« I haven’t seen any change happen in Egypt »

Interview with Ibrahim El Batout

By Olivier Barlet
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How did you come to cinema ?
I spent 18 years covering wars from 1987 to 2004, and after 18 years I was very tired; I lost my confidence in making documentaries because the reason why I was making all these films in the war zones and taking all these risks was because I thought that films can change something. But after 18 years I discovered that documentaries don’t change anything. So I could not deal with reality anymore, and I had to change. I first of all tried to do a different job. I tried to be a carpenter; I was a carpenter for a year. But it didn’t work. So I said, ok, if I want to change, why not make fiction instead of documentaries. So I decided after the last war in Iraq, I was there in 2003/4, I came back from Iraq and decided I would stop and I would make fiction. In 2002 I finished writing my first script and tried to find producers to produce it, but failed totally. So I said, OK, the type of films I want to make are not popular and our producers are not interested because they are not commercial, so I’ll have to find a way of making films that do not depend on money. And since I’ve been a cameraman all my life, I said, OK, I have a camera, let’s see what we can do. So I made Ithaki, and Ithaki proved to me that I could make a film with no budget, or with a very small budget and after Ithaki I made Ein Shams and it was very successful. I finished Ein Shams in 2007/2008 and I thought that others would adopt this method of filmmaking. As we were living in a very repressive regime, I thought that this was the only way of making cinema that could really escape the control of the regime, because I never wrote scripts. I didn’t put my scripts into the censorship committees, I didn’t ask for permission to shoot. I thought that if a lot of people adopted this guerilla way of making films, we would have enough pressure to gain our freedom of expression. But in 2009, I discovered that not many people were doing the same. I was consulting at a film school in Alexandria at the time, for young men and women who wanted to learn cinema on a one-year course, so I said, OK, they are young, if I do a project with them, maybe they can come and make a film. So I went to Alexandria and said, I’m making a film and I want you to help me make it. So all my crew were from that school, and all the actors and actresses, everyone who worked on the film, was from Alexandria. I went there and stayed for three months, and I made Hawi. Hawi was very good because we spent exactly 6 000 dollars and finished shooting Hawi with this money. Then we raised funds and managed to get approximately 100 000 dollars to do the colour correction and the sound, the music and to blow it up into 35 mm. So we managed to bring the film a step up. We had managed to make a good film, technically speaking, but none of the crew was paid. We were very lucky because we finished the film in October and in October we went to Doha Tribeca in Doha and we won the first prize, which was 100 000 dollars; everyone who worked on the film was given a percentage of the 100 000 dollars; everyone had points, 5%, 7%, depending on what they did. We divided this money according to the percentages so all the cast and crew of the film had an income from the moment the film got sold. It was interesting because we created a module that is economically viable, so people could work for free but got paid later on.
By getting involved in the film. On the first films, nobody got paid?
You said that you were the only person doing that, or that not many people were doing that. Were you really the only one, or was it a kind of movement that was just beginning, because you were working with Ahmad Abdalla to edit Ein Shams; there’s a kind of team of people.Of course we are many filmmakers. Each is working in his own way. So for instance Tamer El Said is making a long fiction. He has his own style, and he is very clever at raising funds. Ahmad Abdalla is good because he involves stars in his films, so we all have different styles and that enriches the movement more. I’m very much for different people doing their thing in a different way, but our aim is always to gain freedom and to push the boundaries a bit further. But of course, what took us all by surprise is that the revolution happened in January and all that we were fighting for collapsed in no time. So that’s why we are confused. Or that’s why I am confused because we had an agenda that we need to fight for for the next ten years, and then in no time there was no one to fight anymore. Now we realize that Mubarak was only the puppet; behind Mubarak is a big regime and we still have to fight.
We were talking earlier about the alternative film festival in Cairo. Are there any kind of places or distribution networks for low-budget works in Egypt?
No, because distribution is a highly monopolized system. I think at the moment that one has to choose one’s battles. It’s very difficult to make films. It’s even more difficult to make them with no budget. And it’s even more difficult to make films without authorizations. So I decided that I’d fight as much as I can to make a film, and then give it to a producer to distribute it. I wanted to infiltrate the system from within. But in the future, we have to create our own distribution system. But not at the moment because our energy is very limited. If I work very, very hard, I can make a film per year; I can’t fight even more to create a distribution system. So maybe in five or ten years, we will be able to create this alternative distribution system that we don’t have right now.
