Burning the Rice Fields (Cairo Day 1)

Cairo smells like burning this time of year. The rice has been cultivated, and the leftover straw is burned to clear the field. The waste grain revealed by burning feeds the birds. An ancient cycle, not well adapted to dense population. American agribusiness folk often curse the federal government and environmentalists for making it so difficult to get a burn permit in the US; removing the straw in other ways or somehow integrating it is more difficult ("but keep those farm subsidies coming, O Hated Big Government"). It smells beautiful and autumnal at first, but it clogs the lungs quickly. 

Our first stop today is the Higher Cinema Institute, a state film school. They train many of the artisans who go on to work in the Egyptian film industry. The building reminds me of the high school from the 1980's TV series "Fame." We begin a delightful and compulsory ritual: meet that location's Person in Charge and have coffee.

Coffee is Turkish coffee, dense and sweet ("mazboot" or "just right", which I surprised our hosts by knowing). American coffee in Egypt is mostly awful, I can't in good conscience advise drinking it. No matter, Turkish coffee is perfect. My initial response to not want to impose, but in Egypt hospitality flows like the Nile and is not meant to be resisted. Plus there seem to be people in all these offices whose job is to whip up the mazboot, so, it's no trouble.

The Dean, Adel Yehia, met with us in his office. An affable man, he gives the impression of being pulled in a dozen different directions at once. We talk about Egyptian film for a few minutes, and the conversation moves quickly to politics. In America, we generally avoid talking politics in a social situation unless absolutely sure your companions agree with you (yesterday's birther pilot excepted). Not so in Egypt. I don't know if this is typical, or if it is a function of our being American and transient, but I've gotten many earfuls thus far. Dean Yehia gave us an insider's opinion on the ways mosque and state have integrated since President Nasser's administration, through Sadat and to Mubarek. More on this in another post. I have to reflect on it. We also asked Dean Yehia about what the specific limits on expression were in Egypt. They call them "red lines" here, things that are absolutely certain to be censored and/or get you arrested: criticism of the President and criticism of the military.

Sandra and I separated and gave different presentations to different groups of students. Right before speaking, I was informed that it was the students' first day of class for the year. I hadn't been nervous until that point. This group specifically requested that I come and present on new and emerging forms, so after showing about 25 animation students in the audience selections from the animation program (The Stork and All Creative Work is Derivative), then showed example clips and work files from the play I worked on this past summer, New Islands Archipelago. A very engaged audience, but with only a few questions. Afterwards we took the ritual picture with the students outside the school (I love this) and were back in the State Department Armored Van to the next destination.

Next up, we went to the El Sawy Culture Wheel. This place is amazing. It's part concert hall, part youth center, part school, part art gallery, and a dozen other things rolled up into one location. But where would one build something new in downtown Cairo, you ask? Good question. Mohamed Sawy, the founder of the Culturewheel, built it to honor his late father, Abdel Moneim El Sawy, former Minister of Culture (Ministers in Egypt are like Cabinet-level Secretaries in the U.S.). Let me set the scene. The huge highway overpass of the 15 May Bridge cuts across an island in the center of Cairo and towers over the center of much of the Zemalek neighborhood where we are staying. Where the highway is about to cross the Nile on the west side, there was an area that was essentially a trash dump (yes, right in the middle of a very nice neighborhood). Mr. Sawy, an engineer, saw that location—that wasted space, totally worthless to most eyes—and had the idea to build a huge cultural center there. Imagine an overpass in LA, with homeless folks under it and everything. Now drop walls down from the sides of the road above, keep the working highway as the roof, renovate the space, and that's sort of how it works. This violates like every zoning law you could imagine in the US. But in Egypt, where there's a will... it's ingenious, it totally works, and it's beautiful. Every once in a while you'll be in this huge space and look up and realize that there's a highway above you.

We gave a talk/screening to the general public first, to about 40 people in the second-largest hall in the place. It was publicized as "The History and Modern Developments in Documentary Filmmaking," which is vague enough to be meaningless, so we talked about hybrid forms and showed some animation, specifically Stork, All Creative Work is Derivative, and Unnatural History of Wall Street, followed by discussion, which is what we were told that people really wanted to do. Quite a few people stood up to talk, and a theme that recurred was that people felt frustrated because they felt that they had stories to tell but that they were not allowed. Given that we were being taped for broadcast, I was impressed that people felt comfortable enough to speak publicly. Or maybe it's not a big deal, Americans have the impression that all Muslim countries are severely repressed in their rights to expression, but maybe that's not quite the case.

After our public presentation came the big experiment. The Embassy put out an invitation for young people to come out and take a two-night animation workshop with me on Sunday and Monday. They'll start work during those first two days, and then race to finish their films by Friday night, where they'll be screened in public and a panel will give awards. If it sounds crazy, it's only because it is. The center has no facilities of their own, we didn't know who would show up or what they'd have access to or prior knowledge about. And even WITH those things locked down, an animation in a week is... well, crazy. A dozen very enthusiastic people from all walks of life showed up, each with different areas of knowledge.

There was Hany, the architect, who was working to become a 3ds Max Master; Karem and Ismail, both advanced students in their final year at the Higher Institute; the other Ismail who actually teaches animation already and is dangerous with claymation; Assam, who looks terrified but is secretly an AfterEffects natural; Ahmed and Eslam, who are just hilarious and enthusiastic; Hana, who wants to do set design but wants to give animation a try; Mario, who can really really draw well and quickly; and Nada, who wants to be an animator, but says she's stuck finding ways to express her ideas.

I gave them a set of criteria that I modified from something I have my intro students do to learn graphics: their job was to make an animated film about their neighborhood 20 years in the future. They are simultaneously stumped (it's a tough restriction) and baffled (they are not used to having so much creative leeway. Next up: story development and rough boards.