Tucked behind a coffeehouse in a bustling paper market in downtown Alexandria is Wekalet Behna. It’s an unlikely location for what was once one of the region’s most important film distribution companies.
Reopened for two months now, the 12-room apartment hosts a filmmaking unit, cinema archive, screening room and co-working space for young filmmakers and visual artists, in its new incarnation as a project by Gudran Association for Art and Development.
Ascending the decaying marble staircase, I find Mamoon Azmy, the initiative’s director of filmmaking. When Azmy first came to look at the apartment at the end of 2012, it was a mess. The roof was full of holes, there was an infestation of insects, and the floors gave way beneath his feet. He fell into the market one floor below.
But he was mesmerized. Having given up an engineering career several years earlier to pursue filmmaking, he was persuaded to oversee the building’s restoration.
The apartment, originally built in 1892, housed Behna Films — which also produced Egypt’s first speaking film — until it was seized by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government in 1960, and after the company ceased operating in the late 1960s the space was left abandoned for almost five decades.
Basile Behna, the last remaining heir, launched a legal battle in 1978, eventually winning it back in 2010.
Four years before this victory, Behna, a well-known collector and arts patron in Alexandria, met Abdulla Daif, Gudran’s program director, at a party. They immediately began discussing how to collaborate to support visual art and film in the city.
Behna was eager to use the space in a way that would honor his family’s connection to Egypt’s storied film history, and he wanted to help would-be filmmakers lacking equipment and technical support.
A team of volunteers began to repair the apartment in 2013. Made from stone and wood, it presented a unique set of challenges. But they wanted to set an example of how old buildings can be renovated and re-used as an asset to society, because Alexandria is witnessing the widespread destruction of its heritage buildings.
“We wanted to keep the history on the walls,” Azmy explains.
After a year of work, much of it done by hand, and the discovery of an archive of documents and pictures related to cinema production in the 1930s, the results look extraordinary.
Are you supporting art, or people through art?
Gudran is a group of artists, photographers, writers and musicians who believe they have a responsibility to use art to generate dialog and innovation in society.
It formed in 2000, when residents of a local fishing village, El-Max, faced eviction and loss of livelihood. In an effort to change perceptions of the area, which the government considered a slum, Gudran ran workshops for children, supported local women to run handicraft projects, and in cooperation with the community painted walls, restored buildings and repaired boats.
The eviction was staved off, and Gudran sees this as an example of the benefit of artistic hubs engaging locals to solve problems and provide avenues for creative expression, a chance to contemplate reality in alternative ways.
Gudran now has three spaces in Alexandria. El Cabina, in what used to be an air conditioning unit for a cinema, is a library and music studio that hosts concerts and literary events. El Dokan, sandwiched among shops, is an exhibition and concert space.
The opening of the third, Wekalet Behna, has sparked debate about how the new center intends to enrich the film scene, and about Gudran’s overall model of culture delivery.
Abdulla Sharkas, director of visual art at Janaklees, a film collective and art space that opened in 2011, praises Gudran’s success in involving business figures to secure sustainable funding, but says it’s not yet clear how Wekalet Behna can aid the scene.
“Without a team of experienced directors, producers and editors, they don’t have the know-how to help filmmakers,” he says.
Ahmed Nabil, a documentary maker and manager of film at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is positive about his experiences with Gudran, and adds that a lot of expectations come with a place that has such a long history. He is optimistic about the project and says it’s ideally placed to serve as a distribution center.
“Right now there is no digital distribution hub for both emerging or established filmmakers,” he explains.
But he also echoed Sharkas’ feeling that there is a lack of vision as to its purpose.
“They need to define what part of filmmaking they are going to take on — financing, scripting, post production,” he says. “It’s not enough to say ‘we support filmmakers.’ You need to be clear on how.”
Nabil also shares doubts about Gudran’s outreach approach.
“I don’t think this has worked,” he says, referring specifically to El-Max.
