Egypt: First the government, next the arts?

The largely peaceful revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt also has the potential to reshape the repressive cultural climate in the country and perhaps elsewhere in the Arab world, according to filmmakers, musicians and other cultural figures who have been watching and participating in the uprising in Cairo.

Even as events unfolded in Tahrir Square and across the capital, many artists began filming documentaries and composing music along lines that previously would have been forbidden by the government.

The Cairo-based hip-hop group Arabian Knightz released “Rebel,” a track about the uprising that included the lines “They killed us, slaughtered us, put us behind bars” and “enslaving us must end.” Though the song might have been censored by Mubarak’s secret police in earlier times, the group says, inside the confines of Tahrir Square it was rapped with impunity.


“Mubarak’s government has always told us we can’t sing about certain things, that it had to be happy-go-lucky. But we don’t leave anything untalked-about,” said Sphinx, a Cairo-based member of Arabian Knightz who grew up in Los Angeles. “In Tahrir, we could rap about it. We could spark the revolution in people.”

“The regime used to suffocate you in a lot of ways,” added Marwan Hamed, a Cairo-based filmmaker. “But these past few weeks have awakened something that was dormant in a lot of Egyptian people. It’s going to be harder for any government to put that out.”

Hamed knows firsthand of the troubles the Mubarak regime has caused artists. His 2006 film, “The Yacoubian Building,” which depicted homosexuality, prostitution, political corruption and police brutality in Egypt, ran afoul of government censors. Producers were called to testify in front of parliament as members sought to ban the movie, though the film was eventually released.

As a result of such activities, many Egyptian and Arab filmmakers have worked abroad, producing and financing their movies in Europe and North America.

“What I hope is that the revolution means people can tell stories from within a country like Egypt instead of just from afar,” says Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian American filmmaker who made her movie about immigrants from her homeland, 2009’s “Amreeka,” largely in the United States with American support.

Egypt does have a lively film industry, but most of what has been produced and consumed under Mubarak’s reign has a harmless commercial flavor — mostly broad comedies and melodramas with little political content. The country’s movie distribution system also is run essentially by two companies, effectively choking off an independent film business that might be more accommodating of substantive movies.

With Egypt considered a cultural center in the Middle East, other regimes have followed the country’s repressive polices.

“Filmmakers in the Arab world always have to zigzag,” said Ziad Doueiri, the Lebanese filmmaker whose movie “West Beirut,” a coming-of-age story set against the country’s 1975 civil war, won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “There’s so much censorship that most people don’t even bother to write screenplays about interesting subjects; they just stay aloof and shallow. We can’t make our ‘JFK’ or ‘Nixon.’ We can’t have our Oliver Stone or Sidney Lumet. We can’t have ‘The Last Temptation of Muhammad.’”

The man responsible for the film and overall cultural climate was Farouk Hosny, the nation’s former culture minister, who served as the chief government overseer and censor for more than 20 years. He resigned amid the protests, and a long-term replacement has yet to emerge.

Although it’s not yet clear what kind of government will emerge in the post-Mubarak era, revolutionary zeal already has fired up the arts community. Some note similarities to the creative upheaval that followed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. For example, nearly 20 years after the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania saw a wave of filmmakers addressing the despotism of the communist era in movies such as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Police, Adjective.”

In Egypt, that flowering may already have begun; many artists have begun reacting creatively to the revolution.

Mai Iskander, a New York-based Egyptian American filmmaker who came to prominence with an acclaimed movie about Coptic Christians in Cairo titled “Zaballeen” (Garbage Dreams), traveled to Egypt to shoot a movie shortly after the uprising started last month. “The BBC and other news media are only covering the day-to-day current events,” Iskander said. “I’m planning to focus on a few people and where they’re coming from rather than experience [the upheaval] on a superficial level.”

A consortium of Arab and North American rappers, meanwhile, wrote and performed "#Jan25,” which became a YouTube hit thanks to lyrics such as “I heard them say the revolution won’t be televised / Al Jazeera proved them wrong / Twitter has them paralyzed / 80 million strong.”

“Something felt really special about what was happening in Egypt, and I wanted to take part by showing solidarity,” Los Angeles-based Syrian American rapper Omar Chakaki told The Times’ Babylon & Beyond blog.

Artists say they are trying to balance a historical (and temperamental) pessimism with hope. “I know there’s a lot of reason to be cynical in the Arab world,” Hamed said. “But Egyptian people are rediscovering themselves, and I think artists are going to help them do that.”