CAIRO — A Jeep Cherokee rolls down the street in the Zamalek district. Actor Amr Waked, with rectangular jaw and piercing blue eyes, sits behind the steering wheel. The production team runs behind him, stumbling past pedestrians on the sidewalks. Nearby police officers curiously eye the spectacle.
"The Aquarium" is set in late 2006, when the avian flu epidemic and a massive wave of political unrest spread fear across Egypt. Amid the slaughtering of chickens and the beating of demonstrators, the film zooms in on 48 hours in the lives of two strangers.
Waked plays Youssef, a well-heeled anesthesiologist. He works at a pricey hospital by day but an illegal abortion clinic at night. Daily he drives past the city aquarium, dreaming of entering, but he can never overcome his anxieties by stopping and simply going inside. Instead he gets his kicks from listening to the ravings of his patients, while they're under anesthesia, then retelling them their secrets.
Hind Sabri plays Leila, hostess of the radio talk show "Night Secrets." She listens to others' confessions before retreating into her own fearful world, dominated by her overbearing mother. By the end, the strangers meet. "Both of them are like vampires," says director Yousri Nasrallah. "They suck the inner life out of people they listen to. The metaphor of the aquarium is about feeling as though people are looking at others from behind aquarium glass."
For decades, Egyptian film served as the cultural glue that held the Arab world together. Cairo produced extraordinary and artful cinema as well as popular entertainment. But movies like the "The Aquarium" or 2005's "The Yacoubian Building" have become rare. Rapidly shifting values, economics and technologies have combined to erode Cairo's status as capital of the Arab film business.
Though Egyptian censors rarely rule over movies the way they do in, say, Iran, audience members and critics have managed of late to cow producers and directors into producing mostly bland comedies without kissing, fighting, arguing or politics, called "cinema nazima," or proper cinema. Amid such grim realities, a small core of actors and directors is struggling to revive film in this "Hollywood of the Orient."
Other Arab countries have begun moving in on Egypt's status. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has become home to the best post-production facilities in the region. Syrians began producing television series in an edgy vérité style that has made them popular. Lebanese have all but taken over the market for the filming of music videos.
Satellite channels, like Saudi-based MBC, began filling the airwaves with American movies subtitled in Arabic. "On one hand [satellite] did help by spreading the movies and exposing more people to them," said Hana Rahman of Waleg.com, which covers the film and music business in the Arab world. "But it has also hurt the business, because now the Arab audience has awakened to the fact that there are better movies, quality-wise and story-line-wise."
The Western onslaught also shifted tastes among those with access to satellite television. Film critics complain that many of the new Egyptian movies are little more than bad imitations of Hollywood. One, "El-Turbini," mimics "Rain Man." Another, "Mafia," resembles any American, B-grade action flick.
"The business needs new blood, creative minds and more young people," said Rahman. "It also needs more awareness that audiences aren't stupid. They are not just looking for something that makes them laugh. They need something serious that reflects more of our reality and the problems we are struggling with in the Middle East."
Decline of a major player
Movies first came to Egypt in 1896, thanks to visiting European artists. By 1927 the country produced its first native-made, full-length silent movie, "Layla," followed by its first talkie, "High-Class Society," in 1932. By the 1970s, Egypt produced 80 movies and many more series each year, and the Egyptian Arabic dialect became the universal tongue of the Arab world.
But decay set in. Some blame the cultural shift following the 1967 war with Israel, which discredited Arab nationalism and launched a wave of Islam now cresting throughout the Arab world. The industry suffered other blows with the advent of video in the 1980s and satellite technology in the 1990s. Elegant theater houses fell into disrepair. Production houses shuttered. Not until the late 1990s did it start to make something of a comeback, in the form of multiplex theaters inside new shopping malls. New production facilities opened in the shiny new desert suburbs. But by then, the Middle East had become more insular, religious and intolerant. The conservative values of the oil-rich Persian Gulf have risen to challenge the laid-back attitudes of Egypt and Lebanon.