Simon Wears a Tie (Cairo, Day 5)

It is confirmed. I have to wear a tie. We are meeting with tie-worthy people this morning. “Ministries” in Egypt are the government equivalent of “Departments” in the U.S., e.g. Department of State, Department of Energy, and so forth. So, cabinet-level bureaucracy to deal with stuff important to the state. Egypt in particular has quite a few more Ministries than we have Departments, the most notable example to my mind is the Ministry of Tourism. The fact that it exists speaks to how important it is to their economy and infrastructure.

We are scheduled to meet with the Deputy Minister of Tourism, they want to talk about how to bring more film production to Egypt. I’m not sure that they knew who they were getting when they set this up with us. On paper, we’re might not be the choice to be resources for such a subject. However, in a way I am. South Carolina asks the same question regularly, and in my opinion fails to answer usefully or convincingly. So when I say Egypt, you just think South Carolina. (So when I say Bolivia, you just think California. Get it?)

Here’s the thing with Egypt (South Carolina). It’s got a lot of good people, it’s got so many different landscapes and climates that the mind boggles. If people only realized what a resource it could be as a place to shoot and make films, it would theoretically bring lots of positive attention, revenue, positive attention, tax money, and positive attention. However, people almost never choose to shoot there. If the film calls for an absolutely location-specific thing like a pyramid (Charleston), they might shoot that, but then most of the rest of the time they go to Morocco (Georgia, North Carolina).

Governments try to address this, and always do it wrong. How do I know it’s wrong? Because their solutions a.) are based on little more than anecdotal information, and b.) don’t work. “The problem is one of awareness! If only people KNEW about how awesome we are. We need PR and an awareness campaign!” Or: “It’s taxes! The taxes are too high! We need tax incentives for film production!” One of the two, or both, or a flurry of variants of the two, peppered with the occasional cries of “there are no trained workers!”

Ah where to begin. The first thing is to point to a fantastic article in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, called “The Creative Economy as ‘Big Business’: Evaluating State Strategies to Lure Filmmakers” by Christopherson and Rightor (http://jpe.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/3/336). There’s a lot of information there that gets ignored because it’s complicated (like most economics). Point is, the rhetoric of “just give tax incentives” is exactly that: mere rhetoric. And the “problem” of awareness is a manufactured one: if you think your problem is the “people don’t know about you” and don’t understand or address the structural underpinnings of WHY people don’t know, then you’re just going to end up throwing bad money at middle managers and old-media advertising/PR/marketing hucksters who can’t hang with a new media landscape.

The Deputy Minister is breathtakingly handsome. He is not wearing a tie. We discover that because his time is brief, we are sharing this meeting with a hotel owner. The hotelier is a flamboyant, colorful man who is working on “volunteer tourism” programs. A different problem they have in Egypt is that people who visit are mostly old people working on their bucket list. They come with a big group, go see the Pyramids and the Sphinx, check out Khan al-Khalili, and then never return. The idea is that if visitors connect with the people of Egypt, their visit is more meaningful and ultimately leads to a return.

I’m not here to them what they should do, but I can tell them things I’ve already seen go wrong in other places, I am ready to tell them the mindset of a filmmaker and the choices we face, the thousand tiny cuts that make a production say “ok, never mind.” I can talk about creative investments in education to spur the intellectual environment that keep people from moving away. We start to chat, but he doesn’t ask any questions. It becomes clear from the look in his eyes that this meeting was not his idea, but I fear he thinks it was our idea. The folks at the Embassy wouldn’t have been so presumptuous, so who set this in motion? Probably someone below him who identifies this as an issue, but it seems that higher up the administration doesn’t see this as a particular problem. Awkward. I’m glad I get to hear about the volunteer tourism ideas, though they talk about the details in Arabic, so I can’t follow except for a few tiny things. But I look pretty good in a tie, and the mazboot was exemplary.

Our next stop is Cairo University, in the Faculty of Communications where they have a large English-language professional program. Another meeting with a Dean and professors, and this time, Sandra and I are split up. She’s going to talk about documentaries (the original purpose of the American Documentary Showcase) and I’m going to talk about social media and film outreach. I’ve got a room of another 40 students, again almost all women!A break, and then in the evening we head off to a place called SEMAT. SEMAT is an anglicized acronym for “independent filmmakers for production and distribution.” It’s not clear to us what they do, or what they want us to do, but at this point, we’re sort of used to that.

SEMAT is facinating. Go check their web site: www.sematcairo.com. They do everything. They make their own films, they do teach filmmakers, they provide permits and rent equipment, they do ev-er-y-thing. This was tough to figure out at first, even to me, a filmmaker who does ev-er-y-thing. In a way, this is Egypt. In the US, we’re used to hyper-specialization and compartmentalization. Students want to get a job doing something particular. We go to particular stores to get particular items. In Egypt my sense it you do what needs to be done. If you go to a store on the corner, they might have groceries and electronics. Why? Because they figured you might need groceries and electronics. At SEMAT, they do everything that needs to be done related to filmmaking, because dammit, that’s what they need.

We go into a room with walls painted a brilliant cerulean and are met by a group of young people, many of whom we already know! People from the El Sawy workshop and High Institute are here, and the SEMAT folks have an interesting job for us. These teachers and students are going to be in the city of Ismailia a few days hence in a filmmaking camp where they’ll be making films as part of the Ismailia Film Festival, and they want us to add our voices critique their works in progress, and help strengthen their films. We’re all familiar with the each other, we’ve got a bit of history, so now we’re able to jump past introductions and go into some details. We talk about filmmaking strategy, we talk about innovations in new media and how they can shape your stories.

Then it’s time to go to bed. We need a break badly.