Chihab El Khachab, Making Film in Egypt: How Labor, Technology, and Mediation Shape the Industry (American University in Cairo Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Chihab El Khachab (CEK): I have long had an interest in cinema, especially Egyptian cinema, having grown up in a family where watching, analyzing, and appreciating movies was so important. Since my undergraduate days, I have also been invested in anthropology and what it can bring to understanding the social and technical grounds of human creation. When I came to write a doctoral dissertation, on which this book is based, I thought that combining my interest in cinema and anthropology to produce a detailed account of how films are made, in practice, would be an interesting contribution. I was dissatisfied with much of the literature on film studies, which seemed to me a bit too speculative on matters of production and creation that could benefit from direct encounters with filmmakers. I was also dissatisfied with anthropological theory which—in my training at least—did not examine commercial film production in sufficient depth. This double dissatisfaction pushed me to study film industries as an anthropologist, and Cairo was a practical and fresh location to conduct this study.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CEK: Making Film in Egypt is an ethnography of the everyday work of commercial film production in Cairo, based on fieldwork conducted between 2013 and 2015. The meat of the book describes the industry’s intricate working patterns, its division of labor, its modes of apprenticeship, its production process, its technological context, its logistical and creative issues, and its imagined audiences. The broad structure of the argument, however, is tied to the question of understanding how filmmakers deal with the future of “the film” while it is still being made. The filmmakers with whom I worked expect that there will be a film, but they cannot exactly predict how it will be made, so they resort to a certain division of labor, a certain sequence of operations, and various technological mediators to “foremediate” the final film—my way of saying that they constantly project all the interceding steps between now (when there is no film) and the future (when there is a film). Overall, the book is situated between the literature in media anthropology, media studies, and Middle East studies.
Setting this broad structure aside, each chapter makes situated interventions in different subfields of anthropology and media studies. Chapter 3, for instance, contrasts two different ways of conceiving objects in social science—one common in material culture studies, where objects/commodities are studied by looking back at their past biographies, and another one I am proposing to explore how objects become future-oriented materials in complex sociotechnical processes—what I have called “reserves.” I am arguing that the use of devices like phones, laptops, and cameras is not a neutral fact of film production, but it allows filmmakers to constantly discuss, anticipate, and modify what comes next in the filmmaking process. I think that there is too little written on technological use in this way in media anthropology, not just Technology with a capital T, so I think that this chapter provides an interesting starting point to think about what devices do in a context like filmmaking and how they allow filmmakers to reflect on their work.
J: What are the stakes of studying film as a process, not a product?
CEK: I think that there is a tendency in some academic fields to congeal particular texts and products into objects of analysis without unpacking how they are constituted by and in a broader world—and film studies has been one of these fields. Watching and analyzing the finished film product becomes the major moment of knowledge production, but as valuable as this activity is, it remains insufficient to the extent that the objectified and commodified film product is never but a moment in a wider process of production, circulation, and (repeated) consumption. Once students and scholars notice the momentary and historically situated nature of the encounter with the film, it becomes clear that armchair analysis, however smart and thoughtful, cannot stand in for empirical investigation into the world constituting cinema—as production, as distribution, as viewing practice. This kind of investigation opens film studies beyond being a niche interest in a pre-packaged set of films and theories into becoming a way of understanding how human creation is socially and historically embedded. This is a project in which scholars working in media anthropology, cultural studies, and what is known as “production studies” have been engaged for several years now.
An additional stake is to recognize the enormous amount of “hidden” labor that goes into the making of a film product. This labor is not really hidden to those who work in the film industry, but it is often sublimated by those who watch the product without thinking about the process, whether they are academics or not. I have written recently about how this erasure of labor—what I have called “reification”—is integral to the way in which the industry itself acts as a hierarchical space of commodity production. Being able to think about film as a process where numerous working contributions are made yet erased can shed a different light on the act of film viewing itself, and on the great effort expended to make the film look like what it ends up looking like.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CEK: I think about this book as the centerpiece in a larger set of interests I have in Egyptian mass media. I have done some work on Internet memes, on television pundits, and on a popular film genre called “Sobky,” all in a perspective combining cultural studies and anthropology to various degrees. This research is closer to what has been done in Arab cultural studies, but the core ethnographic experience that shaped my views and readings of these media phenomena is most completely displayed in Making Film in Egypt. If anything, the book shows how I think about media production in general, even though I am honing down on filmmaking only, as opposed to the work I have done elsewhere.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CEK: I hope that this book will be read by anthropologists, media studies scholars, and anyone—academic or not—with an interest in Egyptian cinema. First, I am hoping that this book can spark bigger and smaller conversations among anthropologists about the analytical tools available to describe the experience of making film, or using digital technologies, or anticipating the future—whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. I also hope that this book can continue to show to the anthropological community how “Egypt” is a more complex context than the mainstream ethnographies on the country would allow one to imagine.
