Cimatheque – Alternative Film Centre is a multi-purpose venue located in the heart of downtown Cairo. Created with the intent of providing a space for filmmakers and cinephiles to collaborate, research, and network, the two residential apartments that now form Cimatheque hope to nurture a community of likeminded individuals that will over time create an infrastructure for the alternative film industry in Egypt.
Out of the Past
Born from a fruitful collaboration between filmmakers back in 2009, the venture initially started as an idea amongst the cofounders of Zero Production, whose desire to cultivate the budding filmmaking community through an independent production company eventually saw the potential in creating a more diverse platform to support cinema lovers in Cairo. While Egypt has a long cinematic history and institutions of higher learning devoted to the art form, the foundation upon which the industry has been built is deeply fragile, weakened by years of neglect, corruption, and a lack of vision that has hindered the development of a beloved art in the country.
While making a feature film, the co-founders of Zero Production felt that it was imperative to create Cimatheque, to provide a hub to discuss vocational workshops that would fill the gap in what is currently being taught or addressed in the local film scene, and a screening hall to exhibit films rarely shown to an audience hungry for different filmic experiences. Following the revolution, the scope of the project expanded, bringing about the idea to build an analogue hand-processing lab, the only one of its kind in the country, in the hopes of reviving a lost art form that capitulated in recent years to the cost-effectiveness of digital filmmaking.
And because everything that was being implemented in Cimatheque till this point arose from a desire to at once respect legacies and collective histories, while deconstructing their meanings in the current political and social climate, the idea of devoting a room or two to film archives came into being. Those who knew the cofounders of Cimatheque knew their fidelity to preserving the moving image in as much as humanely possible; to safeguard what remained from a recent and conflicted past.
Thus, donations of material, be they analogue film prints, or entire libraries bursting with information on Egyptian film history flooded the still nascent space, in dusty cardboard boxes and dilapidated file folders: the need exceeded the demand, but those who were now moving tirelessly to create une Cimatheque remained devoted to the idea of archiving. A film scanner to help digitize analogue films was commissioned with a partner in Berlin, Germany, and a small but dedicated staff began to sift through and categorize the print archive received, unlocking the memories contained within.
Against Nostalgia: Building an “Alternative” Film Archive
The current movement in the past few years to turn away from treating the archives as a sacred tomb, or impartial witness to history is an incredibly important concept in developing the film archives at Cimatheque. While a great deal has already been said and done regarding this particular idea, it has yet to gain traction in Egypt, where there is no easily accessible film archive, thereby emphasizing a general misunderstanding regarding its usage and meaning: it seems to operate under the guise of moral authority, and more often than not, boredom.
These characteristics are deeply misleading, as film archives manifest themselves more as traces or fragments that have the potential to lead to truths, or destabilize remembrance and history as recorded, rather than providing the final word on any event. The idea that the archives are boring is also an unfortunate misconception that dissuades individuals from entering such a space, or contribute substantially to the development of an archive, because they have trouble locating themselves, their own memories and personal histories within the perceived realm of a draconian institution.
Building an archive anywhere sometimes entails a leap of faith, not necessarily because of the more practical issues of finding adequate funding, expertise, preservation, or fine-tuning acquisition policies, for example.But because it entails faith in the idea that there will always be an audience for the archive. That the work will continue to survive impervious to social, cultural, political movements, or the haphazard turns of chance.
So even while the archives pinpoint opportunities to read or reread histories in different ways, they implicitly communicate the sense of the absurd, or the futile, which ultimately haunts the logic of the archive.
At the same time, we are confronted with the stark realization on a daily basis that the dissemination of different types of images, and their role in mythmaking by proponents of various truths underscores the urgency of developing of an archival space, made easily accessible to the public. Presenting a diverse set of voices and narratives is incredibly important in Egypt, if not a state of emergency.
There is virtually no political power without control of the archive or memory. And any push towards democratization of any kind will continue to be undermined by the lack of access to and participation in the development of an archive, its content, and how it can be interpreted.
