A cliché perhaps, but it was difficult to avoid thinking of the flashy, colorful, twisted performance The Cell Block Tango from the 2002 Hollywood production Chicago when I heard Aida El Kashef is making a documentary about Egyptian women who have killed their husbands.
In Chicago, the killers justify themselves by explaining through song that their husbands were guilty of cheating, abuse or, somewhat worryingly, chewing gum loudly.
The trailer for Elkashef’s The Day I Ate The Fish, which she posted on crowdfunding website Indiegogo alongside an introduction about the documentary, has almost no similarity to Chicago. But the topic has held a fascination for artists, researchers and journalists around the world.
Elkashef developed an interest in it when her father (the late film director Radwan Elkashef) pushed her to read daily newspapers at a young age. It was the 1990s and the crime sections were full of gruesome stories of these domestic crimes all over the country.
She toyed with the idea of making a fiction film on the subject while studying at the High Institute for Cinema, but it wasn’t until her involvement with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), a group that directly intervened in cases of mass sexual assault occurring in Tahrir Square during protests in 2012 and 2013, that she decided to actually make it – as a documentary.
“When I witnessed those mass sexual assaults, I felt angry, I had a lot of personal violent energy,” Elkashef says. “I felt alone. I started developing violent ideas and fantasies. I discovered that others who faced assault had the same thing. So I wanted to visit the women who took the ultimate choice of no return. Where does violence lead you to? I wanted to explore this from a very human element.”
Elkashef, 27, started working with Rasha Azab, a journalist and activist imprisoned in 2006 in the same ward as women who had killed. Azab documented several stories she heard firsthand during this time, and with a crew they researched the topic further while striving to obtain filming permits from five state bodies.
After a year and a half, they managed to obtain the permits and started filming in Qanater Prison. After several interviews, they narrowed down their subjects to four women.
Now the crew have reached a point that is not uncommon for independent filmmakers: They’re out of money. The film had obtained development and some production funds from non-governmental organisation ACT ($10,000) and from Abu Dhabi Film Festival ($12,000).
“If next month there’s no money, the film won’t stop, but I will work completely alone. It will take longer and there will be no money for permits, archives, equipment, et cetera,” Elkashef says.
Although the crew are very cooperative she won’t ask anyone to work for free. “You can’t sustain an industry that way,” she explains.
Elkashef and her crew applied to several funds, but were rejected. There aren’t many funds supporting independent cinema, and the competition regionally and internationally is fierce.
Crowdfunding isn’t easy either, of course. A successful campaign takes a hell of a lot of resources. Putting a trailer and text online does not magically lead to results, and behind every successful crowdfunding campaign is endless planning for launching, marketing, spreading across networks and figuring out how to convince people to actually donate.
“But every penny that comes in brings a lot of joy because it is the audience that’s supporting you, it’s the people who want to see this film, not a jury that grades it intellectually or artistically, judging you based on their standards,” Elkashef says. “The reports in the rejection letters of funding applications leave you very insecure about your project, while crowdfunding makes you feel supported in an emotional sense, not just a financial one.”
Elkashef is not the first Egyptian filmmaker to crowdfund for a film. Visual artist and filmmaker Hala Elkoussy is also currently crowdfunding for her feature Cactus Flower. In January 2013 filmmaker Shereif Elkatsha raised US$33,000 for the post-production of his acclaimed traffic-centered doc Cairo Drive. In 2011 and 2013 Omar Robert Hamilton raised almost $30,000 through two campaigns for his Palestine film Though I knew the River is Dry.
Following its release in 2013, Hamilton told me crowdfunding can only have a positive impact because regionally funding opportunities are very limited, state support for the arts is problematic, and trustworthy institutions few and far between.
But crowdfunding does not come without its own set of drawbacks. Since online payments and credit card usage is limited in Egypt, many campaigns depend on the campaigner’s international network (which fortunately all the filmmakers above have). Without that, one can argue that it’s not a very viable option. Elkashef points out though that she hosted an on-the-ground crowdfunding initiative when she first started working on the film.
“I sold my clothes,” she explains. “But that made sense for me because I buy too many clothes.” People came to her apartment to buy them and were given thank you cards for donating to the film.
Mohammed Hammad, 33, is a filmmaker with two well-received fiction shorts, the gritty Central (Call Center, 2007) and Ahmar Bahet (Pale Red, 2009) — both also grappling unflinchingly with women’s issues — as well as some short documentaries under his belt. He tells me that he will be considering crowdfunding for upcoming projects.
“It somehow democratizes the process of making films, giving the audience the chance to support the films that they want to see in cinemas,” he says. “Crowdfunding also helps with promotion and expands circles of loyalty for the film.”
Currently Hammad is trying an approach that’s arguably even more radical: He has a “no budget” model for his yet-to-be-titled first feature film, the content of which is still under wraps. Everyone working on the production is an owner of the film, with a percentage of its profits, and the goal is to get it into theaters for commercial release.
His family have taken on most of the acting roles and donated their house and his father’s shop for locations. “They don’t really care about cinema, they’d prefer that I become an engineer, but at this moment they wanted to support me,” he says. “I think because they felt sorry for us. But either way, I’m very grateful to them.”
He has worked with the same group of friends as his crew for previous productions (and worked on their films in return), funding them in the same manner. While they didn’t screen in cinemas besides Zawya, since shorts are not commercially released, the screening rights were sold to television channels in Europe.
He is experimenting with applying this production model to a feature because he isn’t satisfied with the main option for independent filmmakers – grants.
Hammad tells me that the introduction of these grants to the industry in the early 2000s, while helpful to non-commercial filmmakers, has been problematic because, when the budgets for films are covered, filmmakers no longer need to keep the audience in mind during production. “Cinema is an art form for the people,” he says. “I want to make the films I believe in, but still keep in mind how the audience will receive them while working.”
Elkashef echoes this. “Even though I’m an independent filmmaker I’m very attached to having a theatrical release, for people to see the film in the cinema and pay tickets, because this is the only way to be self-sustainable. I want to enter the market with the films I want to make and I want to be a part of the industry.”
“The battle is how to prove as a community that we have something to offer,” Elkashef says, “and that won’t happen until people demand to watch these films.”