Second, I think that this book can serve as an example of what ethnographic work can contribute both empirically and conceptually to media studies. There is now a strong body of scholarship in the anthropology of cinema (see this reading list), but I feel like this scholarship remains at the margins of film and media studies even though it has much to contribute. Lastly, I think that those interested in Egyptian cinema will find intriguing stories about how the industry works, but not in the way these stories are portrayed in the mainstream press. I would want Egyptian cinema amateurs to not just enjoy what big stars and directors do behind the scenes, but also understand and learn about all the work and workers who make movies what they are.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CEK: I am writing a historical ethnography of the Ministry of Culture in Egypt, which is loosely inspired by scholarship in the anthropology of bureaucracy—notably Matthew Hull’s Government of Paper. I am trying to do two main things in this new book project: first, to give a somewhat detailed description of the Ministry of Culture as a multipolar institution; and second, to show how various administrations within the Ministry have been instrumental in shaping a coherent state project after national independence in 1952. While the cultural products made by the Ministry are regularly analyzed in literary studies, cultural studies, and art history—whether we are talking about government-sponsored books, films, plays, paintings, music, and so on—there is a surprisingly small amount of research on the Ministry itself, including its administrative structure, its everyday work, its integration within the wider state apparatus. So I am trying to explore what seems to me like a significant blind spot in studies of “culture” in Egypt. Moreover, building on understandings of the state as an “idea” (Philip Abrams) or an “effect” (Tim Mitchell), I want to provide a materially and institutionally grounded account of the Ministry of Culture’s role in shaping the state idea/effect in postcolonial Egypt.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, pp. 113 – 116)
A week prior to the start of shooting in Décor, the assistant director Omar el-Zohairy was running around New Century’s office to make the key crew approve his schedule. The cinematographer Tarek Hefny was okay with the schedule, but disappointed that they would not be able to celebrate the New Year. “I can’t do otherwise,” answered Zohairy in a hurry, citing the constraints imposed by the holidays already booked by stars Horeya Farghaly and Khaled Abol Naga in the middle of the schedule. When Hefny gave him a mischievous look, Zohairy reacted in a defensive tone, “It’s not my fault, I told Horeya she’s the boss (rabb al-‘amal).” The art director Asem Ali joked that he would not have enough time to finish the set on this schedule, but Zohairy ignored the growing mockery and gave his schedule to the line producer Farghalli and the production manager Setohy. Both checked that the dates matched their own requirements, then made several photocopies to be distributed to the crew.
Setohy went back to the other office, sitting across from the costume script supervisor Mariam el-Bagoury and the assistant stylist Asmaa. He asked Bagoury to send him the general costume breakdown in separate Excel sheets for every character, so that he could send each actor his/her costume list on its own. Bagoury seemed reluctant to separate the costume breakdown in this time-consuming way, so I offered to do it myself. While I parsed out each Excel sheet into a separate document on Setohy’s computer, Bagoury helped Asmaa parse out piles of paper in a binder to separate each character’s costumes. Meanwhile, Farghalli was making a location breakdown with his production assistant Georges, listing scene number, location name, and scene descriptions in three different colors on a blank sheet.
Later, Setohy signalled to Farghalli that they needed an actual VHS cassette of al-Layla al-akhira (The Last Night, 1964), a black-and- white melodrama to which Décor was broadly an homage. “We see Maha’s character put it inside the VHS machine in the movie,” explained Setohy. “They just need some videocassette,” replied Farghalli, adding that the material on screen will be taken from YouTube, but the cassette cover needs to look like it is The Last Night. “Where can I find this VHS?” asked Setohy. “Anywhere on Shawarbi Street,” answered the production assistant Mustafa Abu Zeid, who was sitting nearby. “I know, but I don’t remember the guy’s name…,” muttered Setohy while looking through his contacts to call the salesman in question. After dinner, Farghalli asked Setohy why the hairstylist Mohammed Hafez had not arrived to attend Yara Goubran’s fitting, which was taking place in another room. Setohy answered that Horeya Farghaly had not come that day. “He’s supposed to be the hairstylist for the whole film, not just Horeya,” grunted Farghalli. He got Hafez’s number from Setohy and called him outside the office. All I heard were his initial words: “What’s wrong, Hafez? You’ll screw over my appointments from the start?”
