Bringing Behna’s cinema heritage back to life

The focus of the practical element of the IPP is a 12-bedroom apartment owned by Behna films. The company was one of the biggest production companies in the Middle-East between 1932 and 1962, and they used the apartment as the hub of their work. The apartment has not been in use since the 1960s, which both allows for artistic creativity and also brings a challenge of 50 years of dust.

The owner of the apartment is Basile Behna, who is donating the apartment to Gudran, our partner organisation. They plan to transform it into a hub for independent cinema, a museum, a venue for film screenings and other visual-arts activities.

The role of Gudran and the International People’s Project (IPP) is to prepare the apartment for a soft opening by the end of the IPP. We will transform long-forgotten rooms into spaces of expression. So far we have removed the plaster from the corridor walls and sanded around half of the rooms, to reveal how the apartment looked in it’s heyday. The work consisted of a lot of hammering and chiseling, scraping and sanding, sweeping and cleaning. The apartment now looks dramatically different to the day we walked in, and believe with this level of process we will have it complete with the soft opening.

The Behna Apartment after the first day of work

The Behna Apartment after the first day of work

 Alongside this, we have discovered a large amount of old material from the production company. This ranges from business cards, to paintings, old movie posters, set designs, official documents and artistic sketches. Though Gudran was aware of some of this material, we never expected to find this valuable material that can be used for the museum.

Cleaning Behna's old film posters

Cleaning Behna’s old film posters

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Documents showing details on the production of a film

This project so far has not only been fun, it has also been a solid start of the hopefully long-lasting relationship between CISV Egypt and Gudran, who have been supportive, excited and very complementary of the energy and work of the IPP participants. With five more days to work on the apartment, we are looking forward to seeing the final result of the apartment and our work.

By Jess Wanless and Camilla Wetzel

Volunteers get a taste of Egyptian music: Massar Egbari in Bib Alex

As the first days go by, the volunteers are spending their times getting to know each other, the partner organisation, the diverse project aspects and of course the city space that hosts it all Alexandria. The staff decided to take the volunteers for a walk on the Courniche to visit Alexandria’s library to attend the concert of one of Alexandria’s most popular bands Massar Egbari. For the whole day in our campsite, we played their tunes. Check out the photo gallery of the concert posted on Ahram Online here.

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Meeting Gudran then Egyptian Cinema 101

On the afternoon the 29th we were meeting reality, or in other words: meeting the places we are going to work. After a delicious lunch we were divided in 3 groups and each group set out to meet the different people and places from our project. It was an amazing feeling to be out between cars, smells, noises and many eyes staring our way and us staring right back. So many new things to see and remember walking from one place to another.

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Volunteers meet Abdallah in the Gudran office

First stop was the Gudran Office where Abdallah Daif was welcoming us in a very tall blue door. Adballah showed to be a great story teller and as interested in us as we in him. In the office, covered with many interesting posters, pictures and wall paintings, Abdallah explained about the function of the office, the beginning of the organization, how to fundraise and how the organization works with a very flat structure without titles for anyone. Abdallah explained how working in Gudran is about working with your passion and sharing our passion with other people.

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Volunteers meet Sameh and Am Arabi in El-Hara

You can never know what to expect walking on the street in Alexandria, which we definitely experienced finding 30 men praying on the street on a blanket between cars and food stalls, because the mosque was full. Walking away from the praying men and noisy street down a small alley, the atmosphere immediately changed and we could all feel that this was a special place. The walls had paintings and the narrow street was clean. In the end of the alley, called El Hara, we found Sameh from Gudran, an old man; Am Arabi and a beautiful old kiosk full of things. This alley had the most amazing story of a friendship between Sameh El-Halawany and Am Arabi, his kiosk for repairing things, a small local library and on top of that many fights with the government to keep the place. Being in the Alley, we realized how much community is a big part of the Gudran Projects and how the change for one man can be a change for a whole community.

