The award-winning documentary “Geld Hay” (Living Skin) was screened on 24 January at the French Cultural Centre (CIFF) and was followed by a discussion with the bold filmmaker, Fawzy Saleh, whose retorts to the bland and unconstructive criticism by some members of the audience was sharp and inspired admiration among others.
Unspeakable living conditions and child labour in its worst possible conditions are dealt with in this 52-minute documentary. Deadly chemicals and substances contaminate the waters that flow through the area are used in the making of the leather, while children work and live there without the necessary precautions. They walk barefoot and don’t wear masks when in direct contact with these substances.
The unobtrusive camera follows the workers and children around, which evidently demonstrates the level of comfort the workers had around the camera. “I had to live there for some time,” explained Saleh.
Saleh, who has been living in the nearby area of ‘Ain El Seera’ had been aware of the tanneries for a long time before shooting his documentary. He had been working with the Palestinian director Rashid Masharawy on a documentary on child labour and suggested the area of Magra el Oyoon in old Cairo where the tanneries are situated. Masharawy however told him to make a film of his own about the tanneries.
The most powerful part of the film is that it does not contain cheap sentimentalities. The images are raw, penetrative but don’t attempt to dramatise the situation. There is almost no music in the film, except for the parts that take place at the moulid (festival).
Close-ups have a strong effect on the film. The camera captures minute details such as the images of the workers’ hands and feet. The criticism of their situation was made by unfolding the conditions, without feeding the audience with ideas. The camera doesn’t judge or even sympathise; it only observes and allows the audience to react to the images, instead of directing their emotions.
One is introduced to the young boys in the film with them talking about their love stories, laughing and playing games. This is not only endearing but also humanises them.
“I chose to start it that way because I want to show that poor people are not killers or violent in the way that Khaled Youssef likes to depict them in his films,” said Salah. “We all love life and want to live it, but sadly not everyone has the chance to do so.”
The film ends with the children outside the tanneries attending the moulid.
When asked by the audience why he left in the foul language, Fawzy replied that he was documenting things as they are and “shouldn’t you criticise those who make them live in these conditions?”
Currently there are 20,000 people living in Magra El Oyoon and 10,000 working at the tanneries. The substances in these areas cause cancer as well as other health risks, all stated at the end of the film.
“Did this documentary change any laws?” someone asked. “Films do not change laws but they can raise awareness. If films change laws then Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would have changed Nazi Germany,” Salah replied.
Currently Salah is working on a long, feature film that tackles the idea of what will happen when those children grow up. Will they stay at the tanneries or will they manage to move outside of that community? And if they do, will they be accepted or shunned by society?