Legally or illegally? How to make a film in Egypt

Legally or illegally? This is the question all young and independent filmmakers face when getting ready to make a film in Egypt.

The legal process can trigger thoughts of giving up entirely on the idea of film production. Many end up choosing to make films in secret, far from the eyes of the state, except when it’s absolutely necessary to shoot in state-controlled locations. Even then, filmmakers often prefer to adjust scripts to avoid that legal nightmare. Many filmmakers of my generation have become experts in what we can call guerilla, or “hit and run,” shooting.

The real dilemma posed by this choice though is the difficulties encountered when attempting to distribute a film in Egyptian cinemas — then one is faced with demands for unattainable permits for both production and screening. So the dream of screening low-budget or independent movies in Egyptian cinemas remains distant for directors such as myself, those who have chosen to work outside the framework of the popular consumer markets, with or without permits.

But what is, in fact, the legal path to be followed to produce a film?

  1. The filmmaker applies to the Cinema Industry Chamber with the names of the crew.
  2. The filmmaker also submits this list to the Cinema Syndicate.
  3. The syndicate informs the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works that it approves of the crew.
  4. The scriptwriter signs over the script to the producer at a public notary office.
  5. The script, along with the documents gathered in the first four steps, is submitted to the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works.
  6. After the directorate approves, the Interior Ministry’s Public Relations Sector is informed of whether the film requires outdoor shooting permits.
  7. All the documents gathered in the first six steps are submitted to the Interior Ministry to obtain a 20-day permit for outdoor shooting in return for a fee paid to a donations directorate at the ministry.
  8. If locations controlled by the state are required then the permits are obtained from the ministries in charge of those locations.
  9. After the film is made, it is again submitted to the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works to obtain a general screening permit.

This is the legal paper trail for the production of any film. Where is the nightmare then? To answer this, I’ll provide definitions of some of these entities, their roles and the scope of their powers. This is especially useful because accurate information about what is legal and illegal is all but unattainable, for while we all may know the norms, there’s much we don’t know about how things are “supposed” to work.

The Cinema Syndicate

This is the first stop in film production. In my opinion, it’s the main obstacle facing filmmakers, especially those who are non-syndicated, so I’ll explain it in detail.

Article 5 of Law 35 for 1978 stipulates that: “No one is allowed to work in the arts of theater, cinema or music as per the stipulation of Article 2 of this law unless they are an active or associated member of this syndicate.”

The syndicate, then, is the only entity capable of granting professional capacity. Its powers are derived from Article 77 of the 2013 Constitution, which states that “no profession may have more than one syndicate for the regulation of its affairs” (although Article 76 of that constitution states that “the establishment of syndicates and federations on democratic basis is a right guaranteed by law”). This means independent workers’ syndicates have no powers to grant professional status or work permits. So film producers must seek the support of this syndicate, whether they are syndicated or not, to embark on any professional film-related work.

The syndicate’s internal charter sets several criteria for membership. These include being a graduate of one of the local specialized faculties or institutes, being an Egyptian citizen or a foreign resident here for at least five years, not being a convicted felon and being of “good reputation.” If applicants are not graduates of local institutes, however, they can apply if they work in one of the cinematic professions and submit contract agreements for five films that have been produced and commercially distributed. The committee, however, retains the right to reject applicants even it they meet this criterion, such as in cases when the applicant is not sufficiently “cultured” or qualified. If so, a reason will be provided.

The syndicate has nine sectors: directing, shooting, editing, producing, scriptwriting, décor, make-up, sound and labs. But the internal charter prevents active members from taking up work in a sector other than that they signed up for, unless they submit an additional application for another sector’s membership. In this case, the first sector remains the primary one and the member pays five percent of payments they receive in the new field in return for that additional membership. For example, a syndicated director does not have the right to write a script unless he or she applies to the scriptwriting sector and pays five percent of any fees obtained as a scriptwriter.

The syndicate’s internal charter stipulates that non-members obtain a temporary permit from the syndicate every time they make a film. The syndicate retains the right to refuse such permits. If approved, the artist pays 20 percent of the fee obtained from working on the project in question to the syndicate.

