Hawi (magician), a film for which director Ibrahim El Batout won the award for best Arab film in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, follows the same style of his previous feature films Ithaki and Ein Shams.
The movie relays several interrelated stories and spreads them out in separate compact moments. The link between all the fragments is a bleak, yet calm mood, due mainly to its location in the city of Alexandria.
The characters cross paths, but are all drawn in their own world and misery. Something about the anguish of each character is similar, stemming from the same origin. It is the agony of loneliness and detachment, which is reflected in the film’s pacing and camera work.
There is Youssef, who is released from a five-year solitary imprisonment at the beginning of the film and asked by an authoritative voice to retrieve some documents in ten days. What kind of documents remains a mystery throughout the whole film, perhaps one weakness of the film.
There is a great deal of mystery in the lives of Batout’s characters and a general sense of ambiguity in the film.
“I left some things unknown so the viewers would use their imagination and think up of different possibilities,” Batout said. “This way the film would mean something different for each viewer.”
Other characters include Jaafar, the owner of a sick horse, who roams with him around the streets of Alexandria; Fady, the coach of a band; Aya, the introverted guitar player whose aunt teaches piano; Yasmine, the daughter of Youssef, a young blind girl with a beautiful voice taking lessons with Aya’s aunt; Hanan, a sophisticated belly-dancer, who is dancing out of passion and condemned by society for doing so and Insaneya, literally meaning “humanity,” who is linked to most of the characters.
Batotut, going by his real name, Ibrahim, also plays the absent father of Aya.
“I chose to play this character because it’s a personal story,” said Batout.
This is evident. His level of involvement in the part is very strong, especially in the scene where he appears for the first time at Aya’s aunt’s door after a long period away from Egypt.
One dominant yet subtle theme that appears throughout is authoritarianism, which comes out in different forms and circumstances.
Alexandria is presented beautifully in the film and the colours of the city are woven deftly throughout the different stories. Music plays a large role in the film, with most characters using it music as a therapeutic tool. In one scene Yasmine is told by her piano teacher to learn its language so as to confide in it. In another, Jaafar is in his room with the horse when the music of Om Kalthoum begins to play. “Does she get to you too?” Jaafar asks the horse.
The film itself is inspired by the song, Hawi, by the band Massar Egbary, who appear in the film as themselves. The song describes the characters' situations perfectly when it says, "I have become a magician, accustomed to not expressing my feelings. I have learned to pull a loaf of bread from the heart of poverty."
In the film’s final scene the band gets on Jaafar’s cart to shoot a music as Aya follows them with a camera, her aunt and Fady close behind. Ibrahim watches them from afar, standing by the dock and leaning on a boat. Next to him there is another boat turned upside down. The scene has a fantastical feel reminiscent of the final scene in Fellini’s 8 ½, where all the characters gather for a final parade. So too, Batout’s characters are gathered together in the end, not for a parade, but a melancholy walk.
Batout has just finished shooting his film starring Amr Waked, which revolves around three individuals. Two are romantically involved and the third is a state security officer. The events transpire from a young man’s confinement by state security until the January 25 uprising.
Several other projects are on Batout’s agenda, like ¼ gram, based on a novel by the same name about drug addiction. Batout will be facing the challenge of trying not to portray drugs in an enticing light while at the same time avoiding a tone of preachiness.
His approach for shooting the film will be slightly different since it has a script, unlike his previous works. Until now, his approach to filmmaking has been to tell the actors about the nature of the situation they’re in and the conversation they will be having before shooting a scene, leaving them to improvise.
Other projects in mind are Ali Meaza (Ali Goat) about a guy who believes that his dead girlfriend is reincarnated in a goat and 20 September, which will take place in Bosnia, Italy and Egypt in the years of 1992 and 2020. Batout has covered the war in Bosnia in the past.
Batout won the international relations ARTE prize for the script-in-progress of Ali Meaza at the last Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).