It’s impossible to draw an image of the contemporary Egyptian film scene without revealing Marianne Khoury’s zeal for the cinema — specifically as an art of hosting. Her inherited passion makes for a curiously animated wit and a talent for laboriously getting things done, in the most impossible of contexts.
It’s 3:35 pm, and Khoury is finishing up a meeting in her office, which overlooks Champollion Street in downtown Cairo. “You return from America and now you arrive early to meetings,” she laughingly says. “I’ll see you at exactly 4 pm.”
Am Abdo offers me a seat and hot tea in the waiting area, and I catch glimpses of the teams of Zawya and the Panorama of the European Film bustling nearby, hard at work, as fleeting shadows of industry personalities rush out the main door. At 4 pm, we sit together on retro wooden chairs in her office, which, like her character, emanates a curious, albeit familiar, air of homeyness. For a few minutes, my eyes fixate on Khoury’s corkboard, hanging above her head. Overlaid with posters upon posters of films and events, family portraits and other trinkets, it is an elaborate, scattered collage of her personal and professional portfolios. Shelves cover the wall behind me, with hundreds of books on cinema and other topics, and piles of DVDs of the most recent films on the international festival circuit populate her many desks.
Khoury co-manages Misr International Films, a 55-year-old family-run production company. In 2004, she founded the Panorama of the European Film. In 2011, she launched Dahshur Workshops, transforming a vacation home into a space for year-round residencies and workshops. Over the years, she laid the foundations for Zawya — which launched in 2014, and is currently operating two theatres in downtown Cairo’s Odeon Cinema — with the aim of screening a permanent program of alternative films.
A producer, writer, and director, Khoury also distributes and programs a varied selection of films around Egypt. In a mesh of Arabic and English, we discuss her beginnings in the backend of the industry, working with her uncle, renowned cineaste Youssef Chahine, in addition to her current projects, future aspirations and her thoughts on the industry at large.
Sama Waly: This year marks the 10th Panorama of the European Film in Cairo. Would you like to share thoughts on this particular edition?
Marianne Khoury: This is the 10th edition, yes, but it’s actually been more than 10 years. The first edition was in 2004, but we stopped for three years in the middle. It’s been a long journey, and now a lot of things have changed. Essentially, the Panorama aims to create a market for the films it screens, but we probably need another 10 years to do that. The Egyptian market is saturated with American blockbusters and commercial Egyptian films, and it is very difficult to infiltrate. The Panorama has done a fantastic job, though, because it managed to create an audience for different films. But there is a very big difference between creating an audience and creating a market.
SW: What exactly do you mean by creating a market?
MK: I mean for films to be shown in the cinema and to bring financial return through a regular theatrical release, which is not the case now. You can host a Panorama of European Film and have five extremely successful screenings, but to have five screenings a day for five weeks, that’s a commercial release. And the films we screen cannot handle this. One of the best things about the Panorama, however, is that it gave us Zawya.
SW: Both Zawya and the Panorama have steadily been building a returning audience over the years, but they’ve also been promoting a cinematic culture, introducing alternative films to commercial theatres.
MK: In 2007, I started a project called Cinemania, which was meant to do just that, but it was a complete failure. It was in City Stars (Mall) and lasted four months. It was the wrong time, the wrong location—it just didn’t work. You could say I planted the seeds for Zawya, but it wasn’t until 2014 that it could really take off, and it wasn’t me who made it happen. It was the choice of a downtown venue, the programming, the presence of social media for marketing and promotion, and the energy of young people, like you.
SW: And a larger movement is happening around us in terms of production, too. Equipment is a lot more accessible now, for instance …
MK: Of course! I watched Experimental Summer in Zawya, and I really enjoyed it. I think it’s a very courageous and very clever multi-layered film, and it is incredibly honest in its portrayal of this generation’s problems. Surely people saw it differently. Some liked it, and others didn’t, but it truly managed to express the ideas and the working methods of young filmmakers: their relationship to the Higher Institute of Cinema, to the state, history and memory …
SW: At the end of the film, one character laments the fact that they—the filmmakers in the film—produce films that nobody watches. It sounded to me like an all too familiar narrative about local production being deprecated due to a lack of infrastructure.