Maybe internet will be a solution?
Of course internet is a solution right now, but I don’t want to lose the idea of many people going to a cinema hall like here right now. That would be a huge loss for cinema. Internet is one thing, and cinema is another. Cinema is like a group therapy, a lot of people going into the same place and watching the same thing, and going out and talking about it. I really want to keep this as much as I can although I know that one day, cinema halls will be empty. Unfortunately.
Coming back to low-budget films, is a low budget a problem generally speaking or not? Does it make things difficult? Are there things you want to do but can’t? There’s a scene where you went to a wedding because you needed to film a wedding, it’s a real scene and that’s very powerful in the film Ein Shams because reality is really in the picture. Is that very difficult, or is that a new way of filming?
I personally see films as very strong and kind creatures. I think films have a will and films need to be respected. And I think that when a film sees you are doing the best you can, it always helps you. Even if there are things I cannot do because I don’t have money, my films always help me to find other ways of making better solutions. And as long as one believes in one’s idea, believes in this medium – film -, I think that one will always find solutions. It is very difficult, but in a very sweet way, because when I’m cornered and I don’t know what to do, and I want to film this but I don’t have the money, I keep on thinking and thinking, and in the end a solution comes. And usually the solution is far better than what I had wanted to do. Usually. Because however creative you are, your imagination always has a limit and you have to push this limit further and further, and you can only push it by really trying to find alternative methods. And I think that this is the beauty of making films; it pushes you to create in a different way, to have a different imagination and always to push yourself. That’s why I said earlier that a filmmaker has to be a revolutionary all the way. It never stops.
What is the connection in that respect with the question of reality in cinema, because your cinema is very deeply steeped in reality, but also displays a certain degree of poetry? And if you don’t have money, you are in a way forced back to reality because you can’t afford big sets, and so on. How do you see this question of reality?
That’s the beauty of Egypt: it is so complex in every single sense. You can meet someone who doesn’t have enough money to eat and yet who can tell you a joke that makes you laugh for five minutes. It’s a very particular thing in Egypt and if you are honest enough as an artist, it will reflect on your work without you making the effort. Honestly, I don’t need to make an effort to think of a story in Egypt, because stories come my way every minute; I just have to be there and watch; if it’s good for me, I take it and put it into a film. In other countries where everything is organized, like in Germany for instance, I would be a terrible filmmaker, because I would not see any stories; trains come on time, everybody’s happy, you drink your beer, go back home, go and dance, the next day you go to work, so how can I make a film? That’s tougher! But in Egypt, everything is so complex, and real, but also surreal, like for example what I said earlier in the debate, you have the election candidates and when it comes to a woman, they put a flower instead of her picture! You’d never imagine that in any other country! So, I think if you are honest, you will find your material, your stories that are deeply rooted in realism, but yet have a sense of magic that comes on its own. It’s not me, it’s not the filmmaker.
What you say about this question of complexity is very interesting because your films are very deep and influenced by this complexity. They are complex. You have lots of characters, you have a very complex way of writing and you show the complexity of society.
Yes. That’s why I’m telling you that my job there is much easier than if I were somewhere else. I think it’s Egypt that provides all that, not me.
When you write a film, does each character represent an aspect of this complexity, so that together they represent a whole?
Yes, because at the end of the day I see all human beings as being one, whatever or whoever they are or do and I think that every character is complementary to the next character. So what I take from this character, I give to the next one, and so on, so at the end of the day when you see the whole film, this mosaic starts to make sense. When you think of them, you start to say, ah, OK, and you start connecting the dots. And you discover that we are all the same, all in the same box, that we need to really work together instead of arguing and fighting and killing each other. We need to work together so that we can make this earth a better place. That’s what I believe.
Isn’t restoring the country’s complexity a form of resistance to what happened before with the dictatorship? We were talking earlier about the question of the people having a sense of being a people in this revolution while before people were totally individualized in their problems and never had the possibility of connecting as a group. Showing this complexity forges this feeling of being a people.
