In Egypt, the arts provide some space for reflection in a media environment absent critical voices. Filmmakers and audiences alike are seeking out independent or art-house cinema, according to filmmaker Mona Lotfy, who is at work on her first documentary feature and is involved with the independent Cairo filmmaking collective Hassala. “There’s a new wind blowing in Egyptian cinema, with filmmakers working outside the commercial industry and audiences looking for films and characters that they can relate to,” explained Lotfy. Legal and social limits prevent the arts from exploring ideas outside designated socio-political norms—such as those that appeal to unity, public order, and public morals—but some small openings in filmmaking have emerged to present nuanced characters and alternate storylines.

Lotfy’s forthcoming documentary In Gray Depth takes a closer look at Egyptians and their tenuous relationship with the state that has come with each recent turn of history and change of president. It tells the story of the now closed El-Maghara underground coal mine in northern Sinai that has been impacted by all of the events in the country since its opening in 1964. Northern Sinai is more frequently in the media for a long-running Islamist insurgency that has stepped up attacks on Egyptian military personnel, but this film looks instead at El-Maghara’s miners and their personal experiences working in harsh conditions back when then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser guaranteed employment to all secondary school and university graduates. The miners’ stories about coping with long periods of sensory deprivation present a metaphor about overcoming darkness and despair that parallels Egyptians’ attempts to prevail over the letdowns and failures of each successive government over the past sixty years. “We’re caught in this cycle of frustration and hope, light and darkness, which also exist within each person, and as filmmakers we should use our skills to reflect deeply about our situation and what we’re struggling through now,” said Lotfy, who hopes to release her documentary in early 2016.

Although Egypt once had a flourishing cinema culture with the only major motion-picture industry in the region, the overall decline in the Egyptian arts since the 1970s has meant that most movie theaters now show only Hollywood blockbusters and mainstream Egyptian films, often with clichéd characters and storylines. Commercial filmmakers attract audiences with sultry characters like the omnipresent belly dancer, but deeper depictions of relationships between men and women, for example, are largely absent. Instead, most mainstream films, like those of hugely successful El Sobky Film Productions, which has become synonymous with lowbrow slapstick comedy, are aimed at turning a quick profit. Sentimental melodramas also fill the commercial cinema space. “We have relatively few cinemas for our population and they’re commercially oriented so people watch these kinds of films because that’s what’s available and they’re hungry for culture, but not necessarily because that’s what they’d like to see,” said Karim Hanafy, whose melancholic portrayal of a family in downtown Cairo, The Gate of Departure, was an audience favorite at the 2014 Cairo International Film Festival. 

Until recently, foreign and independent films were shown not in well-equipped theaters, but at institutes like the French Cultural Center, which hosts an annual spring festival featuring recent cinema by Egyptian filmmakers. Since March 2014, one project filling the void is Zawya, a single-screen, 170-seat theater that shows independent films by both foreign and Egyptian producers in downtown Cairo. “Interest is really growing for this kind of cinema in Egypt, and our audiences are expanding,” said Nada Elissa, who manages Zawya’s box office and works on the project’s branding and design. In the first six months of screening, Zawya sold 10,000 tickets; it more recently screened films as part of the annual Panorama of the European Film festival. The trend follows some small openings in society, especially among the younger generation, which is starting to explore questions about social norms and Egyptian identity. Audiences so liked Zawya’s screening of Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey that they demanded an additional screening of its prequel, Amir Ramsis’s largely self-funded and highly acclaimed 2012 documentary Jews of Egypt, which presented a picture of how Jews, Christians, and Muslims once coexisted as part of the same society. 

Zawya has had to contend with Egypt’s censorship authorities, however, and has at times chosen not to screen a film rather than cut out some of its scenes. Any film screened publicly in Egypt has to pass the censorship board, although authorities are less likely to obstruct well-known institutions like the French Cultural Center than local cinemas, explains lawyer Ahmed Ezzat, who specializes in freedom of expression cases. Articles 47-50, 65, and 67 of the January 2014 constitution guarantee cultural rights, but other laws contradict this. In April 2014, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb even overrode the censorship board’s decision and banned the provocative film Halawet Roh (Beauty of Soul), starring Lebanese actress and singer Haifa Wehbe, who plays a nightclub singer desired by men of her working-class neighborhood, for its use of sexual innuendo—while cinemas were already screening the film for adult-only audiences. The prime minister’s actions prompted the head of Egypt’s censorship board to resign his post in protest. “The prime minister doesn’t have the authority to do this—it’s completely illegal,” explained Ezzat of the government’s decree, which was overturned by an administrative court in November 2014.

In addition to contending with censorship hurdles, filmmakers working outside the mainstream industry also face a labyrinth of bureaucratic challenges that make producing critical art difficult. Filmmakers must obtain a license from the Cinema Professions Syndicate, which only grants permanent membership to filmmakers who’ve studied at the country’s official film academies. Filmmakers without such qualifications—most Egyptians who want to study filmmaking travel abroad or learn from practice, shooting material with digital cameras that they later try to develop into short films—are forced to pay high fees to the syndicate to be granted a permit to work on a particular project, without which they can be tried before a criminal court. The Interior Ministry must also grant a permit to shoot the film or a crew risks arrest when filming in the street, and the censorship board must pre-approve scripts that they usually return to filmmakers with required revisions. “Most artists don’t speak about the changes they’re forced to make because they want to finish their work,” Ezzat said. “But then there’s this dangerous gap between the reality in the street and how people see themselves and how films depict them.”

Elsewhere, independent cinema seeks to add diversity to filmmaking and present alternative storylines and views. In a conservative society like Egypt’s that is confronting complex and interwoven socio-political challenges, filmmakers say they aim to reflect deeply about events with their audiences in a kind of exchange. Confronting sensitive issues of politics, sexuality, and religion in a way that examines authority and sheds light on social taboos, however, is compounded by a bureaucratic censorship designed to restrict such filmmaking, ostensibly in defense of social order and the country’s values. “Things in my country are in a really terrible state right now,” Hanafy said. “But people are still very artistic in their daily lives—they paint their tuk-tuks with amazing designs, there’s music in the streets, forbidden love stories, and cafés are like theater plays. This is what I see in my city, and as filmmakers, we just open a door to another world.” However, even if they’re already part of people’s everyday reality, the worlds these filmmakers can portray are heavily policed by a patriarchal state that does not leave the choice of viewership to the discretion of its citizens.

Angela Boskovitch is a Cairo-based writer, researcher, and cultural producer.