Posted by: professorepler | October 6, 2010

CLASS 1 TRANSCRIPT – part 1 of 2

It’s a long time coming…but here is the transcript of our first class discussion. I think it’s a good time to review your thoughts and keep them in mind as we push forward. MANY MANY thanks to Sana’a for doing this.

>>>>>>

[How would you describe MENA cinema today?]

Rawan – there are independent films and commercial ones. Independent films are made for Western festivals. The best case scenario is they win a prize, but when they come home no one sees the film. Hopefully they continue to get funding from the West so they can create jobs. The other is for every-day consumption and is almost entirely Egyptian.

Fractured into two worlds.

Tamador: It’s like petroleum for Egypt. The cinema is made for the Egyptian audience. They know what the audience wants and they give it to them. It’s a good industry for everyone.

Bachar (inaudible): These films are made to please everyone, from the child to the grandmother. But this also means that they’re made to not offend anyone. There are limitations to the subjects and actions that can be explored on the screen.

Shehabi: the stories are like the ones on TV, slapstick comedy and over-dramatic drama.

Epler: We have an exhibition problem linked to an audience habit problem, solved by a production chain that doesn’t have to change because everything’s linked together and the audience doesn’t demand anything different. The exhibition is not in the theatre because people don’t go – mostly cultural, but also not a viable business anymore – life happens at home, so if movies get a theatrical run, it’s symbolic and they go straight to television and pirated DVDs on the street. Meanwhile, the independent cinema goes out of the country never comes back and no one sees it, mostly due to the fact that the issues are too progressive and too alienating to the domestic audience or the form, content or story isn’t something the average person isn’t interested in watching. 99% of people watching the same stuff for decades, and not likely to change. Meanwhile, a small portion (growing but small) are watching or at least searching out alternative media. habits unknown but we can say they have internet access.

Nart: politics and religion have a lot to do with it. An egyptian movie nowadays is different than 10 years ago. You can’t have a real kiss anymore, for example. This problem is exacerbated by the vastness of the region. If one country has a stricter interpretation of what’s acceptable and what’s not, then the distributor has to insure the film will not offend the most strict of the entire region….

Bachar: (advertising) – .. when people get funds for their films from advertising companies, so they have to take into consideration what these advertising companies want to watch, especially in … this company which funds these movies, they specify a concept, they are supposed to say certain things.

Epler: so you might say that if you want to reach a lot of people, you have to be willing to work with the demands of, either or in addition, advertisers, government and religious interests. If you want to say whatever you want you have to accept the fact that you have a very small audience, so far, that’s where we at now.

Tamador: I disagree with you that people in this region don’t go to cinema theatre because in Egypt they usually go every week to cinema.

Epler: is that still true today?

Tamador: yes, or maybe people who do not like films go like every month, but they still go. In my opinion it is because the cinema industry gives them what they want to watch so they go but the independent cinema in the region does not give the audience what they want so they don’t go.

Epler: great.

Azza: so the core problem, summing everything up, the core problem is the actual awareness and the political versus the social awareness of people right now. In the 1960s films were different, people were completely different. I was telling Hiba the other day that in the 1960s women used to wear mini skirts in Egypt and it was fine. Now theyre dressed up..

Epler: same in Beirut, in Amman

Azza: yes, same in everywhere, its just different, religiously ,socially, politically, and the awareness, the state of awareness is becoming lower and lower therefore the artistic versus, the social comes in to the cinema, the demand became less and less so people look forward for Hollywood, for those films that have a different approach than just talking about Palestine or the other problems we have here, therefore they shelter to other alternative cinemas or the actual cinema which is Hollywood, so what I’m summing up is the awareness of the people.

Epler: right, if film is a cultural object, something that is meant to reflect a culture and a time you’re saying that its reflecting exactly what it is, a lot of noise and a lot of nothing because people are not as sophisticated culturally or open minded as they used to be. Or not sophisticated let’s say broader in what they will accept.

Amer Dwaik: I have to respectfully disagree; I don’t think it’s the awareness that is affecting the Middle Eastern cinema, I think it is the control, the more control the more supervision the governments put on these films, I believe the whole globalization did not help us as much as it damaged our industries including cinema, so the alternative came cheaply for people and we could not compete with other cinemas and that is what causes us to watch more western cinema than Arabic cinema, I think actually that culture awareness is much higher now than it was in the 60’s.

Epler: because they access, to a broader media type.

Azza: exposed.

