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Transform Today: Cinepotion

We're back with another spotlight feature in collaboration with Absolut Vodka, this time looking at how Rania Alaa's film school is transforming the face of independent Egyptian cinema...

It's a small cosy space, tucked away in the most unlikely of places, between scores of specialty clinics, opticians and other haphazard offices in an indistinguishable building Downtown. One almost feels like they've wandered in by accident, but once inside, there's an unexpected sense of relaxation; a refreshing change of pace from the hustle-bustle and yelling that immediately preceded it.

Thus is the setting of Cinepotion, our latest in the Transform Today series in collaboration with Absolut, shedding light on people who are transforming both their lives, and the lives of those around them. All lined up with floor cushions and soft lighting, the space serves as the warm setting for Rania Alaa's lovechild - a fledgling film school for cinema lovers. Fueled by a passion - an obsession even - the former human rights worker and English graduate saw fit to drop everything in a moment to pursue a dream, and the seeds of that dream would become Cinepotion,

Offering courses to amateur and budding filmmakers, in everything from script-writing and cinematography to film make-up tutorials, Cinepotion is the embodiment of Alaa's dream to transform society through film - and in turn to transform the cinematic culture of Egypt.

We speak to her about her hopes and fears, amidst her radical decision to transform her life...

Tell us a little about yourself, and your transformation leading up to Cinepotion.

I studied English Literature at the Faculty of Arts, English Department at Ain Shams University. After that, I studied Democracy and Human Rights, and I'd been working in that field for around 10 years, then I went to the Venice Film Festival in 2008. That's when I felt like I had a crush on filmmaking. I went to a filmmaking summer school then I started doing small things [to supplement it]; I took a course in photography, then a course in editing, and a course in cinematography. I studied directing a little bit, for three or four semesters at the Cinema Academy for Arts and Technology. Then I came up with the idea for Cinepotion because I was always thinking "Why can't I find good courses like the ones I always find very interesting in the London Film School?"

Since I couldn't find any, or they weren't in the right price range, etc. I came up with the idea to create Cinepotion in July 2013. It was a bit tough to conduct the first course and workshop.

What courses have you presented at Cinepotion?

It started off with a photography course with Raymond Marquez. Then we focused on cinematography and writing with Victor Credi. Credi is a renowned cinematographer who's worked on a lot of films and music videos and so forth. It was quite a good course, and people were happy with it.

What upcoming courses do you have planned?

Currently, we're planning for two courses. One of them is about storyline development, given by a Nepalese writer called Kedar Sharma. Another is on make-up for cinema; things like scars, aging and touch-ups with a Spanish make-up artist called Inaki Maestre. He was responsible for the make-up for the Hulk ad-series for Mountain View, among other things.

Why did you choose the name Cinepotion?

‘Cine’ stands for cinema, and potion is the magical potion, so it's the magical potion of cinema. You learn as much as you can in a short time.

What are the processes of starting something like Cinepotion?

It initially started by itself, through a Facebook page and website, but then afterwards, other friends helped by being volunteers. Some of them actually did more than volunteering. For instance, on friend made the logo. I have other friends who also participated in organising the first event we had and doing social media, marketing for it on and off. So far there's no one permanent because there hasn't been greater funding.

What challenges did you face in starting it?

Partnerships. I found that most of the big names in the cinema industry still think of smaller companies as competitors instead of partners, and instead of sponsoring smaller entities, they always have this spark of competitiveness which I find extremely unhealthy.

And lack of funding, too, because there are no straightforward funding mechanisms in Egypt, where you can just go and say, "Hey, I have this initiative. I did the first course to prove that I can make it work, so let's just get it rolling and get some money in the loop so that I can run more courses." It’s a very long and complicated process, and you have to know people, and it takes months and months of waiting. So, of course, you can't pull that off alone, because even if you are there, full-time, you still need money for yourself. It's very difficult in Egypt. That's why you have to have extra reserve capital on the side; otherwise it’s very challenging. It’s doable and feasible, but you keep gasping for air all the time.

What inspired you to make this transformation?

