Redemption of an Artist
Where some preach, this one does: Rebel filmmaker-critic Ahmed Atef breaks new ground with a controversial dramatization of the lives of street kids
By Sherif Awad
The word “auteur” barely begins to describe Ahmed Atef, a gifted writer-director of acclaimed documentaries, shorts and feature films. His passion for the cinema has taken him to film festivals throughout the world and has driven him to take on multiple roles within the industry, including that of rising journalist and film critic.
At an early age, Atef became the protégé of his unmarried film-buff uncle. The young Atef would eagerly look forward to trips with his uncle to Rio Cinema where they would often take in four films at a time. Like many kids growing up in the 1970s, Atef was dazzled by the era’s iconic figures, namely martial arts master Bruce Lee, the Italian comic duo of Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, and the popular French action star Jean-Paul Belmondo.
He put aside his early fascination with films to pursue his interest in writing. While studying at the Collège de La Salle in El-Daher, Atef penned his first articles and poems. Later, he bagged his first interview with guru-journalist Mostafa Amin, co-founder of the Akhbar Al-Youm institution. The article, like many more of Atef’s early pieces, was published in the school’s four-color magazine.
Though Atef was still developing his writing talents, he found himself drawn to the limelight of stage-acting. One day, he saw a newspaper ad announcing a casting call for a stage adaptation of Oliver Twist at Al-Horreya theater. He nabbed the role, but the production was cancelled shortly after. The show was replaced by the comic play Le’ba Esmaha El-Folous (A Game Called Money) starring Said Saleh. Because casting directors liked his acting skills, Atef was given a role. During one performance he was spotted by a scriptwriter who cast him, among other children, in Agmal El-Zohour (Beautiful Flowers), a successful kids’ show starring veteran childrens’ presenter Nagwa Ibrahim (aka Mama Nagwa).
Although he appeared in numerous episodes of another famous TV show called Kanou Fee Tefolathom (While They Were Children), Atef yearned for a more creative job. He began to direct small theater productions starring his schoolmates (among them were singer / actor Edward and current Dream TV production manager Mohamed Khedr) at the French Cultural Center.
Despite his success in the dramatic arts, when Atef started his studies at Cairo University in 1988, he decided to follow his mother’s dream of studying French literature.
But clearly, you can’t keep a good director down: A decade later he took the cinema world by storm with his critically acclaimed Omar 2000, starring a young Mona Zaki and Ahmed Helmy. Currently wrapping up production on his biggest project to date, Atef talks about Shayateen El-Qahira (Devils of Cairo), the feature-length version of his award-winning documentary about life on the streets. He recently sat down with et for an interview.
How did you venture into filmmaking?
In my second year of college, I applied to the Cinema Institute. There, I was told I wouldn’t be admitted without a recommendation — unless I wanted to join the Scriptwriting and Directing Department, to which few people apply. [Most of the applicants want to become actors.] During my studies, my benchmates [actors] Khaled El-Sawy and Mohamed Hassan got me involved in student activism. I remember that we staged a sit-in strike in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was the one who jumped off the walls of the institute to deliver an official student statement to the newspaper.
I continued to study simultaneously at both the Cinema Institute and Cairo University. Maddad, Maddad [Grace, Grace] was my short film project in my third year. It depicted Sufism during the celebration of Moulid El-Imam El-Hussein. In the final year, my graduation project was called Sabares (Cigarettes), a 13-minute documentary short about street kids. I don’t remember what drove me at the time to film them with my 16mm camera. The end result was a very realistic depiction thanks to the help I received from Gamiet Qariet El-Amal (Hope Village Society, or HVS). An NGO that supports street children and orphans, it has 15 branches across Egypt. Some of these kids have become actors in my new feature film Shayateen El-Qahira [Devils of Cairo], the feature-length version of this [project].
Did you face any problems in shooting and screening Sabares?
Yes. The movie was shot by my classmate Ahmed Abdel-Aleem who has now become a famous director of photography. Together, we went to the areas with the strongest concentration of street kids, namely Mahatet Misr [the main railway station Downtown], El-Sabtia, and the Ahmed Helmy Tunnel. Because we didn’t have an outdoor shooting license, we were arrested and escorted to Shubra Police Station until our identities were verified as film students. It was a strange situation because the authorities don’t want us to depict these kids, they want to act like [the street kids] don’t even exist.
Nevertheless, I managed to finish the film. It was screened at the Ismailia Documentary Film Festival (1993) where I won the Silver Award. [It was also shown] at the Kelibia Film Festival for Amateurs in Tunisia where it received the Best Film Award.
Supposedly, the Egyptian Ambassador in Tunisia saw the film at the fest
ival screening and wrote a report about it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The report was forwarded to Dr. Shawky Aly Mohammed, the dean of the Film Institute, who along with the Professors’ Council, banned the film from being screened at any more film festivals. Just like that! I defied them and decided to screen it everywhere. When they threatened that I wouldn’t receive my graduation degree, I told them I didn’t want it. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I had learned how to say “no.” I even screened a VHS copy of the film at the Arab World Institute in Paris. Eventually, I received my graduation degree a year later.
