« We still have a long way to go »

Interview with Ahmad Abdalla

By Olivier Barlet
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We have already discussed your films in some detail, but I’d like us to develop a few ideas. It is difficult for us here to understand the relationship between mainstream and alternative cinema in Egypt, before and after the revolution. It’s still too early to talk about after the revolution, but how was it before? You use very famous actors and actresses in your films, like Khaled Abel Naga, who also star in mainstream cinema. Yet you work with no budget, creating an alternative cinema. How does this work? It’s very different to the situation in Tunisia, for example.
Well I’m a son of commercial cinema, after all. I worked as a film editor for eight or nine years and I edited ten feature films. Eight or nine of them were purely commercial films, traditional Egyptian musicals. I did this for years and from inside commercial cinema, I could feel how big the disaster was because I worked with many directors. Some of them were just first-timers, some were very ambitious when it came to cinema. But what happened is when they started to prepare a script and went to a producer – I was always attached to the project from the start so I was aware of the steps they took – they give the script to the producer and the producer would decide to modify the script a little to make it more commercial. They would agree, and then they’d approach movie stars. And the movie stars would want to modify the script a little to make it more suitable for them; they’d agree, and later they’d get to the shoot and again they’d modify the script a little to make it more economical, and they’d agree, and they’d come to the editing room, and in the editing room, everybody would have an opinion. In commercial cinema, the film star would say, « I don’t like my face in this shot, let’s remove it », and so at the end of the day you’d discover that the project no longer had anything to do with the ambitious project we’d started we, not because they’d set out saying « I want to make a silly commercial film », no, they’d say « we want to make a serious, good film for once, we want to change everything and make a good film. » But they’d accept all these steps. I think that the advantage that I or Ibrahim [El Batout], or the other independent filmmakers have is that we don’t go through these steps. The concept we start with is the same concept we end with. Of course, a film may undergo a lot of changes, but these remain within the main concept of the film. This concept of having an organic project is very different to the concept of constantly changing the film to satisfy the producer and the movie star.
Is it because of the production system too? I guess you are self-produced, so you don’t have to deal with these different partners…
Actually I am not self-produced, maybe Ibrahim [El Batout] is more into self-production. For my first film Heliopolis, I had a producer. Of course it was very, very low budget and the amount of money the producer provided for the film is the kind of money I can collect from me and my friends and colleagues working on the film. It wasn’t a lot of money. But we accepted having a producer because we wanted to be able to deal with the distributors and cinema houses. He guaranteed that the film would have a better footing on the market later on through his connections. And this is the number one reason for working with a producer. It was the same producer who made Ein Shams, Ibrahim El Batout’s film, with a very, very low budge toot. I made Microphone, my second film, with another producer, the kind of guy who makes two or three commercial films per year and one non-commercial film. He likes to balance the two and I like the guy because when he makes a commercial film, it is purely commercial, and when he makes a serious project, he doesn’t interfere and he allows people to work as they wish. Of course he interferes in the commercial projects to make money, and he takes a portion of the money he makes to put it in a serious film to be able to give his company an international stature and exposure in film festivals. So for him, it’s another good deal. And actually he was truly amazing when he dealt with us; I was a little worried the first time working with a commercial producer, but I found he is very decent and he knows that this kind of project is different from the others. It’s as simple as that.
You worked as an editor on a lot of films before. Was that what you trained as? Was editing your way of getting into directing films ?
