By Joseph Fahim
Last year, all strata of Egyptian culture witnessed a considerable decline brought about by economic crises, the impact of which was much more grave than originally forecasted. A lack of resources and general reluctance in investing in risky projects forced mainstream culture to slash production and adhere to safe formulas. Indie culture was also hit hard by the decline in funding, with several foreign and local cultural institutes cutting their budgets and re-evaluating their priorities.
This year, mainstream culture took an ever bigger blow, officially entering a state of crises. In the absence of new worthy offerings by popular culture, the alternative Egyptian culture rose to fill the void with several independent acts that succeeded in scoring some mainstream success.
The biggest victim of the financial meltdown was film. The tattered, feeble structure of the Middle East’s biggest film industry collapsed this year, marked by a sharp decline in production that hit a decade record low this month. The drying up of Gulf money, a hike in film stars’ fees, a decline in ticket sales, and a weak performance in foreign markets have forced several producers to ask for financial backing by the indifferent Egyptian government.
Three direct consequences have resulted from this calamity: A mass exodus of film stars, directors and producers to highly profitable and relatively safer television productions; an increased reliance on casting bankable names for movies; and a rise in low-cost indie productions.
The latter corollary could very well be the sole bright spot in an exceedingly dark year for Egyptian cinema. Ahmad Abdalla’s musical docudrama “Microphone” and Ibrahim El-Batout’s “Hawi” have vitalized the stagnant industry by winning widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
“Microphone” — which also participated in the Toronto, Thessaloniki and London film festivals — became the first Egyptian film in decades to win best film at the Carthage Film Festival, while “Hawi” clinched the best Arab film award at the second Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
Whether the impressive critical reception that met the pair would translate into ticket sales remains to be seen.
The success of Egyptian films at Arab film festivals wasn’t restricted to just the indies. Khalid Al-Haggar’s “El-Shouq” (Lust) won the Golden Pyramid at this year’s Cairo International Film Festival, which was the first Egyptian film to receive the fest’s top honor within the last 16 years. On the other hand, Bushra and Maged El-Kedwany, the stars of “678,” swept Dubai Film Fest’s Arab film competition, winning Best Actress and Best Actor, respectively.
Television witnessed a major breakthrough on all levels — directing, writing, cinematography, and even acting — ushering in what could possibly become a new TV golden age.
“Al-Gama’a” (The Group), Mohamed Yassin’s highly controversial historical drama about the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, has divided audiences and critics but has also won praise across the board for its high art.
The cinematic quality and urgent storylines of “Al-Gama’a” and other TV dramas, such as “Ahl Cairo” (Cairo People) and “Kisset Hob” (Love Story), attracted millions of Egyptian viewers who were previously wary of the tired plots and stale direction that was beginning to define Egyptian drama.
Egypt’s music industry continued its downward spiral with several high-profile singers either pushing back the release of their albums or turning to the now dominant singles format. The endless disputes between artists and their record companies (particularly Rotana, the largest entertainment conglomerate in the Middle East) were the main fixture for music-related headlines this year.
Tamer Hosny laid claim to the continent’s biggest pop star after winning the Best African Artist award at the African Music Awards, the hype behind new folk singers like Diab who have debatably transformed neo-folk into the new pop, and several groups like Wama and El Masreyeen have decided to reform in an attempt to recapture their past glories.
With all of these developments, however, it was the emergence of singer Abol Leef that seized the attention of Egyptian audiences this year. His scruffy and untrimmed look, screeching voice and very unique persona rendered him to be a very untraditional singing star. But it’s his comical anecdotes — written by Ayman Bahgat Amar — about unemployment, bachelorhood and Facebook stalking that hit a chord with the public at large and made his debut record the biggest seller of the year.
In the Arab front, no other figure has come close to creating the colossal, fanatical excitement that greeted the release legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz’s comeback album, “Eh… Fi Amal” (Yes… There Is Hope). Believed to be the Arab icon’s final record, “Eh… Fi Amal” was met with a massive critical and commercial success, selling over 1.7 million copies since October.
On the indie scene, a number of alternative bands like Black Thema and Taxi have managed to score commercial success, blurring the line further between independent and mainstream artists.
Various Egyptian groups also expanded their fan bases this year as venues for alternative music continued to increase. Uss We Laz2, City Band and Ta2feel Masry have all had substantial success this year.
In Egypt, though, 2010 was the year of Alexandrian bands. Groups as diverse as rappers Y-Crew and oriental rockers Soot Fel Zahma and Massar Egbari saw their profiles rising dramatically through various music festivals in both Alexandria and Cairo. The groups’ future commercial success seems, at this point, inevitable.
A variety of cultural festivals that presented various art forms highly contributed to the cultural enrichment that was felt this year. From music fests in Cairo to art and book symposiums in Alexandria, a culture once believed to exist in the margins is finally growing in prominence.
A number of international superstars like Mariah Carey and Andrea Bocelli performed for the first time in Egypt, but it was illustrious Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani who made the biggest impact out of all performers this year: His sold-out concert at El-Sawy Culture Wheel was attended by more than 10,000 people.
With culture centers scaling back their activities, Al Mawred Al Thakafy (The Culture Resource) rose to fill the gap and become the biggest, most eminent cultural institute in the country.
Focused primarily on music last year, Al Mawred Al Thakafy broadened its activities in 2010 to include poetry recitals (British poet Benjamin Zephaniah), theater (Roger Assaf’s “The City of Mirrors” from Lebanon) and film screenings (“Gaza Winter”), while their circus festival revitalized interest in an art form long believed to have lost its appeal over the past couple decades.
Their music concerts, organized at Geneina Theater, introduced Egyptian audiences to new artists from the Arab world (Tania Saleh from Lebanon, Amel Mathlouthi from Tunisia) and Africa (Thandiswa Mazwai) in addition to the much-publicized concert of British-Egyptian-Moroccan singer Natacha Atlas, Al Mawred Al Thakafy’s biggest event to date.
The diminishing role of foreign cultural institutes has had a negative impact on the Opera House which failed to replicate its enormous successes of years past. And while there have been a number of exceptional performances — “Dream of the Red Chamber,” “Chopin at the Pyramids” — the opera offered nothing this year to rival “Momix” or Pina Bausch from 2009.
Theater faced another wretched year. Public theater continued to rehash old productions like “Khalte Safiya wel Deir” (Aunt Safia and the Monastery) as the public continued to turn its back. Independent groups didn’t fare better, producing ambitious — if imperfect — projects that didn’t quite click with the dwindling numbers of theater-goers.
The latest effort by the “Vagina Monologue”-inspired “Bussy Project” to reach a wider audience ended in scandal after government censorship forced the creator of the show to modify the shows’ stories, thereby ending the production abruptly.
There were several monumental cultural events that took place in 2010: the opening of the Islamic Museum, the Shorouk-Penguin partnership, and the joint venture between Misr International Films and BBC World Service Trust.
The buoyancy that came to define the wonderful struggle of alternative culture this year — not only in attracting mass audiences but in receiving overdue recognition — was the antidote to the simplicity of the mainstream.
With Al Mawred Al Thakafy carrying the torch for a different art spectrum, other cultural organizations could be incited to up their game and mine their sources more efficiently. The air of optimism induced by the success of many 2010 endeavors should push more institutes to start new initiatives of their own.
The Ministry of Culture, by comparison, looks like a lost cause at this point: a sterile body that has done little to nothing to support art.
Ayad Nassar in the Ramadan TV series “The Group.”