Experimental Summer: Independent film as lamentation of elitist failure

Last week I watched Saif Tagreeby (Experimental Summer), a documentary cum feature cum experimental film by Mahmoud Lotfy, which was screened in Zawya cinema after an exciting teaser campaign. The campaign was notable for its experimentalism and ambiguity: surrounded by diverse contexts in videos and Facebook posts, we see a normal portrait of a young woman with distinctive features, smiling mysteriously. Printed in black and white and hung on a wall in Cairo, in the hands of young people wearing manga-inspired costumes, mixed with glitchy, fragmented video effects, and so on.

The bright and diverse palette is what most interested me about the campaign’s aesthetics — an element I always miss and long for in elitist Egyptian cinema. Though commercial films are packed with loud colors and explosive sounds, “artistic” films have long been associated in my subconscious with low saturation, pale color correction and brown, depressing palettes, visuals that fit perfectly with long silences, amputated lines of dialogue and the misery of characters immersed in elitist melancholy that I can only compare to movies from cold countries with high rates of clinical depression.

I stood in the long queue stretching out of Zawya’s entrance waiting, surrounded by artist friends, journalist friends, musician friends, activist friends, academic friends, friends with nice hairstyles and attractive earrings and smiles, and as we were waiting, a young man who was sitting in the café nearby approached and asked me directly:

Young man: Hey friend, what is this?
Me: What is what?
Young man: This building, what is it?
Me: It’s a cinema.
Young man [quickly scanning the crowd’s faces]: Showing English films only, right?
Me: Both actually.
Young man: So what is this film?
Me: It’s a film called Experimental Summer.
Young man: Is it good?
Me: I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet.
Young man: So should I watch it?
Me: Try, you might like it, you might not.
Young man: Thanks, dude.
Me: You’re welcome.
Young man [taking two steps away then returning]: Just one more question, sorry.
Me: Sure.
Young man: Will they let me in?
Me: What do you mean?
Young man: I mean, I can just buy a ticket and they’ll let me in?
Me: Yeah.
Young man: Okay.

So with this spirit, and influenced by this conversation and all the thoughts it implanted in my head, I started watching the film. In its few first minutes it does indeed seem experimental: the way it wanders into its story is free and playful, as the storytelling style — many of my friends prefer to call it “narration” — doesn’t commit to a specific delivery mode. Sometimes it feels like a documentary where people speak as themselves about their experience of the film’s central quest (which seems to be searching for an indie film made in the 1980s called Experimental Summer and apparently destroyed); then the movie suddenly breaks free and turns into a brief fictional narrative about a young man and a young woman who go through a bizarre experience (one of the best parts of the film: a scene in which they try to find a place to sleep together and end up welcomed into a friendly, yet creepy, stranger’s house). This is all bracketed by very serious intervals through which the film transmits important information from an imagined reality that is completely different from ours.

The contrast between the way the documentary and fictional elements are shot give the impression of a large body of components, of a cinematic language with a big vocabulary. The dominant feeling I initially had was that this contrast could have been invested in more freely: that language could have been explored more, with deeper emphasis on the techniques used to tell the two stories — the documentary could have been more documentary in terms of filming and editing style and the nature of the events being captured, while the fictional could have been more so, more committed to controlled fictional storytelling techniques. But despite feeling that there could be more investment in these interesting contrasts, I enjoyed watching it and thought the film captured some fascinating moments and connections.

Within minutes, however, the impact of that first impression started to fade away as the film seemed to lose interest in these contrasts, assuming a sole focus on the idea of searching for the missing film. Experimentation gradually disappears and so do the colors, leaving only browns and silences. Having just been watching a movie about many things and possibilities, I found myself watching the same scene repeated over and over again — one in which people I don’t know speak with vast anxiety about something they assume I share the same anxiety toward (they keep saying “we have to find the film”).

Halfway through, I lost interest in the film the characters are looking for, with all its implications and references. The search seemed empty, unchallenging, without much human feeling I could immerse myself in, regardless of the quest’s import. Failures of the making then suddenly came into sharp relief: instead of the unusual shots at the beginning, like one in which the camera follows someone move through an apartment to hand someone else a joint, the camera now does nothing other than stare at the people talking, while the editing serves only to finish shots and lead to the next without any specific sense of rhythm. The collusion that blinded me from seeing these failures and encouraging me to support the film disappeared as the strange subplots, and efforts to keep me sensually engaged faded away.  

In a country like Egypt, the melodrama of the artist and the communication difficulties between artists and their audience and between people in general is an unavoidable problem that reflects technical, economic, cultural and rhetorical challenges, and if art is to reflect its maker’s experiences, it is difficult not to make art about the challenge of making art with sincerity, integrity and freely made execution choices. I understand and respect how the main characters’ seeking of the “lost film” in Experimental Summer is a reflection of the filmmakers’ own search for the opportunity to make art, and was intended as a vessel for conversations and thoughts about that. And they do manipulate our expectations, challenge our demands from the film and emphasize its difference through fragmented storytelling, multiple fake endings and the distorted presence of the filmmaker himself.