It’s worth mentioning that the syndicate does not usually follow the charter — everything is negotiable and the reality often surprising. When I approached the syndicate to obtain the documents needed to begin the production and direction of my recent documentary, it demanded an additional LE7,000, which was negotiated down to LE500, on top of the two percent of my fee I pay as a member. I still don’t know how these sums were estimated.

The easiest way to get Cinema Syndicate membership is to join the High Institute of Cinema. This is no easy feat as being accepted at the institute depends on your connections. Either that, or you have the financial ability to enroll in the new parallel education system in the same institute, for which students pay annual fees of around LE24,000.

Another option is forwarding 20 percent of your fees to the syndicate until your artistic portfolio counts five commercial projects. Then you can apply for membership as explained above.

If your application is rejected, you will have to obtain work permits and give the syndicate 20 percent of your fees for every work you do for the rest of your life. Even then, the syndicate can reject your applications, leaving you to either work illegally, risking penalties as grave as imprisonment, or give up on a career in cinema.

Finally, if you do get syndicated, you’ll still have to find a way to pay the haphazard fees the syndicate illogically demands, particularly if you’re a director who’s so out of your mind that you decide to, let’s say, write your own film script. This scenario of course excludes those who have a network of connections that can intervene on their behalf and relax the requirements.

In 2011, cinema professionals held a sit-in in an attempt to reform the syndicate. This failed of course, mainly due to two factors. First, when Mamdouh al-Leithy was head of the Cinema Syndicate, from 1989 to 2010, a lot of membership applications were accepted from applicants working in unspecialized professions in television, such as TV presenters, carpenters and drivers. This clearly violated the law and the syndicate charter. The goal was to amass members loyal to Leithy to influence the elections of the syndicate and the syndicate’s General Assembly. This move reduced the number of specialist members to exactly one fewer than the number of non-specialists. Second, the production managers section gave membership to business and cinema owners. This made filmmakers’ main adversaries, and the main entity in charge of the cinema industry as a whole, the same entity that referees in most issues.

The syndicate thus became a place of corruption that serves the state and then business owners. It has become impossible to reform it from the inside. I’d say that even describing it as a syndicate is no longer accurate. It’s a state-owned guild. And instead of working toward the protection of its members and facilitating their work, it actually places obstacles in front of them.  

The Board for the Censorship of Artistic Works

This is the second stop in production, and where the filmmaker starts the journey of making concessions to the state.

To this day the board retains the capacity to delete parts of a work or to ban it altogether. The censorship process occurs in two stages: the directorate considers the script first and it looks at the final product later. The board also decides whether a film is allowed to leave the country or not. In theory, without a travel permit, a film is not allowed to cross the border. This is easy to enforce when it comes to 35mm films, but not to films produced on DVDs.

The basic elements usually censored are politics, sex and religion. The board has the right to consult Al-Azhar and the Church if they wish. In February, Abdel Sattar Fathy, head of the board, told TV program Egypt Today that starting from April an age-rating system would be enforced instead of omitting scenes or banning works, which would only happen when films explicitly advocate atheism, although he quickly retracted and said censorship would continue alongside a new rating system.

Since he assumed the board’s presidency in April 2014, only two films have been banned: one (apparently a film starring belly-dancer Sama al-Masry) because its songs were “indecent” and the other, American director Ridley Scott’s The Exodus, because it was said to contain historical inaccuracies. It’s worth noting that some scenes from the latter film were shot in Egypt with permits from all the specialized entities, including the directorate. (Much to our surprise, however, a declaration from the Culture Ministry later accused the Egyptian production side of shooting the film too discreetly.) All these entities, including the National Cinema Center, another state body that runs Ismailia Film Festival and produces short features and documentaries, had facilitated the film’s shooting permits as well as the equipment’s entrance to the country under the umbrella of the seven-committee project initiated last year and headed by the prime minster to improve the cinema industry. One of the project’s goals is to copy the Moroccan model to attract foreign filmmakers, thereby contributing to state income. The fact that the state allowed the shooting of parts of the movie, then prevented its screening and denied any responsibility, reveals its continuous confusion.

