Whose narrative are we writing?
Tamer El Said on censorship, the Cairo International Film Festival and his film’s leak

I was in New York when I watched In the Last Days of the City for the first time. I was far away from Cairo — missing it so much that I teared up at the sight of 6th of October Bridge, crowded with cars, in one scene of the film — but I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by a large number of Egyptian friends and acquaintances in NYC, greeting each other in anticipation and excitement before entering the screening hall, joking each time another one of us joined: “It’s like we’re in Zawya!”

The seats in MoMA’s Roy and Niuta Titus Theater were filled with familiar faces. I knew the stories of some of them who couldn’t go back home in light of the current political conditions, knew the pain that hid beneath their laughter each time we would meet and reminisce, marveling at the absurdity taking place “over there” now. On screen, I see even more familiar faces participating in a Kefaya movement protest in 2009, filmed by the protagonist, Khalid, a filmmaker struggling to make a film about his city — a place teetering on the edge of something that was yet unknown. Kamal Khalil chants “Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!” and one of my friends-in-exile weeps, as another tries to console him with a pat on the shoulder.

Watching In the Last Days of the City, I could see the stagnation that led to January 25, while the defeat that followed it sat next to me, in front of me and everywhere around me in that theater. Meanwhile, the memory of everything else between these two things — the stagnation and the defeat — raged within me throughout the duration of the film, infused with a certain kind of sorrow that the camera’s poetic movements, the dusty yellow color palette, and the poignant soundtrack (“How can you hear silence amidst Cairo’s noise?”) wouldn’t allow me to escape.

In the Q&A session that followed the screening, which took place in New York as part of the New Directors/New Films Festival, an audience member asked Said about his experience at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the film had won the Forum segment’s Caligari Prize the previous month. I don’t remember everything Said said in response, but one sentence stayed with me: “Our work won’t be complete until the film is screened in Cairo, to her people.”

I also remember what Said said about the conditions of film exhibition in Egypt: 300 screens in a country of 90 million, owned by a mere three companies, which also serve as producers and distributors. In light of this structure, the only way an independent film — without a giant production company behind it or any stars among its cast — can have any chance of commercial release is to make headlines in the international festival circuit first, building a reputation solid enough to persuade theater owners to grant it a week or two in cinemas.

In the Last Days of the City was nearly screened in Cairo, and under perfect conditions as well: as part of the official competition of the Cairo International Film Festival’s 38th edition. However, the festival’s management revoked its decision to include the film, only one month after they had announced its addition, on the grounds that it had taken part in too many international film festivals before CIFF (a fact well-known to the selection committee from the start). This was followed by a long dispute between In the Last Days of the City’s team (particularly Zawya, the film’s official distributor) and the festival, punctuated by a number of statements from both sides, and a petition signed by more than 1,000 Egyptian and international artists in solidarity with Said.

Despite all of this, the festival did not go back on its decision to exclude the film, and to this day the director and distributor have received neither a screening permit from the Censorship Board nor a written rejection that could enable them to legally contest the film’s ban.

One autumn day, exactly two years after the peak of the conflict, I find myself surprised by a Vimeo link on my Facebook timeline, shared by over 30 friends in less than an hour. I realize that In the Last Days of the City has been leaked, and that it is now available to watch online, for free. The video thumbnail is from one of the film’s most beautiful, most moving scenes. An old apartment building is being demolished in Alexandria, the furniture and old photographs it houses collapsing along with it. The dust shooting off the crumbling red bricks resembles blood exploding from human veins. In this film, place isn’t just place: it is a creature that pulsates, breathes, grieves and overflows.

The place is here — the film is only available to play for free in Egypt; and the time is November, during the 40th edition of CIFF, for which many had grand expectations on account of the festival’s newly appointed president, Mohamed Hefzy, the youngest CIFF head to date, and one of the industry’s most influential producers. What does a leak mean at this particular time? And how does it affect Said, who currently lives between Cairo and Berlin? Upon watching the film once more, being captured by it all over again, I decided to speak with its director about how the idea of people watching the film on a laptop screen makes him feel, his views on this year’s edition of CIFF, and his position as a filmmaker who — right now, at least — is not making films.

How do you feel about the film’s leak? Did you try to block it?

I am consumed with conflicting feelings about the whole thing. It’s brutal, of course, because this isn’t how I wanted people to see the film, and as a producer it’s a big loss for me, so in this sense I’m frustrated. However, I am also happy that viewers in Egypt finally got to watch the film and interact with it. I normally have a very strict position in regard to leaking and pirating films, but in this case, because the film is banned and there are no other ways to watch it, I can’t blame anyone.

This is why I didn’t try to block it, and I never felt like I wanted to. Leaking the film at this moment in particular, two years after it was effectively banned by CIFF and then by the Censorship Board, drove me to think of the repressive act that caused this situation to begin with. In my head, it’s all about justice and equality in making and receiving art. Everyone has a right to watch the film, and, ethically, I don’t feel that it’s within my rights as its maker to keep it from the audience; I don’t want to be part of the censorship imposed on the film.

