Egyptian scriptwriter and poet Medhat El-Adl said that Egyptian cinema today has enough potential to compete for Academy Awards—known as the Oscars—after 40 years of commercial movies; however, the film industry faces a difficult crisis today.
El-Adl is one of the most prominent scriptwriters of Egyptian movies and television series, and he released two collections of verse. His family—which owns El-Adl Group Company—is one of the largest in Egypt to produce art. El-Adl has participated with his generation of poets and authors in forming their generation’s trends and taste in art in the 1980s and 1990s, through the songs of prominent stars Amr Diab, Mohamed Fouad, Mohamed Mounir, and Samira Said. El-Adl wrote the script of the iconic Egyptian movie “Sa’eedi (Upper Egyptian) in the American University”, which recorded the highest revenue in the history of Egyptian cinema.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, El-Adl talked about his nostalgia for old cinema. He also revealed the return of Sherihan to show business, as well as the story behind his new collection of verse called “Shubra Misr.” He spoke about the reasons for the decline of Egyptian cinema and accused the state of negligence.
Why do Egyptian films not compete for any Oscars?
Today, Egyptian movies can compete for Oscars. In the past 40 years, during which Egypt produced commercial movies, Egyptian cinema lacked the adequate technology (such as sound, lighting, and decoration) for any movie it produced to compete for an Oscar.
Moreover, the movies that are awarded an Academy Award in the Oscars ceremony are sometimes picked based on a political basis. For example, Chinese movies won the Oscars several times when the USA and China had close relations. Iran has now close political relations with the USA, so their movies started receiving Oscars. With all due respect to Iranian cinema—which does indeed produce great movies that deserve winning an Oscar—Egyptian cinema is more technologically and visually advanced.
If we have the advanced technology, then why do we not use it? Is it expensive?
We use advanced global technologies in shooting our movies like the Americans, but we have another crisis in the film industry itself: we have stopped producing good films. In fact, the cost of movies does not represent any problem, as an Oscar-winning Iranian movie was actually filmed on a set location and did not cost much. We have similar films, such as “One-Zero” directed by Kamla Abu Zekry, “Malek wa ketaba”, and other movies, which could win an Oscar if they were nominated.
Why have these films not been nominated for the award, if they really do deserve it?
Egyptian bureaucracy and industry are now different. In one of my poems, I talked about 20 cinema theatres in Shubra alone, but the whole country does not have this many now. The Egyptian film industry is suffering for several reasons, notably that the state is not aware of the film industry’s value as a soft power that forms the popular consciousness. There are also bureaucratic obstacles, as I exert huge efforts to complete the production of a single movie, while American cinema has the ability to promote their films all over the world. This, unfortunately, is a luxury Egyptian film producers do not have.
Iranian filmmakers have to smuggle their films to present them abroad. These aspects are taken into account when selecting the nominees for the award.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi stressed his appreciation for the value of art and film industry as a soft power. So what else do we need?
The conservative understanding of art controls the film industry. All decision makers believe that movies should promote virtues. I believe that it is not the movie’s job to do so and that perception limits the creativeness of filmmakers and forces them to undergo unnecessary battles.
I wrote a movie script called “The Monk”. I suffered a lot with the Censorship Authority, as well as the church, to receive the approval for the film, even though it has nothing to do with any religious teachings. The movie discusses the role of the cleric—should he speak to the people in the street or deliver the sermons inside his place atop a mountain? Why would the devil solicit me to commit sins when I am living inside the monastery on top of a mountain?
I visited the Monastery of St. Paul the Anchorite, and the monks there were very kind to me. However, they wanted me to write the movie from their point of view. The film industry does not work that way! Europe became very modern and advanced only after it got rid of the tutelage of the church. I feel that in Egypt today we still live in the Middle Ages, but in a different way.
The Syrian movie “White Helmets” won an Oscar award. What’s your take on that?
There is a sense of guilt towards Syria, so “White Helmets” won an Academy Award. No doubt the movie may be great, but being filmed in such difficult circumstances has given it more appeal, regardless of it being great or not. Imagine, an Iraqi movie—under the current circumstances faced by the Iraqi state—was nominated for an Oscar. This will definitely have an effect on the panel’s judges.
Syrian series have become a strong competitor to Egyptian ones. How do you see that?
Syria has more advanced historical series than Egypt, due to the large production funds offered by Arab producers, not the Syrians. We soon realised we should develop Egyptian series and started to use scriptwriters and directors to produce high-quality series. Those last five years managed to restore the position of Egyptian drama.
But we use Syrian actors in our movies, don’t we?
Of course. Egypt has an important hub for Arab actors since the last century, such as Sabah, Farid al-Atrash, and others.
We have a certain type of series like “The Legend”, which spread recently. How do you evaluate this type of series?
We have no other choice but to present the series and let the people choose. Finally, the good series would succeed.
But this does not happen?
Egyptian actor Mohamed Saad, for example, had achieved enormous success; however, his last movie did not succeed. On the other hand, Mohamed Ramadan was smart and chose a certain type of route to build a popular fan base. He then approached me and director Sherif Arafa and asked us to make something different. Adel Imam starred in similar movies, such as “Ramadan over the Volcano” and “Shaaban Sub-Zero”, and then he presented great movies like “Birds of Darkness” and “Terrorism and Kebab”.
