F ive years ago, former war reporter and documentary filmmaker Ibrahim El-Batout was another aspiring filmmaker with an atypical vision deemed incongruous with the homogenous local film scene. A couple of years later, El-Batout became the most influential independent filmmaker in the country, turning the industry on its head and paving the way for independent film to reach beyond its niche audience.
El-Batout’s latest film, “Hawi,” is a prime example. With no tangible script and an exceedingly small budget, the “Ein Shams” director decided to shoot a film in Alexandria with a predominantly amateur cast. Refusing to wait two to three years to have a budget assembled (a process that requires a finished script), he opted to finance the project out of his own pocket.
After the critical and relative commercial success of “Ein Shams,” “Hawi” was a big gamble; a straight art-house film with a convoluted narrative and challenging themes laced with unpopular liberal politics.
But the gamble paid off. “Hawi” has received multiple awards, including best Arabic feature at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival and has become El-Batout’s second film in a row to acquire commercial release.
In the past few weeks, El-Batout has made headlines for his next film, a drama set during the 18 days of Egypt’s popular uprising starring Amr Waked. Titled “R for Revolution,” it marks his first collaboration with a mainstream film star. Currently in post-production, it is scheduled for release early next year and will vie for a slot at the Berlin Film Fest in February.
Last Thursday, I sat down with El-Batout for my first conversation with him since Jan. 25. We discussed various issues: “Hawi,” his upcoming film, the state of independent cinema and his expectations of the revolution.
“Hawi” was released less than two weeks ago in six theaters with no publicity whatsoever at a season where serious films have been unanimously shunned by the public. I asked if he was satisfied with the performance of the film.
“The mere feat of having the film shown in theaters is light years ahead of where we were before,” El-Batout said. “I spent about LE 40,000 to make the film. Then I got two funds, €25,000 and $60,000, which were spent on post-production. Then we won the Doha Tribeca award and got $100,000 so we were able to pay the cast. That was October.
“The revolution happened in January and the film was released in June. This wouldn’t have happened at any other time. "Hawi" was made under the same conditions as ‘Ein Shams’….no script, no permissions. In light of all these factors, the film did great.”
Several critics pointed out that “Hawi” contains a number of autobiographical subplots. “The only autobiographical plotline is the one that involves my character, Ibrahim. I haven’t seen my daughter for the last 10 years and I wanted to imagine what it would to be like if I met her now. I wanted to let it out, to say I’m sorry,” he said.
All characters in “Hawi” are prisoners: Youssef has been physically imprisoned for more than 20 years. Ibrahim is imprisoned by his mind. Hanan is a prisoner of society.
“We’ve all been prisoners for the past 30 years,” El-Batout said. “We were never free. That was an illusion. We were totally oppressed, we were totally controlled, we were totally manipulated. We still are.”
“Did you anticipate the revolution?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied. “I never imagined that people would hit the streets and ask for their rights. I thought I was living with a bunch of apathetic people unaware of what’s happening around them, a people not ready to sacrifice their lives or give a good fight. Before the revolution, I was completely hopeless. That’s why I’m optimistic now. I realized that we can change. We all saw a miracle happening. I saw it with my own eyes.“
A number of recent films have been set in Alexandria. Ahmad Abdalla’s “Microphone,” Daoud Abdel Sayed’s “Messages from the Sea” and Ahmed Maher’s “The Traveler.” Is Alexandria suddenly becoming a trendy spot for filmmakers?
“For me, I simply wanted to make a movie in Alexandria with Alexandrians,” he responded. “I don’t believe in Cairo being the center of everything. I love the light in Alexandria. Alexandria is less polluted; what you see between the object and the lens is pure light. That isn’t the case in Cairo. What you see is not real. It was also easier to shoot in Alexandria. People are not used to cameras so our chances of getting caught were slim. In Cairo, if you put the camera in downtown, you’d be arrested in 10 minutes.”
My experience of seeing “Hawi” was quite dismal. The audience with whom I watched the film was exclusively comprised of teenagers who insisted on expressing their bafflement and restlessness out loud.
The audience’s reaction was a clear indication that the kind of untraditional cinema El-Batout and his likes are attempting to promote is beyond the reach of the conservative taste of Egyptian audiences. The Egyptian filmmaker is thus faced with a double challenge: to find elements that appeal to a mainstream audience and, at the same time, continue to explore new artistic frontiers.
