Held annually in Hollywood, and the 84th ceremony to be hosted in February 2012 by comedian Eddie Murphy, the Oscars represent the dizzy heights of achievement for film makers the world over. And this year, the buzz has already started loud and clear….. in Birmingham.
The news that Khaled El Hagar’s most recent film, El Shooq/Lust, has been selected as Egypt’s official entry for an Oscar, Best Foreign Language Film, is the latest accolade for this popular Birmingham/Cairo film-maker.
The film community in the city is rightly proud that the Oscar buzz, in this early phase, has also got a Birmingham tinge, and an Arabic accent.
Khaled is a rare thing – a Birmingham based international feature film director. Acknowledged in his home country Egypt as the most controversial movie maker of his generation, Khaled lives quietly for part of the year in Kings Heath, where he has established himself as the city’s leading auteur.
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film is handed out annually by the Hollywood based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to a feature-length movie which is produced outside the US with a predominantly non-English dialogue track. It’s the only Oscar that extends its vision beyond Hollywood, and is awarded for excellence in world cinema.
In the 40 years of presenting this Oscar, there have only been three African films which have won this prestigious trophy.
“There has been a long list of Egyptian films selected as an Official Entry, but none have made the final short list … not even the greats of Egyptian cinema, like Youssef Chahine or Shadi Abdel Salam, have made the elusive final list,” says Khaled.
El Shooq has already tasted success, most significantly with the Golden Pyramid Award at this year’s Cairo Film Festival for Best International Film.
“El Shooq’, possibly for the first time in recent Egyptian cinema, brings us into the lives of the inhabitants of a marginalised street in Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt,” Khaled told students during a recent visit to Edge Hill University in Lancashire.
“The central character is Umm Shooq, a woman whose sense of shame and inadequacy drives her to gain leverage over the little world in which she lives. When it was shown in Egyptian cinemas, there was a strong connection with the audience as her struggles were depicted on film in Egypt for the first time, begging for survival in harsh circumstances … the film reminded many Egyptians of earlier – 1940s and 1950s – films with more of a realist approach, and by emphasising the social circumstances of Fatma and her family, the film has chimed with the atmosphere of the Arab Spring.”
El Shooq was released in Cairo cinemas in January, 20 days before the revolution, and many critics feel that this angry film predicted the events that would take place in the early part of the year, events we now known of as the Arab Spring.
In fact, Khaled remarks that “the pursuit of money and power in the character of Fatma stands as a metaphor for misguided ambition, like with the deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak”.
Khaled film making was originally discovered, and celebrated, by the Birmingham International Film Festival in the early 1990s. In recent years there has been a renewal of support for his film making ambitions in Cairo, where he has been filming almost back-to-back for the past few years.
His most recent production, shot early in 2011, is a TV series of 30 episodes, Shopra, an Egypt/UK co-production with the BBC. The series, in Arabic, concentrates on young people and their dreams, problems, and the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians in Shopra.
Khaled’s family, friends and colleagues, in Alexandria, in Cairo and in Birmingham, will no doubt all be holding their breath for the Pharoah of Film, when the Oscars buzz hits fever pitch later in the Awards campaign.
The Arab Spring has clearly generated renewed interest in Arabic cinema and this has given Khaled optimism that his film might be the first Egyptian film to be ultimately short listed, and represented at the awards ceremony.