What did you decipher from people’s reactions after the leak?

I received a lot of messages, many of them from people I don’t know at all. It’s a little painful, though, because I’m not in Cairo right now, so I was unable to speak with viewers about the film in the way I’d always wished to. Throughout the 10 years during which the film was made, the one thing that kept me going despite all the obstacles we faced was that I would imagine the moment the film was screened to the audience in Egypt. This moment never came, and I consider this the worst thing that’s ever happened to me as a filmmaker.  

I believe that any work of art is a result of the friction between the artist’s alienation from their surroundings and their desire to connect with others even though they feel different from them. There is no filmmaker I know of who doesn’t think about the audience, and there is a difference between thinking of how the audience would receive your work and altering your work to better fit the audience’s preferences. All I wanted was to close the circle: I was making a film about Cairo, and I longed to experience how the city would engage with it upon its release. This is why I’m somehow pleased that the film is now available to Egyptian viewers, particularly during the festival, which was the first tool used to ban it.

Some expect a change in the festival’s management system with the appointment of Hefzy, particularly since he’s been one of the foremost supporters of the independent film scene over the last decade. Do you agree that this last edition could mark a new beginning for CIFF?

I disagree, actually. The festival’s main problem, in my opinion, is a structural one. It has nothing to do with individuals, but rather the festival’s subjugation to the state and censorship bodies, and the fact that its management’s decisions aren’t autonomous. This structural imbalance is why my film was banned two years ago, not because of certain individuals. I have nothing against Mohamed Hefzy, [CIFF artistic director] Youssef Cherif Rizkallah or [former CIFF president] Magda Wassef. Also, CIFF has played a big role in shaping me as a filmmaker, as I’ve been exposed to many, many films through it, and this is why I think that we, as film professionals and enthusiasts in Egypt, have a responsibility to this festival, and that is to ensure that it performs its primary function of supporting the film industry and making films accessible to the largest number possible of viewers — it shouldn’t be used as a censorial or whitewashing tool. As long as the festival isn’t wholly performing this function then there isn’t really anything to discuss or evaluate, because this is more important than the opening ceremony, the guests, the organization and all of that.

I am entirely aware of the conditions filmmakers in Egypt are working in, and I know censorship is part of our reality, but there’s a difference between avoiding certain films from the beginning in order to avoid problems with the board, and choosing a film then excluding it upon censorial interferences. What makes things even worse is that when this happened, the festival wouldn’t take responsibility for its decisions, and instead blamed the filmmakers on no real grounds.

New officials within the existing structure may lead to some improvements in how the festival “looks” — I mean, of course there were good films in the lineup and I have complete confidence in the taste of the festival’s organizers — but the crucial question is: Does the festival enjoy the minimum degree of independence that allows to diligently perform its role, or does it remain entirely submissive to the state? Does the festival’s management own its decisions, or are they dictated to?

In my opinion, we can’t speak of any real change before confronting these questions, because they are the core of the issue. And I don’t want my critique to be taken as an attack on the festival; it is actually driven by my desire never to see what happened with my film happen again with any colleagues, because it’s a very rough experience that I wish on no one, and also by my desire to see the main film festival in my country fulfilling its objectives without external intervention.

This edition saw the participation of a number of independent Egyptian directors, and also the cooperation of alternative cultural institutions, such as Zawya, where some of the films in the selection were screened. In your view, what is the best way to deal with the festival, taking into consideration the lack of opportunities available for filmmakers in Egypt?

In 2016, when my film was banned by the festival, a number of participating Egyptian filmmakers offered to withdraw their films from the selection in solidarity, but I refused [this]. Filmmakers in Egypt work under exceptionally difficult conditions, and, realistically, they have to keep working. Therefore, if the festival is their only chance at showing their films and interacting with the audience, I will be the first to defend their right in holding on to [that right]. What I don’t understand is contributing to imbuing the festival with false credibility. There is a difference between someone showing their film at the festival, and someone singing the praises of the festival all over the place, when they know what they’re saying isn’t true.

I understand that filmmakers want to see the festival in better shape, but this isn’t going to happen by promoting the wrong picture of how it is right now. I was positive all along that Hefzy is someone who has enough experience, knowledge and connections to pull off a successful edition — in terms of organization, important guests, a solid lineup that nonetheless conforms to the limits set by the state — but I see no indicators that the structural problem I mentioned earlier is being fixed, and it will not be fixed as long as we’re gushing over the festival’s significance rather than addressing it.

Two years ago, I wanted to screen my film in CIFF, because I was convinced that this was our only chance at guaranteeing a commercial release — not for reasons that have to do with the film’s content, but with its stature in the market (as it didn’t have a big company behind it) and the political views of Khalid [Abdalla, the film’s lead actor] and me. Also, I hadn’t heard of a similar incident taking place — if I had known that the festival had dealt this way with another film one or two or five years earlier, or whenever, I would not have tried to participate in the festival. Not because I’m exceptionally noble or anything like that, but because, simply, how could I trust the festival with a film I’d spent 10 years of my life making if I knew its management was not accountable for its own decisions, and would exclude it from its selection if it were asked to? And even when the festival announced the film’s inclusion, all I did was say “thank you” and that’s it.