Absolutely, and I think that’s why we were oppressed for these 30 years. I can only talk about Egypt, because I live in Egypt; the Egyptians are extremely creative. They’re a very creative, clever people, whether they are rich or poor, educated or uneducated, each one of them has a brilliantly creative side and this is very scary for a dictator. If you have 85 million people who can really do something different to what he thinks or wants… So, I think it wasn’t by chance that we were oppressed, not by chance if we were under a dictatorship for all these years, and I think that the 18 days proved that these people can do something different. Whether we’ll do it or not, I don’t know. But at least we have seen with our own eyes that there is a possibility of making our country a different place, of hoping for a better future. So, it’s a very complex situation in every sense. Mubarak was ousted, but we now have the military controlling, and the Islamists want to have power and everybody’s fighting over power now. The 18 days were the 18 days; they were very exceptional. Afterwards, everybody rushed to get a piece of the cake. Where are we going from here? I don’t know, but what really makes me very optimistic is that people descended into the streets and demanded their rights. That’s what matters.
That has been done, it’s been accomplished…It can be done again.Yes. But is there an evolution in this complexity in society now?
I think it depends, because we really have to have the will to move forwards. Where we end up going depends on what we do, what efforts we make. Nothing will happen on its own. Like I said, there are 12 000 people in Apt, it’s a very small place, yet you have a very big festival. You go to the cinema hall and you have lots of people coming. Why? I don’t know why. Maybe because they are interested, maybe because they want to see different films, but you have established a certain mechanism whereby people will come to cinemas where they will see different films. This is brilliant. You’ve put in the effort. We need to put in the same effort as well. It didn’t happen overnight here. How many years have you been here for?
Nine years, so we have to put the same effort in for our country to develop. And I’m very optimistic about that because we have a very young population. About 70% of the population is under 35, so I think we will be able to do something. We will of course fall, and make mistakes, and we’ll pay the price, but then we’ll get up again. I’m very optimistic about the future.
Coming back to your films, Hawi is about two generations, the fathers’ and the young people’s generation. The young people try to create an existence in the absence of the fathers; this generation has to get by on its own and the only way it can exist in this world in which it has been abandoned is to create. The young people try to create as a form of resistance in their lives. It’s a of portrait of Egypt; the fathers return and they are totally disconnected. Is that indeed what you wanted to show?
Absolutely. The father’s generation is a very broken generation, and that’s why all the characters of the film, all the men, are broken. The women are strong, but the men are broken. This is the truth; men are broken in Egypt, they were broken before 25 January. That’s why there are a lot of places in the film where there is silence, especially on the part of the older generation. That’s because they really tried hard, but they were defeated. This revolution is not the first one. There was one in’68, one in’77, one in’86; 2011 was the only one that succeeded. The older generation really failed in managing to bring a change. Of course the film was made before the revolution and I was very depressed and I thought that we’d be stuck with Mubarak for the next 20 years; that’s why the film is a bit sombre. But there are many different dimensions and directions in Egypt. It’s a mix of all them, but as far as I see things, our hope lies in the youth. Without them, we will achieve nothing. They are the ones driving the country forwards.
I’d like you to talk about the horse in the film because it’s so beautiful. This highly poetic approach brings a kind of unity to the plurality of the film.
I personally love horses; that’s why I wanted to have a horse in the film. And the horse that is going to die, it has its sweet sadness. The relationship with the old man and his love was very interesting for me. You know, when I make films, I sometimes like to watch characters do things. I don’t tell them what to do, I want to see what they do and I follow them. I really wanted to film a man walking with a horse as if he were walking with his friend down-town. It was a scene that kept coming to me, so I worked to bring it to the screen. And it’s one of the scenes that I love. For me it’s very strong. So I had to write that, to think of a solution.
Why did you call the film Hawi?
Because of a song called Hawi; hawi means a magician who doesn’t really do magic. He’s someone who you all know is not a good magician. When we were kids, we always used to see these hawi. So it’s very representative of the older generation; we were militant, but we did nothing, you know. The song is highly representative of the state of mind that we were in. It goes, « I’ve become a hawi; I’ve learnt to content myself with nothing ». It was the state we were in; we knew we were oppressed, our rights denied, that the political system was there to stay, but we couldn’t do a thing. There was no hope; we lived from one day to the next. To be honest, thirty or forty or sixty years of oppression kills your soul and once your soul is killed, nothing can revive it. That’s what I thought; I thought a broken soul cannot be repaired. The 25th January proved me wrong. I saw Egyptians as all being like this Hawi, who really cannot do anything until the end.
