Zawya: An alternative corner for Cairo's cinephiles

Zawya: An alternative corner for Cairo's cinephiles
4 min read
30 June, 2015
Culture: Egypt's first self-proclaimed arthouse cinema attempts to offer a new platform for the country's filmmaking scene amid challenges of monopoly and censorship.
Cinephiles gather in front of Zawya's newly renovated lobby [AP]

Through a separate entrance in the famed Odeon Cinema in downtown Cairo, cinephiles and filmmakers from across Egypt - particularly from Cairo's independent film and art scenes - gather in a newly renovated lobby to buy tickets and discuss the latest as they wait for film screenings to start.

Zawya, which rents out one of Odeon's three screens, was launched in March 2014 as Egypt's first art-house cinema. The leading film production and distribution company Misr International Films (MIF), itself established by the world-renowned and award-winning Egyptian director Youssef Chahine in 1972, is behind the project.

With the tagline "A cinema for films that do not make it to cinemas", the venue aims to "promote film culture in Egypt" and "offer alternative selections of Arab and international films all year round", according to the opening announcement on MIF's website.

Zawya's founder and director, Youssef el-Shazli, told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the project followed the success of MIF's Panorama of the European Film, an annual ten-day festival launched in 2004 that screens award-winning productions from across Europe.

      MIF was founded by Egyptian director
Youssef Chahine [Getty]

"We did not expect this success," said Shazli.

"When we started, our target audience were independent filmmakers and people from the scene, as well as downtown Cairo audiences. But surprisingly, many people from different places and backgrounds came to view our films, and we became successful very quickly."

The emergence of Zawya could not come at a better time, as the demand for alternative cinema has been increasingly growing with the gradual decline of the Egyptian commercial film industry.

Egypt now barely produces 20 films per year, compared with more than 100 a year during the "Golden Era" of the 1950s and 1960s.

In September 2014, only a few months after its launch, Zawya ran a one-week Chahine retrospective, screening internationally acclaimed films directed by MIF founder Youssef Chahine. The event sold out.


Launching Zawya was not easy, said Shazli, and running it continues to be challenging - as it has been hampered by technical, financial, and bureaucratic difficulties.

"We did not have a movie theatre, so we had to work with partners," he said, in reference to the Odeon. Other challenges have included airport customs regulations, which delay every new film Zawya receives.

In addition, one of Zawya's main challenges is censorship, which interferes with the content they screen.

"Censorship authorities treat us differently. They mostly put us in the same category as international film festivals, so they are more lenient with us than they are with commercial cinema," Shazli explained.

"However, we still need a permit before every screening, as they interfere with the content we screen, particularly with regard to issues of sex, religion, and politics, as well as offensive language."


We did not expect this success

- Youssef el-Shazli

Film distribution

Building on its success, and catering to the needs of an emerging filmmaking scene marginalised by commercial cinema and monopolies, Zawya decided to venture into film distribution.

"We entered the field of film distribution about three months ago. Our aim is to distribute non-commercial Egyptian films, whether documentary or feature, in film festivals, cinemas, and TV. Four of the films we worked on are currently being screened in international film festivals."

The new venture also aims to make independent films more accessible to the public, as they are usually screened in film festivals and special events only.

Future plans

On Zawya's plans for the coming years, Shazli told al-Araby that it was difficult to plan ahead for more than one year at a time - as work conditions were unstable due to financial and technical reasons.

"We would like to expand more on the long-run. We want a bigger venue with several screens," he added.

"We currently carry out activities and film screenings in different Egyptian cities, such as Alexandria and Tanta. After the end of this summer, we hope to hold regular film screenings in three or four cities."

In addition to screening local, regional, and international productions, Zawya also offers workshops and discussions on the screened films.