Zawya 2.0: Between resilience and compromise
Zawya relocates to Karim Cinema on Emad Eddin Street - Courtesy: Lamis Magdy

The alley off Talaat Harb Street is a bit less crowded now and much less convivial. Gone are the clusters of young people engaged in animated discussions that take up the sidewalk, the street and spill onto the plastic chairs of the adjacent coffeeshop. Many of those chairs are empty now, and the narrow blue doors that used to mark the entrance to Zawya are locked shut. It’s dark, and the vertical turquoise neon sign with its angular typeface is nowhere to be seen.

On another day, this could have been a sad sight to see. This could have been it: a very feasible ending for the alternative cinema space. Yet this, surprisingly, is not the case, and the quietness on the downtown corner does not signal an ending but rather a beginning somewhere new. A few streets to the north, a new, bigger neon sign is lit up. But this one shines on the wide expanse of Emad Eddin Street, no longer hidden or fighting for space.

Zawya’s old entrance in Odeon, off Talaat Harb Street

Zawya’s new venue on Emad Eddin Street. Photo: Lamis Magdy

For the past four months, the small team behind Zawya has been supervising a full-fledged renovation process, attempting to turn downtown’s Karim Cinema, where they’ve occasionally held screenings, into the space they had always dreamed of for their project. The new venue opened on September 12 with a retrospective of 20 restored Youssef Chahine films, in addition to parallel workshops and masterclasses examining the late filmmaker’s legacy on the 10th anniversary of his passing.

Zawya, the space

According to Youssef Shazli, the cinema’s managing director, the space Zawya had been occupying in Odeon Cinema since it opened in 2014 increasingly became a source of frustration. “Back when we started, no one really believed in the project, so we were aware that we had to say yes to everything, even if we knew it didn’t really meet our standards. We still had everything to prove,” he says. “This is why we gladly accepted the deal with Odeon, even though the screening hall we got was small and suffered from multiple technical problems.”

The idea for Zawya was first conceived in 2013 by filmmaker and producer Marianne Khoury, who is the managing director of Misr International Films (MIF) and the founder of the Panorama of the European Film, which celebrated its 10th and most successful edition to date last year. Khoury, who is also Shazli’s mother and Chahine’s niece, was originally planning to start the project in 6th of October City in the Americana Plaza entertainment complex. It was the place where MIF had acquired its first multiplex, and the idea was to build on the Panorama’s growth with a venue that would screen non-commercial films that usually don’t make it to the Egyptian market — be they European or otherwise — all year long.

“I was between jobs at the time and felt that I wanted to be part of the project, and I started by telling her that 6th of October definitely wasn’t the right place for it,” Shazli recalls. “Then, as things progressed, I told her it’s either you or me,” he laughs.

“We don’t want to be elitist, but we also don’t want to be sell-outs. It’s a delicate balance we’re trying to reach”

Khoury, being fully occupied with her activities at MIF, was glad to hand over the project to Shazli, and it was agreed that Zawya — while affiliated with MIF and occupying an office in the same downtown building — would be an autonomous structure, with an independent budget, staff and workflow.

As he was taking over, Shazli saw an opportunity in the changing downtown landscape, where cinemas that used to be overflowing with moviegoers in the late 1990s and early 2000s were now struggling to continue operating. This was partially because Egyptian film releases had become largely seasonal but also due to the rapid emergence of multiplexes, mostly in the suburbs.

The centrality of downtown Cairo, coupled with the change in moviegoing patterns, Shazli says, created a gap he felt Zawya could fill by offering a different concept. “The entire film scene has changed, and these cinemas are only making money during both Eids,” he says. “There was a time when you wouldn’t be able to cross the street with all the queues in front of Odeon. But this is hardly the case anymore, and this is why they agreed to give us one of their theatres.”

There was also the factor of downtown Cairo being an arts and culture hub, one that was — only two years after the 2011 revolution — still thriving and brimming with further possibility. “Our timing was lucky, because the post-2011 rigor had not yet died down, and the aftermath of the events of 2013 had not yet fully kicked in,” Shazli says. The location of Odeon was an added bonus, with its proximity to other cultural venues such as the Townhouse Gallery and the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), as well as popular downtown spots like the Odeon Palace bar, the Lotus rooftop bar and the Greek Club.