I am self-taught. I taught myself how to edit. I never went to film school because I didn’t get into film school. In Egypt, we only have one cinema institute, the governmental one. It’s very traditional. Most of the great directors all come from this school. So for us, for all the Arab creators, it is the target if you want to learn cinema. But they only accept eight people per year. So when my application was rejected, I decided to study something else related to the arts, but not cinema, of course. I decided to study music. At the same time, non-linear editing was starting to emerge in Egypt and I was really into computers. It was around 1995/96, and I just wanted to try to install a video card and capture some footage and play with it and see what happened. It was very new in Egypt. Nobody knew about it at all. Even in Hollywood, it was the time of transition from linear editing with old-fashioned tapes to non-linear editing. Of course we are talking video now, not cinema. I started with a very small PC in my house and a lot of filmmakers from the cinema institute wanted to try non-linear editing for the first time. So they kept coming to me and asking me to edit their films. They were young also, most of them friends of mine, so I kept practicing how to edit, teaching myself the concept of editing, and they taught themselves the concept of directing, together in my room in my family house, bit by bit until I started to get my own name and people would come especially for me to edit a short film for them. And later on, I found myself getting into TV commercials and stuff like that, maybe for a year or two. Then I got my first job as a film editor for a feature film in 2003. It was a commercial film called The Mediterranean Man. It was my first job as an editor. The film was released in 2003, but I was actually 23-years-old when I was working on it and I was the youngest editor in the 100 years of cinema in Egypt. And of course that got me into a lot of trouble with the syndicate, the union, because there were a lot of editors and they felt that this new generation of editors who knew computers was going to screw their lives, and that’s actually what happened.
There is a quite a difference between your two films; Heliopolis seems to be much more written and based on a real script, whereas Microphone seems more open to all the voices that happen to come along.
Actually, no, Heliopolis is not very written either, the whole film script was only 20 pages long. I never wrote any of the dialogues. But the film was very limited when it comes to locations, when it comes to story-lines. It was limited; we knew how high our ceiling was. So we knew the space we were dealing with. With Microphone, we knew that the sky was our limit, so we just kept working all the time. I would find one group, stay with them and shoot for a couple of days. I found an artist and stuck with him for two days. That is how we made Microphone. So we never had a predetermined concept. Heliopolis was more written, but written within the five parallel stories we were working with.
Heliopolis is more violent, Microphone more hip-hop.
Yes, you could say so. Heliopolis is a very nostalgic film, and Microphone is not. As far as I see the comparison, Heliopolis was a film that tried to analyze what is going on in our lives based on what happened in the past, based on the last 60 to 70 years, and how we reached this point. Whereas Microphone is trying to analyze what is happening right now, based on what is going to happen in the future, what we are hoping to see. That’s the big difference. I didn’t want to be as nostalgic in the second project, I just wanted to take the audience one step forward.
Were you involved in the Kefaya movement in 2005? Were you connected to all the protest at that time?
Not officially, but I did attend a lot of demonstrations. I didn’t want to be connected to any organization, but I was there in most of the Kefaya demonstrations in 2005 and I was working with another organization called Shaifnco, an organization that monitors all the corruption that takes place during elections. We travelled around the country to see everything that was happening during the election. It was very violent in 2005-6, and we had to monitor this, sometimes filming, taking photos, compiling hard disks of what was happening, and I was involved with them. And of course I was a blogger in 2005-6. Blogging was very limited in Egypt then, there were only 300 to 400 blogs, but at the same time they were very popular. Before Facebook and everything, people would come to our blogs to read what was going on. I actually won an award from Deutsche Wella, a German award for the best Arabic blogger in the world at that time, 2008, almost three years after those major events. I still have the blog, but I don’t write any more with the same frequency.
What you show in Microphone, and what Ibrahim El Batout shows in Hawi, is young people’s resistance through creation, an artistic way of trying to get their word heard. Is that specific to that period? Was that the case so much before, and are your films a kind of testimony of that?
To be honest with you, I don’t consider this film to be about art or music at all. That was not the first thing I was concerned when I approached the whole Alexandrian underground scene. My first concern was to feel young people’s expression. It was as simple as that. That was why I insisted on having the skateboarders. They are not artists, for example. They just want to live their lives the way they want. And that was the question, the debate in the film, when would we be allowed to live our lives the way we want and at what point the community and the government would start to stop us. It’s as simple as that.
What would you say young people’s main aim was at that time in Egypt? Was it to overcome all the barriers in their lives? What was their connection with Western countries and culture?