Hanane, the woman who teaches piano, is a very positive character. She seems to symbolize a possible new Egypt.
I have great confidence in women. In Egypt, it’s always the women who make things happen. Even in poor neighbourhoods, or in the south, where we are very conservative, it’s always the women who are strong and lead. They are fighting every day, even if the social and religious systems are against them. Men appear to be strong and controlling, but it’s always the women. So she represents that side of feminism in Egypt where women are strong come what may. Even if they’re poor, they manage to make things happen. She represents this aspect of women in Egypt that I highly admire. I believe that it is Egypt’s women who created this quality of life that drove us forwards. The 25 January would never have happened without these women either.
She’s nearly the only character in the father’s generation that is positive.
Yes, and the belly dancer, she’s also very strong. And the girl, Aya, the daughter; she’s also very strong. All the women characters are strong in the film. Or stronger than the men.
How have audiences responded to the film? When did they see it; before, during, or after the revolution?
They saw the film after the revolution and I got mixed feedback. Those who know my work and follow it, loved it. But I often heard people in cinema halls complaining that the film is slow and that they didn’t understand, and asking why there isn’t much dialogue. So there were these remarks too. I think that that’s natural, because it’s a new way of making films, of writing films, so for them it’s a shock. But this is very positive because it means that if we have enough films like this, we will be able to reach more viewers.
There’s a real evolution in your way of writing from Ein Shams to Hawi. There was a lot of humour in Ein Shams; the film is more musical. Hawi is much more serious. Is that because of the current climate, because of the increasingly rigid society? What took you in this new direction?
The way Hawi was written is really how I like to make films. When I wrote Ein Shams, I in a way tried to reach more viewers; I tried to make my material simpler and more accessible. It touches a lot of people and I love Ein Shams, but Hawi for me is really how I like to make films, the sort of films that inspire me. But there was also a little hope in Ein Shams. By the time I made Hawi, I had lost all hope; the elections had just taken place and the President’s party had won everything. I was convinced that his son was going to take over power for at least 15 to 20 years. But I was mistaken.
One can’t help thinking of all the young people who… I mean there were about 2000 deaths in all this…
At least…
What bravery, and what a sentiment, that you can sacrifice your life because you simply cannot live in such conditions anymore.
Exactly. That’s why they really battled with the police in the streets, knowing that they could get killed, but they no longer cared…
There is a total, incredibly impressive coherence between the aesthetics and the film’s message. How did you conceive of that? What was your aesthetic aim?
I took my time filming. I filmed for 25 to 26 days over a three-month period, so I really had the time to think carefully and to choose my moments. When you are making a film, it’s not like writing. The writing is on-going, even when you are shooting. And when you have a small crew, you have more time to think, less decisions to make. You are more relaxed, and that way you can really sculpt the film as you want to and keep its identity. I didn’t film when the light wasn’t good. And it was me who filmed the images; I chose the mood always. That’s what gave this result, I think.
So is it the direction you want to continue in?
Honestly, no, because I don’t want to follow any direction. Every year, with each new film I’m making, I want to discover a new way of making films; I want to discover different ways of telling a story because if I do every film like the one I did before, I think I’ll stagnate. That’s why I’m saying we always need to be evolutionary in the sense of looking at ourselves and trying to tap into this fresh place where we create from so that our films will always remain fresh. If a filmmaker is not new in every film he is making, I think that it is time for him to stop.
I was struck in our discussion earlier by the fact that you and Ahmad Abdalla do not really share the same understanding of the situation in Egypt now. I thought you would be in agreement, but you actually see the situation very differently. Ahmad is involved in the government’s board to renew the structure of cinema, while you seem to be more autonomous; you want to stay on the margins more.