Epler: im going to give you a chance to respond, but what he’s bringing up is interesting, and its going to come up in the documentary later on, and a lot of it comes from a historical economic problem,  it was cheaper to import media than it was to produce it, because the infrastructure was not available. And Cairo was the only one who had the infrastructure and that is why it survived, not because they made particularly amazing business decisions but they were the only ones who had the equipment and could pay for it. TV gets invented there’s no stations that can really do anything so when the televisions are on and you need to fill them with something it’s easier to buy programs than it is to produce them. Azza do you want to respond?

Azza: should I respond now?

Epler: um, let’s go around. Let’s hear from Sana’a, I haven’t heard from her yet.

Sana’a: I kind of agree with Amer, yes things have changed a lot but I think people now, its not about what they are ready to see, its more about what you are willing to give them, because I think artists in the past were more responsible, with their art they made documentaries and showed them to people, they went around, even if you didn’t have money, they showed them … but I think especially now, independent cinema, at least in Beirut, it is funded by the west and its made for the west and the artist just comes back with an award, and practically no one really sees the film even though it’s made about let’s say, Lebanese people, so I think the artists themselves have completely kind of shed their relations to their country or the middle east and they just look out to the west, even that I don’t think is local. I mean we had produce in the past Egyptians and Lebanese, it was all there then it stopped for a while so something automatically something has to fill the gap, which is why Hollywood has moved to the forefront, but I think if they just have like a community thing, like a COOP, if they just screen films, people will get back on this again, they want to see their fellow Arabs make these films, but I think the artists themselves have a huge responsibility that they’re not really (?), it’s not just about people, people are ready to see whatever you show them, maybe not in a very strict government thing, but I think if the artists they need to step up and make their work more readily available. Like half the things on this list, I’m sure more than half, I haven’t seen, even though you know we’ve seen many foreign films, but these, really are not available to us.

Epler: so you’d like to see the cinema and the people sort of come together as a community that has a dialogue right?

Sana’a: yes, like let’s say you make a film about Shehabi, Shehabi needs to see the film, or just make it available for the people here and not just the west, because we usually hear about Arab films from the West, that’s where we buy them from, yes distribution.

Epler: that’s where I have to buy them from. Our library is literally stocked with films through western distributers, coz I cant buy them with subtitles coz no one will pay for them and not a lot of people are watching them.

Shehabi:  …. Inaudible… there is a part … which made us even fertile…which made it more… and as well..because… it made them not trust..

Azza: so bottom line from my point is people stopped talking about themselves because they’re tired, cinema I mean, mostly because no one hears, they’re not ready to hear themselves, and therefore they shelter to western cinema, they take it as an entertainment cinema rather than as awareness, political or regional or having a social impact on them, they refuse that because they want entertainment, purely, one point I would have to disagree respectfully with Amer is , now we are capable of doing whatever identifies us, but somehow we don’t. highlighting that Egyptian cinema, they have the funds they have the money and equipment, all resources we need but they end up making these comedies that do not reflect this region or at least Egypt, we can do it but we choose not to because it’s easier for us, and its lighter on us, that does again happen because we lack the awareness of all the elements.

Epler: who is we? Young film makers?

Azza: I would say the audience, the people who are willing to see the films.

Epler: so you are calling them lazy?

Azza: no im not calling them lazy, I’m calling them, they’re trying to have a breath. They’re just resting a a bit from the whole,it all reflects to the whole.

Epler: tired of fighting…

Azza: yes, the whole 8000 years of trying to prove a point and now theyre tired of proving a point, that my point.

Epler: yes

Sana’a:  I will have to respectfully disagree with Shehabi and Azza. Shehabi because you said Arabs I the region don’t have a visual history, no not that history, as far as I know,  What was it in the 30’s Egypt was on par with America, so I think we are pioneers. With Azza, when you say they do not reflect the Egyptian reality, im sure they do in a way because they are still successful, maybe they do not show the actual misery and actual truth of what’s going on, but then you have the legal issues with the government, and also as you said, why settle for the west for entertainment and not to your actual local industry, and they make it work, and its one of the things that bring them the most money, as an industry. And also I do not think that people don’t want to talk and no one wants to listen, if you ask someone a question, they go on and on and on about it. I think its just up to us to kind of, you first have to cater to what people need to bring the masses back in to win them, and then maybe you can start making your own little thing on the side. But you need to know because if you want to bring the masses in, they are a mass and they won’t come into something that’s a bit alternative, so I think it’s a very clever thing that they’re doing, some films are surfacing, funded by Egyptians , showing them in Egypt, and Egyptians working on them and they’re being successful. Because I think Arabs are more open to Egyptian cinema, its been there all this time.