Zawya’s old screening hall in Odeon

The deal with Odeon, which is owned by production and distribution company New Century, started as a six-month trial where the Zawya team had to illustrate their project’s ability to attract audiences and garner sufficient ticket sales. “We had a rough start trying to get the word out, people still weren’t sure what Zawya was exactly,” Shazli says. “We opened in March 2014, and, five months in, it appeared we would be kicked out by the end of our trial period.”

It wasn’t until the release of Amir Ramses’s sequel to The Jews of Egypt (2012), followed by the first Chahine retrospective the team put together in the fall of 2014, that the tides turned. “Those two events saved us,” Shazli recounts. “It was the first time we experienced back-to-back full-house screenings at the cinema, and from then on things started to go upward.”

More successes followed, most notably Hybrid Reels: Revisiting the Documentary, a curated program of 20 films that explored different approaches to nonfiction filmmaking, put together by Zawya’s head curator of special programs, Alia Ayman, in May 2015. “I would say we had a very good first two years,” Shazli says. “Things were happening. Zawya was growing. And overall, it exceeded our expectations.”

“When I first envisioned Zawya, I was in one of the Curzon cinemas in London, and I thought this is what I want: a space where people can come not only to watch films but also to hang out, work, buy old DVDs — somewhere with a nice coffee shop, or even a bar if possible, film posters on the wall, good wifi and all that”

However, by Zawya’s third year in business, the space in Odeon, which had served the project well during its early stages, was starting to feel too small, and too constrained. More widely attended events, including two editions of Cairo Cinema Days (launched in 2016) and an impressive run by Kawthar Younis’s A Present from the Past (2015), for instance, only helped cement that feeling. “We were no longer that little project, content with whatever it could get. We’d always had our standards, and we felt it was time to try to live up to them,” Shazli says.

Through Zawya, Shazli had hoped to provide moviegoers with more than the concept of thoughtfully selected films. He wanted to offer them an all-around memorable experience they would want to repeat time and again. The problem with Odeon, he says, wasn’t only the theater’s faulty sound system and projector, but also the narrow corridor that served as a cafeteria and the fact that it was tucked away in a tiny downtown nook that wasn’t very easy to get to. “I started to long for a space I could look forward to showing to people visiting from abroad — whenever someone came to Cairo and wanted to see the work we’re doing, I’d dread taking them to Zawya,” he illustrates.

When I first envisioned Zawya, I was in one of the Curzon cinemas in London, and I thought this is what I want: a space where people can come not only to watch films but also to hang out, work, buy old DVDs — somewhere with a nice coffee shop, or even a bar if possible, film posters on the wall, good wifi and all that,” Shazli continues. “Honestly, though, Zawya has never been that space, for me at least.”

Zawya’s old space in Odeon. The back half of the corridor served as a cafeteria.

The arrangement with Odeon was also very precarious, he says, as there was never a contract. Additionally, the revenue from ticket sales was equally divided between the distributor of the film being screened and the owners of the cinema, while Zawya got nothing. It was a far from lucrative situation, which posed a constant threat to the project’s continuity.

Shazli was confident Zawya was at a place where it could successfully operate three screens, so he tried to persuade Odeon to give them the entire cinema. Up to a point, it seemed that he would be able to close the deal, before it fell through due to a sudden change in management. It was then, says Shazli, that they began seriously to consider calling it quits. “We either had to go bigger or shut down. There was no other way,” he says.

However, negotiations with New Century — who had acquired the two-screen Karim Cinema the same year Zawya opened — brought forth a new option: Zawya would take over Karim in its entirety, and New Century and MIF would each invest in half of the renovations. It was a long, tiring negotiation process, but the final 10-year contract reached gives Zawya 50 percent of ticket sale revenues and full management of the space, even during both Eid holidays.

“A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable,” says Shazli. “But we demonstrated our ability to make this concept work. It took us four years, but we finally have a much better deal.”

The bigger screening hall in Zawya’s new home at Karim Cinema. Photo: Lamis Magdy

The renovations included soundproofing and remodeling both screening halls to feature double doors and stadium-style seating for better screen visibility. The lobby, cafeteria and the cinema’s facade on Emad Eddin Street were all redone. “It feels totally different now, and we’re really happy with it,” Shazli says.