Was it easy to break through in filmmaking without a wasta?
When I graduated in 1993, it was difficult for me to find work as an assistant director. That time was the reign of the filmmakers’ sons when it came to this particular job. Only once did I find work, and it was as a fourth assistant to Khairy Beshara in Qeshr El-Bondok [Nutshell, 1995]. The lack of work drove me to return to journalism. I managed to meet the late Abdel-Wahab Metawe, Chief Editor of El-Shabab Magazine, published by Al-Ahram. He hired me as a writer because of my classic Mostafa Amin interview and my French language skills. I spent the next five years working with the magazine, handling the sports sections, covering football, martial arts and wrestling, as well as the art sections of foreign cinema and pop music. During this period, I interviewed everyone from Mahmoud El-Gohary, ex-coach of the National Football Team to the late Sayed Eweiss. [Eweiss was] the Egyptian sociologist who wrote a famous book called Hetafat El-Sametin [Cries of the Silent] that analyzed the written innuendos in public toilets and the strange stickers on teen cars. Currently, I write for both Al-Ahram and Hebdo; I also occasionally write for the weekly cinema pages in Al-Ahram.
How have you been involved in cultural events?
Through my work in Al-Ahram, I was introduced to famous journalists and great writers who helped shape my character. For instance, both Lotfy El-Kholy and Mohammed Sayed El-Said brought me along as a secretary when they attended the International Conference of Freedom and Creativity. The famous Turkish writer Aziz Nesseim, a Nobel Prize winner, and French author Jean Lacouture were also at the conference. From 1995-2006, I also worked as an assistant to renowned film critic Samir Farid during many of the cinematic events and film festivals that he organized.
How did your land your first directing job?
During the Creativity conference, I met some executives from French Television. They hired me as a director and producer of documentaries made for France 2, La Cinquième, Arté and ZDF. These films included a historical series about Arab scientists, Al-Sakr Wa Abol-Hol (The Falcon and the Sphinx), and a documentary about the French Conquest of Egypt.
Through my traveling abroad and the people I met, I was inspired to follow the footsteps of great filmmakers like Youssef Chahine and Salah Abou-Seif. Their work functioned as a cultural bridge between East and West because they were exposed to foreign arts while still adhering to their Egyptian roots.
In 1998, I met Khaled El-Nabawi who fell in love with, and wanted to star in my first feature film script Omar 2000. By combining our efforts, we found financing from Shoaa Company for Film Production. I remember there were many ups and downs from that experience. Although I cast the stars I wanted, including El-Nabawi and the pre-stardom duo of Ahmed Helmi and Mona Zaki, and I worked from my own script, the movie didn’t last three weeks in theaters. Shoaa didn’t understand how distribution across Egypt works in comparison to the other established companies. Nevertheless, Omar 2000 was recognized as an art-house debut, winning 16 awards from film festivals in Alexandria, Bangkok and Los Angeles. In the movie, I tried to reflect young men from my generation, but mainstream audiences found the movie to be too realistic and too experimental. Omar, the title character, played by El-Nabawi, was a 30-year-old man who [leads] a hopeless life with no job and no opportunities.
How did audiences react to your second feature film, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak (How to Get Girls to Love You), in 2003.
After Omar 2000, I didn’t want to look back and worship my first “film d’auteur” forever. So I decided to prove (especially to film moguls) that I am capable of delivering something that satisfies the market requirements. Written by Ahmed El-Beih, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak was a typical commercial romantic comedy featuring popular star Hany Salama, two beautiful starlets Hend Sabry and Somaya El-Khashab and the comic relief of Ahmed Eid. It was one of many commercial films I was offered, including what would have become the next film starring Alaa Wali El-Deen and Hob El-Banat [Girls’ Love, 2004]. It wasn’t an easy shoot because the stars felt that they are acting in a “light” film, which made them a little bit careless.
I was dealing with actors who didn’t know their lines, a producer who only wanted to sell tickets and a director of photography who wanted to keep everybody happy. It was like a nightmarish conspiracy against me, not a film set. Upon its release, Ezay El-Banat Tehebak was a commercial success, but was slaughtered by all the Egyptian critics who praised my work in Omar 2000. A few weeks later, I was offered the next Ahmed Helmi vehicle, but I decided to stop compromising in mass-production cinema, and instead follow my dream of doing more realistic, handmade films.
What took you out of Egypt recently?
While I was attending a gathering in the American embassy in Cairo, the cultural attaché told me of an American scholarship to study art at American universities. I went back home to surf the internet. I finally chose the University of Southern California because it had the leading school of cinematic arts, with alumni like great filmmakers George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, and Ron Howard. I spent the whole of 2005 studying the software and hardware of the visual effects that aid a filmmaker. I learned to create anything from an on-screen battle sequence, down to making animals move and talk.
I succeeded in finishing 17 different courses and received a master’s degree in Special Effects (SFX).
