'Act of Resistance': Making an Independent Film in Egypt

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This year's Berlinale line-up features just one film from Egypt, a country in turmoil where independent filmmakers face major challenges. But director Hala Lotfy has not only succeeeded, she is also helping other artists do the same.

As Egypt marked the second anniversary of the revolution that deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak this week, the streets of Cairo filled with demonstrators demanding change once again. But far away in Berlin, another, much quieter form of Egyptian protest was also taking place.

The sole representative of Egyptian independent cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival, director Hala Lotfy presented her debut film, "Coming Forth by Day" ("Al-khoroug lel-nahar"). The story portrays the day-to-day drudgery faced by a young woman, who, with her mother, is caring for her bedridden father at home, a struggle contrasted with the possibilities of the world outside. And while it touches on questions of identity in relation to family and society, it's not the plot itself that is political, says Lotfy, but the act of making the film at all.

"It was an act of resistance, because the film scene in Egypt is so established that it makes it hard for individuals to make a name for themselves," she says. "It's a very good example of how the country lacks democracy. If you don't have money and aren't well-connected, then you aren't allowed to express yourself. But if democracy means anything, it is that everyone is entitled to express themselves, regardless of the tools they choose to do it."

Lotfy, 39, who graduated from the Cairo Film Institute in 1999, worked in the commercial television and film industry for two years before she became "fed up with a system that terrifies and intimidates" with big budgets, censorship and complicated licensing. She went on to make TV documentaries for Al-Jazeera. In 2007 she began filming her first feature film, "Coming Forth by Day," funded by her own savings, and later by a small grant.

Putting the Revolution into Work

It's an aching art house-style film in which the protagonist Soad and her mother are exhausted and unhappy, suffocating under the physical, emotional and financial burdens of nursing the man of the house, who has been incapacitated by a stroke. But when Soad gets the chance to venture outside on her own in Cairo, the consequences are demoralizing. While it would be easy to interpret the plot as a commentary on the subservient role of women in Egyptian society, Lotfy says that interpretation is too narrow.

"The characters are tired and lack the ability to reach out," she says, adding that this is a reflection of contemporary Egyptian life. "We don't enjoy anything and are just rolling over day by day -- because of the economic crisis, because of a lack of understanding. This feeling, the lack of hope and total despair, is something I cannot express, but it hangs in the air."

In her view, little has changed since the revolution, during which Lotfy was forced to suspend filming for five months. Lotfy was among the many young Egyptians who took to the streets of Cairo to protest the regime, and she and other filmmakers documented the demonstrations, posting videos on YouTube. But she has since decided that there are more effective means of protest.

"We were on the streets and really in danger," says Lotfy, adding that crewmembers were arrested during that time. "We realized that it wasn't what we should be doing, that we needed to deliver a sense of revolution into our work."

With that mentality, Lotfy resumed work on her film, for which she has already won a handful of awards in the Arab world. She and a group of other independent artists also founded Hassala Productions, which provides equipment and fund-raising advice to young filmmakers, and conducts film workshops in remote villages. Lotfy and others are also forming a syndicate, which aims to break what she calls the film industry "monopoly" in Egypt.

"We are trying to do films that are revolutionary in content, take risks and are adventurous in low-budget form," she says. "This is how things will change."

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