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Thursday, 14 December 2017

INTERVIEW: Hala El-Koussy’s debut feature Cactus Flower - An Egyptian feminine urban road trip

Ahram Online speaks to Egyptian director Hala El-Koussy‘s about her debut feature film Cactus Flower which premiered at the 46th Rotterdam International Film Festival last month and was nominated in two competitions

Adham Youssef from Rotterdam, Wednesday 15 Feb 2017
cactus flower
Cactus Flower, with Salma Sami in the center (Photo: Still from Cactus Flower)
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In four sold-out screenings at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), which took place between 25 January and 4 February, Cactus Flower earned positive reviews from audiences and critics.

Ahram Online spoke with the film's director Hala El-Koussy on her first feature film, which highlights the exquisite richness that can be found in the borderline area between the visual arts and film.

Coming from a visual arts background, El-Koussy reflected on obligations and opportunities to experiment in the art of cinema, her crowdfunding experience, and her vision of the film.

IFFR
Cactus Flower poster (Photo: Adham Youssef)

Debut feature

Cactus Flower’s first cut, written and masterminded by El-Koussy, was finished in 2010.

After the 2011 revolution, she reworked the script to have a more “optimistic end.”

She presented the script again to the Hubert Bals Fund Project Development Fund in July 2011.

“And then things started to become more dark, leading me to stop for a while. However, I had a moral obligation towards the fund, so I had to either kill it or inform them about stopping,” El-Koussy told Ahram Online.

El-Koussy committed to the script again in 2014, explaining that she did not care to make a film that dealt with only a certain short-lived event — the revolution and its aftermath.

“Films that deal with hot topics are often quickly forgotten. If I had left this optimistic end, it would have been irrelevant to current events,” she elaborated.

“To make drama or fiction that deals with current events is risky. My approach was to transfer my characters into a period that I believe we will stay in for a while.”

This is not to say that El-Koussy’s film is an upfront pessimistic view of post-2011 Egypt.

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(Photo: Still from Cactus Flower)

The storytelling process in Cactus Flower is “classic,” El-Koussy explains. It follows two Egyptian women from the fading middle class: a former bourgeois, but now impoverished aging woman, Sameha (Menha El-Batrawy), and a young wannabe actress Aida (Salma Sami), struggling to find shelter in an ever tense Cairo after being evicted from their home.

However, the centre of attention in the 100-minute film can be easily spotted.

El-Koussy held auditions for Cactus Flower for six months, seeking the needed talent for the film, and indeed casting is a praise-worthy aspect of the film.

Despite casting two lead female characters, the director rejects the oversimplified categorisation of “a feminist filmmaker.”

“I believe in the cause of feminism; however, I am dealing with a cause of a whole society with no divisions. I care about marginalised individuals in general. The weakest are overwhelmed. So I have old people, women living on their own. I wouldn’t call it a feminist approach, but rather a feminine approach,” El-Koussy added.

"This is the way cultural hegemony works; it creates categories to sort the other and reduces it into a sub-culture."

Aida’s struggle to find a place in the field of acting and arts is not approached from the perspective of seeking fame, but rather as a tool to break from several different restrictions: family, carreer, a cold relationship, others’ morals, or life in Cairo.

One of the "dream sequences" that El-Koussy used as a technique to shift back and forth between reality and fantasy shows young Aida forced to pose for a picture by her mom, and failing.

The sequence shifts back to reality with her auditioning for posh products and gated communities’ TV commercials. She also fails, with the producer saying she is not classy enough for the role.

The first half of the film shifts back and forth between reality and El-Koussy’s artistic representations of Aida’s inner voice, which is theatrically and colorfully crafted, mixing dance, music, and monologues.

The very tender and sincere performance of actress Salma Sami, in addition to her natural appearance and clothing, made her character Aida the spearhead of El-Koussy’s script.

On the other hand, there is the interesting and compelling character of Sameha, whose dialogues reveals she lived a wild life in her youth.

Her background is not known, but her attitude towards the status quo gives us some hints. She praises what Cairo used to be, gets nostalgic about her love life, and rebels against the current situation despite being poor and homeless.  

The chemistry and solidarity between the two characters, as well as the richness of their personal details, are brilliantly tailored in the script.

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One of the dream sequences that enriched the visual taste of the film (Photo: Still from Cactus Flower)

In their journey to find a temporary or permanent home, they meet a young male neighbour, Yassin (Marwan Alazab).

Yassin’s character can superficially be critiqued, for lack of development and cold acting. However, when his angelic role is interpreted we can understand why the character remains mysterious and robot-like, as he may signify the ability of young people to create and challenge.

Between mediums

During a road trip, Aida and Sameha come across other characters: poor homeless women who died in the street, a former dancer turned into a veiled and religious housewife, and a depressed artist. The encounters reveal more about the fears and aspirations of our characters.

The film’s music, composed by Ahmed Sawi, follows this emotional rollercoaster. “Sawi was able to go outside the orthodox in film soundtracks,” El-Koussy said.

The director-writer believes that films are cooperative projects, where several talented individuals are under the management of the director. “However, I am not going to work with people to force my vision on them concerning music, photography, etc. There should be cooperation,” she says.

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Hala El-Koussy during Q&A at IFFR (Photo: Adham Youssef)

One of the challenges that El-Koussy faced was finding a consensus between the visual arts, a field she is a veteran in, and cinema, a medium she is experimenting in.

“One of the cinema funds that I presented my script to didn't understand it. That is when I had to decide whether I was to make a film or visual art,” El-Koussy remembers.  

“You make films, so more people can see it. Visual artists do work and don’t care about who understands. We are taught that when you think of the audience, you lose your edge. In cinema, you are nothing without the audience.”

El-Koussy takes credit for the visually magnificent elements of the film, ranging from clothes to details in the composition, colours, or accessories, as well as the script.

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(Photo: Still from Cactus Flower)

When it came to photography and music, El-Koussy sought assistance from other, also talented, personnel.

“I was making a film without the experience of filmmaking. This gave me freedom to experiment and create, without the pressure of being categorised. However, this freedom should be accompanied by respect for the medium’s definitions,” she said.

Abdelsalam Moussa was responsible for the film’s cinematography which captured El-Koussy’s vision; to present some understanding to the current reality in Cairo amid the social developments throughout the past six years leaving youth in alienation, despair, or solidarity.

“I’ve worked with Moussa since 2010. He didn't come from a visual arts background which made our work experience really great. He is really skilled and successful in TV series. However, our meeting point between cinema and the visual arts is interesting to him, and urged him to innovate. He had space to be the director of photography and space for experimenting,” El-Koussy explains.

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IFFR Q&A with Hala El-Koussy (Photo: Adham Youssef)

Concerning crowdfunding for the film, El-Koussy wanted to go through the experience even though she knew that it was not going to be very rewarding financially.

“I thought that my chances were going to be higher than someone who is 25 years old, as someone who has credibility and who has been working in the field for years. I was excited that I can go in and make way for other people to repeat the experience,” El-Koussy said.

The film collected around EGP 100,000, not only from the online campaign but also from personal networks.

Cactus Flower was screened at IFFR alongside 15 other films in the Bright Future Award section.

When asked whether funding obliges artists to delete or add scenes, El-Koussy radically answers, “No! I wouldn't have left that scene with a character cooking Molokhia. I won’t delete it and I won’t explain it. Not understanding it might colour the whole experience, along with other aspects the viewers related to.”

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