“Listen, I’d be the happiest person in the world if many people in Egypt see my films,” he said. “But the films I make are the films I make. I couldn’t have made a different film than ‘Ein Shams.’ I couldn’t have made a different film than ‘R for Revolution.’ That’s why I don’t defend my films. They are what they are. I know the formula that appeals to the masses, and it’s very easy to duplicate. But it’s not that I don’t want to do it; I simply don’t know how to do it. Who knows, maybe it would be a good experiment to try and duplicate this formula someday.”
“Were you upset by the people’s reaction?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he said. “It didn’t matter to me after Jan. 25. Nothing did. I didn’t watch the movie at the cinema. I didn’t try to promote it. I became so detached because I gained a lot from Jan. 25. I feel blessed having witnessed history unfold in front me. “
Most criticism of “Hawi” was targeted towards the unfocused editing of young inexperienced editor Perry Moataz.
“I was very happy with the final product,” El-Batout said. “I personally could not see an issue with the editing. It was part of the experiment, to have a 23-year-old edit the film, and she surprised me in a very positive way.”
El-Batout spent most of the historical 18 days of the uprising outside Egypt, leaving for the Rotterdam Film Festival on January 29.
“I was in the street on January 27. When the military intervened, I thought that was it. I’m going to the Rotterdam, things will go back the way they were and we’re going to elect Mubarak once again. Then I saw what happened and I was flabbergasted. I returned February 9 at night and decided to shoot the film on the 10th. The next day, Mubarak stepped down.”
“Did you feel guilty?” I asked him.
“No, I didn’t,” he replied. “I spent a big chunk of my life in troubled areas covering wars. I know I’m ready to be in troubled areas. I guess it was just a divine plan.
“I called up Amr Waked on February 11 at 12 am and told him I want to shoot a film about Tahrir. Two hours later, he arrived with his cameras and equipment. It started off with a man meeting his lover (rising star Farah Youssef) in the square. That became the ending of the film and I started building the story in reverse.
“From that moment onward, I have no idea how the film happened. And budget-wise, the film is different from my previous ones. It’s a LE 4 million movie. It’s the first time I work with a big crew.”
A flurry of films centered on the revolution have recently entered production, many of which are manufactured by mainstream filmmakers attempting to capitalize on the sense of victory and jubilation associated with the revolution.
“My film has none of this jubilation,” he laughs. “It doesn’t have an optimistic ending, and that’s the ending I envisioned before Mubarak stepped down.”
“Is that because you’re uncertain about our future?” I asked him. “I think we have a chance, a 50-50 chance, but that doesn’t mean we’ll succeed in seizing it.”
Having a bankable star of Waked’s stature will easily make “R for Revolution” El-Batout’s biggest commercial success to date. But is Egypt ready to have a real art-film culture?
“We’ve had 60 years of darkness. It’s not going to be easy to erase these traces,” El-Batout said. “Film and culture in Egypt will not automatically improve just because we had a successful revolution.
“We’ve got a long way ahead of us. We’ve been deformed by the system on different levels. We’ve become followers. Any sheikh or priest can easily manipulate your actions. We haven’t been educated to search. We’ve been modeled to follow the behavior of our parents, brothers and friends. Our individuality never existed. Same goes with film. People want to see the films they’ve seen before, or see the films they expect to see.
“We need 150 revolutions to build a free society. As much as I’m optimistic about what’ve accomplished, I cannot avoid the fact that ignorance is so widespread, that there are people who’ve had their lives stolen from them.
“We’ve earned our freedom and there’s a price to pay for that. Freedom has a price, even if that means descending into civil war or the Muslim Brotherhood screwing us for the next 20 years. I believe that light shall ultimately overcome the darkness, but at the same time I’m realistic about my expectations.
“We’re not going to have a liberal government. We’re not going to improve the education system. We’re not going to conduct comparative studies between Pharaonic religions and Christianity and Islam. We’re not going to start caring about art and culture. I feel like it’s not going to happen. But that’s okay; at least we’ve had our headstart, at least we’ve created a chance to have a different future for ourselves.”
“Hawi” is currently in cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria.