Egyptian lm­maker Ah­mad Abdalla on in­de­pen­dent movies

Emirates Man - - CONTENTS -

I don’t make lms to con­vey speci c mes­sages nor to con­vince peo­ple of my be­liefs, says Ah­mad Abdalla. Films are just lms.

In many ways Ah­mad Abdalla is the poster boy of Egypt’s new wave of in­de­pen­dent cinema. An au­teur of nu­anced, low-bud­get movies, he is known for his or­ganic ap­proach to lm­mak­ing, di­rect­ing movies that are of­ten hy­brids of both ction and doc­u­men­tary. is 201 lm Rags And Tat­ters was a near-si­lent ex­per­i­men­tal master­piece, while his two pre­vi­ous lms were mem­o­rable stud­ies of con­tem­po­rary Egyptian so­ci­ety. All were made with limited funds and by a tight-knit group of friends.

is is a small but concise body of work that has nev­er­the­less pro­pelled Abdalla into the spot­light. As such, he now nds him­self in an un­usual sit­u­a­tion. is lat­est lm, Dé­cor, which pre­miered at the on­don Film Fes­ti­val last Oc­to­ber and will be re­leased in ubai on April 2, is his rst big bud­get movie as a direc­tor. It is also the rst movie he has not writ­ten him­self, with the lm penned by Mo­hamed iab, the direc­tor of Cairo 678, a pic­ture that fo­cused on the scourge of sex­ual ha­rass­ment of women in Egypt. A richly lay­ered psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter study of a woman ob­sessed with the old black and white lms of Faten amama, Dé­cor repre- sents a new chap­ter in Abdalla’s di­rec­to­rial ca­reer.

For my pre­vi­ous lms I never con­sid­ered the com­mer­cial as­pect of di­rect­ing, he ad­mits. I was also not con­sid­er­ing the clas­sic way of writ­ing scripts. I was not think­ing let’s have the cli­max here’ or let’s have the res­o­lu­tion at this scene’. I was try­ing to make lms in an or­ganic way and for most of my lms the script was de­vel­oped on set.

Dé­cor was dif­fer­ent. It was the rst time I had to work on a very tight script. We had to agree on ev­ery­thing be­fore lm­ing and every­body had to learn what he or she was go­ing to do or say. That was a to­tally new ex­pe­ri­ence, but I wanted to do it. To test my­self. Ev­ery lm I man­aged to make pre­vi­ously I made with my friends. We would just keep talk­ing and de­vel­op­ing ideas, and even on set, even while we were lm­ing, we were still able to come up with ideas. But with this project we couldn’t do that. I was work­ing with a huge crew and there was no room for im­pro­vi­sa­tion. I’m not say­ing this in a neg­a­tive way, but it’s a dif­fer­ent way of mak­ing lms and it opened my mind.

With ev­ery lm I have made I have de­cided to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. So when I made Mi­cro­phone, it was to­tally dif­fer­ent to He­liopo­lis, and

He­liopo­lis was a mu­si­cal lm, vi­brant, full of young peo­ple. But then I de­cided to go into more darker ar­eas and do Rags

And Tat­ters, which is al­most si­lent with min­i­mum dia­logue. Dé­cor is very dif­fer­ent from Rags

And Tat­ters. But this is what I wanted to do as a lm­maker. With ev­ery project I try to move away from my safe zone. It was ar­guably Rags And

Tat­ters that got Abdalla the Dé­cor gig. Crit­i­cally ac­claimed in Europe and North Amer­ica,

it pre­miered at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val be­fore con­tin­u­ing on the fes­ti­val cir­cuit, ap­pear­ing at the Lon­don Film Fes­ti­val and var­i­ous oth­ers around the world be­fore em­bed­ding it­self as a clas­sic of the new wave. Although set dur­ing the revo­lu­tion of 2011 and the Tahrir Square protests, the revo­lu­tion is never di­rectly seen. It ap­pears as snip­pets of news on Al Jazeera, as plumes of smoke on the hori­zon, or as a re­porter con­duct­ing an in­ter­view. Abdalla is in­ter­ested less in the revo­lu­tion and more in the an­ar­chy that sur­rounds it, with the movie stalk­ing the pe­riph­eries of a Cairo in chaos.

It is into this an­ar­chy that an un­named prisoner – played by Asser Yassin – is thrown, sud­denly nd­ing him­self free thanks to the city’s de­scent into law­less­ness. Wan­der­ing through Ez­bet El Nakhl and the City Of the Dead, dia­logue is re­duced to a bare min­i­mum, with the ma­jor­ity of scenes all but mute. Yassin’s char­ac­ter never says a word. It is a bold move, and one that Abdalla once ex­plained to Mada Masr. “When we were talk­ing about the style of lm­ing, I found a YouTube clip, a clip some­body lmed at the Qasr Al Nile battle on Jan­uary 25,” he said. “It’s si­lent. Some er­ror hap­pened and you don’t have any sound, even am­bi­ent. It’s three min­utes of some of the best kind of sto­ry­telling I’ve ever seen. It starts very calm and turns very vi­o­lent, then you dis­cover that the guy lm­ing is in­jured, then he con­tin­ues and talks to the po­lice of­fi­cer, then he ees and comes back – and you can’t hear any­thing. That was my rst in­spi­ra­tion.”

