Fifty years ago, the ‘Golden Age’ of Egyptian cinema all but ended. The industry was nationalised, and its soul evaporated into the murky airs above Cairo. Since then, it’s been a circus, with only a handful of honourable mentions, which has climaxed in the last ten years into an endless production line of the same slapstick comedies and cringing youth romances.
In light of this, it’s quite sad that director Hesham Issawi was consistently denied permits to film Cairo Exit, and resorted to bribing policemen; only in Egypt. It doesn’t get any more guerrilla than that. What’s even sadder is that this is no surprise; it’s just a side note to what has shaped up to be an increasingly influential film, both at home and abroad. Cairo Exit was featured at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, the renowned international film festival co-founded by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff .
Cairo Exit presents a double whammy of contentious issues in Egypt; religion and sex. The two are of course forever entangled in each other, but the film prides itself on a matter-of-fact portrayal that is seldom seen in Egyptian cinema. It’s an approach that goes hand in hand with the 'New Egypt': brave and raw, but thoughtful.
'It's a love story. There's no politics,' says Issawi.
This is significant because for all their good intentions, Egyptian filmmakers have a habit of grossly mishandling controversial subjects, often over-politicising them.
Thankfully, Cairo Exit doesn’t suffer fools, and the guerrilla style in which it was conceived and executed may well work in its favour. It’s a film about a boy and girl first and foremost. Christian Amal falls pregnant with her Muslim boyfriend Tarek’s baby, and faces all the consequences that one can imagine as a working class toiler in Egypt. This is no Juno; it’s dark, it’s bleak and it’s real.
'Some Egyptian critics criticized me for having a grim image of Egypt and for not finding a solution to the characters’ social and economical situation,' exclaims Issawi.
'Well, my answer was that I couldn’t find solutions for them, because there were none under a brutal system. The anger and hopelessness of the characters are real.'
Unbeknownst to many, the Tribeca Film Festival was established to help rejuvenate the Tribeca area of Manhattan after 9/11. Having only existed for eight years, the film festival has quickly garnered a reputation that has attracted millions of attendees, and economically revitalised Tribeca into one of the most desirable neighbourhoods in New York. So, Cairo Exit’s featuring in the festival is a big deal.
The importance of the film’s recognition in the US should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, the film industry in Egypt has perpetually failed to recognise small gems like Cairo Exit. This was of course never going to be a box office hit, but herein lays the problem; a tradition that supports grass roots independent film doesn’t exist in Egypt like it does in other countries.
There are no consistent funding bodies, no influential pioneers, and so little interest in the Egyptian indie film scene. The six-figure prize money might be in the back of the director’s mind when the winner is being announced, but this nomination can do so much for the ambitious but hopelessly withered independent film scene in Egypt. Like a malnourished and overlooked younger brother, Egypt's indie film scene is heaving with potential. All it needs is a chance.