There are various unanswered questions here. “Explicitly advocating atheism” and “indecency” are subjective concepts, the latter in particular an elastic term that can be used to apply to anything. How can they be applied? Is it the state’s role to protect citizens’ morals and assume they don’t know their best interests? And what mechanism will exist for an age rating if the board retains the right to delete scenes or ban works? Will it stick to custom and continue to ban when it wants?

The Egyptian Cinema Industry Chamber

A member of the Federation of Egyptian Industries, which is part of the Ministry of Industry.

This is the last stop that decides the film’s fate after its production. The work’s owner or maker does not come into contact with the Cinema Industry Chamber in the beginning except to notify it about their crew and the contracts, with the sole aim of documentation or if problems arise between him or her and distributors or cinemas, but it decides everything about distribution, the last stage in the cycle of any product.

This chamber includes those in charge of the industry: production company owners, distributors, cinema owners and lab owners. As such it’s in charge of everything related to the industry, as middleman between it and the state. The chamber referees in any problems arising between producer and cinema owner or between producer and distributor, for example. It also looks into complaints submitted by Cinema Syndicate members against producers, as syndicate complaints are raised to the chamber. This takes us back to the crisis of business owners’ syndicate memberships.

The biggest problem is the fact that producer, distributor and cinema owner are the same person, a monopoly that makes the chamber the sole entity in charge of everything related to Egypt’s cinema industry. If chamber members come together against anyone else in the industry, they can bring about their demise. This is what happened in the case of famous producer Mohamed al-Sobky. In February this year, the chamber approved its decision to ban him from production for a year because of his verbal attack on the chamber’s then-president, Mohamed Hassan Ramzy, on TV show Men al-Akher. The issue of contention between them concerned reducing screenings in certain cinemas of Ahmed al-Badry’s Al-Hadeed (Iron) to make way for Al-Gezira 2 (The Island 2), which was produced by Ramzy, late last year. So even within the small group controlling cinema matters there’s an elite that’s even more controlling. Illogically, in the chamber’s General Assembly cinema owners enjoy a number of votes equal to the number of screens they own. On the same TV show Ramzy tells Sobky that the aim of the chamber is to prevent them airing their dirty laundry in public.

Film distribution has become extremely difficult because of this monopoly. Distributors have no incentive to distribute films they have not produced. Even if a filmmaker takes on the distribution of his or her own film, the cinema owner has no incentive to screen a film that he or she has neither produced nor distributed. And if the filmmaker is able to successfully convince one of them to distribute the film, the most unsuitable screening slots are offered. The distributor will also neglect the film’s publicity, meaning the film is withdrawn from the cinema within a few days. This happened to Ibrahim El Batout’s Ain Shams, Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone and Hala Lotfy’s Khoroug lal-Nahar (Coming Forth by Day).

Legally or illegally? Both options lead to making a lot of concessions, albeit different ones. The first costs more, and negotiating the film’s content with censors and producers also takes longer. The second leads to compromises on quality, on content in cases requiring outdoor scenes (forcing “hit and run” shooting), on scriptwriting in order to deliberately avoid storylines that are difficult to shoot, and finally on distribution, for it can only be screened in cultural centers or festivals – meaning its audience will be very limited.

Article 65 of the Constitution states, “Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every person shall have the right to express his or her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication.” Article 67 stipulates, “Freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed. The state shall encourage arts and literature, sponsor creative artists and writers and protect their productions, and provide the means necessary for achieving this end.”

So every citizen has the constitutional right to make a film without penalties, imprisonment or censored creativity. If the state really wants to properly perform its stated role, it should re-examine the strict system that only permits very few individuals to practice the profession, never mind be creative about their art.

We have to restructure these institutions and re-examine their powers and roles to advance the industry and protect the rights of those who work in it. All monopolies should be broken, as they kill off voices that deviate from the mainstream.

Before all this, Article 5 of Law 35 for 1978 should be abolished, because it stipulates that only syndicate members can make films. This allows the state and business owners to exercise control over art and artists. 

Art does not kill. So the syndicate should primarily protect citizens’ rights from business owners, not define who an artist is. It’s the audience that has the right to differentiate creative artists from weak ones.

Aida Elkashef 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism