Cinematic Education in Egypt—Who Will Fill the Gap?
(In 1959) a decree nationalizing the film industry was issued, resulting in the transfer of both the cinema industry and cinematic education, in their entirety, to the Egyptian state. Today, after more than fifty years of government-run cinematic education in Egypt, and at a time when Egyptian cinema finds itself facing competition in an Arabic market that it has come close to monopolizing for decades, a comprehensive look at the state of cinematic education in Egypt—its present and future directions and its most important impediments, as well as the relationship of these to the political authority and the labor market—is required.
Ironically, the first Egyptian book on teaching cinema was written by a conservative. Mahmud Khalil Rashed, a prominent member of the Young Muslims Society and deputy director of the Society for the Banning of Intoxicating Substances, produced his first film, el-Saher el-Sughayyar (The Little Magician) in 1932 to discourage the drinking of alcohol.
Rashed’s name figures large in the history of Egyptian cinematic education because of his book Fajr al-Sinima (The Dawn of the Cinema; publication date unknown). Despite its naivete by today’s standards, the book was an excellent attempt at teaching cinema, with all that that implies by way of definitions and instructions relating to a number of aspects of the cinema industry, as well as basic lessons in screenwriting, location management, and blocking. Though the book contains many didactic and paternalistic instructions and despite its support for censorship to protect the nation from anything that might do damage to its morals, it remains an important waystation on Egypt’s cinema education road. Nevertheless, the most prominent and prestigious means to a cinematic education was to send students abroad, an operation in which Muhammad Bayyumi, the pioneer of Egyptian cinema, played a prominent role when he persuaded Talaat Harb to fund some overseas scholarships via Studio Misr.
In 1959, swimming with the predominant socialist tide, the authorities decided to take over and direct the cinema industry within the general framework of the state. They also established the Higher Institute of Cinema. Only four months after the latter event, a decree nationalizing the film industry was issued, resulting in the transfer of both the cinema industry and cinematic education, in their entirety, to the Egyptian state.
Today, after more than fifty years of government-run cinematic education in Egypt, and at a time when Egyptian cinema finds itself facing competition in an Arabic market that it has come close to monopolizing for decades, a comprehensive look at the state of cinematic education in Egypt—its present and future directions and its most important impediments, as well as the relationship of these to the political authority and the labor market—is required.
When we speak of “cinematic education” in Egypt, we usually mean “film industry studies,” a discipline concerned with the teaching of the practical cinematic skills with the aim of producing specialized cadres, including directors, cameramen, and women. screenwriters, and so on. Such teaching takes place mostly at the Higher Institute but also at private universities and specialized workshops.
There is, however, another kind of cinematic education that is known as “cinema studies,” a discipline concerned with the training of researchers and/or critics specialized in the field of cinema theory, esthetics, and analysis. This kind of cinematic education is virtually absent from our teaching institutions.
The Higher Institute of Cinema: A Symbol of State Control
Let us begin with film industry studies, which are concentrated mainly in the Higher Institute of Cinema, one of the institutes belonging to the Egyptian ministry of culture’s Academy of Arts. The idea behind the creation of the institute during the Nasser era was to tighten the state’s control over the arts and to point them in a nationalist direction, in the manner of the cultural institutes of Russia, the state’s model at the time. The regime wished to produce an “official” art that would on the one hand raise the level of taste of the masses and on the other give it a correct patriotic orientation. The state, it follows, paid close attention to the control and nationalization of the arts institution. The Institute thus remained for many years the sole body to teach cinema in Egypt.
Dr. Sanaa Hashem, professor of screenwriting at the the institute, began her conversation with us about the state of the institute today by stating that “While it is true that the Institute no longer monopolizes the teaching of cinema in Egypt, it remains, to this day, the place with the largest number of specializations.” She adds, “Even though certain private universities have recently begun teaching cinema, the institute continues to be the most specialized and in-depth in its studies, as the student can choose among eight departments—directing, screenwriting, production, editing, art direction, sound engineering, animation, and cinematography. The student spends the four years of study in the department he or she has chosen, unlike at the private universities, which teach the student a broad range of subjects without a specific specialization.”
Speaking of the teaching within the Higher Institute of Cinema, Hashem goes on to say, “Each department accepts around eight students a year and the ‘parallel education’ system recently has been adopted, which allows those who have been unable to enter the institute, whether because of age or because they do not have the required high-school certificate grades, to join in return for an annual fee of between 30,000 and 40,000 Egyptian pounds, depending on the department.”