Yet, he still has concerns. “The investment made by New Century and MIF leaves us in debt, which has never happened before,” he says. This means the cinema’s priority is now to make enough profit to cover the costs they shouldered: “a completely different dynamic” for Zawya.

Zawya, the program

Yet, while the problems with capacity appear to have been solved, more challenges remain, particularly on the programming front. Initially promoted as an “arthouse cinema,” with the Arabic tagline سينما للأفلام اللي مبتنزلش السينما (A cinema for films that don’t make it to the cinema), Zawya’s programming strategy was originally designed to include more special programs, like the Hybrid Reels documentary program. This allowed film enthusiasts access to a variety of films that don’t otherwise have a platform on the film market in Egypt, which is naturally limited by the preferences of the country’s wider moviegoing audience and the financial considerations of distributors. However, that early vision has undergone a number of tweaks over the years, some of them major.

To this day, Hybrid Reels remains a one-of-a-kind program for Zawya, alongside a variety of one-off screenings and shorter programs; mostly director retrospectives. Central to the project’s sustainability has been its regular program of two-week releases. These are mainly made up of films from around the globe that have enjoyed particularly successful festival runs but have also come to include more commercial productions (such as the 2015 Oscar best picture winner, Birdman, or last year’s musical hit La La Land), which are often simultaneously showing in other movie theaters in Egypt.

Both Shazli and Ayman view the deviation from the project’s original premise as a not particularly harmful necessity. They have come to view Zawya as more of an eclectic space. “Over the years, we have come to understand what kind of films can survive a two-week run, and those are essentially the films that either have a well known director, a star cast or have won several awards worldwide. Other films we want to show that don’t have these criteria work as parts of independent events or as single screenings,” Shazli says.

“I feel it’s time to question the factors that create this very idea of arthouse films and where we stand in relation to them … Also, this whole issue of ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’ cinema — what exactly is it independent from or alternative to? What are the aesthetics that we endorse, and what do they mean?”

The decision to be more flexible with selecting what to screen was also prompted by a mounting realization that Zawya’s steadily growing audience was not restricted to the crowd of artists and cinephiles it drew at its inception, a time when “the major bulk of the audience on any given night was our friends and acquaintances in the filmmaking industry,” as Ayman puts it. “That sense of intimacy was great while it lasted, but as time went by our following began to change,” she says.

“We are content with being what we are for now, particularly because a place like Cimatheque [an alternative film center in downtown Cairo that also opened in 2014] exists — the way I see it, they are the ones catering to that specialized audience now with their program, which is radically different from ours,” Shazli adds.

However, both Ayman and Shazli admit that Zawya’s programming has been inconsistent and acknowledge that, so far, the curated programs have been less frequent than originally intended. “There was a lot of financial pressure on us to rely more on releases, and, as we grew, more distributors wanted to work with us,” Shazli says. Moreover the team usually welcomed the fact that other entities — such as D-CAF, Shnit and the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival — often wanted to rent Zawya for events of their own. Not only was it an extra source of income, but they felt that collaborating with more actors on the city’s cultural scene strengthened their project. All of that, Shazli says, led to an overcrowded schedule, taking up slots where more special programs could have been.

The smaller screening hall in Zawya’s new venue. Photo: Lamis Magdy

Now that Zawya is managing two screens in Karim — one that can hold 310 people, and another 78 — both Shazli and Ayman believe there will be more space for unconventional programming. “We want our programming to be less event based, so we hope we won’t only have condensed programs but also single screenings throughout the week,” Shazli says. “We want people to feel that they can come to Zawya on a random day without knowing what’s on and be sure they’ll find something interesting.”

The opening program, Youssef Chahine: The Restoration Project, is the result of years of work by Marianne and her brother Gaby Khoury to restore Chahine’s filmography, of which 20 films are now ready. Some of the restorations were done in Egypt, others — the French co-productions — at the Cinematheque Francaise, and one in at the Cineteca di Bologna. “It’s not really a curated program. We’re just celebrating the restorations and hoping to start an open discussion about the dire state of Arabic film copies and what can be done about it, because we have to move fast,” says Ayman.

فيلم الأرض | النسخة الأصلية والنسخة المُرممة

الفرق بين النسخة الأصلية والنسخة المُرممة لفيلم الارض.