Yes, absolutely because I still haven’t seen any signs that will make me respect or trust anything that has to do with the government. Like, for instance, just before coming here, the army put up the longest flag in the world, 178 metres, and it looks so ugly, it doesn’t fly, it just hangs, it’s so stupid. And they’re saying, look, we managed to do this, which is very stupid. And the Ministry of Culture came along and said: culturally, raising this flag is very important. I just don’t trust anything that has to do with the government and I’ll stay that way until I see a difference. I haven’t seen any change happen in Egypt except that Mubarak has gone, which is great, and that people took to the streets to demand their rights, which is very good. But if we do not see a positive and concrete change on the ground, I want to remain on the margins, because otherwise I will lose my perspective. The only thing that makes me carry on is that in a way, I have a good sense of direction. I don’t want to lose that sense.
Do you already have an idea what direction you want to go in on your next film?
I’ve already finished my new film, in fact. It’s due to be released in January 2012. I started shooting on 10 February on Tahrir Square. The film is called R for Revolution. It evokes revolution, but it’s not a film about the revolution. It’s parallel to it, and at moments touches on it. In terms of direction, the only thing I’m faithful to, the only thing I believe in is making films. And that’s what’s keeping me alive. Other things are details. Every day I wake up, I’m trying to think of a new idea and how to make it. I’m trying to think of the film I’m making right now and see what’s good here, what’s weak here, that I should have done this, or I should have done that. It’s a process I have to be engaged in all the time. I can’t rest and say, OK, I’ve finished, I’m going to make my fifth film, I know what I’m doing, and stuff, that’s not true. I personally have to keep myself on the edge all the time to be able to do something different.
Do you have any particular direction in terms of the content of the films, based maybe on events, or the new situation?
Yes. I mean I do my best to make films that will help people ask questions, that will help people dare to be wrong, that will help people accept who they are and help people think differently. I will never make films that tell them what to think. I don’t know what they should think! But I will make films that will help them think that it’s OK to think, it’s OK to ask questions, it’s OK to be wrong sometimes. We are here to live, to experience, we are here to try and we are here to find out. So, that’s what I want to share with people.
You were a bit pessimistic earlier, saying that the Islamists are definitely going to come to power and that you think that times to come in Egypt are going to be hard…
Mathematically speaking, yes. They are more organized. They have been politically engaged for a long time. We liberals have been on the margins for a long time, so we cannot win the street that fast; it’s certain that they will come to power and we’ll have to live with that, to deal with that. I hope I’m wrong; if I am wrong, I’ll be very happy. But I’m expecting the worst, and one needs to know that if this does happen, we’ll have a period of 5-10 years of… a lot of mistakes will be made. But I think that those mistakes are reversible. They are reversible because the people descended into the streets, and they can descend again. That’s what I’m hoping.
Tunisia was a kind of model for the people; as what happened in Tunisia was possible, people felt that it was possible in Egypt too. Do you feel that the experience of the Tunisian elections, with the left that was so divided, is an example for Egypt too, that might encourage them to be a bit more united?
I’ll tell you my theory; it might be stupid, but it’s what I believe. If you carefully follow what happened on 28th January, which was very decisive, the Ministry of the Interior was defeated in six hours; that’s a miracle; if you follow exactly how it happened, you will see that it was the ultras, the football hooligans, who were conducting all the battles in the streets and they were very successful because they’ve been fighting the police for all the previous years. So if you think football-wise, you will notice that we have a very strong national team because the government wanted it to be so, so that people would be busy with football. But every time the national team played against Tunisia, we always lost. So I think that because Tunisia made it, the ultras felt jealous and said they cannot make it in Tunisia if we can’t make it here. So this was part of what pushed them to really try hard and make it happen. And it worked. That’s my theory. Many people don’t agree with me, but that’s what I believe. If the Muslim Brotherhood made it in Tunisia, then they’ll make it in Egypt. It’s the same organization. They are all the same. So no, I don’t think that we’ll learn from Tunisia. What will probably happen is that the Muslim Brotherhood will get the majority in the parliament and they’ll introduce a lot of stupid decisions and they’ll ask women to be veiled, and they’ll maybe ban cinema or make us make like Iranian films. So we will have to be out of the game and decide what we want to do next.

Apt, November 2011///Article N° : 10576

Les images de l'article
© Danielle Bruel
© Danielle Bruel
© Véro Martin
© Danielle Bruel
© Véro Martin

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