It’s not uncommon to find that most Egyptian and regional films selected by international festivals have explicitly political thematics — it may even be fair to say that if the film doesn’t cover war, revolution or women’s rights then it has less chance of being picked up by festival programmers. And the annual Berlin International Film Festival, aka the Berlinale, is widely considered the most political of the big international film festivals.
As expected, most of the Arab films at February’s Berlinale were political in nature, including several that took home awards. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the two Egyptian films there this year, featured in its more experimental Forum Expanded section, were not. In fact they didn’t even address larger social issues: each was concerned with reflecting on a particular sub-section of the independent Egyptian art scene.
Mahmoud Lotfy’s first feature, Seif Tagreeby (Experimental Summer), is a tribute to Egyptian filmmakers working outside of the shackles of state production and industry rules, while Marouan Omara and Islam Kamal’s One Plus One makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake subversively examines a music co-production workshop to probe the tensions in funder-initiated intercultural music collaborations.
For me it was a treat to find familiar Cairo faces on the Berlinale screens. Experimental Summer features several indie film scenesters such as actors Zeinab Magdy and Amr El Wishahy, while One Plus One has musician Islam Chipsy, music journalist Maha ElNabawi and producer Mahmoud Refat. Both films are experimental and blur the line between fiction and reality, but they also take care of their audience — they don’t leave us wondering what the hell is going on or unsure what to take from them.
Hand-held shots of a poster with a young woman’s face and the text “Experimental Summer – Original Copy” plastered on the street corners of downtown Cairo welcome us into Experimental Summer. The film then moves into the make-shift homes and precarious work spaces where independent artists dwell.
Starting with a documentary feel, it follows Mahmoud and Zeinab as they attempt to find the original copy of an eponymous 1980s film, supposedly Egypt’s first indie production and distributed at cafes and homes. The copy was apparently destroyed by the illusive “Film Association” — possibly a reference to the various state cinema bodies that are often at odds with filmmakers working outside of their systems of control.
Mahmoud and Zeinab find other filmmakers seeking the original copy, or who have actually remade the film. Through images of the filmmakers’ editing software and other cues, the film shifts from one story to the next, introducing us to layers of other “documentary” films and a remake of Experimental Summer. Several real people from the local indie scene participate in chasing the film’s ghost, and each group of filmmakers finds a piece of the puzzle. Throughout they discuss their positioning in cinema at large.
“No one knows what we do, no one knows our films. Only we know about each other’s projects,” says Mahmoud Eissa, a real-life producer and one of the film’s characters, at one point. Indeed, many independently produced shorts, feature films and documentaries in Egypt receive no public release and get buried in their filmmakers’ hard drives after their festival runs have dried up.
Another layer of the film consists of parts of a “documentary” about a the derelict site of Bab al-Louq Market, which Mahmoud worked on as a fixer. A filmmaker tells us that this was the “Cinema Citadel” which housed the offices of producers and distributors from Egypt’s golden cinema years, such as Assia Dagher, Youssef Wahbi and Togo Mezrahi, before it shut down and all cinema activities were moved to the “Film Association.” This clever faux-history comments on the industry’s nationalization under Gamal Abdel Nasser, which led to its deterioration.
The film is confusing, and definitely better than the sum of its parts. While each layer isn’t strong on its own — with sloppy acting and unconvincing dialogue for the most part — Experimental Summer as a whole is a compelling take on the challenges of independent filmmaking. It conjures up the strong sense of community that helps bring each filmmaker’s projects to light, as was the case with this film itself, according to the director.
Throughout the film, we’re not really sure what’s real and what is acted out. Is it a documentary or is everyone acting? Did the original film it’s based on exist? Is the story re-enacted? While we never know for sure, we do get a guided tour of the lives of barely fictionalized independent filmmakers, and in that sense Experimental Summer closely echoes reality.
One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake also tests our perceptions of real and fake. It too has a documentary set-up, yet its first frame states that “aside from the musical numbers, the events depicted in this film are fictitious.” So throughout, we constantly ask ourselves: Is this real?
Omara (Crop 2013, Azziara 2016) and Kamal (Local Copy 2012, Hayat 2014) were commissioned by Bern-based Norient Sounds to document the recent Cairo episode of their series One Plus One, which brings together two subculture musicians from different artistic and cultural backgrounds to produce a track in one week. The Cairo episode featured electronic keyboard sensation Islam Chipsy and experimental Swiss-born, Nepalese-Tibetan producer Aisha Devi.
Shooting entirely on grainy rough VHS in 1:1 aspect ratio to mirror the low-budget filming that takes place at the street celebrations where Chipsy’s musical project originated, Omara and Kamal show the tensions between the two musicians throughout the week. “He’s not really interested in fusion, I think,” Aicha tells Refat, Chipsy’s translator and manager, summing up the problem. The two couldn’t agree on even a basic note to start from, or how to produce a track together. Omara and Kamal build their story around this discord, their arguments and frustrations.
Discomfort pervades the film. It feels like being forced to watch two musicians who are being forced to collaborate. This reflects on many cultural projects we see in Egypt, where European and Egyptian artists are put together to produce an “east-meets-west fusion” product, which often serves little purpose except in reports to donor organizations and embassies.
The filmmakers utilize ElNabawi’s presence in the studio as the interviewer. As she conducts her interviews for an article — like the filmmakers, she was commissioned by Norient to write about the desired collaboration — they give us a sense of why all these people are there in the studio of 100Copies in Downtown, why we’re following them to concerts and excursions.
“How do you qualify a successful cultural exchange?” she asks Norient’s Thomas Burkhalter. “Is it the final product, or the energy between the artists during the exchange process?” He replies that it is the final product, and whether the musicians break out of their comfort zones to produce something new together.
The film’s most playful aspect is texts that appear on the screen reading, “There is no need for this,” “Intimate talk doesn’t have a place in public” and “This is not a reality show.” The credits tells us that these are Aicha’s manager’s comments on a draft of the film, but due to the initial claim of fiction, we’re not certain that this is true, or whether the filmmakers inserted the comments to make a point on the nature of commissioned documentaries, which often end up being PR pieces.
Omara and Islam use these on and off-camera tensions and discomfort to pose questions on what collaboration really means on the culture sphere. Can there be authentic collaboration where there is clearly a complex power imbalance?
It is fitting that the two Egyptian films at this year’s Berlinale look at the independent art scene. Given last year’s attacks on art spaces and freedom of expression, the ongoing restrictions on musicians and filmmakers from their respective syndicates, and the precarious existence dependent on European and American financial support or exposure (such as the through the Berlinale itself), perhaps now is a time for the arts community to look at their internal dynamics and ask how they can continue to exist, produce and be part of the larger social conversation. The element of self-criticality, especially in One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake, is important. I hope these two films are able to kick-start a conversation that has been struggling to surface.