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Film From a New Zawya

Our culture vulture Mouwafak Chourbagui speaks to Youssef Shazli, one of the key founders of Zawya - a new cinema initiative launching this week with an aim to broaden the spotlight on non-commercial film...

For years, Misr International Films has been trying to open up a space for films that do not meet the “commercial” criteria as defined by the industry. Independent films, non-Hollywood films and shorts are restricted to screenings at cultural institutes, festivals and art house spaces. However, with Zawya launching on the 12th of March, these types of films could benefit from a longer lifespan and hopefully a larger audience. We speak with Youssef Shazli, who spearheads the Zawya project, to find out more about how they’re widening the spotlight on non-commercial films, and re-establishing downtown Cairo’s historic cinemas while they’re at it...

How was the concept of Zawya born?

The idea has been in the back of our minds for a long time, but what brought it to light was the success of the annual Panorama of the European Film. The demand for a permanent space that can screen films that do not usually get released in the Egyptian market has increased with time (each edition of the Panorama has attracted more people than the previous one). Therefore, we felt that it was the right time to launch Zawya: a permanent screen that can operate throughout the year to cater to the rising demand for alternative cinema.

Tell us a bit about the space...

Cinema Odeon is a three-screen venue. It's in old cinema that was renovated in the 90s . We will be operating in one screen which is somewhat isolated from the other 2 and that has it’s own cafeteria and entrance and exit doors. We will be running the cafeteria as well and will offer products that are not available in conventional cinema concessions. There is also an interesting dynamic between the interior and exterior (doors lead to an alley hosting a big ahwa). The idea is to create a nice atmosphere and a pleasant space for people to hang out before or after the film.  The space is currently undergoing more renovations.

What have you got planned for the opening?

There will be press a screening at 6:00 p.m;  a reception and 8:00 p.m and the premiere screening of Wadjda at 9:00 p.m.

Zawya has been described on your page as a “Series of art house cinema screens” – apart from Odeon, how many more screens do you envisage?

As many as we can in the future. We are starting with one but will organise special screenings for groups, schools and universities in other venues, namely Stars Cinema and Plaza Cinemas. If the project is a success, we will most definitely want to branch out and operate several screens across the city, and maybe one day across the country. 

What kind of movies will you be screening in general?

Anything that doesn't generally reach the commercial market. Anything from shorts, documentaries, long features, and classics. The programme will be a mixture of theatrical releases and special events and will include local, regional and international films. Also, I think the term ‘art house’ can be a bit misleading as our programme will also welcome semi-commercial films that cannot necessarily be classified as art house or experimental. 

What audience are you targeting?

This fist target that comes to mind are the people that enjoy going to the movies but have stopped due to the decreasing quality of films and lack of diversity offered on the market. But the challenge would be to transcend the niche and reach new audiences that are willing to discover a different type of cinema.

What are the challenges for a space like Zawya ?

Many; the un-commercial nature of the project, convincing cinema owners that this project is worth it, acquiring rights for every single film, audience development and occupancy rates and the costs of Arabic subtitling, to name a few.

How has the online world affected the cinema experience?

Most probably it has lowered occupancy rates in cinemas. But watching a film on the big screen is totally different than watching one on a TV or laptop, and I believe people recognise this. It's just that we need to offer the proper cinema experience (good programme, good quality, no kids or phones in the theatre, etc), something that Egypt has been struggling with. We have to re-vamp the cinematic culture and make it more appealing than the home theatre concept, which seems to be the new paradigm.

How do you view the current cinematic landscape in the country?

The cinema industry is a very bad shape these days. There is huge potential but very few productions at the end of the day. Always the same big names coming back offering quantity over quality. The independent scene is struggling to find its way due to a lack of funds, opportunities and structure.

Will the Panorama still exist now that there will be a permanent space for alternative films?

We hope that the Panorama will continue to exist but perhaps we will decrease its scope and limit its focus to European productions. We expanded a lot in the past few editions to incorporate a more global and eclectic philosophy (more films, more sections, more venues) because we felt this was our only chance to offer something different than what was available in the market, but now with Zawya launching, the Panorama can return to being a cosy, yearly event that brings the best European productions to local audiences.

 To check out Zawya's Facebook page click here.


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