Epler: right, I think its interesting that you are raising an issue of scale, and the scale is not only an effect, its also a matter of intention, how many people do you want to affect? And what kind of relationship do you want to have with them. This comes down to information and relationships, right? On a certain level, we have a large amount of mass information coming at us that reaches people around the world, technologies like Facebook, whatever, all these things come to us at basically the same time they do in Spain. But, the relationship between us and that media is I’m here, its up there, it flows over like the weather and we pick up what we want. Then there’s the stuff that’s on the ground, stuff that is nowhere near Spain, and vice versa, stuff that is shared from one person to the other; I like this music, check it out. Maybe other people in Spain know about that music but you didn’t find out about it because it was up here in that stream of information, you found out about it through a relationship, see what I mean?  So there is information with no relationship and there is information with relationship to other people. So what you’re saying is do you want to put up your work in that stream and have it go out for you with no relationship to where is goes or do you want to have a relationship with the people who are going to watch your movie?

Sana’a: can i? no because I think that as a film maker, if I make a film if Hiba makes a film , im sure you want the largest number of people to see it. You know, if you have a message to get across. So I think the more widely available it is the more you actually get your point across instead of nowadays I think filmmakers here are making their films for a select few, let’s say for the elite, for those who do not really get in trouble with the law or for the west. So I think that the basic drive for making a film has severely changed from back then, and it’s not about the audience its about the artists themselves. Im sure it’s a bit about both. Even though now you have the technology you need to spread your own films.

Epler: let’s say you can change that. Let’s say, overnight, artists are doing what you want them to do, how do the broadcasters and the distributers react? If the audience does not know what is happening but the production is different, how does the middle man decide what to do?

Sana’a: again, if im talking about independent cinema, these artists are not making a lot of money, compared to large budget you know, action films or whatever, so I think, let’s cancel the middle man all together or just have him play a smaller role and use this stream of information going across. Instead of waiting for a distributer to come and pick up your film and then get the money, im sure there are other ways. Like the internet. These are things you can use. Why wait for the middle man and deny so many people of actually watching your film.

Epler: this is getting interesting.

Because you have also said that people are interested in having discussions or approaching subjects that are not approached otherwise. And if the artist would just turn away from the west and to the east and cut out large amounts of money, and some royalties, then the dialogue between artist and audience can happen a lot easier?

Sana’a: yes, it would be a lot easier

Epler: hmm..this is interesting.

Tamador: I think there is a problem in distribution because if we want to make a good industry for example for filmmakers like us, we have to find distributers; they have to be strong, like when you open a new supermarket you need to wait until people know and like you and want to buy from you so we need more time to get audience to know us and like our cinema.

Epler: it is interesting that you call US the independent film makers, I think if this school was in Cairo, some of us would call themselves independent filmmakers and others would want to work in the studio because that is an option, but because that option does not exist here, everyone identifies themselves as independent filmmakers, which goes back to what Bachar was saying about content, this implied duty to do something original and unique and crazy because we are independent, whereas you might also start thinking of yourself as the historical beginnings of an alternate studio system to Cairo where you are making movies for a large amount of people that are easily digestible but different, maybe more sophisticated in form or style, give steady jobs that give out a reasonable profit. If you are in the beginning everything is possible, we’ll see where it goes. But in the last 10 years, the amount of equipment and trained individuals has increased exponentially in this country alone. And with new ways of distribution you could have another studio situation on a smaller scale. Again with scale its different, because again, you would be bypassing advertising money, and that is a lot of money.

Tamador: I want to say something that if you want to make a new cinema and new industry you have to be patient. For example in Egypt, when they showed Caramel, it was written in a schedule that it will show for 2 weeks, but I went to the cinema after 3 days maybe and I did not find it, because no one went to see it,

Epler: or, they were too scared that the numbers were low and they didn’t give it time to generate interest

Tamador: yes, so the distributers for this kind of cinema have to be patient and work for like 10 years then the audience will come and see these films.

Epler: that is what im saying, that they will not , they will not be so patient, because its all about profit and theyre a business they have to run it that way. But if people took the time to get to know Caramel. If 5 people went watch Caramel, and then 5 people they tell another 5 that’s 25 people the next day, it grows and grows, through relationships. Information through relationships, more of a slow gain instead of instant profit margin. When they make an Egyptian film its a lot of money, so they expect a lot of money right back at them, they need it fast because they have another one scheduled for 2 months from now going into production, we can afford to be slower because we do not have immediate production demands and they’re not as expensive to make so we can be patient but the theatres cant. And im not sure they’ll change because there will be another production. Am I making sense?