I cannot put all the young generation in one basket, or speak about them as a single entity. That’s the great thing about Egypt, about the revolution: everybody has his own way of seeing things. Everybody has his own background, his own heritage. For example, take the hip-hoppers; they have a totally different culture to the graffiti artists in Egypt. In London or New York, you find that both cultures are more or less connected, but not at all in Cairo or Alexandria. The only thing they have in common is being under pressure from the government and the community.
I get the impression from your answer that you see your films as a kind of voice, but a singular one, one that doesn’t representing all young people.
Yes, because I don’t see myself as their voice. The film is called Microphone; Microphone is just a tool they use; they are not doing so through me. I cannot speak for them. I don’t think the film speaks for them either, because if we really want to listen, the film gives us a very quick glimpse into what is going on there. If you want to find out more about them, it’s like a very deep ocean of cultures and many things going on. So for me it was like a very quick panoramic vision I had of them and I just wanted them to tell us their stories, not to give us a conceptual point of view of how they want to live their lives. I just said, tell me a story that reflects your life. I thought this was the best way to deal with it. And actually they just provided stories. Stories were my and the audience’s way of entering their world. If you want to go deeper into this world, that’s something else and I don’t think the movie Microphone provides that.
Yousry Nasrallah appears in Microphone. The question of training, of fathers is present, as it is in Ibrahim El Batout’s film Hawi too. What do you feel about this question of the transmission of experience and knowledge?
For me, I was just trying to imitate something that happens in Alexandria. Because, as I told you, as it is so hard to get into the cinema institute in Egypt, a lot of cultural organizations and NGOs in Egypt are trying to set up workshops. So you can always find cinema workshops taking place in Alexandria somewhere, and usually they invite our famous directors from Cairo to come and speak about cinema. And I just wanted to imitate that somehow and I couldn’t find a better figure to speak, to give a kind of – because I didn’t write any dialogue for him of course – I just wanted a director, a well-known figure to give his own point of view about filmmaking. His comments could also be more or less about the filmmakers’ lives and at the same time about filmmaking and I wanted to play with that so I tried to find somebody whose opinion I trusted and of course I can trust Yousry. I didn’t want to have a dry lecture about script-writing or something. I wanted to be full of questions, to use these questions to question them and to question myself while making the film and to play with the question of what the difference is between documentary and fiction film, as that was the first phrase we started the film with.
What are your perspectives now? You having been working on a major project with all the images taken at Tahrir Square; is that still ongoing?
The footage is not mine. It belongs to the people and it will return to the people. Most of the footage we collected, we gave for free to a lot of cable TVs, a lot of TV stations all around the world. Our tent was the original source for a lot of the footage you see online now or in documentaries because we kept giving it to people when the internet was cut in Egypt. Now we have managed to upload almost everything on our website called Thawramedia. Anyone can download anything from the site or just go and watch and tag and add information. That’s what we are doing, just giving back to the people who took the footage.
Access is free, you don’t ask for any payment to help finance anything?
Of course not, it wasn’t expensive to produce after all. We just had our own tent on Tahrir right from the first day, so we were there. And I knew, when we were crossing the bridge, going to Tahrir on the 28th, it was a very violent day, they were firing loads of tear gas at us, and the image I can still remember when we were all crying was that wherever you looked, someone had a camera. However much they were suffering, they kept raising the camera, they wanted to film this for history. Nobody thought we would win, but we wanted to record the fact that at least we tried. So I felt, everybody has some footage; let’s collect the footage from everyone and give it back to everyone so that we can all see it. I never had a camera, not even a photo camera, on me for the whole eighteen days. I didn’t even take a single shot with my mobile phone. So maybe that was my way too of not forgetting what really happened. It wasn’t expensive, I just asked my friends on the tent if anybody could come with a computer. We had four computers there, two Macs, one PC, one Linux, so we made sure that if anybody came with any system there would be no problem. We had an apartment nearby so we could go and recharge our computers and come back out. We had a lot of card slots so we could read any kind of card from the cameras and all kinds of cables, USB for Samsung, etc, Bluetooth, and we collected; that’s how we managed to collect everything. Later on, the only expense we had was buying the hard disk, which is not a lot, and we put the material on a hard disk as a second backup. In total we collected 400 gigas of material. And we gave it to the people. The website is also voluntary project by an Internet company that creates many websites, but they created it for free because during the revolution they had no work. Most of their websites, their activity is entertainment stuff, so nobody was visiting their websites, so they had a whole crew who built what we named the Thawramedia. They built the website with perfect designs, it’s a very efficient website, and they did it for free because they already had their crew, they were already paying them, so we were very lucky to have this highly professional company to build our website.