How do you see the abilityt of state-owned TV series to compete with other works broadcast on satellite channels?
The Egyptian state-owned television has become miserable, and it has stopped producing good series because of a lack of financial resources. Actually, Egyptian television buys the series at very low prices.
What is the solution?
It needs urgent decisions. For example, there is a group of state channels called “Nile channels”. If I was the decision maker, I would have only two channels and close the others. However, the state television still has the opportunity to compete in the drama race, as “Channel 1” still has high viewership rates, thanks to the 9:00pm Bulletin.
We sometimes find good films with progressive ideas, but the film industry crises still exist. What is the reason in your opinion?
The problem lies in the state institutions. If you were lucky, you would find a good official with enlightening ideas, who would be eager to help you produce your movie as you like or maybe even better. This official may be replaced after a while with one who has a very different approach and very different ideologies. Regarding the control on art, when Ali Abu Shadi was responsible for this position, we managed to produce good movies, but then he was replaced. Ever since, we have met many obstacles. The problem is that there are no strict laws.
You have written great songs that contributed to creating the fame of Amr Diab and Mohamed Fouad as well as others. How do you see the quality of today’s songs?
Amr Diab is a legend by all standards, but the current trend in songs is similar to the situation of the country. In the past, we have not heard about corrupt judges, but now we find corrupt judges, engineers, and traders. The corruption and lack of awareness struck Egypt heavily in the last 40 years.
How did we reach this situation?
Art and culture were turned into goods. I am 62 years old and have only two collections of verse. I met some youth writers who have about 10 collections. When have they written them?! History judges writers and their ideas. In the past, we were very picky about publishing. Today, publishers collect Facebook posts, with all their intellectual and typographical errors, and publish them as if they are literary works. Weak writers have become well known, because we now compare them with other weak writers. In the past, we used to compare between Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein, as well as between other legends.
Why doesn’t the previous generation transfer its experiences for future generations?
When I was young, I read the works of great poets like Hadad, Jaheen, and Shenawi. When I meet a young writer, I advise him to read great works, so that they would be able to create their own character in writing. When I was writing my songs, I was controlled by our culture and traditions. We did not write bad words or insults. Writers with average talent lead the scene now.
In the last year, I was responsible for writing the script of the “Fok Mostawa Al Shobohat” series, and there were three young writers helping me in this series, but only one writer was really talented, called Mohammed Ragaa. This year I will work with Haitham Dabour.
Do you see that the number of young talents is small?
We always look for young talents, but it is a difficult thing to find. When we find a good writer, we support them. We never abandon talented writers.
So what is the problem in your opinion? Education, or other things?
My study of medicine taught me to pay attention to details. I may rewrite the same movie script 20 times until I reach what I see as an optimum level for it. Attention to detail is the main difference between those who love their job and those who do their job.
In the past, there were good songs in terms of lyrics and music, but we rarely find good songs now amid the spread of popular techno rap songs (Mahraganat). What is your opinion on that matter?
Our generation was criticised in the past. There is always a desire to ignore modern things, under the claim that the real talent and nationalism existed in the previous generation only, but this is not reality. Nationalism and talent are not exclusive to a certain generation. If Abdel Halim Hafez was singing nowadays, he may not have achieved the same success he reached back in his days.
Late president Gamal Abdel Nasser supported the arts, and great movies were produced during his reign. Naguib Mahfouz wrote his greatest novels in the days of Abdel Nasser. The hero now in the eyes of the media is that person who beats up other people and insults them with the most vulgar of expressions. On the other hand, real respectful and reputable people have virtually disappeared. So we cannot demand younger generations to respect the ideals and values of our own.
Why do we not have movies or series about the political scene after 2011?
Because everything is still unclear. Everyone has different visions of the events. I wrote “The Preacher” series to reveal the real face of religious men who work in politics. By the way, no channel accepted to sell this series before June 30. Everything about the revolution was documented. We just need to understand the events of the revolution.
What is the story of your collection of verse “Shubra Misr”?
This collection consists of 32 poems about different people—26 whom I’ve met when I was young. Additionally, there are six poems about public figures, such as Fairuz, my brother Sami El-Adl, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, and Khairy Beshara. All those figures influenced my life.
We were the only Muslim family in a building inhabited by Christians. In the summer holiday, we used to go to Mansoura and leave our apartment’s key with our neighbour Um Magdy, whose husband, Tomah, used to play “tawla” (backgammon) all by himself. When I grew up, I realised that he was once a young man who loved a woman and married her. I wrote about them in my collection.
We hear about the return of Sherihan, so why has she not presented anything yet?
There was no problem with the return of Sherihan, but she did not find suitable work. I prepared with my brother Sami 13 plays, similar to theatrical performances on Broadway. We agreed with poets, authors, and directors to present 13 performances. Each of these will last for a week or two, and then we can sell it to TV channels.
You are currently working on producing “For the Highest Price” series. What is its story?
The statues were destroyed, masks fell off, and everything can be sold at the highest price. This is the idea of the series.
Nelly Karim would be the heroine of this work. Are you not afraid of repeating the experience of the past year?
The people were very harsh with Nelly Karim. She has been the best actress in the country for three years, and she was fiercely criticised because of the failure of one series. The “Free Fall” series failed because it lacked interesting events.