging, but Said said he’d rather market it as a personal work about someone’s relationship with the place they inhabit, wherever it may be.

Marketing to a non-monolithic audience

Zawya’s team all agreed that there’s still a lot more they could do in regard to marketing and promotion, but they currently don’t have the means. “It’s a learning process,” Ayman said. “Even here in Cairo we feel like we’re still working in small circles and that there are still many more people we could reach.”

In a brainstorming session, the team and each participant suggested ways to bolster promotion for participants’ project, from extensive social media activity and handing out print material at restaurants and cafés to establishing partnerships with other organizations who could advertise for you and finding a way to be present on public transport. The common factor was identifying the right audience.

“I think the most important thing is to realize that ‘the audience’ is not monolithic,” said Ayman. “Egypt is a country of 90 million; there’s definitely somebody for everything – you just need to find them.”

Zawya’s branding and design manager, Nada Elissa, discussed visual identity and design. “Consistency is key, you need something people can recognize at first glance,” said Elissa. “It took us a long time before we settled on Zawya’s current identity, and once we did it made a world of difference.”

Four types of funding

Funding for film spaces had to be discussed, of course, and Shazli and Ayman divided this into four categories: sponsors, patrons, crowdfunding and grants.

Grants, they agreed, are the source of funding most cultural institutions in Egypt rely on, despite long and complicated application processes.

Sponsors are usually big corporates who support cultural projects as part of their CSR strategy – Zawya’s main sponsor is CIB. Yet here, too, things are precarious. “We work together on renewable six-month contracts, which puts us at risk of closing at any moment,” Shazli said. “If we lose the CIB’s support it would be a huge problem.”

“Patrons are the main source of funding cultural spaces in places like the US, yet here it’s not really in our culture,” Ayman said, “while crowdfunding, when done right, is gaining speed as a very reliable way of raising support.”

Practical outcomes for the future

As well as sharing experiences and brainstorming sessions, there were various resources the workshop participants could take away.

For example, the workshop facilitators created a shared document that included the names of governmental, regional and international foundations that offer cultural grants.

And at one point, Shazli took participants through a model budget for the Panorama of the European Film, complete with sources and detailed numbers and itemizations from acquiring film rights to marketing to subtitling.

A few sessions also consisted of presentations by representatives of cultural institutions around Cairo that the participants could collaborate or partner with:

  • ROOM Art Space, a multipurpose space in Garden City that, in addition to being a café, holds regular film screenings, concerts and performances.
  • Cimatheque offers an archive, library, film lab and screening room equipped with DCP (Digital Cinema Package), 35mm and 16mm equipment.
  • NAAS, the non-governmental Network of Arab Arthouse Screens, has 12 members from eight Arab countries (from Egypt, Zawya, Cimatheque, and Alexandria’s Wekalet Behna), aiming at “enriching and enhancing cinematic culture in the Arab region.” The team plans to expand to 30 members, and thus has decided to go beyond the cities to explore initiatives in towns and villages, opening the door for projects from more countries to join. NAAS also offers a growing film archive, among other services, that all members have free access to, in case they do not have the resources to buy film rights from distributors.
  • The Goethe Institute’s Marina Adel spoke about their annual Film Week, screening a variety of German films every year, and Goethe’s desire to take it to more spaces outside of Cairo. Adel handed participants the contact information for Goethe’s cultural managers working in Ismailia, Sohag and Assiut, and also offered the use of Goethe’s film archive, most of which consists of European films subtitled in Arabic.
  • Moustafa Youssef from co-founded production company Seen Films, which works with the Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF). Seen Films has produced two features (including Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s Out on the Street) and one short so far and is working on more, but it also holds technical workshops and often employs participants in the company’s projects. It has made its post-production unit available for all to use, free of charge, is currently expanding to include a space for artistic residencies while putting the finishing touches on Terso, an Arabic website seeking to be a comprehensive resource on all things film, open for all enthusiasts to write, not necessarily professional critics. Youssef also spoke about ADEF’s Digital Expression Community Area (DECA), offering a library, recording studio, editing equipment, and a space where a cine-club and regular workshops are held.

Ayman discussed examples of alternative film spaces around the world, from cinema clubs to screening spaces, and from New York to Beirut. “It’s important to know we’re not alone,” she said, emphasizing that existing projects and initiatives should band together to form a joint entity, akin to Tunisia’s Federation of Ciné-Clubs, which would make it easier to stay organized and get things done locally, as well as be able to represent Egypt at organizations like the International Federation of Film Societies.

Yasmine Zohdi 

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