Chihab El Khachab on his book, Making Film in Egypt

Interview by Meg Morley

Meg Morley: How do/would you explain the central arguments of your book to the film industry personnel with whom you worked?

Chihab El Khachab: There are some arguments about which I already talked with film personnel during and after fieldwork because they were well aware of their dynamics. In particular, we talked a lot about interpersonal relations and labour hierarchies, and how both could negatively affect one’s trajectory within the industry. I’ve had this conversation with directors as well as lighting technicians, clappers, video-assist workers, and so on. I don’t recall discussing the arguments about technology or the distinction between uncertainty and imponderability. What I would tell my interlocutors, however, is that I’m not just interested in documenting the objective constraints on their work – how much money they make, how many hours they work, what kind of tasks they execute – but also in analysing how they take charge of a process as taxing and unpredictable as filmmaking despite these constraints.

What I noticed during fieldwork is that, while filmmakers were always worried about what would happen to their film next, and whether they had the right people and tools to deal with it, they ultimately managed to get through the muddle by using certain working conventions, certain hierarchies, and certain digital technologies in a way which is rarely articulated verbally. This is important because, if this core argument were to become explicit, it would highlight the extent to which the film cannot just be made by a few workers recognized in the first few credits on screen, but in a real sense, it is the outcome of collective labour to overcome everyday failures and uncertainties in the course of production.

Meg Morley: As with any ethnography, there are a number of apparent theoretical roads not taken; to me the most apparent were the neoliberal labor practices of the film industry (for example, workers are expected to always be available and sometimes own/use their own equipment) and the classism of labor hierarchies, imagined audiences, etc. Why did you decide to focus on process, technology, and future rather than other potential options?

Chihab El Khachab: On privileging process and technology, I would say two things. First, it is a matter of narrative structure: I think that the story of the book is better told as a series of anticipations which mirror, in a way, the daily anticipations of filmmakers themselves. The overarching process of the book echoes the process of filmmaking as I have experienced it. Second, the theoretical neglect of everyday technologies and everyday orientations to the future is, I think, an important reason to centre them in the book, precisely because they are so vital to the lived experience of filmmaking. Film production cannot exist without these technological uses and future-orientations, and yet, many ethnographies of film production neglect these dimensions. To put it crudely, I wasn’t interested in writing an ethnography of neoliberalism or class disguised as an ethnography of film production, but rather, I wanted to centre the actual workers that I’ve met and the experiences that I’ve had within the book’s architecture.

Now, why avoid talking about neoliberalism and class? As you rightly point out, the book has a whole subtext precisely about capitalist exploitation – in a sense, the whole analysis of the distinction between artistic and executive workers is about how value creation ultimately relies on the exploitation of manual labour to the benefit of some labelled as artists and a handful of oligopolistic producers/distributors. However, what is happening in today’s industry is not peculiar to the neoliberal period in my view, because similar precarious working arrangements existed in the early 20th-century Egyptian film industry. What I am describing today could be read through the lens of neoliberalism, of course, but this reading would occult the longer historical pattern through which precarity, value-extraction, and exploitation go hand in hand with Egyptian capitalism.

About class, I discuss the issue very briefly in chapter 2, but the basic reason I didn’t centre it is because I don’t have a good analytical language to discuss class in an everyday working context in Egypt – neither does, in my view, the anthropological literature on Egypt. The basic problem is that the existing analytical language – whether it is broadly Marxist, Weberian, Bourdieuian – is historically unattuned to emic class distinctions in Egypt. So what is called “popular” (sha‘bi) or “middle-class” (taba’a wusta) in Cairo cannot be squared easily with a Marxist distinction between people who own the means of production and people who sell their labour-power, or even a Bourdieuian distinction between people with different degrees of economic and symbolic capital. The film industry is interesting precisely because it is a cross-class space in an emic sense, where people hailing from aristocratic or upper middle-class families coexist with people from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. I explain in the book that these class positions correlate with – but do not directly correspond to – rank within the industry’s labour hierarchies. In limited cases, in fact, the industry can serve as a vector of social ascension in emic terms. This is a significant observation because it could lead to a more accurate accounting, in common with reflections on other sectors, of the historical process through which class mobility happens in Egypt. This is an important project to undertake beyond the bounds of the film industry proper.

Meg Morley: Can you talk a little bit more about technology and commodity-objects as reserves? In what other ways would you like to see people apply this concept?

Chihab El Khachab: There are two basic ideas I wanted to get across in the chapter on reserves. First, I wanted to say that the actual devices used by filmmakers in their daily activity go well beyond film technologies such as state-of-the-art cameras and editing suites, because smartphones, laptops, and even paper are just as widely and effectively used by filmmakers in practice. These everyday commodities are important filmmaking technologies in their own right. Second, these commodities are not just matter for consumption in the sense in which they are understood in material culture studies, but they are active elements in a production process. This is an important nuance because approaches like object biography or consumption studies tend to detail the commodity’s past and present, whereas their use in film production implies a different orientation to a somewhat expected yet unpredictable future.

