Greetings from Cairo part VII
Published in Ishtar 4/2007

The Wonderful World of Movies

Every now and then it's nice to stop by at the movies to relax with stories larger than life. In Cairo movies are sure crowd pleasers, and even though there are several movies on television on different channels, people go to see the newest hits in theaters as well.

Guaranteed blockbusters in Cairo

The selection at movie theaters has broadened in recent years for both Egyptian and foreign films. Previously the imports were mainly reruns of old James Bond and other action flicks. These days many novelties find their way to Cairo screens a couple of months after world premiere. At the moment one can catch Die Hard 4 and Pirates of the Caribbean 3. The other day I happened to see a big billboard of The Fantastic 4, but I'm not sure where and when it's on. Only action and horror are available in English. I've only seen one theater offer foreign comedy or romance: these genres are handled domestically.

The popular - also the most frequently produced - movies combine slapstick humour and lighthearted romance. In these films the sitcom factor and making funny faces weigh the most. Somewhere in a subplot the boy next door may find a proper wife candidate which just adds to the fun. Knowing the local culture I'm amused along with the theaterful of people in hysterics when the young lady from next door sees some accidental underwear elastic band sticking out, but many of the jokes are wasted on me.

There have been some welcome changes in the scene. Already when released as a book, Omaret Yakobean (The Yacoubian Building) stirred up a lot of talk. The film based on the story, produced by Adel Emam, the most famous actor in Egypt, won prizes in Europe. The movie places criticism on many flaws of Egypt, that mainly stem from the misuse of power. Action films have also made progress in both plots and technical issues. Action scenes no longer look childishly lame and the camera technique has moved onto this millenium. With this new wave of storytelling it will be interesting to watch how the local film industry develops in years to come.

The beginning is always hard

Limited in my knowledge of Arabic as I am, I find it nicer to follow a plot when I understand both the lines and what's between them. In a city the size of Cairo there are fortunately movies in English to see aswell. Locating them is the only problem. Internet or newspapers aren't much help here as they would be in Finland. The surest way is to ask the ticket booth directly. Because this is not the most economic way - theaters are spread around Cairo - the next best thing is to make a round of calls to all numbers possible and impossible. Showtimes are from early afternoon until 3am. The time I prefer is midnight, give or take: at that point though there is no more phone service available, so the best option is whatever is on at the nearest theater. Thus during these two years I've only seen a foreign film once.

At the ticket window

Compared to the Finnish price range the local movie tickets are ridiculously cheap. They cost 10-30 LE, the equivalent of 1,5-4 EUR. The price is affected by showtime - cheaper during the day - and theater - more expensive midtown. Many times each film has its own ticket window, so pay attention to which line you pick as to avoid lining up twice. These sales people are very strict about all kinds of rules in general: if it has been previously announced that the sales for the midnight show will begin at 10:20pm, there is no point asking for the tickets at a quarter past ten. People usually wait for their show to begin on the street, because the tiny lobbies barely have space for a small coffee shop. The coffee shop is for paying patrons only, so it's often deserted. Standing on the street around the year is not an issue, since the temperature is always tolerable and there are rarely more than ten rainy days in Cairo in an entire year. The only obstacles are boredom, tired feet and possible beggars. The shows begin more or less on time, with exceptions. One time after an hour of waiting around and walking back and forth the street a man appeared on the door of the theater to yell something out loud. All the midnight shows were already fifteen minutes late, so the whole thing got me suspicious and I worried that my enjoyment may be postponed far into the future. I turned to a man standing next to me and he translated with the few English words he knew. LUckily the movie that was delayed by a half hour was not of my interest.

By the big screen

In every movie theater I've been to there is a major flaw with seat design. On the surface they all look the same as the western versions. The screen may be a bit more worn out and cushions well used, but there are no remarkable differences. The cold hard truth is only revealed once you sit down: the axis in the foldup seat has been placed so far in the front that sitting down is an art form of its own. You must either sit all the way in the front on top of the axis, basically lying down, or your butt sinks between the backrest and the seat, and your knees rise up to your chin. Sitting normally is impossible according to the laws of physics. I don't know if the average Egyptian's enormous body mass would help solve this problem, since so far I've only tested on myself.

Before the shows begin there are only a couple of previews. Right before the movie, however, they show a picture of some paperclip with all official looking stamps issued by some state institute. It says the title of the film, date of issuance and all other official frills possible. Thus the viewers can be certain that the particular film is approved by vice, its monetary obligations for the state have been handled or that it's a legal project to begin with. Whatever is the object of interest and inspection of the instance which issued the paperclip, the audience can rest assured that this investigation took place.

Decades ago around the world movies were shown on two separate reels. This led to an obligatory intermission. As technique got better the break was no longer necessary for that reason, and has vanished - except in Egypt. In the middle of the show there is a break the length of approximately five minutes, which ends very abruptly. Sometimes there is barely time to use the restroom, sometimes the intermission seems to never end. I strongly believe, that the break is obligatory because of both employees and viewers suffering from nicotine withdrawal. The hour and a half long smoking ban can really get on the nerves of chain smokers, and that does not better the atmosphere.

As an audience Egyptians are way more lively than Finns. People laugh together at jokes and occasional comments made out loud are tolerated. On the other hand other viewers' convenience is not respected. Talking on cell phones and conversations with neighbours are allowed. In the early evening families might come as a big group with their own snacks and tea to sip. You feel like at a picnic with kids playing around you. The audience of the last shows in the early hours of the morning mainly consist of young guys. Some young couples can also be spending a night out, with the baby sleeping on daddy's shoulder. When the show is over and the audience is gone the ugly truth of the Egyptian's habits unveils. The floor is full of garbage. In movies, as elsewhere, locals follow the tried and tested rule of thumb of dropping everything unnecessary on the ground as soon as they can, as long as they are not littering their own habitat. If Finnish movie theaters might look like a pig stuy, the ones here in the South are that multiplied.

The reward lies in the end

It's worthwhile going to the movies. Egyptian films are key to understanding the behavioral norms, gestures and gender roles of a completely different culture. To me movies have been an irreplacable source for developing my interpretation of dance. Observing the local audience only adds to it, something which is missed altogether when watching only television. On top of everything the little mishaps and changes of plan early in the morning, at a reasonably tired state, create a really surrealistic world, that is nice to reminisce later while shaking your head.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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