El Khachab’s Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry

My thesis is not about the link between cinema and car mechanics in Egypt, but this is what I discuss on page 99. There is still a sense in which this link touches on a core intellectual contribution that I hoped to make. The thesis examines how workers in the Egyptian film industry cope with the unforeseeable future of film production. I argue that this future is not entirely unforeseeable, as it is made to seem by interlocutors and scholars alike, but that it is managed through a hierarchical division of labor, an attention to the socio-technical process of film production, and a constant use of technological devices. In other words, when filmmakers confront such an unforeseeable problem as imagining “the film” while writing it, their responses never come out of nothing: they rely on existing hierarchies, techniques, and technologies to manage the issue.

This has little to do with car mechanics, or so it seems. Cinema carries strong expectations regarding what there is to study about it, and one imagines a cinema anthropologist to hang out with stars and directors to study their works, worldviews, and creative impulses. What I have done instead is to document the contributions of “unknown soldiers” in the film industry: set builders and production assistants, cameramen and sound engineers, grips and gaffers; workers who have more in common with craftsmen than the creative types we imagine peopling the industry. The vital insight is that each worker has a different stake in the film’s future: what it means to imagine the film is very different to a director as opposed to a gripping technician. By giving equal consideration to the director’s and the technician’s projects, however, I have tried to complicate expectations about what there is to study in “cinema”.

What remains to be studied is the historical link between cinema and other industrial crafts, for example, car repairs. The history of Egyptian cinema – and arguably, the history of cinema tout court – is predominantly written as though cinema was a series of “artworks”, without recognizing how cinema workers exist in a wider socio-technical world. It would be astonishing if the strong similarities between Egyptian craftsmen in the film industry and in the car repairs industry were a mere historical accident. Yet this comparison is seldom raised, because both activities are seldom put in the same sentence together. The comparison matters nevertheless because it breaks the stereotypical bounds between “creative” and “technical” activities, and it lets us think about what Egyptian cinema can say about Egyptian society more broadly.

Chihab El Khachab. “Technology, Labor, and Mediation in the Egyptian Film Industry.” DPhil dissertation, University of Oxford, 2017.