CAIRO, Egypt — Holding the title of “the Hollywood of the Middle East,” Egypt possesses a booming film and television industry. Furthermore, this media does more than simply entertain. Egyptian cinema addresses social issues throughout the Arab world, from meaningful discussions about marginalized communities to day-to-day issues for the average Egyptian.
A Thematic Revolution
Egypt has long used movies and TV shows to convey the country’s political zeitgeist and comment on current events. Films concerning drug abuse, HIV/AIDS and the 2011 revolution reveal how the Arab world addresses social issues through impactful mediums.
Kareem El Damanhoury spoke with The Borgen Project regarding his expertise and knowledge of the industry. El Damanhoury is a former Egyptian television actor who now works at CNN and teaches at the University of Denver. He discussed the positive impact media has on Arabic society as an increasing amount of Egyptian cinema addresses social issues. However, he noted that political commentaries almost never have this artistic luxury.
“I don’t mean to generalize, but in our part of the world, or at least in Egypt, it’s very hard to have [a dramatic production]that would scrutinize the existing administration or government in an explicit way,” said El Damanhoury.
However, much recent Egyptian cinema addresses social issues like the stigma of drug abuse and the prevalence of STDs. These are especially important since, in 2019, the UN estimated that 26,000 people were living with HIV in Egypt in 2019. Drug abuse also poses a significant threat to the well-being of Egyptian citizens as 28.5% of substance users in Egypt were reported to abuse or have a dependency on drugs.
Movies Making a Difference
Asmaa, a 2011 drama film, follows a Tunisian actress who portrays a woman coping with AIDS. The movie was a massive success in Egypt even though it aimed to eliminate the common sexual taboos and stigmas behind having the disease in the Middle East. The film also sympathetically comments on various social issues plaguing many Muslim women.
The Film 678 (released internationally as Cairo, 678) also sympathizes with women in Egypt. It sheds light on the major issue of sexual harassment in Egypt by following the stories of three women. One of the three women depicted is the first person to file a sexual harassment case in Egypt. International film groups praised the film, leading to it winning the Top Prize in the Muhr Arab category of the 2010 Dubai International Film Festival. Author Paolo Coehlo praised the film as “mandatory for men, regardless [of]their religion/culture.”
The Cannes Film Festival screened another recent movie about politics — the film even made it to the Oscars’ qualifying rounds. This movie, entitled Clash, discussed the polarization of politics after the 2011 revolution and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. “The entire movie is set inside a large police truck that is carrying people from all different political views, but what unites them is that they are all now arrested,” explained El Damanhoury. “The people are clashing and fighting, but they eventually figure out that, at the end of the day, they’re all just Egyptians.”
According to El Damanhoury, all of these films represent Egypt’s “entertainment education.” That is, many filmmakers use their work as a means of educating the public about pressing social issues through entertaining, artistic media. El Damanhoury also mentioned a previous Ramadan hit “Under Control” as a perfect example of entertainment education. The TV series tactfully and effectively commented on the widespread problem of drug addiction throughout all socioeconomic backgrounds in Egypt.
Why Tackling Social Issues Is Important
Egypt is rather economically successful with the 21st highest GDP in the world. However, the 2011 revolution ushered in a new era of instability and harmful politics. Many know Cairo specifically for rampant violence against women and sex trafficking. In 2017, Reuters ranked it the worst city with more than 10 million people in the world for women’s safety.
In addition, political instability since the 2011 revolution and the largely autocratic rule under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has caused Egypt to struggle through the sporadic rise and fall of leaders, terrorism and censorship. Rocky conditions such as these cause human rights to methodically deteriorate. Additionally, Egypt often suppresses any opportunities to stand up for women’s rights and social issues. These deplorable human rights violations make education and artistic expression difficult to access for the common person. Accessibility becomes even more difficult for marginalized communities.
Film and TV in Today’s Egypt
While Egyptian cinema and TV still have a stronghold over the Arab world’s media industry, the industry will likely suffer losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Egypt’s visual artists have not lost their creative drive. They are working to build a new era as more and more Egyptian cinema addresses social issues. Even back in 2016, Asmaa director Amr Salama stated, “There is a new type of film-making [in Egypt]…and I am very proud if I can consider myself one of the talented directors that formed the wave.”
– Grace Ganz