Unfortunately, when I returned to Egypt, I again clashed with the local bureaucracy. The Egyptian Cinema Institute wouldn’t accept my degree because it didn’t include a research paper like we do in Egyptian universities. They think I want to compete with the professors at the Cinema Institute but my sole aim is to transfer my knowledge to the next generation. In the end, I decided to quit working in festivals and cultural events to focus on my
future film projects through my new company, Egypt Films.
Your current project, Shayateen El-Qahira, appears to be a very dark yet realistic drama, not the type of movie an Egyptian producer would like to put money into. How did you raise its budget?
I received several small funds from film organizations around the world including the Hubert Bals Fund of Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Euromed Audiovisual Programme of the European Commission and the Dutch Cultural Fund, among others. Altogether, they only helped me raise LE 1 million. Another LE 1.5 million was acquired as a refundable loan from the Francophonic Organization. I couldn’t get any funding from the Egyptian Cinema Committee or any other film company in Egypt.
Based on my earlier film Sabares, the first draft of the script was entitled Borg El-Asafeer (Birds’ Tower) then it was changed to Le’bet El-Malayka [Angels’ Game] then it was finally called Shayateen El-Qahira. It’s been updated by screenwriter Nasser Abdel Rahman who did El-Madina [The City] and the forthcoming Geninat El-Asmak [Fish Garden] and Youssef Chahine’s Heya Fawda [Chaos].
Tell us about the movie.
You can compare Devils of Cairo to Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus [City of God, 2002], the award-winning Brazilian drama that depicted two boys growing up on the streets of Rio de Janeiro. My film stars professional actors, but you will be seeing them like you have never seen them before. They include Hanan Motawe’, Riham Abdel Ghafour, Ahmed Azmi and Bassem Samra, who plays El-Torbini, a character based on the real-life convicted child molester. The main characters, though, are the street kids headed by Ramadan [Ahmed Abdel-Qawi who is himself a street kid rehabilitated by HVS]. We see their strange world through his eyes, eyes that lost their innocence a long time ago. Some of the more dramatic scenes you’ll see in the film are based on case studies conducted by HVS. Coercion can generate violence from any person, especially if he doesn’t live in a humane environment. A street kid doesn’t have a home or a job so he can’t afford to buy food or clothes. He can’t win the people’s pity because his dirty appearance usually disgusts them.
Are you worried some scenes will shock viewers and the censors?
They are dramatizations of real occurrences. Street kids usually don’t smoke dope because they can’t afford it. Alternatively, they catch ants, set them on fire and smell the burning smoke. In another scene, set in an orphanage, Ramadan is tortured by a guy who drenches him with honey and lets hungry kids lick it off his face. There is a re-enactment of the famous mobile clip that was spread all over the internet featuring a police officer [played in the movie by Amr El-Melegi] slapping a man over and over. Some of the most brutal scenes needed special make-up effects; including Bershama (Metawe’) being disfigured by Gameela (Abdel Ghafour), and when El-Torbini stabs a pregnant Gameela.
All of these scenes were shot on location in places you can’t even imagine truly exist in Cairo, like Batn El-Bakar, Qalet El-Kabsh and El-Hakoura in Imbaba.
You have a lot of ambitious projects. Can you tell us about them?
Four years ago, I went to Malaga, Spain, where I was a reading expert for screenplays that were applying for funding from the first Euromed Audiovisual Programme. The Andalusian city is the perfect example of coexistence between Eastern and Western cultures and religions, which is something we need to reflect on in our contemporary time. Being there inspired me to write a film entitled Al-Andalus [Andalusia] which spans 800 years of Islamic history. Two Egyptian historians, Dr. Mahmoud Aly Mekky and Dr. El-Taher Ahmed Mekky, guided me through hundreds of books and references. I intend to use my SFX studies to shoot Al-Andalus on a grand scale, and I already started by shooting a three-minute demo in the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC. After the Andalusian government agreed to allow my location scouting, I finished writing the script then translated it into English to register it with the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
I have other projects too. One of them is called Ard El-Torab Wel Nar (Land of Dust and Fire), which is a kaleidoscopic dramatization of Egypt’s future in the next 20 years. The second is Sultan El-Asheekeen [Sultan of Lovers] which will be a development of Maddad, Maddad, my third-year project, depicting the interweaving relations between Sufism and materialism. We found funding for this one because it will be a digitally shot project.
I will also publish my first collection of poems entitled Bent El-Kheir (Good Daughter), with an introduction by Bahaa Jahin. It is written in Egyptian Arabic and inspired by the writings of Salah Jahin and Fouad Haddad. I’m currently finishing a book about Arabs and Muslims in world cinema.
And what’s next as a journalist?
After visiting many film festivals in the last few years, I have noticed — sadly — the absence of Egyptian films compared to a strong Arab presence. Also, a lot of the film financing provided by the Ministry of Culture goes to the sons and daughters of filmmakers. This is due to corrupt national officials currently holding crucial positions; I intend to fight them in my articles, in all the audiovisual and written media, and even in internet blogs. And if this doesn’t work, I will fictionalize them in my next film. It will be the first film about corruption in the cultural and cinematic field.