Cinema Syndicate elections fail to satisfy disillusioned filmmakers

The elections of the Cinematic Professions Syndicate, held last week, brought bad news to revolutionaries in the field. For the second time the vote went to Mosaad Fouda, the previous syndicate chief, who explicitly condemned filmmakers participating in the 25 January protests.

Filmmakers did not seem surprised but seven of the elected board members resigned on Tuesday, saying that Fouda’s presence would handicap their reform efforts. Board elections will be re-held to fill those positions, but the syndicate has not yet announced whether the chief post will be up for grabs again. 

More than 2000 syndicate members voted last week in the first elections post-25 January. The vote was held after a long sit-in inside the syndicate, during which members called for the Fouda and board members' resignation, alleging they are loyal to the Mubarak regime.

Three artistic syndicates – Actors Syndicate, Musicians Syndicate and Cinematic Professions Syndicate – fall under a supreme union of syndicates run by Mamdouh al-Leithy, one of the leaders of official media during the Mubarak era.

The Actors Syndicate succeeded in replacing former Chief Ashraf Zaki, who had also issued an offensive statement toward Tahrir protesters on 25 January. Hopeful to replicate this experience, members of the Cinematic Professions Syndicate strongly backed well-known filmmaker Ali Badrakhan, their candidate for change. The results of the elections, however, brought questions of membership policies and corruption charges back to the forefront of debate.

“The composition of the syndicate members is imbalanced,” says Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Abdallah. “Large numbers of the staff of national and private TV stations are members of the Cinema Syndicate. They vote for their candidate Fouda, himself a TV director, who has never worked in cinema.”

Renowned filmmaker Yousri Nasrallah heavily criticized the election process, describing the conditions of fair voting and vote counting as “practically unachievable." Nasrallah commented on the membership of TV clerks and said that filmmakers were deprived of being chief of the syndicate for 20 years.

“TV officers and non-professionals (like assistants, security officers and Culture Ministry clerks) have been joining the Cinema Syndicate since the 1960s; it’s an inherited corrupt tradition to guarantee relative control from the state on artistic syndicates,” says filmmaker Dawood Abdel Sayed. “Badrakhan has requested many times a purification of membership lists before elections to exclude those who are not professionals and don’t have university degrees. It is a professionals’ syndicate, not a labour one; the distinction here is crucial.”

The Artistic Professions Syndicate law allows only filmmakers who have studied at official film academies to receive membership. Practicing filmmakers who do not have such a degree must pay annual fees to be able to work, but they cannot get permanent membership.

“The law compels non-members of the syndicate to pay around 20 percent of every contract they sign to obtain a temporary work license. However, the syndicate continues to impose random fees. I paid LE150,000 in syndicate fees while working on my first film. That was five times my wage back then,” contends Amr Salama, a young screenwriter and director.

“It is unacceptable that exceptional talents are denied membership and should pay annual fees,” argues Abdel Sayed.

As membership problems persist, a general feeling is growing among young filmmakers that the traditional syndicate structure is no longer needed.

“I’m not a member of the syndicate. Over the past ten years, I worked independently and paid the fees,” says Abdullah. “Now after the revolution, I think that free associations of filmmakers are a better solution. Cinematographers’ hardships differ from those of sound engineers or screenwriters. Every sector has to resign from the syndicate and form its own association to defend its rights."

Salama agrees with Abdullah’s proposition of free associations.

“I don’t need pension or medical insurance in particular," he says. "I would prefer that the Ministry of Culture just does its job by providing equal standards to people working in the field and abolishing distinctions between academic graduates and independent artists.”

As for the resolution of conflicts between artists and producers, Salama suggests establishing artistic law and a formal court that can deal with such cases.

Independent filmmaker Ibrahim al-Batout is gathering independent cinema artists in an attempt to create a new forum for discussing their financial rights and improving work conditions.

Abdel Sayed, however, supports the existing syndicate model.

“The law of professional syndicates assigns one body to be officially responsible for collecting money and funding pensions and health insurance," he said. This syndicate has to regain vitality, protect interests of its members and reject corruption directing resources to the benefit of filmmakers, he adds.

Whereas associations and groups are good pressure tools, it is the syndicate that should work on enhancing cinema education, monitoring intellectual property rights and re-thinking the censorship apparatus, says Abdel Sayed.

Abdullah does not see any importance for syndicates in the arts.

“After the revolution, we need to function in a more democratic way and allow people to form groups, start their initiatives and find their meeting points," he says.

"We don’t need representatives anymore, we need to work on our ideas and fight for their actualization."

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