When the setting calls for pyramids, filmmakers avoid Egypt
Cairo — THE list of Western films set in Egypt but filmed elsewhere, especially Tunisia, is long and could grow longer unless the cinematic climate here changes. The megadollar ``Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and the recent television miniseries ``The Key to Rebecca'' are but two films with Egyptian settings that were made in Tunisia. ``Jewel of the Nile,'' currently in production by the Michael Douglas Group, is another in which extras will speak Tunisian -- not Egyptian -- Arabic, while a few stock shots of the Nile Valley try to hide the geographical inauthenticity of the film.
Given the visual wealth of the country and its numerous skilled film technicians, the lack of affinity some foreign producers and directors have for Egypt is a cinematic oddity. But Egypt's difficulties in attracting foreign productions don't stem from any shortage of Egyptian talent. Cairo is still the cinematic center of the Arab world, even though 65 percent of all new films screened here are imported, mostly from the United States, and despite the recent dwindling of operating movie houses from more
than 300 to only 160.
Rather, it is a nettlesome combination of government censorship, heavy import duties, and a ponderous bureaucracy that steers Western producers away from working in Egypt, even when their stories are set here.
Before any film, documentary, television program, or commercial can be shot in Egypt, a final shooting script must be submitted to the Ministry of Culture for approval. Immorality (broadly defined, by most Western standards), sex, cursing, and anything offensive to friendly Arab countries are the main targets of the government's blue pencils.
``If we start having good relations with Syria and Libya again, we'll have two more things to worry about,'' says Ahmed Sami, an independent film production manager whose credits include work on ``The Spy Who Loved Me,'' ``Death on the Nile,'' and ``The Sphinx,'' among other Western movies.
Often, however, a bureaucratic desire to portray Egypt in a favorable light creeps into the process. ``On one film, a clerk who knew nothing about moviemaking insisted that we add a role for an English-speaking tour guide at the pyramids. He also told us we had to change an ancient tick-tack-toe game traditionally played in the sand to one played on a table, because playing in the sand looked `primitive' to him,'' Mr. Sami relates.
Script manipulations like these may partly originate in the censors' past experiences with foreign directors, and with the critical importance of tourism to the Egyptian economy.
The final version of ``The Sphinx,'' which is banned in Egypt, had a highly improbable scene in which an Egyptian policeman tries to rape the female lead inside, of all places, the police shed at Saqqara, a busy archaeological tourist attraction which almost all foreigners visit. That scene, which wasn't in the script shown to Egyptian authorities, was actually shot in Europe and added to the Egyptian footage later.
Although Sami isn't fond of prior censorship, which now extends even to the director's viewfinder, he tolerates the artistic bargaining it entails better than he does the snail's pace of the censorial bureaucracy.
``Approval is supposed to take one month,'' he says, ``but 90 percent of the time it's longer. . . . In my business, time really is money, and Egypt is the loser if I can't tell a foreign producer what he has to do to his script to be able to shoot here. He'll go somewhere else.''
Besides slow censors (who seem to be anomalies in a country that is at peace and has largely done away with restrictions on the press and political parties), Egypt's film industry must contend with antique and obsolete equipment. According to Sami, only one soundproof generator is left for powering the lights on a sound stage. Few modern reflex cameras are on hand, and not one Panavision camera. By and large, he says, the government has failed to reinvest in the once-promising Egyptian film industry s ince it took over the studios in 1962.
``We should be facilitating the importation of modern equipment from the countries that produce it. . . . [But] import duties are too high. And if a foreign producer wants to bring in his own equipment, even temporarily, he must post a bond equal to its value, plus taxes,'' says Sami. ``Fortunately, no one has lost his bond so far.''
Yusif Shaheen, Egypt's most internationally renowned director-producer, blames over-commercialization -- what he calls the merchants -- for sad technical state of his industry. ``Wherever you look, they are in charge. The merchants have sapped every cinematic machine, every lab, every sound stage,'' says Mr. Shaheen.
Ahmed Sami agrees, noting that most Egyptian producers make cheap, low-quality films directed at the 125 movie houses in Cairo and Alexandria, where urbanites of moderate means purchase government-subsidized theater tickets. But whereas Sami sees hope for change in remarks Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has made about rescinding outdated laws and regulations, Shaheen thinks more legal supervision of the film industry is needed. ``There's a startling lack of laws for managing our industry,'' he observ es. ``It could easily go the terrible way of Egyptian television, which buys anything Hollywood wants to sell.''
In any case, if there is to be any renaissance of Egyptian cinema, foreigners, foreign money, and foreign equipment seem sure to be involved. Shaheen's latest film is a case in point. ``Farewell, Bonaparte,'' which is set during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, is a 3 million (US$2.4 million) joint-venture production between Shaheen and a group of French producers. It grew out of an accord signed by the cultural ministers of the two countries. A similar agreement was recently established between Egypt