YES

Bachar: inaudible… Arabic cinema…

Rawan – there are independent films and commercial ones. Independent films are made for Western festivals. The best case scenario is they win a prize, but when they come home no one sees the film. Hopefully they continue to get funding from the West so they can create jobs. The other is for every-day consumption and is almost entirely Egyptian.

Fractured into two worlds.

Tamador: It’s like petroleum for Egypt. The cinema is made for the Egyptian audience. They know what the audience wants and they give it to them. It’s a good industry for everyone.

Bachar (inaudible): These films are made to please everyone, from the child to the grandmother. But this also means that they’re made to not offend anyone. There are limitations to the subjects and actions that can be explored on the screen.

Shehabi: the stories are like the ones on TV, slapstick comedy and over-dramatic drama.

Epler: We have an exhibition problem linked to an audience habit problem, solved by a production chain that doesn’t have to change because everything’s linked together and the audience doesn’t demand anything different. The exhibition is not in the theatre because people don’t go – mostly cultural, but also not a viable business anymore – life happens at home, so if movies get a theatrical run, it’s symbolic and they go straight to television and pirated DVDs on the street. Meanwhile, the independent cinema goes out of the country never comes back and no one sees it, mostly due to the fact that the issues are too progressive and too alienating to the domestic audience or the form, content or story isn’t something the average person isn’t interested in watching. 99% of people watching the same stuff for decades, and not likely to change. Meanwhile, a small portion (growing but small) are watching or at least searching out alternative media. habits unknown but we can say they have internet access.

Nart: politics and religion have a lot to do with it. An egyptian movie nowadays is different than 10 years ago. You can’t have a real kiss anymore, for example. This problem is exacerbated by the vastness of the region. If one country has a stricter interpretation of what’s acceptable and what’s not, then the distributor has to insure the film will not offend the most strict of the entire region….

Bachar: (advertising) – left off here (10:30 or so)

Bachar: inaudible.. because cinema is a reflection of the society.

Epler: you are bringing up a good point, which is inevitably what you can and can not do is based on culture, and what culture will accept, at that point if you want to change the discussions that are available, you have to ask yourself, how will culture change? And there are two major ways, war and or government and or religion. We talk about superstructures yes? Religion is a superstructure, government is a super structure, war is affected by a super structure, right? Or, you have people that exchange information. Like hip hop, hip hop was created on the street it’s a western but the model is the same. People started taking old jazz songs and other things and messing with it, adding their own part to it and in a community of people in a public space, check out what im doing, then people start to dance different then the graffiti comes with it all these things join together it becomes a larger movement called hip hop and eventually it becomes mainstream commodified sold on larger medium basis. But the culture starts on a local arena between people with the community. If sanaa is talking about communities and scale another brought up relationships, what we’re starting to see if the big problems are too much for the artist to bear alone, then maybe our sense of scale is too big, we should bring down our sense of scale and think about you as a person in this community, not as a filmmaker who has something to say to the world, you know, who can do that?! I can’t stare at a blank page and say well, what am I going to say to the world and say what will the history of cinema say about me after I write this screenplay? I cant write a word no way. But what if I say im writing this for my mom, yes, I can write 5, easily, and they’re going to be more sincere. So this is in contrast to what im saying about the possibility of another studio but the creative process is the same. The intention starts on a blank page that should lead to the audience looking at blank screen just before the movie comes up

Rawan: I think there is a different way, if we stop thinking of it as independent filmmakers and controversy. You can actually make films that people want to see. But its along process but within that film you can add something small subliminal messages , something that will go straight to their subconscious, and the next time you can add a bit more to their acceptance. It’s a slow game but eventually it will get what you want. (inaudible)

Epler: you need people to help you out, I think there is a younger generation in the business world or in the entrepreneurial world who have access to large amounts of cash because they are young and they do not identify with the older generation , they want something new, and you just need a few to make one, its possible.

This conversation becomes the core of what we will discuss this semester. Some people last year said this was like therapy, it will feel like therapy and if it becomes boring and we are repeating the same things, tell me this is not working for me, I will ask you well, what do you want? Bring what you want to the circle, if you are angry at the state of things ,If you want to go make movies in a room in this time, let us know also let us know what you expect will come out of it.. so if you want to complain come up with a solution, that is my only rule.

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