What, though, of the effectiveness of teaching at the institute? Hashem says, “Of course, the teaching system at the institute has real problems, which show themselves clearly in the decline in the standard of graduation projects. There are a number of reasons for this, in my opinion, including the fossilized curriculum and the decline in the standard of professors. The gravest reason, though, is the imposition of censorship on the students. For many decades graduation projects provided students with free space in which to exercise their creativity. However, from approximately the beginning of the millennium, graduation projects have been submitted to the Office for the Censorship of Art Works before being shown to the panel of judges, and the professors have begun exercising preemptive censorship of the projects before they are sent to the censor. Their excuse is ‘protection of the students,’ though they are in fact protecting themselves. In the end, the students are subjected to double censorship.”
All the same, though, with the appearance of other places offering the same service in different forms, the Higher Institute of Cinema may have lost its qualitative edge as the sole body offering “cinematic education” in Egypt, it still remains the royal road to membership of the Cinema Syndicate, the body responsible for granting work permits.
Film director Amr Salama tells us of his experience with the permit problem. “As someone who is not a graduate of the Higher Institute of Cinema,” Amr says, “I faced a problem with the Cinema Syndicate over obtaining a permit for my first film. We got into a fight and battles in the media, and after protracted negotiations, the syndicate granted me a permit for one film, in return for a payment of 150,000 Egyptian pounds. The irony is that my own compensation for the film was 30,000 pounds, so they were demanding five times my compensation just to get the work permit. The same happened with my second film, when the syndicate demanded 120,000 pounds while my compensation was 100,000 pounds.”
Conditions have improved now, and it has become easier for those from outside the institute. Nevertheless, being a graduate of the latter remains the shortest path to membership of the syndicate and to getting work permits. The gap, however, remains wide. In 2019, Egyptian cinema produced thirty-three movies. Only ten, or less than 10 percent, of these were made by directors who were graduates of the Higher Institute of Cinema. The share in the Egyptian film market of screenwriters from the institute is not more than 5 percent, according to Dr. Sanaa Hashem’s figures. The marketplace, however, has its own means of filling gaps and producing professionals. With the increase in cinematic production for the movies (as well as TV dramas, TV shows, songs, advertisements, and so on), other forces have inevitably come into play to fill the gap between demand and supply. Thus the market for “cinematic education” discovered the private university and the technical workshop.
We now have three private universities teaching cinema, in a form at odds with that of the Higher Institute of Cinema, and granting BAs to their graduates that allow them to work in the field. They are the American University in Cairo, the British University, and the German University. Though the costs are high and can be as much as 500,000 pounds a year, they offer in return a higher standard of faculty members and more advanced curricula, as well as the larger measure of creative freedom granted the students.
In contrast, the Higher Institute of Cinema continues to have its students specialize, from day one, in just one of the cinematic professions. It also has the advantage of giving its students an opportunity, however limited, to film on 16mm and 35mm film, allowing them greater creative space in terms of visual aesthetics.
“There is an economic aspect to the matter that cannot be ignored,” according to Ahmad Maher, director of the cinema center Escape Home, at the start of his conversation with us about the market and its needs. He explained: “The Higher Institute of Cinema is one of the rare places in Egypt that guarantees families that their children will be able to work while studying. I speak here of certain specific departments, such as cinematography and editing. A student of cinematography, for example, starting from the third year, can go out and work as an assistant cameraman and make a weekly wage of between 7,000 and 10,000 pounds.
These are the departments of which the market is really in need, meaning the market in the broad sense (dramas, cinema, advertisements, shows).” All the same, estimating the needs of the market remains guesswork. Maher says, “We don’t know production plans for the coming year, or the number of workers in each sector, or the percentage of shortfall. Everything is winged. All we know is that the number of applicants wanting to study cinema is larger than the number of places.”
Dr. Malek Khouri, a professor of film studies at the American University in Cairo, comments, “Study of the cinema is essentially a matter of passion and devotion, not to mention that cinema is thought of worldwide as being among the broadest paths to fame and fortune. It follows that when cinema students arrive to study this art, they lack any full picture of the market and its needs. In any case, that isn’t the primary reason for their choice. Despite this, the figures show that almost 90 percent of graduates from AUC’s film program find jobs in the Egyptian cinema market. The decisive factor in finding work, then, is the quality of the teaching and the preparedness of the individual. Market saturation doesn’t come into it.”
On the issue of the market and its need for new students, cinema scholar Muhammad Husayn believes that to speak of the market as restricted to Egypt is imprecise. “Today we have before us a market that is wider than Egypt, and includes the Gulf and the Maghreb, markets that depend on Egyptian technical teams, with the exception of the directors, whom, for reasons of national pride, they prefer to be from their own countries. Add to these the online market and advertising, both of which create a vast and ever-growing amount of content. So when people talk of market saturation and the lack of a need for new student places, it is quite imprecise.”
