LUXOR — Despite the fact that it now hosts two international film festivals, the city of Luxor hadn’t seen a working movie theater in almost three decades. So when Mokhlis Mikhael opened the doors to the City Mall Cinema in June, residents were intrigued, to say the least.
First reactions to the cramped, two-screen establishment situated on the top floor of the city’s only mall were positive, if a little misdirected.
“People would come in, look around, tell me how nice the place is, and then ask me what it was for,” says Mikhael. “Quite a few people asked if they could have their weddings here.”
A few months later, little has changed.
“I still get asked that question,” Mikhael sighs.
The 40-year-old tour guide, who decided to turn to the cinema following the hit that the tourism industry took in the wake of the revolution, is patient nonetheless.
“You have to understand, there are entire generations here that have never had that movie theater experience, who aren’t even aware that such a thing exists,” he stresses.
As a result, it’s been an uphill crawl convincing Luxor residents “why they should watch movies in a dark room with a bunch of strangers, instead of on the couch at home, next to your family.”
Harder still is convincing them there’s nothing morally wrong with it.
“A lot of people think that, because of the fact that we turn off the lights for a screening, this must be some sort of nightclub or a party venue,” says Mikhael.
As a result, his cinema is more routinely frequented by shabab, or youth, as opposed to families.
“It’s not uncommon to hear people gossiping on the street — 'Did you hear? So-and-so took his wife to the movies the other night' — that type of stuff,” says Mikhael, before adding, “I don’t even take my wife to the movies anymore.”
It’s inexperience, rather than ignorance, Mikhail is quick to explain, that he believes to be behind the prolonged confusion.
“People here aren’t that narrow-minded,” he says. “This isn’t a religious thing, and Luxor generally isn’t the type of place where you’ll hear about that stuff. We all get along and nobody cares what religion the other person follows.
“Besides, the same people who avoid cinemas here enjoy going to them when vacationing in Alexandria or Cairo, and families regularly gather to watch cable TV, which is far more obscene than anything we would ever screen here.”
Instead, Mikhael insists that the problem is “a lack of culture, specifically that of the cinematic arts,” and for that he places the blame directly on the government’s shoulders.
“This is supposedly one of the top touristic cities in the world,” he claims. “But there’s nothing in terms of cultural activities for the residents, and there’s no nightlife whatsoever. So people will take whatever they can get.”
Unfortunately, the same problem that originally pushed Mikhael to open the cinema is also keeping his potential patrons at home — money, or more accurately, a lack of it.
“Luxor has been the hardest hit, economically, since the revolution,” Mikhail claims. “Everyone here works in tourism, whether directly or indirectly. So when that died out, so did the local economy.”
This has been reflected in Mikhail’s pricing, which he has continuously tried to keep considerate to his community’s financial woes.
“We’ve lowered ticket prices from LE35 to LE20, and then to LE15,” he shakes his head. “Nothing’s really worked.”
Still, Mikhail isn’t yet ready to call it quits, if only for realizing the value of his venture. Besides a handful of open-air screens in fields and clearings, and the occasional, likely abandoned or converted-into-a-chicken-coop cultural palace, Mikhail’s establishment is “the only real cinema that exists from Assiut to Aswan,” he states, with equal amounts of pride and disbelief.
“That’s half of Egypt! One movie theater in an entire half of Egypt!” he says.
After a moment, he corrects himself: “Aswan did have a crummy little place called Friendship Cinema, but I’m fairly certain it shut down.”
Similarly, Qena Governorate boasts claim to a “seventh-rate venue that’s still screening obscure films from the 1960s,” he says.
Mikhail’s City Mall Cinema, on the other hand, has higher aspirations. It screens current movies, as close to their release date as possible, and only Arabic-language films.
Foreign ones are more expensive, he says, and international distributors are more likely to send their limited number of films to big-name multiplexes in cities like Cairo and Alexandria, which are guaranteed to draw big audiences. But he hopes that will gradually change.
The cinema has already screened all of this year’s Egyptian releases. The more popular ones have even been re-released by the theater, in hopes of capitalizing on the slightest promise of a profit.
It’s a strategy that has so far seen limited success, as attested to by the full audience of two people that exits the latest Ahmed al-Sakka film halfway during Mikhael’s interview with this reporter in late September.
Mikhael looks thrilled to see the pair of strangers, smiling widely as they walk past. Right after they disappear behind the elevator doors, Mikhael’s smile disappears, and his shoulders slump once again.
“Is that it for today?” he calls out to the lone employee curled up behind a corner concession stand. The young man lifts his head, looking momentarily disoriented.
“So far, boss,” he replies, before sinking back behind the counter.
“It’s still the beginning,” he says, referring to the business. “We’ve barely been open for three months, and there was Ramadan in there. In time, things will improve.”
And there’s no reason they shouldn’t, especially given that Luxor now outnumbers Cairo in terms of international film festivals. Mikhael thinks these events can simultaneously make use of City Mall Cinema’s modest and locally unmatched facilities — in theory, at least.
“We weren’t open in time for the Luxor African Film Festival,” he says. “But I did contact the organizers of the Luxor Egyptian and European one, and they seemed very interested, but it was already too late to set anything up for this year.
“Next year,” he hopes, “God willing.”
Discussing his cinema’s potential for being the only proper screening venue for a pair of international film festivals, and the promise of a wider range of films to attract audiences, Mikhael smiles with less despair this time. His efforts, he’s sure, will eventually pay off, and his cinema will expand.
But, as he’s quick to point out, “there won’t be any weddings here.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.