MK: Today, you don’t really need the support of the state. Now that the equipment is cheaper and more accessible, it’s no longer about finding the tools. The question is: What will you do with those tools? What will you write, and how? Of course, if there is state support, it will make things easier, as there would be a strategy, and it would result in a much larger body of work produced. But I feel that together you’ve managed to create an alternative community where you support each other.
SW: But there are still a lot of challenges, no?
MK: Of course. It’s true that today you can create a low-budget film and upload it online where millions of people can watch it, but it isn’t really that easy. For instance, someone might say their short film cost them LE5,000, but that’s almost never true, because the director worked for free, and so did their friends and family who helped, and so on. So in reality the film cost much more. People work with their resources, and while this could be manageable on a first film, afterward you have to find a way to continue. Sustainability is the real difficulty.
SW: This year marked the first edition of El Gouna Film Festival. It was a very lavish event, and it garnered a lot of press attention. Do you think it was a productive endeavor?
MK: I think it will add value to the local scene. It could attract a lot of people from around the world to visit the Red Sea, creating a foreign community of film enthusiasts who go there to watch films, which is good. The Sawiris brothers are businessmen and they’ve done large-scale projects before, but this is their first venture into cinema, and the cinema industry is very specific. This is why I think it’s good that they brought industry professionals in to run the festival. I think it was a success, for a first edition, but again, the challenge is finding a sustainable structure.
SW: What do you think Youssef Chahine would have liked to see developed in the scene that hasn’t yet materialized?
MK: Chahine was particularly interested in production. He wasn’t just a filmmaker. True, he was a director, first and foremost, but his films were always very closely linked to the industry, in the sense that he had over a hundred crew members, including younger people in training, making props, building stages and sometimes entire cities. His films were always labor intensive. With recent productions, this is no longer the case. Today a filmmaker can barely afford the basics. Commercial films are still being produced with large budgets, but the younger generation is still struggling for the means to bring their ideas to light. I think he would have liked to see more opportunities for these young filmmakers to become more established.
SW: You were the young generation back when you worked with Chahine. How were you first introduced to the industry?
MK: I was, but now I’m the old one (she laughs). My father was a film producer, and he was entirely against me working in the cinema. I asked him several times, and he would always say: “Especially not with Youssef Chahine!” He wanted to keep me far from the industry because he saw how difficult and full of egos it was, and he had suffered a lot. He was a self-made man who built himself up again after being broken under Nasser, and he wanted an easier life for me. I had good grades, so he couldn’t see me in the arts. He saw me in a stable job—a big, important employee in an international institution, like the World Bank or something (she laughs).
I did study economics, first here in Cairo, then in Oxford. But then, in 1982, my father passed away, and I started working with Chahine. He took me in and saw that I could learn. Although, I didn’t know anything about the cinema. I only saw actors and film personalities when they came to our house, in familial settings. During the filming of Awdat al-Ibn al-Dal (Return of the Prodigal Son, 1976), Majida al-Roumi was my age, and so they’d make me sit with her. Her mother accompanied her to the shoot because she didn’t want her to travel on her own.
SW: And what was your first job with Chahine?
MK: I was thrown into Adieu Bonaparte (1985). It was the first of Chahine’s co-productions with France. I was overwhelmed by the experience, of course. I was working as executive producer, and I was extremely ambitious, so I’d spend days without sleep. I understood figures, so Chahine trusted me with the responsibility. But I wanted to know other things about the industry. What is it that we’re doing here? What is the money being spent on? What are these people doing? Chahine worked with so many details, as though he were weaving, so I learned a whole lot on set. I tried to get closer to the creative side to better understand cinema.
SW: And eventually you made your own films …
MK: Years later. I worked for 10 years with Chahine, and I didn’t have time to do anything else. I think what he passed on to me was the passion for this type of work. I got this from him. Passion is very contagious, if you’re open to it. I was too involved, traveling all the time, trying to understand—very inquisitive, very curious. I made three large films with him, but then I wanted to work without him. I wanted to separate myself from him. He didn’t want this, though. He didn’t want me to work on my own. But one day I woke up and asked myself, is this what I want to do with my life? Is this it? “No!” It was so overwhelming and so rich, but I had a moment of clarity. I wanted to have a family. It was so easy to be sucked into this whirlwind, but sometimes you just need to take a step back and reevaluate.