Aliaa tells us about Dokkan and how Gudran started

Aliaa tells us about Dokkan and how Gudran started

Third stop was El Dokkan and meeting Aliaa El-Gereidy, a very passionate and laid back woman. Aliaa was one of the friends starting Gudran and she explained us a lot about how to start up projects in different communities. How the process of becoming friends with the surrounding neighborhood is so important, not only to be accepted but in many was also to be able to count on support from the people. Aliaa emphasized how El Dokkan is a good example of taking art to the street and how many exhibitions and open workshops are held in the small alley and is thereby supported by and supporting the community in where it is placed.

El Cabina, one of Gudran's recycled spaces

El Cabina, one of Gudran’s recycled spaces

Last stop was the long waited El Cabina, a beautifully restored old air-conditioning house for the next door cinema. El Cabina is now a place for showing movies, a music studio and a cultural hang-out place (and where we are going to have our New Years party!). We had a good wrap up by one of the volunteers Khaled and an overview of what we had experienced the last couple of hours. We were now very ready and excited to get started on the different projects!

At night after dinner we had Mamoon Azmy come by to do a workshop on Egyptian Cinema. We saw the development of Egyptian cinema with clips from the first cartoon, Mish Mish, musicals, dance movies, short movies and trailers of new movies. We discussed how the independent cinema scene is a reaction to the commercialized era of movies as well as censorship and the effect of and on the revolution. The workshop by Mamoon created a great perspective by putting our project into Egyptian reality.

By Tess Thuroe – Denmark

And the project begins: Installing & Identifying

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Today is the third day at the campsite in Alex. The first impression of the city is loud, sunny and beige. Not in a bad way, but very beige. The Mediterranean Sea is a powerful view, which we can see from our balconies and windows of the 8th floor apartment. Coming from a snowy, cold and clean Sweden, like me, the difference is huge, but it’s amazing how fast one adjusts to both the environment and the living — even if our living has been mostly inside, making ourselves at home.

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The first night we went for reflection at a local coffee shop, and some of us smoked a shisha, or hookah pipe for the first time.

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We are doing our own cooking, and the food has been simple but tasty.

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The atmosphere in the group is open, curious and a little bit careful.  However, it isn’t hard to speak about delicate subjects, as today’s workshop about identity brought up different points of views and personal stories, and the structure of the group and the project is slowly taking shape.

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By Louise Magnusson, Sweden and Julie Harrison, United States

Artistic Practices as an Approach to Recycle Neglected Architectural Spaces

CONTRIBUTING ESSAY in Swedish Architectural Publication by Sameh El Halawany, ARTIST, GENERAL MANAGER, Gudran for Art and Development, Alexandria

Architecture is one many faces of art whose influence extends through the whole lifetime of the human civilization. Any careful observer would see how “Architecture” as an art, from the very beginning, controls the daily life and future of people by imposing the nature of their use of the urban space in which they live.

We can say that the effect of architecture on the human community is not less than its effect on the individual. We can easily observe the changes of life that occur to a family, as it moves from one urban space to another. Here we admit that “family” is the primary community. The architect cannot predict the results of his interfere as of the range of socio-economic transformations and socio-politics changes that will happen to this family after a while.

I believe it is fruitful to look at architectural sites in a similar way. Whether economic like factories and markets, or places of service like hospitals, slaughterhouses, metro and bus stations, these architectural spaces are planned to be used for the service and development of the society. As the time passes, they often no longer fit for the function they were built for. This can make them undesireable and neglected. Moreover, rumors and myths may be spun about them just to emphasize their dereliction after the absence of society’s capacity to develop or recycle them.

What we at Gudran Association for Art and Development aspire to is participating in making a better life for all members of the society; through creating, activating and running a contemporary cultural reality able to be renewed and to interact with all historical variables. This leads to an exchange of experiences and knowledge between cultures as well as producing contemporary art that will express the state of society here and now in our daily-lived reality.

Having this as our vision and ambition, there are many problems and difficulties we have to face. They vary to include the conflict of cultures between people from different countries, classes of the same society, and up to the kind of architecture society produces, unable to solve and predict its future problems. For example, if we look at different industrial architectural spaces as petroleum refineries and petrochemical plants we realize that they were planned to be located away from the residential zone of the towns. But after not so long, the city creeps towards these spaces. Over time, the importance of their existence increases as new communities grow around them. I expect that these buildings will lose their role, especially with the end of the era of oil and its derivatives, and new buildings, with strange architectural nature will appear within – not out of – most big cities in the world.