As for Zawya, I can’t deny that I’m angry at their position. It is an anger driven solely by love, though, because, for the longest time, I’d believed that we shared the same view of the role each of us should play in this arrangement. It isn’t personal, it’s rather about their role as the film’s distributors. A distributor is someone you trust with your work, thinking that they will fight side by side with you in all the battles you need to go through in order to make the film available for audiences. This is what, I believe, makes Zawya’s cooperation with the entity that banned the film a problematic decision, particularly when there has been no proof so far that any real change has taken place within that entity. This isn’t an ideological stance, but a practical one. This isn’t my battle nor the film’s battle, it is the battle of anyone who works in this field and wants to see things get better, including Hefzy himself, because I’m sure the way things are being run right now on the film scene is harmful to him too.

The whole thing calls to mind what the protagonist in Sonallah Ibrahim’s Al-Lajnah (The Committee, 1981) says at the end of the novel: “It was my duty to stand before you, not with you,” or something like that. We need to determine our position, as filmmakers and film professionals: Are we at peace with the conditions within which we’re currently working, or are we working within them in spite of ourselves? Because, if it’s the latter, then we should under no circumstances be praising these conditions. I am not saying people should boycott the festival — whoever wants to screen their film at CIFF should go ahead and screen it if they have no other way to reach their audience — but they need to remain aware that they’re screening their films in this context for a reason. Also, they don’t have to celebrate the fact that their film is being screened at the festival, because such celebratory statements contribute directly to cementing these conditions we’re constantly complaining about.

Every position we adopt right now is part of a narrative being written by history, and we need to decide where we stand in relation to it. We are living in a battle for narrative, and the question that haunts me everyday is this: which narrative of the current reality is likely to last?

How far are you from beginning a new project today? And do you see yourself making another film in Cairo in the near future?

This question poses several other complex ones, the first of which concerns my relationship with this place, which I had always belonged to but which currently makes me feel a little bit lonely. It was very hard discovering the big difference between me and many colleagues and friends in regard to how we see things, and this disappointment is always more palpable during the festival, of course. I no longer feel like a part of anything in Cairo, not even the small margin in which I thought I’d always have a place. At the same time, I am unable to leave Cairo, nor am I able to become a viable part of Berlin, where I spend half my time. I never saw myself as an immigrant filmmaker, making films abroad or about any other place. So I don’t really know where I stand now, and in what form I’ll continue.

In 2016, CIFF coincided with the Three Continents Film Festival in Nantes, where In the Last Days of the City won two awards, among them the festival’s Grand Prize. I had told them I wouldn’t be able to make it to the festival, in order to be in Cairo for CIFF, but when the film was excluded, I decided to go to Nantes; I needed to escape. There, the audience’s reaction to the film was overwhelming. I didn’t know whether to feel happy or sad because I was receiving such praise in another city, while, in Cairo, the film was banned.

Ironically, both CIFF and the Three Continents Festival were celebrating their 40th editions this year, and Nantes’ festival management had called me a few months ago, while they were putting together a book about cinema — what it is and how it affects our lives — to be released during this edition. They asked me to contribute a text to add to the book, along with texts by some of the world’s biggest critics and filmmakers. I did send them a text, and I called it “Letters to My Next Film.” November 20 marked the opening ceremonies of both festivals, and I was in Berlin watching the flow of social media posts from both cities, reflecting on my relationship with each. Once again that strange feeling took over: a festival in a city whose language I don’t speak is celebrating my work, while nothing at all connects me to my own city’s festival.

To be honest, my relationship with the film itself has become confusing: Is it a career accomplishment, or a curse that will haunt me for the rest of my life? I believe the biggest challenge any filmmaker faces is protecting their film from being “hijacked” — either by authorities, funders or any other entities — and the process of making a film with an acceptable measure of independence is a rather draining one as it is. Right now, I’m thinking of my own independence as a director, my independence from the feelings of fear associated with my previous experience. I don’t know how to think of a new project without practicing self-censorship, after everything that’s happened. I don’t want to make films that keep getting banned. I am not an activist; at the end of the day, I am just a filmmaker — I want to fit in but I also want to stay true to myself. Other times, I find myself wondering why I have to make another film anyway, and I think that’s a useful question in any case.

[1] The actual quote is: “It was my duty to stand against you, not before you.”

December 28, 2005 – Rome
Why I want to make a film:
Because I want to understand my relation to Cairo, the city that made me what I am.

January 6, 2006 – Cairo
Why I want to make a film:
Because filmmaking is an engagement with life, an attempt to understand the context we are living in, a search for new challenges within language.

April 8, 2010 – Cairo
Why I want to make a film:
Because the agony of not making a film is greater than the agony of making it.

From “Letters to My Next Film,” excerpts from the diaries of Tamer El Said, published in The Other Continents: Mobilities of Contemporary Cinema, released in 2018 by the Three Continents Festival in Nantes, France.

Yasmine Zohdi 

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