Some people feel that Gudran’s work in the village did not have the impact they claim, with only a handful of villagers participating, and question whether the idea of creating change and critical thinking through art was fully translated into practice.
“I don’t think that they should treat Behna the same way as something like El-Max,” Nabil says. “If you really want to support filmmakers in Egypt at the moment then you have to be serious about it. And you have to decide: Are you supporting art, or people through art?”
Zohary, while also mentioning the criticism of what he calls its “art for the people” style, insists that “Gudran, more than any other cultural center in Alexandria, works in the street to reach as many people as possible.”
And Daif is adamant that art has to be made available to those who have difficulty accessing it. He says formal arts centers are off-putting and often have security.
“Here everyone can just walk in. Everyone is welcome,” he claims of Wekalet Behna.
A key part of Gudran’s approach involves altering the perception of art as something obscure for the well-off, irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people. I ask Azmy if he thinks this is working and he says, “We’re giving people something they don’t think they need — it takes time.”
Hope and collaboration
According to Azmy, Wekalet Behna is looking to establish an artistic environment that “can create a state of critical, creative thinking in the surrounding area of Mansheya,” with its sprawling markets, and cafes where young people gather.
It remains to be seen how they will develop a program that nurtures emerging filmmakers while inspiring “critical thinking” in the neighborhood.
But with half a dozen governors in and out of office since 2011, and unprecedented migration from Upper Egypt, many Alexandrians feel disenfranchised, that there is no vision for the city and no place for them in it.
Arguably, Gudran is operating in a landscape of generational crisis, where dominant institutions are busy struggling to maintain the status quo, failing to see the need for young people’s involvement in cultural, civil society and policy-making institutions.
Organizations like Gudran and Save Alex, a group dedicated to preserving Alexandria’s cultural heritage, are largely staffed by young people taking matters into their own hands, tired of being kept on the sidelines by a stagnant older order. They attempt to provide outlets for people to take back agency and manifest their own visions for themselves and the city.
Amro Ali, a PhD researcher on public spaces in Alexandria, cites the Bibliotheca Alexandrina as an example of how many projects fail to deliver culture in an inclusive way. The current director, Ismail Serageldin, previously from the World Bank, is a divisive figure, seen by many as possessing a strong neoliberal idea of how an institution should be run.
“The library leadership’s detachment from the rest of Alexandria is a problem,” Ali says. “Its model of delivering culture does not take into account the rise of new cultural spaces, street art, etc, so you don’t see any cooperation.”
It’s easy to dismiss Gudran’s mandate of helping people through art as naïve. But for more than a decade now they have tried to work with communities in a non-hierarchical way to make art accessible. It’s a well-intentioned, if imperfect model. The jury is still out on whether they can use art as a conduit for conversations about issues that concern everyone.
The proliferation of such projects, and cooperation between them, is what might best aid Egypt’s filmmakers and help the wider community. Indeed, several have emerged in a similar vein to Gudran and Wekalet Behna, and there are overlaps in what some offer.
Cimatheque, in Cairo, plans a year-round program of screenings and events, with a purpose-built cinema, a film archive and a well-equipped space for filmmakers when it opens later this year. Zawya has organized daily screenings of alternative film since opening two months ago. Mahatat, which opened in 2011, also operates under the banner of making art more accessible, in Cairo and other Delta towns, often through performances in public space.
To this end, Wekalet Behna is in talks with Janaklees to combine resources, and it has begun establishing ties with other organizers such as D-CAF, whom they worked with to hold a series of mobile film workshops.
It has also begun screening films, including old footage found during the restoration, which Azmy says many of their neighbors attend.
With the current climate stifling dissent and creative thought, projects like Wekalet Behna offer hope. Many who were once invested in the politics of street revolt seem to now be focusing on social transformation that revolves around concerns like urban planning and culture.
Like many, Basile Behna is nostalgic about Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past. When I press him on why he is interested in supporting film, he argues that you can’t have diversity without a productive culture of sharing ideas.
“Art can change people, how they look at each other and how they treat each other, and that is everything,” he says.