Around nine o’clock that night, Farghalli discussed the next day’s assignments with Setohy. With a to-do list in hand, they thought about how they could deliver the cash necessary to cover set building expenses in Studio Misr the next day. When Farghalli left, Setohy organized the next day’s assignments on paper. Around ten o’clock, the office was empty. Setohy and I were sitting on our own when we got a call from Farghalli. He said that Horeya Farghaly’s fitting had been delayed from eleven to one o’clock the next day. Setohy rolled his eyes and contacted all concerned crew members to notify them about the change. He first called the stylist Salma Sami, then the production assistant Rasha Gawdat, the makeup artist Mustafa Awad, the hairstylist Hafez, the costume script supervisor Bagoury (who did not answer, but Setohy sent her a text message), and lastly the costume assistant Refaat. When Setohy was done with one phone call, he would ask me to mark it down on his long handwritten to-do list. I helped him with these calls until we both went home late at night.
This extended description illustrates the complexity of the logistics involved in planning a feature film like Décor. All these activities occurred on a single day, which is but a fraction of the total work invested in preparing the shooting over six weeks. The flurry of preparations could be felt in the stench of cigarettes hovering around New Century’s office, where overflowing ashtrays covered the tables next to piles of paper, laptops, smartphones, one or two CDs, a three-in-one photocopier, tea glasses, lighters, empty cigarette packs, phone chargers, and some more trailing paper. The logistics of Décor were handled amid this commotion by Farghalli’s production team in conjunction with each artistic team and their key assistants—the assistant director, the script supervisors, the assistant decorator, and the assistant stylist. While I was told by Farghalli that each team had a different “system” to coordinate the shoot, they all faced the same logistical issues in need of more or less urgent solutions. Hence the endless reviewing of schedules, script breakdowns, shooting items, cash flows, appointments—in short, what would sustain the next shooting day.
These solutions are never exhaustive, because the overall outcome of logistical preparations (tahdir) is imponderable, while the steps moving toward execution (tanfiz) are contingent on the film’s unfolding. Going back to the opening vignette in the introduction, no one knew how the first shooting day would unfold a week prior to shooting, let alone how the shooting would unfold over the entire schedule. This does not mean that crew members capitulate to uncertainty; rather, they mediate the imponderable outcome of preparations and execution. Chapter 2 laid out the executive hierarchy and operational sequence within which logistical coordination conventionally occurs. Such conventions are central to successful coordination in a temporary organization such as a film set. Chapter 3 showed how technological objects act as “reserves” through which executive crew members summon mediators that aid their coordination tasks, while being summoned to execute these tasks eventually. This explains the overwhelming presence of paper, phones, and laptops in New Century’s office.
Despite all the assumptions and mediators marshaled by executive workers, preparing and executing the shooting remains imponderable to the individual agent. S/he mediates future outcomes by breaking them down into a set of contingent tasks, assigned to specific crew members at specific junctures in the filmmaking process. To individuals like Farghalli or Setohy, the imponderability of preparing and executing a shooting day becomes, through this mediation, a series of punctual tasks to which they are assigned and assign others—say, to approve the schedule, to get the VHS of The Last Night, to call crew members, to set appointments. This granular account of everyday film logistics echoes recent scholarship in production studies, with an ethnographic emphasis on the unpredictable environment within which my interlocutors operated day to day. Such an account brings to light a local division of labor with a different set of complexities to the ones handled by a transnational in “runaway” Hollywood productions.
This chapter describes how the shooting is prepared and executed in today’s Egyptian film industry. I start with a description of three logistical issues in film preparations—budgeting, scheduling, and transportation—while showing how they are, to the individuals in charge, imponderable without being uncertain. I go on to illustrate how logistical planning is never perfectly executed by describing the ways in which executive crew members try to avoid recurrent failures or “drops” on set. In this connection, I describe the asymmetrical expectations imposed on executive workers to be available and faultless. These expectations bear important consequences for the way in which contingent tasks are executed and, ultimately, the way in which imponderable outcomes are mediated. In conclusion, I reflect on the importance of technological devices in coordinating the shooting, which act as reserves summoning crew members to execute what remains to be done at each juncture in the filmmaking process.