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INTERVIEW: Producer of award-winning film Nawara on post-revolution Egyptian cinema

Ahram Online talks to Safy El-Din Mahmoud, executive producer of the award-winning Egyptian film Nawara

Adham Youssef, Wednesday 27 Apr 2016
Nawara (Photo: still from the film)
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Views: 5125

Egyptian social drama Nawara, which was directed and scripted by Hala Khalil, has garnered several awards since its premiere and was released in Egyptian cinemas last month.

Produced by Red Star, a film production company headed by Safy El-Din Mahmoud, the film is set at the time of the 2011 revolution. It tells the story of a maid, the title character, who works for a wealthy family in a gated community in Cairo, and in doing so explores the failure of a certain kind of revolutionary romanticism.

The film and Menna Shalaby, who plays Nawara, have aleady garnered recognition at the Dubai International Film Festival and the Luxor African Film Festival.

Given that the film is Mahmoud's debut production, the awards and wide attention of audiences and critics alike suggest the young producer has a promising path ahead of him.

Mahmoud’s career started off in theatre, he told Ahram Online.

“I worked a lot with state-sponsored theatre, but I became fed up with wasting public money, an issue which provoked me very much,” he says.

“A lot of money, effort, and resources were spent, and then you end up with three or four people watching the show.”

Having also gained experience as an assistant director, Mahmoud says he does not believe that “art is not for sale."

"Art can be sold and bought, where people can profit.”

Mahmoud started his journey in cinema in 2000 as assistant director for Magdy Ali’s film Asrar El-Banat (Girls' Secrets).

“The job of the executive assistant director is more administrative than creative. It includes casting, schedules, scene preparation, and choice of actors,” he explains.

Nawara (Photo: still from the film)

Since then, Mahmoud has worked with Hala Khalil on Ahla El-Awqat (The Best of Times), and then with Marwan Hamed on three films: 2005's Yacoubian Building, Ibrahim El-Abyad in 2009, and El-Feel El-Azraq (The Blue Elephant) in 2014.

In Ibrahim El-Abyad, a love story staged in Cairo’s slums where violence rules, Mahmoud assisted in location settings, decoration, fight scenes, and the movement of extras.

About his shift to production, Mahmoud explained that “From my experience as an executive assistant director, the so-called ‘light movies’ don’t do any good or bad to the scene. I don’t believe in the saying that ‘The market needs this.'”

He adds: “The Egyptian market needs production. It needs well made movies. When young people go and watch a foreign film, they know they will get the value of the EGP 25 or EGP 30 ticket."

“Doing a good movie doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money," he argues. "It means that you should allocate and distribute your resources wisely.”

Mahmoud was given the script for Nawara in 2010.

By coincidence, creative producer Sabri El-Samak introduced Mahmoud to the script of Nawara, and “it is at the moment that I read the script I decided to produce it.”

Having at hand a script containing a humanitarian story with a focus on extreme poverty, a Nubian character, with around 40 percent of the scenes shot in slums, the production did not sound like an easy one. At the same time, Mahmoud hoped to create a purposeful and profitable film, and that only added to the challenge.

Nawara (Photo: still from the film)

“Market-wise, I secured big stars to do supporting roles. I shot complete scenes in the popular area of Al-Hataba, despite the many dangers myself and the crew faced,” Mahmoud says.

Starring alongside Shalaby are Mahmoud Hemeda, Sherine Reda and Amir Salah Eddi. The film, written and directed by veteran filmmaker Khalil, tackles the issue of social justice from the point of view of the impoverished classes.

“I couldn't get a shaabi singer and a belly dancer. I also couldn’t have a very optimistic ending; otherwise I would be faking it. The topic is handled in a very sensitive and passionate way,” he says.

Nawara was categorised by media and critics as a “post-revolution film” which openly takes the anti-authoritarian uprising as the starting point for its events.

When asked about a possible confrontation with censorship authorities, Mahmoud denied that the film had been subjected to any intervention.

“We had no problems with the authorities. The film is focused on an idea, and didn’t have a bias. There were no bad guys or a single accused entity. There is poverty and the absence of social justice. Why would anyone be against the right of the poor to live or to have a clean glass of water?” Mahmoud said.

The film raises questions, and viewers may or may not find in it an oppressor and the oppressed. To its credit, it avoids a simple good-versus-evil plot.

Nawara (Photo: still from the film)

Unlike films made after the 1952 Revolution, Sadat's 15 May “corrective revolution,” and the Infitah or "Open Door" period, Nawara focuses on the humanitarian and social issues that coexisted with the revolution rather than directly tackling what happened in Tahrir Square.

For example, Khalil made the shortage and abundance of water, and not direct melodrama, a sign of different elements in her films: poverty in slums, corruption and nepotism in public hospitals, and hedonistic pleasure in gated compounds in the outskirts of Cairo.

“There is no devil. There is the rich man who enjoys his pool, but whose maid is deprived of running water in her shared house. In the film there was no revolutionary and no reactionary,” Mahmoud explains.

“I am happy that these two were not included, as I believe that if people are to find a decent way of living where their humanity is not violated, the loud, sometime irritating revolutionary, and the opportunist reactionary who gives the poor hope in a better afterlife, because they lived in hell on earth, would cease to exist.”

Mahmoud went further, arguing that the film shouldn't be taken as part of the underground film scene. “It is a film for the market,” he clarifies.

“From now on, any story can include the revolution, with a variety of topics discussed. But that does not necessarily mean they are about the revolution.”

Mahmoud provides an example: “I can't, for instance, do a film about a police officer without going through how the revolution affected him psychologically.”

Nawara (Photo: still from the film)

Although the filmmaker claims to have shied away from direct political rhetoric in his work, he did not always manage to avoid politically infused messages.

For example, in one scene, the protagonist walks the streets of her popular slum while viewers can see graffiti reading “Down with Hosni Mubarak." Another scene shows a police officer assaulting Nawara.

“Off course, I am on the side of the revolution. So is Hala,” Mahmoud said, arguing that using the graffiti was to “document the daily life of the period that preceded the revolution. For sure, they were about Mubarak and not about El-Sisi, for example,” Mahmoud explains.

Mahmoud argues also that the assault scene, brilliantly acted by Abaas Abu El-Hassan playing a police officer, was not political. He rather sees the assault as a catalyst in the development of Nawara’s character from being defensive of the house owner where she serves to being critical of the whole system.

Nawara, produced five years after the 2011 uprising, shouldn’t be seen as a revolutionary pamphlet that is propagating class conflict between the proletariat, who lack the necessities of life, including water, and the bourgeoisie, who enjoy clean water in specially designed pools.

Rather, it should be seen as an attempt to pose question marks about an unstable and controversial epoch of Egyptian history.

Nawara (Photo: still from the film)

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