The Last Resort
Private universities may have succeeded in meeting the needs of the wealthy class, which is able to pay costs that may exceed a million pounds for their children to study cinema, but the middle and lower classes are looking for a backdoor to that magic world. This has produced a simpler and less expensive “parallel education” system that can be divided into three levels based on the type and level of study.
The first level is online teaching. “The Arab School of Cinema and Television, ” the most serious and disciplined such experiment, remains unrivalled in this area. The project was founded by Dr. Mona el-Sabban in 2005 with support from the Cultural Development Fund and its philosophy is to upload complementary curricula for free onto the school’s website in the specializations of screenwriting, directing, cinematography, editing, sound, production, and animation, along with a number of books and studies and a package of films.
The second level consists of the academies or schools. The most prominent such academies are the Badrakhan Academy, the el-Mihi Academy, the course at the French University, the Department of Liberal Studies at the Higher Institute of Cinema, and the Jesuit School. Their common denominator is that they offer an organized course of study of one or two years. With the exception of the Jesuits, who offer this service for free, all these institutions charge prices that are beyond the reach of most but that are still many times lower than those charged by the private universities. These academies/schools rely fundamentally on lecturers from the market. Some of them—for example, the el-Mihi Academy (which no longer teaches) and the programs of the French University—help their graduates to obtain associate membership of the Cinema Syndicate.
The third level is the technical workshops, which are cheaper and shorter. Usually, a workshop specializes in one among the cinematic professions and varies in length between one and four months. There is implicit agreement among those who attend these workshops that they offer little at the teaching level, with the exception of the screenwriting workshops, which are theoretical by nature. Despite this, these workshops are in great demand because of the opportunity they provide to form a relationship with the workshop leader—usually a market star—in the hope of working with him or her later, something that, in exceptional cases, does occur.
Far from the cinema industry itself, there exists another form of training known as “cinema studies.” This concerns itself with producing researchers or critics or film-makers informed as to the theory of cinema, its esthetics and analysis, and capable of linking these more profoundly with other human and social sciences. Studies of this kind are virtually absent from Egyptian teaching institutions, perhaps because they involve the interaction of more than one branch of knowledge, a logic that is at odds with the prevailing unitary teaching logic.
Dr. Salma Mubarak, professor of comparative literature at the University of Cairo and founder of the Amoun Network for Researchers in Literature and Cinema, says, “The basic obstacle to cinema studies in the different Egyptian faculties is that the idea itself has yet to be absorbed by the academic community. The majority of academics believe that ‘cinema studies’ are essentially professional and vocational and should not be elevated to the rank of academic studies. Things have begun to improve a little recently, however. The Faculty of Humanities at Cairo University formerly refused to promote me to assistant professor because the topic of my doctorate was ‘literature and cinema.’ It now offers two diplomas related to cinema studies—one in cultural development and another in cultural studies. Recently also, there has been a change in the by-laws of humanities faculties throughout the country, adding two subjects—’cinema’ and ‘fine arts’—to the optional technical subjects that may be taught. I regard this as a major qualitative shift in the trajectory of cinema studies teaching in Egypt.”
Dr. Iman Ezzeldin, member of the Drama and Theater Criticism department of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Ain Shams—the only department in all the Egyptian state universities that teaches film criticism as a basic subject—attributes the absence of cinema studies from Egyptian teaching institutions to the small number of cadres capable of teaching that discipline.
On the other hand, if Egyptian national universities fail to take an interest in this branch of academia, either out of intellectual rigidity or because of the lack of cadres, it is all the more surprising that the international universities in Egypt, which are supposedly extensions of those Western universities that have made such strides in raising the appreciation of cinema studies, pay little attention to this field either. With the exception of the American University in Cairo, which engages with cinema studies to a unique degree and with the aim of producing outstanding film scholars and critics, both private and international universities in Egypt ignore this discipline as completely as do the state universities.
Recently, some officials have taken note of the importance of the cinematic “production market,” and a protocol has been signed between the ministries of education and of culture to create the first technical school specializing in film-making and the arts in Egypt under the plan for “applied technology schools.” These will offer in-demand technical specializations linked to the arts and cinema, such as cameras, cinematographic techniques, animation, lighting, music, special effects, costume, and so on. It is to be hoped that others will follow and thus fill the astonishing gap in the market for cinematic, televisual, and digital technical production in Egypt and the Middle East.
*Illustrations by: Tarek Abdelkawi