الفيلم هيتعرض النهارده الساعة ٧، التذاكر الباقية محدودة جداً تقدروا تيجوا بدري وتحجرزوا من شباك التذاكر او اون لاين من اللينك ده:

نشوفكم في السينما!


Check out the difference between the restored and original copy of “The Land/ Al Ard”.

The film will be screened today at 7pm, the remaining seats are very limited, come early and book your ticket from the box office or online through this link:

See you at the cinema.

Posted by Zawya on Monday, September 17, 2018

Ayman’s curatorial touch can be felt, however, on the parallel program of events, particularly a masterclass on the evolution of Chahine’s storytelling techniques conducted by filmmaker Bassel Ramses and a workshop titled This Land First Speaks to You in Signs with artist and curator Ala Younis, where participants will explore how seminal historical events are restructured in cinema. The aim in the parallel program is to explore how we can “toy around” with the scholarly works produced about Arab cinema, and not just in the form of critical writing. “This is why [Younis]’s presence is important, because it demonstrates how cinema can act as raw material for other kinds of production,” she says.

In February 2018, Younis participated in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum Expanded with High Dam, an installation that presents elements from two works Chahine made upon being commissioned by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser to make a film about the construction process of the massive national project. When Chahine’s  The People and the Nile — which he finished shooting in 1968 — was rejected, he altered it into a version accepted by the state in 1972. The first version wasn’t released until 1997, under the name Once Upon a Time … The Nile. When she saw the piece in Berlin, Ayman decided she wanted to include it in the Chahine program, but since Zawya does not have an exhibition space, she had to devise another form to include the import of the piece. She eventually came up with the idea for the This Land First Speaks to You in Signs workshop, which she hopes will serve as the initial step to form a working group.

I am not at all invested in that narrative of oppression and survival. Of course, I am against censorship, but, honestly, right now I think it’s the least of our concerns.

“Chahine may be the most documented filmmaker in all of Arab cinema, but there’s still so much more to say about him — not as a filmmaker, but as an entryway to how we write about the history of film,” Ayman says.

Ramses, meanwhile, previously taught a very popular workshop on self-reference cinema at Dahshur Residence, a family home in the small town south of Cairo that Khoury has repurposed as a workshop and residency space, which is why Ayman initially thought of him as the right person to dissect what people often refer to as Chahine’s “autobiographical” work.

“Bassel’s method is steeped in auteur theory, but the way he connects everything together is very smart, and I feel it could be a good place to start thinking differently about Chahine’s canon,” Ayman says. “I wish we could write more about Chahine in terms of his relationship to us, now, not what he did, but rather why he persists.”

Youssef Chahine: The Restoration Project runs until September 22. Photo: Lamis Magdy

The plan for Zawya now is for the regular releases to continue in the bigger theatre, while the smaller one will host more curated programs and special events. “I’m placing all my bets on that smaller hall. I think that will be our little nook, where film people can come together to watch and discuss all the different things they care about,” she enthuses.

“We want to keep drawing a wider audience, but also to tighten our ties with the specialized community of artists and filmmakers, because I think these are the circles whose expectations we haven’t always met,” Ayman says. “We don’t want to be elitist, but we also don’t want to be sell-outs. It’s a delicate balance we’re trying to reach.”

For Zawya’s second phase, Ayman hopes the programming will contribute less to reifying the concept of “arthouse cinema” and focus more on challenging it. “I feel it’s time to question the factors that create this very idea of arthouse films and where we stand in relation to them,” she says. “Also, this whole issue of ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’ cinema — what exactly is it independent from or alternative to? What are the aesthetics that we endorse, and what do they mean?”

“I used to be way more idealistic when we first started, but I am older now, and the times have changed … At some point, it all came down to a choice: I could rebel against everything the way I felt I should, but then this project wouldn’t be possible. I chose to continue.”

Because Zawya does not play the role of “discovering” films that are significant in one way or another but rather brings to the public films that are already recognized, Ayman believes the least that could be done is to scrutinize the system through which such recognition is born. “With an event like Cairo Cinema Days, for instance, the only thing we do is gather the year’s Arab films that have already been to film festivals around the world and we screen them here. But who has decided that these are the year’s best films and why? Who sets the criteria?” she says. “We need to examine the current global sphere within which we move — how do film festivals work? What is their effect on us, as filmmakers and programmers?”