Rags And Tat­ters echoed with post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary dis­il­lu­sion­ment. Vis­ually stunning, in­ter­mit­tently sur­real and im­bued with an un­nerv­ing sense of con­fu­sion, it of­fered no sense of tri­umphal­ism, only the deep re­al­ity of a so­ci­ety in tur­moil.

“I was con­cerned about the rea­sons why the revo­lu­tion was hap­pen­ing, not about the ac­tual facts of the revo­lu­tion,” says Abdalla. “Why are we do­ing this? Why do we have to do this? This story was try­ing to tell you why it’s im­por­tant some­how. I was to­tally against overly ro­man­ti­cis­ing Tahrir Square, although it was a place I loved and I spent nights and nights and nights there. But still, what was hap­pen­ing in Cairo was dif­fer­ent and ugly and it was im­por­tant to shed light on the story of an anony­mous man who nds him­self free for the rst time, run­ning and re­dis­cov­er­ing a city that is rapidly chang­ing.”

Was it a risk to make a lm with vir­tu­ally no dia­logue, and one that does not re­ally an­swer any ques­tions re­gard­ing the revo­lu­tion?

“It was a risk, but not when you make a lm with such a low bud­get,” he replies. “I co-pro­duced this lm with my friends be­cause our pro­ducer – Mo­hamed He­fzy – only man­aged to get half the bud­get. He told us the lm could not be given much money be­cause he didn’t think we’d be able to get our money back. So my friends and I, in­clud­ing the ac­tor Asser Yassin, the direc­tor of photography Tarek Hefny, and the ex­ec­u­tive

“I be­lieve in low-bud­get film­mak­ing, I truly be­lieve that any­body with a small cam­era and a lap­top can be a very good film­maker”

pro­ducer Hany Saqr, all de­cided to co-pro­duce. We man­aged to cre­ate our own com­pany and we called it Mashroua, which means ‘project’ in Ara­bic. The com­pany co-pro­duced with Film Clinic and we were able to make the lm. It was a risk in the sense that every­body was con­tribut­ing some amount of money, but not a huge amount. It’s not go­ing to break your heart if the lm loses money, but we did it for the joy of try­ing some­thing new.”

As with most other parts of the Arab world, in­de­pen­dent lms are dif cult to bring to life in Egypt. For Rags and Tat­ters Yassin worked for free, while the coun­try at large is ob­sessed with com­mer­cial block­busters. It is a sce­nario Abdalla knows all too well, hav­ing be­gun his ca­reer as a self-taught lm edi­tor, work­ing on lms such as Sherif Man­dour’s The Mediter­ranean Man. He worked as an edi­tor for eight years be­fore di­rect­ing his rst lm, He­liopo­lis, in 2009.

“It’s hard to raise money,” says Abdalla, “but we don’t spend much on our lms. I be­lieve in low-bud­get lm­mak­ing, I truly be­lieve that any­body with a small cam­era and a lap­top can be a very good lm­maker. It’s all about the style, the con­cept and the sto­ries we are go­ing to tell.

“But a lot of dis­trib­u­tors don’t like to screen in­de­pen­dent lms. They pre­fer to screen more com­mer­cial movies, or Amer­i­can lms, which is some­thing I’m not against, but tak­ing away in­de­pen­dent or small bud­get lms just to put in a Hol­ly­wood block­buster be­cause it will make more money is hard on us. For

Rags and Tat­ters the dis­trib­u­tors al­lowed us one week in the­atres. And only in eight the­atres, which is very small. So we cre­ated a so­cial me­dia cam­paign – we didn’t want to pay for any out­door ad­ver­tis­ing or TV com­mer­cials – say­ing the lm will be at cer­tain the­atres on th­ese days and at this time. And we spread this all over Egypt. Ev­ery­one knew where the lm would be screened and we man­aged to have all the cine­mas 75 per cent full for all the screen­ings.

“As an edi­tor I was do­ing com­mer­cial lms, I can­not work with them any­more be­cause they don’t like the in­de­pen­dent way – or the new wave – of lm­mak­ing. Now I am do­ing what I al­ways wanted to do.

“I try in ev­ery lm to adapt a dif­fer­ent style. When you see Decor you will un­der­stand. It’s a black and white lm, it adapts the noir era of lm­mak­ing, the cam­era move­ment is very slow, and it’s a very hard­boiled story. The way the ac­tors are act­ing too is dif­fer­ent. To­tally dif­fer­ent to Rags And Tat­ters.

“It is im­por­tant to change. I ad­mire young in­de­pen­dent lm­mak­ers be­cause they are al­ways able to come up with fresh ideas and new con­cepts for telling sto­ries, and for me this is very inspiring. I love the direc­tor Yousry Nas­ral­lah. In ev­ery lm he is able to sur­prise us with some­thing. Ev­ery time he has tried some­thing dif­fer­ent to what he did be­fore, and for me this is the most im­por­tant thing about mak­ing lms.”

Decor is re­leased in UAE cine­mas April 2


Rags And Tat­ters

Rags And Tat­ters

Rags And Tat­ters

Ah­mad Abdalla on set: “I make films for the joy of try­ing some­thing new”

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