A final question on your role now in cinema. You are on a board which is trying to organize cinema’s existence through festivals and so on. Are you also considering creating a new cinema organization?
We are doing our best to at least sustain the status of cinema we had before the revolution. We said, if during the Mubarak regime we had any kind of film activity, we should at the least keep it going. We shouldn’t stop it, even if it was corrupt, even if a lot can be said about it, we should at least keep it going and then we can start to reform it again from within, working with it. So now we are working on festivals. The most important thing is first of all to give the festivals back to the NGOs, so if any individual or organization or company wants to organize a festival, like the Cairo Festival, they can apply and be given the festival if they have the right profile. We are financing a lot of film festivals too. We don’t exceed 50% of the budget, so if they really want to run a festival, it’s not easy and they have to know how to do it. We also have a decent fund for financing films in Egypt. It’s a governmental fund. I’m not sure if we’ll have the same fund next year, because the situation in the country is difficult right now, but we have this money that was in the Ministry before the revolution and was still there and we had to find a way to use it again. It’s a fund for financing 7 feature films, and can cover 50% of the budget too, and also 5 short films, 5 documentaries and 5 experimental films. I of course cannot apply to the fund, nor can Nasri Ya Salah or the others, as we are volunteers until we have new elections or until the country is back on its feet again.
Will you try to establish a new film organization?
It’s not a new organization, we are reforming the existing national film centre to be able to really give all directors a hand. It was very governmental, so it was very bureaucratic and it was almost impossible for any director to have to get anything good from it, especially if the director didn’t belong to the syndicate, if he or she wasn’t a graduate from the governmental cinema institute, so it was only accessible to a very small community and that community was working to take advantage of this place just for themselves. Now it’s open to everyone. This fund now doesn’t require any membership of any cinema organization. Any individual can apply, it doesn’t require the director to have any previous experience either. If you have a good script, if you have a solid project, then you can get the fund. It has nothing to do with how old you are, how experienced you are, whether you worked with the government before or not. All these old-fashioned things are totally banished. This is what we are trying to do and to make it more accessible to the public, to the young generation of filmmakers and especially independent filmmakers because they need the support. We have a lot of editing units, we have some cameras, we can offer logistical help as well as funding. And we can help them apply to festivals, we can help them send their copies, because even sending DVDs is expensive. We are trying to help until the situation become clearer.
Are you optimistic about the future situation in Egypt?
No, I am not optimistic, but we have to work. I wasn’t optimistic on 28 January either. I was sure we were going to be defeated. Looking at how many police officers there were on the street, the degree of violence they used against us, I thought they were going to defeat us in a few hours. But in a matter of hours, it was they who had totally vanished. So I don’t trust my feelings either, but I’m still not optimistic. I think the battle is getting much tougher now, especially now with this new military regime. And even if we manage to get rid of this military regime, we’ll have an even bigger fight with the conservatives, and how to dissolve this easy confidence that the people tend to entrust in the conservatives rather than other political visions. So we still have a long way to go.

///Article N° : 10577

Les images de l'article
Ahmad Abdalla © Véro Martin
Olivier Barlet, Farid Ismaïl and Ahmad Abdalla © Véro Martin
© Damien Tschantre
© Damien Tschantre

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