Those decisions are meant to differentiate the film from the ordinary documentaries you watch on Al-Jazeera and give you a certain sense of excess — an ambitious and exciting promise. We are used to assuming that art made for the masses is usually superficial, and many artists in various fields benefit from a niche audience that doesn’t judge their work according to the paralyzing roles of mainstream entertainment. This is why a lot of really good finds come out of isolated experiments. But if sharing is necessarily a superficiality — as I perhaps mistakenly think this film is suggesting! — then there is no point in sharing art at the first place. Mastering the language used to communicate is a necessity to make communication successful, and if the story is about a lack of communication, or a gap between maker and viewer, this too is a story that requires the ability to communicate to be able to tell it.

Experimental Summer reminded me of a conversation about Ibrahim El-Batout’s Ain Shams (2008), which I couldn’t watch due to a strong sense of alienation and inability to believe what was going on in the film. A friend said: “Yeah, but this film only cost LE30,000!” As if this in itself was enough to like it, regardless of how well it connected itself to my senses. This contextual way of judging art and searching for reasons to like and dislike things is a widespread disease in the Egyptian art scene, or even Egypt in general. But emotional judgments built on personal experiences and connections usually lead to the opposite of what they mean to do, and the lack of a genuine technical criticism makes artists fall into a problematic relationship with their art and audience, and wastes the chance for true opportunities to develop.

One director might need to realize that their problem has always been with explaining the geography of their shot and where things are in relation to each other, or that their medium shot always comes at the wrong moment. Another director might need to fix the way their actors always end their lines the same way. Or maybe all of them need to realize that their fear of commerciality and entertainment has created a psychological barrier between them and the craft of storytelling and fictionalizing things. Instead though, many filmmakers sink into a bitter relationship with the audience and criticism due to repeated exposure to either exaggerated compliments given for non-artistic reasons, or uninspiring personal attacks also mounted for reasons unrelated to art.

In Experimental Summer we see how this problem is reflected in a self-centered film with a passive hostility toward the audience, a work that constantly tries to complain, through the words of its frustrated artist characters, about strong feelings of rejection and injustice. These are respectable feelings that deserve to be discussed, but life has so many other feelings that also deserve to be discussed, and a lot of artists I know have lives full of rich experiences and interests that rarely appear in their work.  

One thing that has most attracted me to filmmaking outside the support and control of big production companies or the guardianship of the state was the sense of empowerment these projects inspired. Almost every basic experience you go through in Egypt plants inside you a certain sense of weakness and lack of ability, a sense that every hope or dream will eventually hit the wall of military service, visa rejection, censorship, or losing your job at the ad agency if you don’t do what the client tells you to do. Independent cinema has an ability to find a technical way to create a shocking state of liberation from all these limitations we struggle to imagine ourselves outside. A cheap digital camera, an exciting story and few young people who know how to talk can result in a film that people can watch and ask themselves: How did these kids do that?

Watching a good, well-crafted independent film is a message to everyone that anything is possible and that we can do things if we really want to, and this is why the state is at war with the very idea of independent cinema. This is why Withered Green (2016) by Mohamed Hammad is still pushing to get a screening licence from the censorship authority despite the warm welcome it met in film festivals around the world. This is why In the Last Days of the City (2016) by Tamer El Said is fighting a similar but harsher fight with the censors. It is not because they are revolutionary or shocking films, but because they are well-made films that evaded our conviction of failure and inability, films that are able, films that do what they want to do in a neat and precise way in complete isolation from the body of money and power. Movies like these, once people see them and learn about how they were made, can easily lead to an unstoppable tide of similar experiments that rely only on independence, and God only knows what other kinds of independence such movies can inspire people to seek.

Mohamed Hammad says that a film succeeds when it manages to get made. I add to that that people’s reactions can never take away from the miracle of the film’s happening. Experimental Summer didn’t notice its own success by existing, facing the audience with a shy lamentation and sense of shortage by emphasizing its inability to find its sought-for film, and ending on a defeatist note that wastes its potential to benefit from its own power and own language, distracting it from its personal miracle and opportunity to take off. If movies like Experimental Summer fail to find a different way to talk to the society of artists about their melodrama, they might feed into the same narrative the state spends millions every year to transmit.

These movies might actually be willingly building walls around themselves, disconnecting from their surroundings and burying themselves in deeper isolation. Movies that think their problem is having concerns bigger or more sophisticated than those the “ordinary” viewer can process risk putting themselves in a dangerous frame: one that builds its imagination of the other on racism, classism or general paranoia. The other is stripped of their senses because of a failure coming from the initiator of the communication. I’m sure that this is not how Experimental Summer‘s makers see themselves or the audience, and I’m also not advocating an art-making process designed around sensational and entertainment appeal, but I believe that art seeking an impact and a prominent position needs to remove itself from worn paralyzing frames that put thick meaningless lines between what’s elitist, what’s populist and what’s folksy. Life is much more mixed up now.

Experimental Summer is playing at Cairo’s Zawya cinema through October 17


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism