"Censorship is the worst it has ever been"

Yasmine Zohdi is the culture editor for Mada Masr, Egyptʹs leading liberal online newspaper. In interview with Schayan Riaz, she talks about her work reviewing Arab cinema at this year's Berlinale and the increasing censorship felt by creatives and media professionals in Egypt

By Schayan Riaz

Ms. Zohdi, you were part of the Berlinale Talent Press this year and mainly focused on Arab cinema. Were you assigned these films or did you choose them yourself?

Yasmine Zohdi: I chose them myself. I focused on Egyptian or Arab films at the Berlin Film Festival because usually these films donʹt make it back home to Egypt. Mainly because of censorship. So I wanted to see what they were about. Other than that, we had to publish a longer essay at the end of the festival, which would also appear in another outlet. Since mine would appear on Mada Masr, the website I work for in Egypt, I wanted the focus of the text to be relevant to the region.

Youʹve just mentioned censorship. Can you talk a bit about the Egyptian censor board and how it operates?

Zohdi: There are no standards. Thatʹs the biggest problem of the Egyptian censor board. When it comes to censorship, there simply are no rules. Itʹs often left up to one particular censor dealing with a specific movie. And then there are some films, where you just know beforehand, that they wonʹt ever make it to a cinema. Mostly because thereʹs a direct message of dissent against the government. In that respect, itʹs the worse it has ever been. A lot of films are being censored at the moment. I donʹt just mean that certain scenes are cut out. I mean that they arenʹt even shown at all. 

How do you as a journalist tackle these developments? Do you write about censorship? And how are those articles received?

Zohdi: Definitely. But with our website itʹs a very specific case. Even though Mada Masr is one of the few independent journalistic platforms left in Cairo, our website is currently blocked. It only works outside of Egypt. Of course, people can download proxies and still access the site. So weʹre still operating and publishing. But it has surely affected our readership. How does the government receive our work? Obviously not well.

What other modes of communications do you use then, if your site is blocked? Is YouTube an option for film criticism?

Zohdi: Well, Mada Masr is mainly a news site. I handle its culture section. And sometimes we do use video. Itʹs definitely something we want to experiment with. We even have a YouTube channel! Thereʹs actually a web series, a kind-of political satire called Big Brother. Itʹs very funny and has been going viral so far. The website produces it. It was even covered in the press, by the Financial Times for example. In fact, weʹre always trying to find new ways to manoeuvre. Do artists in Egypt self-censor their work to make it more palatable to the status quo?

Zohdi: I think so. In the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, there was a documentary film called Al Gamiʹya (What Comes Around). During a Q+A after the screening, Reem Saleh, the director, said that she had a lot of footage about the revolution and its aftermath, but because it didnʹt affect her subjects in the film, she removed it from the finished product. Iʹm 100% that she did this, because she wanted to be able to screen her film in Egypt. In contrast, another film screened in Berlin a couple of years ago, called "The Last Days of the City". Even though it takes place entirely before the revolution, the director Tamer El Said hasnʹt been able to screen it in Egypt until today. Just because thereʹs a scene with a protest taking place and you hear the words "Down with military rule".

Error screen that appears when users try to call up Mada Masr in Egypt
Mada Masr, Egyptʹs liberal online newspaper has been blocked via most of Egyptʹs Internet service providers (ISPs) since May 2017. Quoting a high-level security source, the countryʹs official state news agency, MENA, announced that access to 21 websites, which had disseminated "content that supports terrorism and extremism and deliberately spreads lies" had been blocked in Egypt, in accordance with "relevant legal proceedings." , In recent months, Mada Masr has been nominated for the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2017 Prize and the London-based Index on Censorship 2018 Freedom of Expression Award, which aims to highlight "courageous, high-impact and determined journalism that exposes censorship and threats to free expression"

Is there an atmosphere of fear surrounding Egyptian filmmakers?

Zohdi: I wouldnʹt say that they are scared, but it all definitely factors into their choices and decisions. By which I mean, things they can or cannot include in their work. For example, itʹs really difficult to film on the street now. You always needed certain permits to film on the street, but now it has become even worse. People have become paranoid, because the government has fostered this fear of people with cameras filming stuff. There are lots of problems filmmakers are facing, but they are still working. There are film festivals and events happening all the time. Just last year, the El Gouna Film Festival started, taking place in a resort town on the Red Sea. I would say itʹs the second biggest festival after Cairo. So even though things are the way they are, new things are also happening.

Do you personally see a shift in films made before and after the revolution? Do you think Egyptian cinema has changed?

Zohdi: I definitely think so. Although there are more restrictions now, people are open to trying new things not only in cinema but also TV. Thereʹs something very interesting happening in Egyptian TV. I feel like people have definitely become bolder. People keep saying we are back to square one, but no, there has been a shift for an entire state of mind of a generation. The people participated in a particular moment in history, so itʹs irreparable, thereʹs no going back. People have changed. The way they think about art has changed. And somehow it shows in their films.

Interview conducted by Schayan Riaz

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