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The Mice Room: When experimental narratives make it to the ticket booth

Independent Alexandrian production The Mice Room brings together six directors, merging six stories about fear, fables and uncertainty

Soha Elsirgany, Saturday 12 Sep 2015
the mice room
Still from The Mice Room (Photo: The Mice Room digital press kit)
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Independent film The Mice Room rises from the underground to the silver screens at Zawya in Cairo and Cinema Amir in Alexandria.

The film premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2013, and showed at Brazil’s Sao Paolo International Film Festival in 2014 and Morocco’s Tetouan Mediterranean Film Festival in the same year. It went on to screen internationally in Germany, Bulgaria and Kosovo. The Egypt's premiere took place at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in April 2014.

The current screenings at Zawya and Cinema Amir are a milestone, marking a semi-commercial breakthrough for an almost zero budget independant film in the market, as well as being the first venture by Zawya Distribution, something the filmmakers never dreamed would happen when they started off with the project.

A three-year journey is behind The Mice Room, starting with the filmmakers joining a workshop in 2010, where each created a short film with common themes.

As the film contains six narratives, each created by a separate director, The Mice Room is attributed to all six directors; Ahmed Magdy Morsy, Hend Bakr, Mayye Zayed, Mohamad El-Hadidi, Mohamed Zedan and Nermeen Salem.

The Mice Room gets it’s name from a mythical place found in children’s fables; a scary place many Egyptian children grew up being threatened with visiting, if they weren’t behaving. For adults, this scary place can be a state of mind.

Each story is refreshingly original in its characters and its storyline. What links all the distinct narratives together is where they all take place, in Alexandria, and a thread of themes running through them all.

Fear and its different forms, life and death, joy and sadness, and subtle human interactions.

The film incorporates fables, through stories told and stories untold. The opening scene acts as a prologue, with a young girl and boy playing to the recital of a children’s playtime rhyme.

The use of stories come up throughout the film in different ways, one of the particularly interesting conversations in the script comes early on, when the character Amr, who goes to take care of his ailing father, talks to a woman about “The stories behind songs, not the songs with stories in them.”

In another narrative, Rawya, whose husband died recently, walks around her house at night in limbo. After her son complains about her new unsettling nocturnal life, Rawya tells her daughter a fable from folklore, about a town cursed by a witch with eternal day.

The most enigmatic of all is Moussa, an old man whose story remains mysteriously untold as he keeps trying and failing to cross the street, mutely refusing anyone’s assistance.

Many of the characters find solace through connecting with others, showing of how reaching out can help people on their journey. For Moussa, it is a girl who places a chocolate in his pocket, and a newsstand keeper who offers him a chair.

Amr’s uncle shares the story of how his own father died, and how Amr’s father handled it. The uncle then tells Amr to “share it, if there’s something you want to say.”

The characters are created as thoughtful, yet reluctant to express themselves. It is as if there is a sort of muted down tension bottled up in all the narratives, rendering the overall mood serious and heavy.

Another thematic play sensitively done is seen through juxtaposing marriage and wedding days with events of death and sickness.

The film’s cinematography is impressive in quality and approach, executed by El-Hadidi, Zayed and editor Islam Kamal, with refreshing angles and engaging panning shots.

Music links old Arabic songs to the narratives, and a soundtrack by Russian composer Anna Drubich, resembling street sounds and reflecting the psychological state of Moussa.

Commending the film’s accomplishment, director Ahmad Abdalla from the audience during the post-screening discussion noted that some stories were clear, while others were more obscure and didn’t communicate as well.

According to Zedan, the film’s intention is to evoke an uncomfortable, eerie mood, yet it can leave the viewer feeling frustrated.

The pace is rather slow, piquing one’s curiosity yet leaving it at that, anti-climactic and somewhat unsatisfying.

“The initial plan was for the feature film to present the short films one after the other. But after we achieved that we decided to merge them in editing to create something new out of them, for the pure sake of experimentation,” Zedan told Ahram Online.

“It might have been problematic at times, cause the footage wasn’t planned from the start with the intention of fitting it together in this way,” Zedan says.

Another audience member talked about the time factor, seeing as each of the narratives had its own timeframe, and the viewer can’t tell whether they unfold, with some, over the course of a day or weeks.

“One of the things we agreed on was setting aside the sense of time; that the events of the separate stories don’t have to coincide with each other on a realistic timeline,” Hadidi responds.

Without clear markers of time passage, this achieves the effect of getting lost in the story, and adds to the mystery and charm of The Mice Room and its world.

This feat of merging the original six shorts to create a new whole proved challenging; sometimes in ways obvious to the viewer, at other times seamlessly managed in montage.

The filmmakers, palpably proud of the film, readily express some of the challenges that emerged during the film's creation, yet feel there is something positive that came from each of the difficulties.

The easy part was that the shorts were created to be relevant in theme and in visual treatment.

“Besides the themes being set before filming the shorts, we had laid some other cornerstones. For instance, unifying the cinematography for all the projects; the colour palettes, if not identical, should be matching; the overall feel of the films should go together,” Hadidi said in a Q&A session after the film’s screening at Zawya.

“What was hard was that the individual short films were melted and not attributed to their makers anymore. I’m sure that each one of the filmmakers was having second thoughts about this,” Zedan says.

“There were scenes that were important in the short film, but that lost their significance in the feature film. But this process of letting go and shedding what doesn’t serve the new film became quite cathartic. It took some time, but eventually we started thinking about the bigger picture; that the whole was more important than our separate films,” he adds.

“Yet, this way it’s bigger than any of the directors’ names,” Marouan Omara, a filmmaker himself, pointed out, commenting on the merits of the attribution being collaborative, while leading the discussion at Zawya after the screening.

The task was also difficult for the film’s sole editor, Islam Kamal, who had to satisfy six directors.

“We had a sort of equation that the films had to fit into, regarding the place and the common feelings. This needed a lot of self-discipline while working,” Kamal says.

“The difficult process was made a lot easier by the fact that the six of them were all friends. If anyone could pull off a project like this it had to be a group of friends like these,” he adds.

Kamal also acted and filmed for The Mice Room. In fact, the whole team was rotating roles on this experimental, tight-budget project, from scripting and directing up to filming and producing.

“We were all involved in each other’s projects from the start,” Zedan says.

Another challenge was delays with filming permits, something especially difficult for independent productions.

“When our production manager could get us permits somewhere, we would go shoot. We were moving forward according to what was available and made easy,” Hadidi says.

“We were just determined that the film would be done, and then we followed the circumstances. But things would come our way and work out in the end,” Zedan says.

He went on saying how some collaborations happened just by optimistically reaching out to people — such as the film’s soundtrack by Drubich, who agreed to work with them pro bono when they reached out to ask her; as with the poster’s Polish designer, Maria Ines Gul, in addition to the well established Egyptian artist Maher Guirguis, who worked on the Arabic typography for the poster.

Seeing as relatively few films have come out of Alexandria, the filmmakers feel that screening The Mice Room in Zawya and Cinema Amir will pave the way for more productions and encourage independent films to aim for bigger goals.

“This is a start. We didn’t expect this 10 years ago. But now we definitely expect more for the future,” said Mark Lotfy, executive producer.

Mice Room

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