Over the past few years, Cairo has seen a large number of independent short video productions that have garnered attention, hailed as manifestations of a vibrant new alternative scene. In light of the hype, it’s important to take a step back and question whether the euphoria is merited. How do the works operate within their own contexts as art? Why do local audiences and international curators privilege them in the first place? Perhaps it would be productive to begin by acknowledging these as diverse works that don’t so much constitute a scene as comprise a variety of responses to the lack thereof — a register of a time and place, but not a place of action.
A young man pins his friend against a wall outside a building in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Cairo. The camera pans left to frame a wild dog ambling amid the trash and concludes the pan with a shot of the street opening onto a sky of nothingness. This is how Folous Mayeta (2006), directed by Rami Abdul Jabbar, ends, after the men have evolved from illegal street merchants into killers extracting retribution of “dead money” for their lady boss. Engaged in a fight over the spoils of their work, their animosity comes abruptly after a night of drunken debauchery — then the film ends. In many circles, and most recently by a major critic, the film was framed as a daring and comic social commentary about street youth. Still, its weakly structured plot, bolstered by techniques that seem directly informed by commercials for Melody satellite channel (caricatured characters) and Egyptian television programs (wide-angle zoom and slapstick plot developments), fails to deliver an additional spin on popular culture or a more profound understanding of the tools used. And thus the film fails to engage knowingly in the terms of its own discourse.
Central (2005), directed by Mohamad Hammad, proves to be another film distinguished by an over-reliance on stylistic technique. Narrated by a veiled girl who operates a telephone call center and passes her time listening to the customers’ calls (all of a clandestine or sexual nature), the film presents the hypocrisy of social masks, embodied in religiously signifying clothing and behavior underneath which characters are revealed to be perverts, deviants, liars, thieves, and adulterers. Again we’re presented with caricatures, a whole parade of them. The graphic and stylistic elements are pronounced in a way that directly reference Egyptian TV without offering any kind of commentary — stylistic, narrative, or ironic — on this heritage. Despite its promising and intriguing premise, it is, in short, an opportunity lost.
A third film that attempts the dramatization of real social issues with poorly executed representations of street culture is Rajulha (2005), directed by Aytin Amin. Ostensibly about the plight of lower-class women, the director reveals her own presumptions, assuming the right to represent her subject and seeming to exploit that subject in order to market the film as a “feminist commentary.” In the end, the film provides only a reductive view of female relations within this class, complete with crude performances by unconvincing actors who seem to have little in common with the women they’re portraying. The conceit of exploring an unspoken dimension of woman-to-woman relations among the poor through the “shock” element of a lesbian seduction scene, relies on the seductive topicality of lower-class women to cover the film’s weak conception and structure. The short story by Ahdaf Soueif on which it is based, about a woman who schemes a way to dispose of her husband’s younger second wife, loses something in this adaptation to screen; there is no tension built into the women’s relationship. Instead, the plot rushes towards the seduction and its mistaken “feminist statement,” which seems targeted towards those who might read the film as “representative” of social and gendered realities among the Egyptian poor.
Strangely, these films are deemed by local cineastes as emblematic of a brave new world of independent filmmaking. But they seem to be confused as to what that world is. Could such praise be inspired by the mere “shoestring budget” aspect of films made by individuals working outside of an established, mainstream film industry? Truly independent cinema was originally identified for its counter-voices, counter-techniques, and counter-arguments to hegemonic cinematic systems and discourse. Shallow in content and overly concerned with the stylistic embellishments made easy with digital video, most of these Cairo films seem invested in the technology of production rather than ideas or content.
So why have these films acquired such local acclaim? Is there such desperation for new forms, new voices, new approaches to what has been felt for so long to be a crisis in Egyptian cinema and culture that anything will do? Have those who hail these films forgotten their criteria, or do they simply not know what independent cinema is? Has Egypt become an advertising-driven economy to the extent that the youth are salesmen first, before they are artists? Why hasn’t the country’s long history of cinema filtered into the visual vernacular of these films in a conscious or creative way? (Historically,independent cinema is very conscious of its forebears and points of departure.) These questions are difficult to answer.
When we watch these films, lured by the promise of a “new independent film scene,” we find there is nothing new about works that mimic television styles and narrative tricks and the generic social stereotypes that are profligate in Egyptian literature. In trying to impose the labels of “new” and “scene,” we just widen the perceptual/social/cultural void that Egyptian artists and intellectuals have been decrying since the 1980s (caused by bureaucratization, oligarchic governance, and lack of human rights). We need to engage critically with these films, even if they don’t engage their own subjects, because they’re part of a wider cultural context.
And so, in grasping for newness, without interrogating the frames of reference, we are only reinventing the wheel. It seems a far stretch to define these few films as “independent” in any meaningful sense, despite the fashionable currency of such terms. Perhaps this is where we should be, at the zero degree looking into the chaos, rather than in reactionary mode against the void.