It has become apparent of late that cinema production is declining as a result of TV, as the Ramadan season absorbs all available human and financial resources due to its profitable returns. With a noticeable decline in moviegoer numbers, it’s become all but impossible for anything except profitable commercial cinema to see the light.
Large numbers of filmmakers aspire to create experimental and artistic cinematic forms, but limited funding sources are an obstacle. The available sources, mostly non-Egyptian, are very competitive and lately most require that a film also attain local support.
The Ministry of Culture’s Fund for Independent Cinema annually awards modest grants to long and short feature films and documentaries. The call for applications opened this year on January 1, but the results, which were meant to be issued in the middle of March, have still not been made public — raising questions about the fund’s internal dynamics.
To draw attention to this independent film funding crisis, the team behind Hala Elkoussy’s film Cactus Flower launched an online crowdsourcing campaign last month.
The film had already participated in several international film forums, including script and project development at the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, selection for CineMart, the festival’s co-production market, participation in the European Union Socrates program Script Development of Script Writing Techniques in South Mediterranean Countries, and in Les Cinemas du Monde, in the framework of the Cannes Festival.
Shooting is set to start this month, in a production model based on partnership between cast members, each of whom waive their fees and crowdfunding to cover the cost of equipment rental, permits, clothes and accessories.
The crowdfunding campaign makes it possible for any contributor to receive a bag bearing the film’s logo, whether inside or outside Egypt.
“Why the bag in particular?” I ask Elkoussy.
“Because I hate the plastic ones,” she smiles. “I don’t like using them for my shopping. I think they’re despicable. So I thought it could be the beginning of idea that could one day be generalized. Why use a plastic bag when I can use one made of Egyptian cotton, one that I can wash and is thus eternally useful?”
She likes to have a relationship with the small details around her, and she hates the consumerist tendency embodied in disposable plastic bags.
Elkoussy looks exhausted after a long day’s work. She puts her hand on her forehead and tells me, frowning, that the future of cinema in Egypt will be cloudy as long as serious filmmakers fail to find local support more accepting of innovation and more transparent in its mechanisms.
“That’s why I had to think of other solutions to move something in these stagnant waters,” she explains. “From that came the idea of the campaign. It is not that I imagine it will bring in thousands of pounds, it’s more a way to attract attention to the problem – like Foto Masr. Foto Masr won’t protect the archive of Egypt’s important historical photos from loss, but does strongly highlight the crisis in a way that’s much more effective than words. It makes people interact with the issue, or at least lead them to think twice when they see the problem presented from a new and unusual angle.”
(Courtesy: Hala Elkousy and Aliaa Salah, painting by Aliaa Salah)
“I’m leading this campaign relying on my name, which I think has credibility,” she says. “I believe that if I start, it might pave the way for other filmmakers.”
An artist and writer as well as a filmmaker, Elkoussy has artworks in several museums, including the London’s Tate Modern and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. She won the Abraaj Capital Art award in 2010, and her work has been widely exhibited and written about.
She wants people to ponder the question of whether the problem of cultural production is one that concerns us all as a society.
“The recipients are not helpless — we don’t go ahead and impose on them cultural products that don’t speak for them. That’s obvious,” she says. “But the difference when it comes to cinema is that it’s an expensive product that can’t be produced without financial support. For Cactus Flower, we reviewed all production details to radically reduce the budget, making the experience a replicable production model.”
Asked about the effects the campaign’s launch has had, she says: “So far, I have 53 supporters. That’s not a big number, but it’s a sign. It indicates that if the film succeeds, and others later ask for support in the same or in a similar way, they may have a better chance because of the existence of a successful precedent. It will be known that a film that obtained this kind of funding became a respectable artistic work.”
“I think Egypt is in a crisis from which it will not emerge unless individuals club together,” she says after a moment’s pause. “There’s no hope that state institutions will be responsive in the near future.”
She tells me that the film collected LE95,000 from her acquaintances, in return for offering her artworks for sale for less than their actual value. She wants the water to start moving, and she wants to encourage people to feel that art is ultimately an investment in the future, not a sort of charity.
“That amount came from non-Egyptians, they’re more deeply understanding of this idea. It’s more widespread in the West — there’s an entrenched belief in the value of arts,” she says, “But at the same time, there’s a lot of positivity from Egyptians that only know me through Facebook and school friends I haven’t met in almost 20 years. They’re trying to help in any way they can.”
Elkoussy concludes: “We offer a real example of effective exchange: The cast have given up their fees to work as volunteers, they are partners in the film through their effort. This makes us work quite hard. Each takes on the role of at least three people. For example, I am author, director, decor designer and costume designer. I’m also executive producer. Certainly it’s not ideal, but we don’t have a choice. We’re betting on having a valuable project that will enable us to obtain the necessary financial support for the stages that follow shooting, such as editing, color correction, sound, music and sound distribution for cinema screening. These are matters that I’m told cost as much as shooting. It’s a huge bet because it’s much more complicated than it initially appears. But we are optimistic because of what we’ve managed to achieve so far.”