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Will a hashtag campaign help bring back Upper Egyptian cinemas?
 
 
Assiut cinema
 

Kariman Kamal, a 25-year-old psychotherapist, was watching Madgy Ahmed Ali’s recent film Mawlana (The Preacher) in a Cairo cinema and noticed a family of four sitting next to her. She immediately remembered her parents back home, in the Upper Egyptian city of Sohag. She’d be watching it with them, she thought, if there were a cinema in their town.

“As a family in Upper Egypt, we have to wait for parents and kids to take a day off and get train tickets to go to Cairo to watch a movie,” she says. “Surely I should be able to take my parents to watch a movie for a couple of hours and go back home?”

Kamal is not alone. Dozens of young Upper Egyptians have been using the hashtag #افتحوا_سينمات_الصعيد (Open Upper Egypt’s cinemas) for the past week to lament the lack of cinemas in Upper Egypt, hundreds of kilometers away from Cairo. Many former cinemas there are either abandoned or have been renovated for other commercial activities, and there are now only four left  two in Minya, one in Luxor and another in Aswan.

When Mada Masr asked people using the hashtag to talk to us about their experiences, dozens responded with memories of cinema trips years ago, before they disappeared in Upper Egypt. Some weren’t even able to do that. “I’m 25 years old, and I’ve never been to a cinema in my hometown,” says Kamal. “Even if a cinema in Upper Egypt isn’t profitable, where are the state-run cultural spaces? Why is the state not paying enough attention to the cultural scene in Upper Egypt?”

Ayat Yassin, a 25-year-old teacher living in Oman who comes from Sohag, was the first to launch the hashtag. She says Sohag’s only cinema, Cinema Opera, was turned into a mall years ago. “Having a cinema in the city totally changes its essence and people’s lives,” she believes. “It assuages the tensions and anger among people brought about by the difficulties of daily life. Sohag is now full of cafes and restaurants that attract many families. If there were a cinema, they would definitely go.”

Yassin says the old cinema in the city was associated with social and cultural stigmas. Due to careless management, it turned into a meeting point for hash smokers and boys and girls involved in “improper behavior,” she explains, adding, “In a conservative society like ours, families became skeptical about sending their children there. A girl would be stigmatized if she went to the cinema as a result.”

The situation is similar in the governorate of Beni Suef. 30-year-old lawyer Ihab al-Garhy says the city used to have one cinema, Cinema al-Nasr, which showed movies during the Eid celebrations, as well as smaller screening halls in state-run cultural palaces. But the cinema became “a house of ghosts,” he says, adding: “There are some attempts by young people to independently organize movie screenings in cultural palaces, but not many.”

Residents of the oasis city of Fayoum, 100 km southwest of Cairo, used to have three cinemas, but they all met the same fate in recent years. Tamer Abdel Mohdy, 32 years old, says one of them was converted into a market, the second was demolished and the third became a wedding hall. “It’s sad that governorates across Egypt don’t have a single cinema,” he says, lamenting that fact that people have to go all the way to Cairo to attend a public screening.

Lamiaa Mohamed, a 22-year-old student who lives in Assiut, says travelling to Cairo isn’t affordable. She either watches pirated copies of movies, or waits until they are shown on TV. “I’d love to have a cinema in my city because it creates a totally different atmosphere,” she adds. “The problem is that we’re not up to date with the movies shown in Cairo and elsewhere. We are way behind the governorates in the north and Cairo in many ways, and that’s unfair.”

Until last year, Assiut’s Renaissance Cinema was a destination for many Upper Egyptians from nearby governorates, but it was closed and reportedly sold to be redeveloped into a mall. Former head of Assiut’s General Authority of Cultural Palaces Saad Abdel Rahman tells Mada that the governorate shares a long history with the cinema industry.  He says the cinema demolished for commercial reasons in 2016 was Assiut’s first cinema, built in 1908 by its owner, Tadrus Makar, and renovated in 1935. The Renaissance cinema franchise acquired it in the 1990s.

“The Assiut governor refused to permit the demolition unless they donated new cinema equipment to the Assiut Cultural Palace as an alternative, following strong opposition from the community,” Abdel Rahman explains. “But the demolition continued and the agreement was not fulfilled.” He adds that the cultural palace’s outdated screens and machines cannot operate digital copies of films.

In addition to the Renaissance theater, Makar’s brother built another cinema in 1916, but it was closed in recent years after being abandoned for many years. The Khashaba Cinema shared the same fate. Abdel Rahman says other cinemas existed in cities across the governorate, including Abu Tig, Abu Selim, Qouseya and Dayrout, but all have closed. “The cinema is not just a place for entertainment, it has cultural value,” he says. “Especially in areas that lack other cultural services like Upper Egyptian governorates. Unfortunately, cinema owners are looking for profits.”

According to Sayed Khattab, whose tenure as head of the General Authority of Cultural Palaces ended on Saturday, the authority is working on an initiative to reopen several cinemas in various governorates starting April. It’s not just Upper Egypt that has a crisis of closed cinemas, the rest of the country does too, he says — going as far as calling it one of the biggest cultural catastrophes in the last 40 years.

The initiative will work on reopening cinemas in some governorates and better equipping cultural palaces’ screens in others, Khattab says, with the cooperation of cinema producers. The idea is to start with opening two cinemas in New Valley governorate and a third in Sadat City. Assiut Summer Cinema and Beni Suef Cinema should reopen at a later stage. The authority’s new head, Sabry Saeed, was not available for comment.

Khattab’s optimism has not yet reached the campaigners.

Abdel Samea Mohamed, a 28-year-old journalist who lives in Cairo, remembers his childhood in the Upper Egyptian city of Naga Hammady, Qena, when there was only one cinema. It shut down 15 years ago. “Imagine a 20-year-old who’s never been to a cinema,” he says. “I remember that the cinema used to be extremely overcrowded. Large extended families would book the entire place for people of all ages. It used to be like an Eid celebration.”

Tamer Abdel Mohdy from Fayoum also doesn’t believe cinemas are less profitable in Upper Egypt. “There’s a general lack of investment in Upper Egypt, not just in cinemas, but in everything,” he says. “The Culture Ministry is not giving it enough attention and local municipalities aren’t interested in any cultural activities for the public.”

A workshop led by Cairo-based cinema and distribution company Zawya last year brought together cinephiles from various governorates to help them manage alternative cinema screens outside Cairo, in an attempt to decentralize film culture. Many participants spoke of the diminishing role of state-run cultural palaces in creating a cinema scene outside the capital. And with no mainstream commercial releases to begin with, there’s barely any potential for cultivating an interest in alternative cinema.

Twenty-six-year-old film director Aida al-Kashef explains that Cairo’s centralization has played a major role in marginalizing the cultural scene in Upper Egypt, where producers see the audience as “third-class viewers.” She adds that most cinemas use outdated technology that is incompatible with new releases. Kashef believes the problem is not related to the lack of revenues in Upper Egypt, because ticket sales are also falling in Cairo. She points out that the lack of functioning cinemas and the rising ticket prices means movie piracy is often the only alternative.

It remains to be seen how the cultural palaces authority’s scheme will work — and whether cinema companies will notice there’s a big gap in the market.

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Mai Shams El-Din