Part of Ayman’s upcoming agenda as a programer is shedding light on different avant-garde traditions from around the world, as an attempt to prompt thinking around alternative methods of making films beyond the current economic structure of the global film industry. “This current system is clearly not working for us. I see so many Arab filmmaker friends, from Cairo to Beirut and lots of other places, who are frustrated because they have no money and can’t get their films made. Some even quit cinema, and it’s really sad,” she says. “We need to find another way. This fixation on going to Cannes and festivals altogether — well, this needs to stop. It’s become a hindrance to our own process. There must be another way.”

To illustrate her point, Ayman uses Latin America’s 1960s–70s’ Third Cinema movement as an example. “By examining the avant-garde, I am not trying to push the experimental as an aesthetic, but rather as a production model,” she says. “Third Cinema was not purely experimental. It was merely aware of the economic context of film production and distribution, and its relationship to form — how they both speak to one another. I feel this might be what’s missing here. We need that awareness, and we need to extend it to our work.”

Ayman is also already working to bring Zawya’s initial plan back on track, beyond the current retrospective. For starters, a series on Egyptian documentary cinema, which began by showcasing five Hashem El Nahas films almost one year ago, is set to continue in October, with one-day retrospectives for Ali El-Ghazouli, Madkour Thabet, and Khairy Beshara, as well as Chahine’s short documentaries. “The same way we screened Nanook of the North as the world’s first documentary film in Hybrid Reels, we wanted to explore the early tradition of Egyptian documentary filmmaking, which started as far back as the 1920s,” Ayman says.

These aspirations, Ayman hopes, can also be met through a research component in the near future. “I hope we can organize discussions, put together reading groups and even publish texts on our website,” she says. “I think this would also be a good way of keeping our core following of artists and intellectuals, in light of the semi-mainstream direction our program of releases is taking.”

Marianne Khoury addressing the audience on the opening night of Youssef Chahine: The Restoration Project

Zawya as challenges and possibilities

Yet despite Ayman’s clear vision as to what the program should do and Shazli’s relocation efforts, several obstacles remain before this program can unfold.

A problem the team often faced with screening foreign films was the recurrent unavailability of Arabic subtitles. “We’ve often had to screen films without Arabic subtitles, which I hated to do, but it was either that or not screen at all,” Ayman says. Since the subtitling process is also very expensive, it isn’t viable for Zawya to do it inhouse, nor are they able to outsource it. One successful instance Ayman recalls, however, is when IT security researcher Ramy Raoof subtitled the copy of Citizenfour (2014) screened in Hybrid Reels. “He had an agreement with [director] Laura Poitras, and he did it because, as a techie, there was something it for him. I’m hoping we can work out similar collaborations in the future.”

The shortage of funds is the most important challenge on all fronts. Without state support, Zawya’s funding options are restricted to grant agencies and corporate sponsors, the second of which Shazli and Ayman both prefer, since grants often cover specific programs but not running costs. “Applying for grants is also a very exhausting and time-consuming occupation — one we’re not very good at — not to mention the reporting process afterward, which is even worse,” Ayman says. A sponsorship contract between Zawya and Commercial International Bank came to an end last year, and since then, the team has been on the lookout for another sponsor.

Another potential source of money is showing advertisements before films, which Shazli says he is considering but with a bit of an edge. Instead of screening commercials for big corporations, which he thinks wouldn’t be interested, Shazli plans to approach local start-ups and small businesses and offer them short-term contracts to display any promotional material they have in Zawya in exchange for small sums of money. “I’m thinking of the Greek Campus types, whose target audience is pretty much the crowd that comes to Zawya,” he says. “If we get five of those, even if each pays only a few thousand pounds, it would make a difference. And the best thing about it is we would be supporting like-minded businesses.”

“Without deliberately trying to make it that, Zawya had come to resemble a breath of fresh air in a sewer for people living here, so we began to feel this kind of responsibility to keep going.”

Practically, however, the best situation for Zawya would be to rely on its own profit-generating activities for sustainability. Currently, Zawya charges LE40 per ticket, which is double the price it started with in 2014 and LE5 higher than before the relocation, but this is still relatively cheaper than most other cinemas in the city, which makes ticket sales an unlikely source of profit. The team continues to come up with different ways to self-fund, however, including a new line of merchandise that will be sold at the venue.