SW: And what did you do next?
MK: I started to work with other directors. It was different, as they were younger and often in the beginning of their careers. So there was a dialogue between us. I couldn’t sit and discuss things with Chahine, about this or that shot. I was still learning. With the others, I had a stronger relationship, and I could have a creative input and give my opinion. I worked as a clapper loader with Yousry Nasrallah on Sariqat Sayfiya (Somersaults, 1985), and also as a driver (she chuckles) and executive producer, because I wanted to learn about directing. So I would pick Yousry up every morning, and we’d drive to Kafr Ammar, 65 km south of Cairo. We produced the film without Chahine, who had travelled to France to post-produce Al-Yawm al-Sadis (The Sixth Day, 1986).
SW: When did you get into directing?
MK: Later, in the 90s, the equipment became much lighter, and digital cameras were introduced. I felt freer and began shooting, it didn’t matter what. When I first started filming Zaman Laura (The Time of Laura, 1999), I wasn’t sure it was going to be a film, but I was always working on my methodology. When I was done, I would show the cut to people, and each time someone suggested something different. Tamer Ezzat (the editor) and I would change the edit, until I ended up with three. But then, I returned to what I felt was the right one. You finally understand that, in creative work, there’s no right and wrong. There’s what you feel and what you want to transmit. Every person receives your work differently. Don’t expect that people will react to your work the same way. It’s impossible. Each person, depending on their background, their mindset, their psychological or medical states, and so on, will see the work their own way. Even their mood, in that particular moment, affects their experience. This why I don’t like watching films at night, for example. I’m not fully present. My favorite time is seven-ish in the afternoon, and, when I’m traveling, I like to go at 1 pm, as I am fully awake then.
SW: Tell me about (your 2010 film) Zelal.
MK: A good friend of mine, Nasser Loza, managed the Abbasseya Mental Health Hospital for a while, and I told him I wanted to film there. I showed him films like Malek Bensmaïl’s Aliénations (2004) and Nicolas Philibert’s La Moindre Des Choses (Every Little Thing, 1996) and told him that I didn’t want to do a reportage on the hospital, but something else. He trusted me and he let me in. I got the permits to shoot. I was very lucky. But then, after I’d brought all the equipment and everything, I realized I didn’t want to make this film alone, because I was afraid. I asked Mustapha Hasnaoui to co-direct it with me. We were great friends, and I really liked his work. He jumped at the idea and even proposed to take a room and live in the hospital for three weeks! (She laughs.)
SW: I find it intriguing how you oscillate between the creative process on one side, and production and distribution, which you’re mostly known for, on the other.
MK: I’ll tell you something. I’m not someone who will make a film every year. I don’t think this is my strength, because I feel that I can do things through others. If I like a topic for a film, I don’t need to make it myself. I could accompany others, and it would still bring me a great deal of satisfaction.
SW: And you’ve done this many times before …
MK: Yes. With Hasnaoui, for instance, and with Heba Yossry (Settou Zad: My First Passion, 2011) and Dina Hamza (The Past Will Return, 2014), or Jean Chamoun (Women Beyond Borders, 2003), whom we lost a couple of months ago. I’ve worked with a lot of people on very different experiments.
SW: And now you’re organizing workshops and residencies for younger filmmakers.
MK: Yes! And I very often attend the workshops myself as a participant. I took part in Basel Ramsis’ self referential cinema workshop, for example, because I am also working on a film right now. We stayed for three weeks in Dahshur, and I enjoyed it tremendously. What I want to say is that things end up connecting with each other. There are no clear lines between different roles in filmmaking. It’s all interrelated, and through all of it you can find satisfaction. And you can communicate with the audience—whether it is through attending a workshop, directing, producing, or screening films.
SW: Speaking of screenings, for many years now, you’ve been attracting a younger generation to work with you, and, right now, they’re entirely managing Zawya and the Panorama themselves.
MK: I was away for three months this year, and, when I came back, I was flabbergasted at the work that had been done in preparation for the Panorama and how they handled the crises they were faced with. Because there’s always a crisis, you know, and they start from scratch every year.