I believe the general trend, according to the international investment fever, will stimulate the society to recycle the land of these industrial sites to be converted into residential communities. Nevertheless, I think that any housing exploitation of these districts is completely wrong, as they were not originally planned for this purpose. Here we should note that such problems exist all around the globe. Instead of turning those sites into residential areas, the other faces of art should be used to overcome this problem. The industrial areas should ne recycled to be artistic spaces, where theatre, music, visual arts and other contemporary arts are practiced. The reviving and reconsideration of these neglected architectural spaces would quickly affect the human daily life in the environment surrounding these sites. New focuses of human activities will be created, around them waves of socio-economic movements will be formed giving back these previously neglected spaces their lost vitality. Making them able to coexist with other more vital sites will enrich the whole society life in general. But we should take into account the necessity of studying each neglected space apart and suggesting the right artistic approach of dealing with it.

Our models in El Max, El Dokan, and El Cabina are good examples of this indirect effect of artistic activity on these kinds of spaces and and the different aspects of human activities whether economic, social or even political. In the fishing village of El max the buildings were restored artistically through many collective artistic activities which slowly built a pressure on the executive authorities of Alexandria governorate to stop their plan to abolish the village and, moreover, changed the bad reputation the Alexandrians had about the village in general. I think one of the most important aspects of this concept is how these newly rediscovered sites play an effective role in developing the socio-economic environment around them. This stimulates the community to rediscover its potentials and to voluntarily present these neglected spaces for art and artists after realizing their role and its importance; supporting the general concept of sustainability.

This is also what happened with the case of El Cabina (Cabinet), which is a new art space in Alexandria. The site was a small yard and an abandoned technical room of an old famous cinema, The Rialto. The owners came to us in Gudran Association for Art and Development to recycle the space to be an artistic one. They believed that it could play a role in creating an economic boom for the urban area around it in being a meeting point for exchange of knowledge and experiences among different social categories in all Alexandria. Envisaged as a space for experimentation and rehearsal by young local artists, musicians and writers, the focus is now to work on developing new and young audiences and to provide space and services to emerging artists. By creating a cafe and a reading room with WIFI access as well as an affordable membership scheme the new space will attempt to attract new audiences as well as generate some earned income.

Another project of ours to connect art to community is El Dokan. Is a shop of two stories in the heart of a vital trade-area in Alexandria; Elmansheya – which lacks such spaces that are interested in exhibiting art works of modern Egyptian, Arab and international artists. El Dokan provides the opportunity to exhibit plastic works, hold artistic workshops for different ages and several genres, musical and theatrical performances as well as literary readings in the downstairs part. The upstairs part is devoted to sell artistic handcrafts beside literary and artistic books.

Every rediscovered neglected site has got special characteristics whether architectural or topographical, or through its relations with its surroundings. It is therefore natural that every space has got a different access or approach to artistic work, which can make the adjacent community understand and appreciate its necessity. The society can support its culture without much money or effort. Offering its neglected spaces to engaged artists is an effective way to make the aspired change for each society that suffers from economic and social problems. And the places will get a chance to develop and interact within a contemporary context again.

Film Screening this Saturday: Wasteland

To continue to fundraise and open conversations about ‘Spaces of Expression’ the IPP CISV will host in Alexandria in less than 1 month, CISV Egypt’s Junior Branch, along with the IPP Staff will be hosting a movie night and discussion on social development through art.

Date & Time: Saturday, 1 December at 6-9pm
Film: Wasteland (2010) & Discussion on arts and social development afterwards
Place: CISV Office, 1 Sad El Aaly Street, Maadi

About the film: “Waste Land” is an award winning documentary by director Lucy Walker – An uplifting feature documentary highlighting the transformative power of art and the beauty of the human spirit. Top-selling contemporary artist Vik Muniz takes us on an emotional journey from Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to the heights of international art stardom. Vik collaborates with the brilliant catadores, pickers of recyclable materials, true Shakespearean characters who live and work in the garbage quoting Machiavelli and showing us how to recycle ourselves.

For more info: contact alex [dot] staff [at] eg [dot] cisv [dot] org or jb [at] eg [dot] cisv [dot] org