International News

Center Aims to Change Hearts with Cinematic Arts

By Engy Magdy, Special to The Tablet

A statue of St. Francis of Assisi can be seen outside of the Egyptian Catholic Center of Cinema in downtown Cairo. The center encourages cinematic arts as a way to connect people, find common humanitarian threads and change hearts. (Photo Engy Magdy)

CAIRO – A message presented in a theater with actors reaches people faster than the messages of the clergy at the podium. This is why the Egyptian Catholic Center of Cinema was founded in 1949.

In the basement of the Church of Saint Joseph compound in downtown Cairo, where a statue of St. Francis Assisi stands in the courtyard, are the first headquarters of the Egyptian Catholic Center of Cinema, founded by Father Boutros Francidis and the late film historian Farid Al-Mazawi in 1949, to be a source of  awareness of cinematic art and its importance in society.

“The beginning of the center came out of here, in the basement of the church, where the cinema awareness movement began,” said Father Boutros Daniel, manager of the center.

Now the center has another headquarters in Alexandria and a film archive at Adly Street, near the Church of Saint Joseph in Cairo. Before launching its first annual festival in 1952, the center began screening French and Italian films, followed by a panel discussion.

The center held its 67th annual film festival this month with six films competing for awards.

“The winning films must not be vulgar … or offend any religion or certain personalities for political purposes,” said Father Daniel, explaining that the center seeks cinematic works that hold a moral message.

Ethical, Creative Standards

“In 1952, Al-Mazawi encouraged Father Francidis to launch an annual festival to encourage cinema based on ethical, human and creative standards so that the selected works in the festival must serve as a message to the community,” he said.

In 1957, the Nile Hall, which is attached to the Church of Saint Joseph, was established. It is where films are screened and the annual festival is held.

“We hear strong testimonies from filmmakers that this award is very special,” Father Daniel added. “The value, history of the center, and its source from a big religious entity make it very important.”

He remembers that an actor described the center saying that in other places “you find the love of power, but in this place you find the power of love.”

But in a conservative society like Egypt, where some people think that  God prohibits art and see it against religion, the Egyptian Catholic Center of Cinema has faced many challenges and criticisms. The years following the 2011 revolution were the hardest for the center’s work and activities.

“After the revolution, there was a hard-line Islamic religious movement fighting art, which undermined the film industry in the past years. Moreover, rumors spread on Islamist TV channels that the center aims to evangelize actors,” said Father Daniel.

Throughout the year, the center cooperates with actors and celebrities in organizing community activities, such as visiting patients in hospitals and raising funds for them. Father Boutros Daniel led a delegation of famous actors to visit the victims of terrorist attacks, both civilians and police.

Humanitarian Message

“On the first day of Ramadan, We held a celebration for sick children at the National Cancer Institute. It was touching to share with Muslims their celebrations. Our mission is not preaching, we are delivering a humanitarian message,” Father Daniel said.

“The art can convey its message easier. … While the preacher talks about love in front of a thousand or even several thousands of people, the actors reach to millions, so we must encourage the art,” emphasizes Father Daniel who believes that God changes hearts through people.

The center maintains the oldest archive of films in the Middle East dating back to 1927. In the old headquarters, hundreds of files and books have become a reference for many researchers and scholars, as well as many media professionals. The center’s archive director, Girgis Fares, says that work of the center is based on archiving what is written about the movies and prominent figures who have influenced the film industry.

Mona Al-Bandari, a Muslim employee who has worked at the Center for many years, oversees the process of archiving. “The government gives us the right to employ only Christians, but Mrs. Mona is very sincere. I prefer integration and inclusiveness,” said Father Daniel.

Father Daniel participated in the Venice Film Festival and other international festivals where he talked about the relationship between religion and art. He also leads the choir of Saint Joseph on trips abroad and at home, the choir participates in some television works. Two years ago, it participated in TV series “Wannous,” which was shown on Egyptian and Arab TV channels during Ramadan.

The center also promotes youth drama teams through competitions.

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