CAIRO: Independent film aficionados in Egypt found reason to celebrate Wednesday night after Misr International Films (MIF) hosted the opening of its long-awaited project: Zawya, a series of independent film venues that is set to give home to films that do not have a strictly commercial audience.
The project is the brainchild of Marianne Khoury, whose latest documentary “Zelal” received wide acclaim. But Zawya was launched and executed, almost purely by a team of five young people of varying backgrounds, to expand MIF’s legacy as a patron of independent film in Egypt by providing the first permanent platform for screening and festivals.
The team is headed by Youssef el-Shazly, and includes Menna el-Leithy, Alya Ayman, Nada Elissa and Nadeem Salem.
“Zawya is a concept, and not a venue. The concept is there, it is associated with a venue to start with, but then it should branch out to many Zawyas in the country,” Khoury told The Cairo Post.
MIF has previously worked on bringing independent film to non-urban and rural areas through its Misr In Focus initiative, and in turn Zawya intends to provide a platform, not just in Cairo and other cities, but in areas with less access to this type of cinema.
“The idea is to decentralize. Odeon [Cinema] is the first venue, and then we will go to other geographical areas in Cairo, and then outside of Cairo, and then outside of big cities,” Khoury continued.
After the major success in 2012 of the fifth Panorama of the European Film, an annual MIF festival, the group chose to go forward with it, particularly after many people had specifically requested a permanent venue, said Leithy, who is the communications manager of the group.
“The idea has been in Marianne’s head for decades, and she’s very passionate about creating a cinematic culture, and making it a reality in people’s lives, and so are we,” Leithy continued.
Zawya is sponsored by CIB and New Century (the owners of Odeon Cinema, where the screen is housed), and Leithy added that they coordinate with various filmmakers and organizations in the field.
“We’ve [essentially] been doing this for years with the Panorama [European film festival] and the distribution of non-blockbuster films, and after many experiences [we felt that] now is the time to do this,” Khoury said.
Award-winning Saudi film “Wadjda,” which tells the hopeful story of a ten year old girl determined to buy a bike in spite of various obstacles, marked both its premier in Egypt and the first screening of Zaywa.
The film paved the way for non-Egyptian Arabic film in Egypt, which so far has been sparse, and which forms one of the focal points of Zawya. Khoury also said that Zawya collaborates with other foreign production companies, from France, Belgium and Germany, to create a market for their films in Egypt.
“We do have an audience base that we’ve been building since 2004, but the idea is to go beyond that audience base, which will not be easy,” Shazly said.
Doubtless a market already exists, as was seen in the last Panorama of the European Film, which brought 10,000 people over ten days, but the sustainability of a permanent venue will depend on marketing and the program, which was designed by Alya Ayman.
Still, the group has faced difficulties, said Shazly, from finding funding to securing a venue that could trust them.
A persistent obstacle facing the independent film scene in Egypt is censorship, and Zawya has managed to maintain a special status with Egyptian authorities, as it is registered as a film festival not a cinema.
Though this did not prevent the banning of “The Square” in the fifth Panorama in 2013, this special status nonetheless puts Zawya in the unique position of being able to screen films that would otherwise be banned, on a permanent basis.