Even when local directors made the medium their own, films struggled to gain popularity abroad. Following the 2011 Revolution and a new-found interest in bringing Egypt’s stories to the big screen, here’s our list of Egypt’s best documentaries, each offering a unique perspective on this complex society.
In The Square, named after Cairo’s revolutionary Tahrir Square, director Jehane Noujaim follows half a dozen or so protesters – mostly bright, young, and secular – across a historically defining three year period. Audiences are transported to the very center of the action from the beginning; this is as close as it gets to witnessing the inner conflicts that moved the Egyptian Revolution to its latter phases. Unflinchingly documented, it captures unencumbered idealism, violence and betrayal. A must-watch for those interested in anything from human resilience to recent history, and a heartfelt tribute to those fighting for democratic values.
French-Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh packs in what feels like a couple documentaries into one. Backed by a French production company, Messeeh set out for Cairo to investigate miraculous apparitions of the Virgin Mary claimed by Egypt’s Coptic Christian community. Professed skepticism gets him nowhere and his refusal to cover the Egyptian Revolution convinces producers to pull the plug. Changing course, he travels south to visit his maternal family. Instead of deluded faith he finds human stories of hardworking, good natured people, all of which culminates in a touching re-enactment of the said visions.
Youssef Chahine (1926 – 2008) is mostly remembered for the acclaimed Cairo Station. He enjoyed a long career, though often marred by controversy and state-imposed restrictions, and is now widely considered as one of Egypt’s most important directors. Cairo as Seen by Chahine is one of his late masterpieces. It’s short, only 22 minutes long, and was first commissioned by French TV as an alternative portrait of a city challenging an orientalist gaze. Employing meta-narrative play, Chahine asks local actors what they think Westerners would like to see of Cairo, and proceeds to reflect on his love of the city and its people. By the end, it has arguably revealed more of its narrator than the city itself.
Female friendship in a culturally diverse society is the subject of Tahani Rached’s Four Women of Egypt. As the title suggests, the protagonists are four Egyptian women – intellectuals and activists – each nurturing different political and religious beliefs. The documentary takes the form of an extended conversation, carefully negotiating points of divergence and the bonds of friendship. In the process of questioning the limits of tolerance and confrontation, much is revealed on the politics, gender, and religion in Egypt.
Shadi Abdel Salam (1930-1986) directed The Night of Counting the Years in 1969, a classic of Egyptian cinema consistently rated as one of the most important Arabic-language films of all time. Shortly after, he left his mark on the country’s fledgling documentary tradition with an impressionistic record of cultural activity in Egypt. For the 38 minutes of its length, Afaq, or Horizons, lacks any form of commentary. Relying solely on the use of imagery and music, this eclectic documentary moves from performances by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to demonstrations of handicraft traditions, capturing every scene with lyrical camera movements and rich theatrical photography.
Filmed over the course of three years from 2009 to 2012, Sherief Elkatsha set out to make a documentary about the life of a city from the perspective of its traffic congested streets. Little did he expect that history was about to throw in the 2011 revolution. Cairo Drive captures the atmosphere in the city before and after the protests through often humorous conversations with wealthy and poorer drivers sat in cars, ambulances and trucks, weaving them into an anarchic metaphor for Egypt’s much larger collective frustrations.
El-Banate Dol (These Girls) confirms Tahani Rached’s reputation as a leading voice in Egypt’s documentary film scene. Screened at a host of the world’s leading film festivals, this engaging documentary follows a band of impoverished and often abused teenage girls living on the streets of Cairo. Astonishingly, Rached gains intimate trust from her subjects and rewards audiences with unexpected twists and emotional revelations. Far from downplaying their troubles, the documentary exceptionally manages to stray away from cheap sentimentalization and finds time to pay tribute to the girl’s vitality.