Zamalek’s new cinema: Whose is it, and what to expect?

Near El Sawy Culture Wheel, adjacent to the Misr Petroleum gas station and adjoined to the Officers’ Club on 26 July Street, is a beige building bearing a new glowing red sign and large light boxes displaying film posters.

It’s a surprising sight, because Cairo’s posh central island district has not had a cinema before. Once the Zamalek Theater, but out of operation for almost a decade, the building was recently leased out by the military to Osman Group (OG) Cinemas, and the Zamalek Cinema opened its doors on September 11.

Tarek, a Zamalek resident and owner of a small business there, has always gone to downtown cinemas when he and his family want to watch a new release, so he’s enthusiastic about the new cinema — adding that if it belongs to the military, it must be good.

OG Cinemas’ owner Hussein Osman, himself a life-long Zamalek resident, tells Mada Masr that he had under five weeks to get the venue ready for Eid. “Technically the cinema has state of the art equipment,” he says, “and we tried to preserve the essence of the theater as much as possible.”

Zamalek Cinema will mainly screen commercial Arabic and English-language films, Osman says. The first film was Ahmed Helmy’s latest comedy, Laf wa Dawaran (Beating Around the Bush), followed by comedy Ḥamlit Fraizer (Fraizer’s Campaign), made by Maged and Sheeko — two of the trio behind last year’s World War 3 (the third, Ahmed Fahmy, also has a current release in cinemas — the iconoclastic comedy Kalb Balady). Currently playing, round the clock from 10 am until midnight for LE60 tickets, is the recent Denzel Washington-led remake of 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven.

This programming is in keeping with other venues run by OG Cinemas, which has operated screening halls in Heliopolis’s Horreya Mall since the mid-1990s, expanding to other upscale locations in recent years. Like most Egyptian cinemas, they tend to just show US and Egyptian blockbusters.

“Of course most of the movies playing will be commercial films,” Osman says, “but since we’re located in the cultural epicenter of Cairo we’re very much open to showing all kinds of movies our customers would enjoy, even films that are art house, foreign or aren’t very mainstream.”

Osman also tells me that he and his team have received enormous support from the residents of Zamalek, except minor complaints regarding traffic jams and parking spots.

Yet Shaaban Hamouda, a Zamalek resident with a small shop off July 26 Street, says residents were not consulted on the opening of a new cinema or on its ticket prices. “It is unfathomable,” he says, “to have to pay LE60 to watch a film.”

Hamouda believes the new cinema caters to a certain socio-economic stratum, and that its owners’ sole purpose is profit. He sees this as in line with the hefty prices that have become common in state-owned community clubs — pointing at the Officers’ Club across the street as an example – and other leisure options. Despite believing the cinema to be a significant and much-needed addition to Zamalek, Hamouda anticipates its imminent failure due to its limited socio-economic accessibility.

But Maamoun, a university student also living in Zamalek, thinks the ticket prices are fair and is excited about the new venue. “Zamalek was in serious need of this cinema — its founding is long overdue,” he tells me.

Indeed, one of the few things Zamalek residents had to leave their island for was film-watching. Somewhat cut off from its central Cairo neighbors by its watery borders, Zamalek is a destination for Cairo’s culinary adventurers and Sufi hippies, and home to the sprawling, British military-founded Gezira Sporting Club. Its residents are mostly affluent families and well-paid foreigners.

Local committees like the 25-year-old Zamalek Association for Services Development testify to a strong sense of community. In 2012, there was a hubbub over a planned Zamalek station on a new metro line, which Zamalek Association seemed to be eventually successful in halting – this Thursday, however, state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported that construction on the Zamalek line will start in two weeks’ time. But the anti-metro protest seemed to support generalizations made about Zamalek residents’ exclusive self-image vis-à-vis the rest of Cairo — notwithstanding two heavy-traffic-bearing bridges.

Meanwhile, Zamalek’s cultural-scape radically altered with the establishment of El Sawy Culture Wheel by businessman Mohamed El-Sawy back in 2003. As the Culture Wheel caters primarily to emerging artists, has cheap tickets and an inclusive atmosphere, it attracts attendees from far and wide and became a hub for indie music, poetry, performance and lectures — although  not without some censorship scandals.

When asked about potential collaborations with other local arts initiatives, Osman says in his customarily enthusiastic fashion that he and his team are “open to any cooperation with anyone, as long as it is in demand by our customers. However, we have El Sawy less than 250 meters away from our venue and nobody caters to the alternative art scene better than them.”

The cinema’s mother company is an independent branch of Osman Group — the construction company that was founded in 1974 and, due to a monopoly over Egypt’s construction business and  strong affiliation with the state, became the poster child of Egypt’s “open-door” shift toward capitalism.

This history, the films chosen for screening, and the unusually high ticket prices might back up resident Hamouda’s idea that the new cinema is more about profit than cultural enrichment. But only time will tell whether Zamalek residents will make the enterprise successful regardless.

Either way, it seems safe to say that for now, Zamalek’s alternative cinephiles and less wealthy film-goers will still be crossing the bridges to downtown for their cinema needs – which may not necessarily be a bad thing.