This week the London Guardian’s Charlie Phillips described the documentary Dreamaway by Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke as “a brilliantly bizarre look at the desolate Egyptian holiday resort” Sharm El-Sheikh.
“The political uncertainty of recent years have taken it off the package holiday map, but the staff of its sprawling hotels remain, albeit on reduced wages. Every day they go through the motions of their morning dance, preparing the massage tables, cleaning empty rooms, serenading the ballroom and DJing round the swimming pool. All to barely any guests.”
The Egyptian-German directorial team “go beyond simply observing the resort’s emptiness, and document the fantasies of a bored group of staff who spend their days dreaming of an alternative life. Omara and Domke seamlessly move from real life to magical realist semi-scripted sequences, in which their characters are urged by a monkey in a truck to dramatically reveal their feelings. Why their interrogator should be a monkey is never revealed, but it works perfectly.”
Selected for the documentary competition of the BFI London Film Festival (10-21 October), the film’s international premiere took place at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic, while the Middle East premiere took place at El Gouna Film Festival.
The staff are young Egyptians who — in the process of discovering how isolated and desperate their lives are, much like the life of the ghost town they inhabit — nonetheless uphold their far-fetched dreams. The challenging political and economic conditions after the Arab Spring and the aftermath of terrorist attacks on the city three years ago are not directly mentioned, but whether in the character’s behaviour or through intelligent use of music, they are hinted at throughout.
Though his feature-length debut, Dreamaway is not Omara’s first collaboration with Domke. Both visual artists as well as filmmakers, they previously made the medium-length Crop (2013), which also made the rounds of the festivals. “I’m more comfortable building a project with a partner from the start,” he explains.
“It’s not so much divvying up tasks as interacting and steering the boat to shore.” Domke’s presence is particularly apposite since the film “is about a city where Egyptians and Westerners meet, culturally speaking, and this is precisely the process Johanna and I use. We have a very interesting time discussing a given situation in the light of our respective backgrounds”.
A German-Egyptian coproduction, the film also brings together Russian producer Roman Roitman, co-founder of the Monokel production company in Germany, Egyptian producer Mark Lotfi, founder of the Fig Leaf Studios production company in Alexandria, German photographer Jakob Beurle, German editor Gesa Jäger and Egyptian editor Louly Seif.
“The journey of this film started in 2013 right after Crop,” Omara explains. “It took a long time to secure the big budget and find a producer. Lotfi joined the team after Roitman. I had worked with Lotfi on different projects, I believe he has the most professional executive team available for an indie film.” As the multinational team discussed the project the process, he says, became part of the vision.
Omara and Domke break the fourth wall, having the characters directly tell the viewers of their agony and desperation. They also walk a tightrope between documentary and fiction, with a combination of fantasy and realism reflecting a dreamy state of mind. This technique, Omara says, reflects the choice of Sharm El-Sheikh, where the only residents are either Egyptian tourism service employees or foreign tourists.
The two sides meet for a few weeks during which they are free to hide and fake aspects of their image. The city becomes a stage where acting and living can barely be told apart. Indeed it is not clear whether the characters are actors or real people. How much of Dreamaway is real?
Omara says 300 people responded to the film’s casting call. “Of course their stories were important but there was also their ambition to act. Their passion for appearing on screen was a factor in the selection process, as well as to what extent their stories serve the film.
The thin line separating reality from fiction is what these characters represent. That makes the question of whether it is fiction or documentary less relevant. But how to do we see the art of filmmaking the first place? We are experimenting and rediscovering our cinematic language, and Dreamaway is not the only example of this.” Omara cites Ahmed Abdallah’s Microphone (2010) and Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Poisonous Roses (2018) as examples of how documentary and fiction combine.
He says that, coming from a photography background, he is happy to join that club: “I am very inspired by the freedom and experimentation photography permits. In each of my three films I try to break the rules to develop a new cinematic language.” Though it deals with a specific place and time, Dreamaway is meant to be timeless and universal.
It was in this context, too, that Omara and Domke developed the device of the monkey in a man’s clothes, mentioned in The Guardian review. “We wanted to find a way to break the realistic strictures of the film,” Omara says. “That is where the monkey idea came from. It was developed until it became what it is in the film. It was a risk but during the editing phase we could see it helped make the film whole by connecting its various strands.”
Omara’s says securing the budget was a challenge, since it was significantly bigger than that of the average independent film in Egypt, “especially where the fictional parts are concerned”.
But the greatest challenge of all was the style itself: “It was not easy to make a film which is neither completely documentary nor completely fiction, especially as an aspiring director. Everyone keeps asking, Well, which is it? The funders, the censors authorities, even the assistant directors, some of whom will start giving you advice when they feel you’re doing it wrong!”
Omara could not be prouder of the end product, he says, which went to the Chicago, Leipzig and Bergen festivals as well as London and Karlovy Vary, but the El Gouna screening, he feels, was quite special. “El Gouna is the closest point to Sharm, and it’s tourist resort that looks very much like the settings.
I believe when people watch the film in such a place they will look around and reflect on it, finding a clear connection, which isn’t possible when the film is screened in a European city.” Still, he hopes the film will have wider screening opportunities in Egypt.
This article was first published on Al-Ahram Weekly.
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