SW: You have managed to build a community, however, both an audience and a working team, who come back each year.
MK: This is my biggest satisfaction. When I went to see Experimental Summer, I hadn’t been to Zawya in a long time, and I was so happy to see so many people, and to realize that we do have an impact.
SW: I was talking with one of Cimatheque’s co-managers a few days ago, and she mentioned being very happy to see the audience attending recent events at Zawya and Cimatheque expand beyond our immediate circles.
MK: Yes. People who have nothing to do with filmmaking at all are coming to the cinema religiously. I was shocked to see that Experimental Summer was drawing in such large numbers in its second week. There was no way this was going to happen if it weren’t for the years we spent developing an audience of people who may or may not like one film or the other, but who will keep coming back nonetheless.
SW: I remember the many hours we spent developing strategies for audience building back when I used to work in the Panorama, in the early years.
MK: This is the most important thing, because, when you build an audience, you’re slowly building an industry. First people watch films, then they can make them and then they can distribute them later on. I’m happy. I look at myself now, after 35 years in this career, and I’m happy. I struggled at first, coming from an economics and political science background. But I can say now with total confidence that it’s not true that you have to study cinema to make cinema. You can study cinema and end up doing something different, or study something else and then do cinema, like me. It depends on a whole lot of things.
SW: Do you feel the success?
MK: Everytime I go to Zawya, I feel successful. Whenever I attend a full screening, I feel it. I feel as if I’m having a private party at home. If a piece of equipment stops working, I get so nervous— as though I were hosting people in my house.
SW: Would you like to tell me about the new film you’re working on?
MK: Of course, but it’s not new (she laughs). I’ve been working on it for 10 years now. Films to me are not films. They’re an existential state. This film I’m making now is about my mother, which means I have to go through a lot of archives and dive through the history of a lot of the women in my family. And there’s just so much to go through. I’ve been working on this research process for years, on and off, but my daughter Sarah is the one who recently triggered me to pick up the film again. You see, I experienced a lot of hardship in my life: In the 80s I lost my father, my grandmother and my mother, but I was too distracted with work. And in the 90s, I was distracted with the kids, so I never had time to process the loss. It took me years to work on myself, and this is why I feel this film is important.
SW: You’re working on yourself as you work on the film, as though the film is a mirror image of you …
MK: Yes, of course. It’s always related. I’m working on the film because I’m working on myself and working on myself because I’m making the film. This is why I’m not someone who can make a film every year. But we’ll see how this one goes. I had some internal obstacles stopping me from going forward, so I held a workshop to move things along, and now I think I can start again. There’s always a right time to do things, you know? There are times when you want to do something but find yourself unable to, and other times when, at the prick of a needle, you don’t know what happens and things just start to move forward. Am I right? You’ve been doing this creative process as well. How does it come about for you? What makes you want to produce a project at a specific moment?
SW: I’m similar to you. I don’t produce things quickly, nor consistently. I find myself looking into the same things many years apart. But I grow in the process and make sense of them differently. I feel that when I’ve finally made my first film, I will then continue to produce the same film over and again, but differently every time.
MK: Exactly. I believe that everyone has one subject to work on in their lifetime, but that subject develops with them. I feel like this is what I’m doing, too. In Laura, for instance, I chose a woman who I thought was very much like me. Much older, yes. Yet, I saw myself in her: an Italian-Egyptian, with an identity issue—how she lived among Italians speaking French at home and with her ballet students, and how people would send their girls to her, not because she was a great dancer, but rather to learn “bonnes maniéres.” Then my second project, Women Who Love Cinema (2002), was also related to me. I had started to work in this field, and I had no knowledge of it, but I wanted to understand. It took me two years to research, and, in the end, I filmed the girl doing the research—it should have been me on camera, but I didn’t want to put myself in it. Zelal, too, was a personal film. Because I’m surrounded by people talking about “madness,” and I like “the mad”—I think normal people are very boring—but I wanted to further understand why I’m attracted to those characters. I’m always trying to figure something out about myself. And here I am, with this film I’m working on now, in a very personal space again, exposing myself more than I’ve ever done before.