I still haven’t achieved anything on the list of things I want to achieve, but as I told you, the trip to Venice in 2008 inspired me because I saw all these people that were like me. They did not have a background in cinema, but they just had this passion, and they found channels to learn in their own countries. That’s why when I came back I was a little bit frustrated because I tried to find the same channels to learn and it was just impossible. But I kept the fire going because I really wanted to learn about how to make the things that I really loved, but how to make them from behind the camera.

Was the transformation difficult?

Scary, more than difficult

What are you trying to achieve with Cinepotion?

The idea that you can make something happen no matter how small you are in the bigger picture. If you have an innovative idea, you can make it happen with hard work, creativity and persistence. Emotions are coming out of the youth of Egypt these days; I find that amazing and that’s why I feel like I’m part of that crowd, trying to achieve something, no matter how small. Maybe we should be thinking about how to fill the gap instead of recreating or replicating models that already exist.

Do you feel like there aren’t enough outlets for aspiring filmmakers? What kind of people come to you?

In general, the bigger picture suggests that people don’t find enough channels for filmmaking in Egypt, except within the mainstream film institutes. Otherwise, they go and get training on set, and maybe after 10 or 15 different projects they feel like they’re experienced enough. But, there are two problems here; firstly you can never learn everything just through practice, you still need the theory; you need a school. The second thing is that it’s not something that can happen to everyone, you still need connections to get into any set, no matter how simple it might sound. Compare this to the situation in the US, for instance, where you can find hundreds and hundreds of film schools in all sorts of fields. There are schools just for make-up, there are schools just for scriptwriting in every state, in every corner and there are places that can get auditions for you and help you produce your films and that can help you distribute your films, and get it watched by an audience. Here, everything is centralised around two or three entities, that’s why it’s very niche for a specific elite.

Which filmmakers inspire you?

Nadine Labaki. I think she was a very successful director, and a very successful female director. This year, she managed to direct a film in Hollywood with Harvey Keitl and big names in Hollywood. Even in her last film, Where Do We Go From Here?, you feel the touch of a very inspiring individual; someone who really has a cause, who has something to delivery and is not just there for the money or the fame. You feel like there is a soul and spirit behind the film. She inspires me. I hardly find someone so inspiring, but I find her amazing.

Otherwise, there are older filmmakers, like Hitchcock for example. Because Hitchcock was one of the people who always tried to be innovative in every film he does. And I like people who try to experiment. Among Egyptian filmmakers, I like Dawoud Abdel Sayed, although he doesn't produce very often. But, for example, I love El-KitKat. I think it's a landmark in Arab cinema, including its music by Rageh Dawoud.

Filmmakers like these are important to me because they take care of every aspect of the film, unlike nowadays, where people are just there for the money. You feel as though they don't take care of the whole process, so you don't feel the passion.

Are there plans to expand Cinepotion in the future? What do you foresee for its future?

Currently I'm taking it one step at a time. I'm thinking of small partnerships. I can't really say at this point how I want to expand. They're still ideas that I'm discussing with different entities. But as I said, I want to partner with entities that are not huge, because I don't want to be swallowed. I'm looking for medium-sized entities that are able to host initiatives like mine, so that I can grow and gain some support.

Can you name one or more films that you feel transformed your life?

Chocolat, and also Forrest Gump.

How do you feel Cinepotion can positively influence society around you?

I believe that small initiatives are the ones that actually create change, because mainstream initiatives create the same effect all the time, and it's the smaller projects, such as this one, that are the ones that push for change.

How do you feel that the cinema industry has transformed in Egypt in the last years?

There are definitely things that have improved in the last few years. In the early 90s Egyptian cinema was dominated by farce and cheap comedy, but in recent years better quality films have been coming out, like The Yacoubian Building for example, which is based on the book. Even if I personally disagree with the ideas it puts forth, it's still a good step in cinema because there have been films that actually have substance and flesh in recent years.

Also, recently there have been more young or lesser-known actors in film, which is good, because for a long period stars like Adel Imam were completely dominating the scene.

How would you like to the film industry in Egypt evolving within the next 5-10 years?

I would definitely hope for something healthier than this, honestly. I hope that there are production companies that produce for filmmakers who are still establishing themselves, or first-time filmmakers, to give them the opportunity to make their films, just on the merit of applying. There should be production companies willing to spend on first-time filmmakers and small budget films. I want there to be production companies whose stated purpose is not simply to make profits.

Find out more about Cinepotion here.