Zawya’s new cafeteria. Photo: Lamis Magdy

“From the very first day, we knew we didn’t want to be a non-profit. We were very adamant on sticking to the commercial model, and I will always prefer this to being stuck in the endless loop of applying to grants from funders,” Ayman says. “If we had a third screen, I wouldn’t at all mind showing blockbusters and superhero films, if it would mean that we’d be financially self-sufficient and could fund our alternative activities ourselves.”

Zawya’s funding problem is most clearly seen in the size of its team. With only seven full-time employees, the company is critically understaffed. “The result is that we’re overworked and unfocused, and our energy often goes to waste,” Ayman says. Although each team member has a clearly defined job description, everyone ends up doing everything — which includes a lot more than working.

“Operating in Egypt entails spending hundreds of hours solving problems we shouldn’t even be dealing with in the first place,” Shazli says. Such problems include negotiations with the Censorship Board over screening permits, film copies being stuck in customs for up to two weeks at times, and navigating the Egyptian banking system, which makes sending and receiving payments to or from abroad more complicated than necessary. “If we want to transfer money, for instance, we’re asked to provide an original invoice, which means we sometimes have to wait for weeks to receive it by mail.”

Yet, more important than hiring more people is making sure the current team is fairly compensated, which, in light of limited resources, is not the case. As Zawya has grown, so have the people behind it, as have their expectations regarding what a full-time job should provide. “We are no longer the 23-year-olds who started this project,” says Ayman. “We’re all nearing or beyond 30 now, and we know we can’t keep living on small salaries with no insurance of any kind. And the constant uncertainty deeply affects our morale,” she says.

The team behind Zawya on opening night

“The question now is whether we’ll find a way to become stable enough to cater to this team, which is made up of qualified, capable people who need to be paid, and paid well,” Shazli says. “Either we do that or we’ll always be a small operation making barely enough to cover itself, one that’s always run by a bunch of kids, and in that case it’s not going to be us, because we’re not kids anymore.”

These structural issues have also taken their toll on Zawya’s distribution component, which has so far played a seminal role in creating a space for recent independent Egyptian productions on the market. For instance, before Zawya, there was a good chance that films such as Mohammed Hammad’s Withered Green (2016), Mahmoud Lotfy’s Experimental Summer and Hala Elkoussy’s Cactus Flower (2017), all of which had fairly successful runs, would not have found distribution in Cairo after screening at major festivals in Dubai, Berlin and Rotterdam respectively. Yet after launching its distribution program with grand ambitions in 2015, Shazli says the company is reducing the number of Egyptian films they take on from three or four to one per year.

“We’re trying to be more focused,” Shazli says. “We try to pick a film we’re particularly fond of. This always helps us market it better.”

There is no limit on non-Egyptian films, however, because the work load, when it comes to those, is relatively light, as Zawya only holds their theatrical rights within Egypt. With Egyptian films, on the other hand, the company owns all rights in all territories. That means it manages all of the film’s distribution stages: from its festival run and its theatrical release to subsequent sales to TV channels, video-on-demand platforms or airlines. “It’s proven to be more difficult to handle than we thought with our present structure,” Shazli says.

Another area where Zawya has fallen short is marketing. Without a proper marketing budget, large segments of what could be a larger Zawya audience remain untapped, particularly students which no one in the current team has the time or space to reach out to. “My ultimate dream is to hire a corporate consultant to help us with marketing and HR,” Ayman says. “We keep dropping important things, and because the bar here isn’t very high, no one will come up to you and say, ‘What is this shit you’re doing?’ — I’m craving competition.”

Even though the notion that there are institutions similar to Zawya that are opening now — with all the political and economic constraints the past four years have brought — might seem highly unrealistic, Ayman seems to think otherwise. The increase in productions of “independent or alternative cinema, or whatever we’re going to name it,” she says, call for an infrastructure to support them.

“Making films is never enough. It’s only the beginning. You need distribution, venues to screen them, writers to review them, festivals where they can participate,” she continues. “More venues like Zawya could open to cater to this growth, simply because people have an interest in the presence of spaces where the films in which they invested money could be screened and in cultivating a culture that is receptive to them.”

