Documentaries as an art form have always been at a disadvantage against other genres, or at least among the audiences. Mostly, they are seen as educational material and not treated as art with a sense of beauty and emotion. However, this has been changing lately, with Netflix producing one fascinating documentary after the other.
In Egypt, the documentary scene was watched closely around the revolution, primarily by foreign audiences who sought to understand the sudden eruption of the Arab Spring. Others were interested in Ancient Egypt, as countless documentaries have been made on the subject.
Egypt as it stands now, however, is as interesting as its ancient self. Brilliant filmmakers have made this paradoxical, multi-faceted life the subject of their documentaries. The results are worthy of your attention.
Cairo Drive by Sherief Elkatsha (2014)
There is little as infamous and notorious about Cairo as its traffic. Its chaos is usually the first thing anyone notices when visiting the city, as its residents know very well. But, it has never been as closely inspected as it was under the eyes and camera of Sherief Elkatsha. Chaotic as it is, there are hundreds of unspoken rules between the millions of drivers; the car horns, the gestures, and the wide array of sounds aren’t just audible and visual noise. It’s a dialogue spoken in a language Cairenes are fluent in. Understanding, funny, and poignantly emotional, this film is as intense and layered as the experience of driving in Cairo.
At Night, They Dance by Isabelle Lavigne and Stéphane Thibault (2010)
The belly dancing culture in Egypt is a complex one, and this Canadian documentary looks at each layer of this complexity. Belly dancing is an authentic Egyptian performance art that’s looked at as half-prostitution, where its sensuality is often treated as purely sexual, a niche place where women have a semblance of freedom, yet exist in a domain that doesn’t depart the male gaze. Thus, juggling all those elements in one film, documentary or otherwise, is challenging. But, the filmmakers here do a brilliant job doing so, not just interestingly and fairly, but most notably, beautifully.
Jews of Egypt by Amir Ramses (2012)
Starting with the first half of the 20th century, when the Jewish culture flourished in Egypt, covering the Jewish involvement in arts and business, up to the creation of Israel, the 1952 revolution, the Suez Crisis, and the exile of Egyptian Jews, this documentary is a neutral look at both the history and the present. With various interviews with Egyptian Jews, authors, and sociologists, the documentary aims to give a comprehensive image of this part of Egypt’s culture.
Cairo as Seen by Chahine by Youssef Chahine
This short documentary is both a portrait of the city and the filmmaker whose eyes we see it through. Concise, beautifully artistic, and honest, it remains one of the most interesting portrayals of a city that refuses to be tamed or captured.
From Cairo by Hala Galal (2021)
First screened at the Cairo International Film Festival in 2021, and screening soon in Zawya’s Cairo Cinema Days’ 13th run, the subject of this film is simple enough: the life of single women in Cairo. The reality of the situation is nowhere near simple, however. This is what Hala Galal captures in her film; the complex, difficult, not-without-triumphs life of the female inhabitants in this city, their freedom, their choices, their battles, and above all, their bravery.
From Meir, to Meir by Maggie Morgan (2021)
Also screening in Zawya’s programme, From Meir, to Meir is less broad in its subject line than From Cairo, yet perhaps even more universal. An intimate look at the Upper Egyptian village of her grandparents, those who left and who stayed, From Meir, to Meir is a beautiful documentation and confrontation of home and what it means to those who left but couldn’t forget it and those who remain but long to depart.