Written by James Peak on Oct 27, 2009. Posted in On Location

Filming in Egypt

In February 2000, the Egyptian government decreed that a new film and TV production zone would revitalise the fortunes of a struggling film industry. So how has the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) fared in the last decade, in the face of stern opposition from popular locations like Morocco and Jordan?

Egypt, land of some of the most visually appealing images ever captured in cinema, is now raising it’s game to attract international productions, in the face of generous subsidies from other Middle East countries. International Moroccan-based productions are currently exempt from the national 20% VAT charge, and in Jordan the Royal Film Commission deal with international productions on a case by case basis, to ensure executives fiscal needs are met.

So Egypt needs to do something pretty special to re-establish itself as the go-to destination in the Middle East, and at the forefront of these plans remains the EMPC. The massive site, based in the 6th October City to the Southwest of the capital Cairo, is now two million square feet of soundstages. It’s made up of 15 separate outdoor urban and rural shooting areas themed for production, with some surprising venues not normally associated with filming in Egypt. There are military camps, jungles, rural villages, and coastal resorts. There is an Islamic area, with custom built villages in the Fatimid and Memluke periods, and a traditional and contemporary ‘Alexandrian area’ which includes 1940s houses as well as older Alexandrian architecture. Then there are the places a Producer would expect to find, done expertly: Bedouin camps, and an exact replica of Tell al Amarna City, complete with massive statues, spinxes and royal palaces.

Youssef Sherif Rizkallah, Head of International Productions at the Media City is extremely buoyant about the slate for the rest of the year and 2010:

“Actually, right now we are planning for two movies, a docudrama called Ramses the II, The Great Voyage, and the British feature film The Last Pharaoh.”

This is off the back of a huge production earlier this year. Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen secured three days filming at the pyramids and at the ancient city of Luxor, in the south of the country. Location director Rob Swenson explained that he loved working with the 100 local crew members hired for the shoot.

"We were one of the larger productions to come in there recently, and they did a great job. The food you can buy on the street from vendors is fantastic, and the people there are incredibly gracious and warm."

One director who has shot a commercial project in Egypt recently was director Greg Grey, who made the fantastic, underwater spot Diver for BMW, in the Red Sea, Dahab, Egypt. It's a recreation of the world free diving champion Guillaume Nery’s most recent 113m dive. The shoot, produced by Helena Woodfine of Velocity Films, South Africa, went brilliantly, as she explains:

“The reason we chose Dahab is because it is a world record breaking location for free-diving. The water temperature is constant and upward of 25 degrees, the visibility is phenomenal, and the area is protected and clear of wind, so the water is calm. We went in with a very small team. We had government officials with us who travelled down from Cairo. It was a collaborative process and we all worked well together to get what we needed. We didn’t encounter any negativity and the shoot was smooth and problem free.”

Woodfine’s shoot was very specialised and very specific with regards to the locations, and required underwater filming, for which the Red Sea is renowned. All their equipment was brought to Greg Gray’s specific brief, and the logistics of moving this equipment also went smoothly. Woodfine goes on to conclude:

“It was a good experience all round, and was also affordable which was very important. A European location would have been out of out reach from a budget perspective, so ultimately Dahab was the best choice for us and ticked all the boxes.”

To complement the increasing number of productions setting up in Egypt, the government is establishing a well-funded trade body with two aims in mind: to promote Egyptian films overseas, and to attract even more international productions to shoot in the country. Recently Ahmed Maer’s USD7 million The Traveler, starring Omar Sharif as a man reflecting back on a life of love lost, was funded by the Minister Farouk Hosni at the Ministry of Culture, and garnered much support at Venice in 2009. The government is liaising with executives to draw up a series of financial incentives, which will make Egypt a more attractive filming option for international productions.

Youssef Sherif Rizkallah also mentions that there are less well known but particularly beautiful and underused locations in Egypt:

“Don’t forget the river Nile itself! Not to mention the rest of the lesser known Pharaonic sites. We also have the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea coasts, tons of rural areas and mountains, and endless desert. It is a multi-faceted environment with very moderate weather all year long.”

And with a long history in film and TV production, it’s exceptionally well trained below the line crews and production support (many of who are based at EMPC) Egypt is clearly back as an affordable, and smart option for discerning producers.

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