The new Zawya sign lights up on Emad Eddin Street. Photo: Lamis Magdy

One more obstacle facing Zawya, though — and, inevitably, any project that follow in its footsteps — is censorship. Even though Zawya has a stable relationship with the Censorship Board (thanks, in part, to its affiliation with MIF), whereby the venue enjoys a special festival license that sometimes allows it to screen films that normally wouldn’t make it past the censors to Egyptian movie screens — there have been occasions over the years where certain films have been denied permits.

In the summer of 2014, during a program titled Shorts Revisited, Egyptian filmmaker Aida El-Kashef’s A Tin Tale was scheduled to screen. However, Ayman and Kashef both announced that it had not passed the board’s review. In defiance of the decision and for a limited time, Kashef made the film available on her Vimeo channel for people to watch. A similar incident took place in May 2017, when Egyptian documentarian Marouan Omara, visual artist Nadia Mounier and filmmaker Islam Kamal provided viewers access to their 42-minute film, The Visit, after Zawya announced that the board had not granted it approval to screen in the first edition of Cairo Cinema Days.

More recently, however, Zawya has favored a quieter approach to dealing with such imposed and abrupt programming changes. A long and unsuccessful attempt to obtain a permit for Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016) was followed by the cancellation of a screening of Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) at last year’s edition of the Panorama of the European Film. Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir’s Happily Ever After (2016) did not screen in this year’s Cairo Cinema Days, despite being announced in the schedule. In both instances, Zawya did not mention the reason behind the sudden cancellations, nor did they confirm the films’ absences had anything to do with the Censorship Board.

“I no longer like to talk about censorship, mostly because I received two emails from two different directors asking us to send their films to the board for review, just so they would be rejected and, as a result of the hype that would cause, get better exposure abroad,” Ayman says. “It makes me really angry. I am not at all invested in that narrative of oppression and survival. Of course, I am against censorship, but, honestly, right now I think it’s the least of our concerns.

Ayman does not believe the board’s decisions always reflect a conscious, systematic repression of creative freedoms. Rather, she thinks they are more often than not governed by the whims of the employee you deal with at any given point. “It’s way more haphazard than that — the state is not one big, monolithic entity in that Big Brother sense,” she says. “The most powerful person in this equation is almost always the junior bureaucrat you have to get past. So it comes down to human interaction in the end.”

Moviegoers hang out in Zawya’s new lobby space/cafeteria. Photo: Lamis Magdy

Ayman concedes that tough compromises have had to be made, but if the price of continuing to exist is avoiding a head on confrontation with the state, they are happy they can pay it. “Of course, there are battles we’ll have to fight, but if it isn’t necessary, we’ll make do with supporting those who decide to go for it,” she says. “None of us is a self-identified activist, nor did we ever claim that Zawya was a radical space.”

In a perfect world, Shazli says, there are a lot of things he would have done differently. “I used to be way more idealistic when we first started, but I am older now, and the times have changed. The air in the country is not the same. At some point, it all came down to a choice: I could rebel against everything the way I felt I should, but then this project wouldn’t be possible,” he says. “I chose to continue. And yes, of course we do things we are not happy with, but at least we’re contributing to what we want to see, even if we can’t be it.

The priority was always to stay open, Ayman concludes. In a way, Zawya could no longer afford not to. “Without deliberately trying to make it that, Zawya had come to resemble a breath of fresh air in a sewer for people living here, so we began to feel this kind of responsibility to keep going,” she says.

There is a lot of truth in Ayman’s words. In the new bright, spacious Zawya cafeteria, with its hanging overhead lights and wooden tables, the crowd gathering to watch Chahine’s Al-Maseer (Destiny, 1998) is colorful and diverse. Young people cluster again, their discussions more animated than ever. Some have seen the film a million times. Some haven’t seen it since they were kids. Others have never seen it. They greet each other, laugh, and sip on drinks. It feels as though they all know each other, but also like they are discovering one another for the first time, amid the lively chatter and the smell of fresh paint. The air vibrates with an excited hum. A friend muses that, tonight, Cairo doesn’t feel like such a miserable place.

A crowd gathers in front of Zawya’s new venue on Emad Eddin Street. Photo: Lamis Magdy

Yasmine Zohdi 

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