The concept of reserve, as I understand it, is an attempt to explain what happens to the everyday technologies used by filmmakers when they are not just inert objects or consumption goods, but active agents in the filmmaking process. I argue that these technologies oscillate between this passive and active role at different moments in the filmmakers’ lives, which I have tried to render by the terms commodity-object and reserve. The reserve is a moment in the life of a technological device in which it is summoned to anticipate what will happen next in film production while summoning their human user to think through the future. This technological-cum-human anticipation could well apply to many socio-technical processes – architecture, art, craftsmanship, manufacture – and I would like to see scholars apply it in contexts where everyday technologies have a strong future-orientation. It’s not enough to say that people use or consume technologies in a certain way, because these technologies are often central in shaping the projects that these people have – and I believe that the idea of technology as a reserve is one step in taking this into account.

Meg Morley: Your fieldwork was on two films conceived of by the producers as art house/film festival films. How do you think your book might have been different if one or both films you worked on were of the popular “Sobky” type?

Chihab El Khachab: The surprising answer to this question is: not very much. Before doing fieldwork, I would’ve guessed – like most people who watch films without knowing how the industry works – that the production patterns in art-house cinema would be a bit different than in commercial cinema. While there are some differences, of course, especially when it comes to how the creative crew think about the film and what marketing strategy the production company uses, the core issues in which I’ve been interested – interpersonal relations, labour hierarchies, technological use, imponderability – apply just as well and look very similar in both cases. In other words, the end product might look very different, but the process itself is quite similar.

I did spend most of my time on productions which were labelled “festival films” by their companies, but I’ve also followed some productions which were much closer to the commercial mainstream. This is because the same company that was making Décor – New Century Film Production – was also making Al-Nabatshi, Qot w-Far (Cat and Mouse), and Qodrat Gheir ‘Adeyya (Out of the Ordinary). I attended some preparations and shooting in all these films, but I didn’t write about them to avoid interrupting the book’s narrative flow. The production crew with which I worked in Décor had a long history of working with Good News, a mega-budget company from the 2000s, and all the technicians in Décor also worked on commercial films to make a living. The main difference, really, was the marketing team and the creative crew – the director, the cinematographer, the art director – who would want the film to look and be branded in a certain way. Everyone else, it seems to me, worked according to very similar patterns, which is a significant observation on its own.

Meg Morley: As someone doing research on Egyptian cultural production (in my case, raqs sharqi/belly dance), I can imagine how you moved from studying the process of filmmaking in Egypt to doing a historical ethnography of the Ministry of Culture. But for those less familiar with the arts and entertainment in Egypt, can you explain how your book project led to your current project?

Chihab El Khachab: I would say that there are two main connections. The first connection is very practical: many of the filmmakers with whom I worked have one link or another with the Ministry of Culture. Many went to the High Cinema Institute (which is part of the Academy of Arts at the Ministry of Culture), some received funding from the National Film Institute, some would go watch the regular screenings at the Opera House (where the Cairo International Film Festival is usually held). In addition to the writers and artists connected with the Ministry of Culture that I knew already, I made a sizeable network within and around the Ministry through fieldwork.

The second connection is a historical one. While the film industry was only regulated by a censorship bureau at the Ministry of Interior until 1952, President Nasser was keen on promoting the film industry as an organ of national development after independence. From 1957 onwards, especially, there were several national bodies and institutions dedicated to promoting film production, distribution, and exhibition. These bodies became nearly omnipotent after extensive nationalization policies in the 1960s, but they lost much of their power once the industry was re-privatised in the 1970s. Yet, these institutions continue to play a vital role in today’s industry – including the High Cinema Institute and the National Film Institute – which means that it is important to understand the intersections of filmmaking with the cultural state apparatus and its historical development in order to understand Egyptian film production. This is why there is a kindred spirit between my first and second projects.

Meg Morley: How did you decide on AUC Press for your book?

Chihab El Khachab: This was serendipitous in a way. Prior to finishing the manuscript, I had sent my book proposal to many university presses and, ultimately, committed the manuscript with a US-based publisher. While the book was under review, Anne Routon (who had just become the new acquisitions editor at AUC press in New York) contacted me about publishing the book and told me about AUC’s ambition to expand its research monographs list – which they since did. I told her that I was already committed to another press, but when things didn’t work out there, I decided to move back to AUC press because (a) I knew that the editor was genuinely interested in my book’s topic (which, in hindsight, seemed to have been an issue with the first publisher) and (b) the AUC press has been, with few exceptions, the major English-language publisher on anything Egyptian cinema. My book found a natural home in this list, and I’ve been very happy with the whole publishing experience at AUC press.