So even while the definition of the archives and their functionality can be debated, they are in a sense embodiments of cultural heritage, which need to be open to scrutiny. Of course, this is especially true when it comes to motion picture archives in Egypt, where the image itself carries so much weight, and the politics of representation and appropriation continually come into play on an almost daily basis, in newspapers and television screens.
The role of these documents of visual culture are made even more important when a paternalistic government presents itself and its citizens in a way that situates them in the superficial adulation of an imagined past and clichéd future—nostalgia as a construct can be a way of silently rebelling against the current political climate, but when used by those in power, it creates a dangerous space where there’s no real freedom of speech or dialogue.
These concerns are central to the way in which Cimatheque’s team approaches programming based on film history and archiving, with the hope that it can give voice and expression to peripheral memories, and material made on the margins of society.
An Experiment: Revisiting Memory
Historic narratives and the concept of the archives are contested areas in Egypt. Thus, Revisiting Memory aims to open the questions of ownership and interpretation of collective memory by presenting a wide array of material in different ways, playfully experimenting with how they are presented and interpreted.
Drawing from material currently present in Cimatheque’s archival collection, in addition to a myriad number of sources, the project focuses on images produced by the mainstream, commercial Egyptian cinema, alongside advertisements, newsreels, and other film-related ephemera. Documents created by underground actors of society will also be explored, and the various meanings they represent: amateur footage and home videos, independent films made beyond the influence of the state, rushes or unedited versions of documentaries and newsreels, and so on. It is hoped that the inclusion of different languages and aesthetics will help envision an alternative visual history, and unconventional reading of the past.
In parallel, discussions will be held regarding the practical challenges behind building an archive, film preservation, and the ways in which such work can be made accessible to the general public. Because we are dealing with an inherently fragile medium, films will be screened in various formats: 8mm, 16mm, 35mm analogue films, Betacam, VHS tapes, DVDs, and digital files. Tracing the changing physical substances that encapsulate Egyptian cultural heritage, and the ways in which important works have moved from copy to copy, obliterated only to be duplicated once again in another form (either due to neglect or lack of awareness) is in itself an important question in our collective visual legacy: therefore, work that refuses to erase itself and somehow manages to survive the ravages of time will be a part of the conversation.
It is hoped that through this rather subjective approach evident to presenting the archives will expose the direct and indirect ways in which memory and nostalgia have been manufactured by those in power, subverting well-established notions regarding history, identity, and a citizen’s relationship to society.
Giving voice to these peripheral memories will lead to a consideration of the extent to which the acts of remembering and forgetting are indicative of a society’s agency over its past, a collective response to trauma, or a state imposed upon them by governments and other powerful entities. Noise and fragmented images fill in the spots that have suddenly turned black, or been willfully obliterated: it is hoped that revisiting the archives and their utility will uncover heretofore lost truths, but more importantly expose the fragility of memory.
Fade to Black
After many years of trial and error, of tirelessly building a space that can accommodate the many needs of the local film scene, Cimatheque is finally ready to open this summer. By coincidence (as this certainly was not in the grand scheme of things) the space will open with Revisiting Memory, a project that posits many questions regarding history and the problem of the archive, but does not (nor does it claim to) provide any answers.
Anxiety is a natural reaction in such circumstances: a long awaited opening after a tricky and sometimes problematic segue into existence. It is also due to the awareness that opening with such a sensitive program can lead to a multitude of misunderstandings; regarding our identity as a space, what we will or will not say about the “current state of things,” and the nature of the archive itself.
And yet there is a deep faith that the audience will respond to the genuine excitement Cimatheque’s team feels about presenting film archives in such a manner: for nearly any person or entity can archive or preserve, given an adequate amount of knowledge and expertise. But interpretation is far more important and far riskier an endeavor. And we are simply inviting the public to visit our space and engage with us in experimenting, envisioning more ideas to be screened in the future.