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Emerging Egyptian filmmaker talks about her path to directing

Filmmaker, scriptwriter and director Alia Ayman, winner of the Special Jury award at the Ismailia Film Festival for her short movie 'Catharsis: Self Portrait', talks to Ahram Online

Monica Elashy, Wednesday 19 Jun 2013
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Alia Ayman, a 22-year-old independent director, talked to Ahram Online about her journey to the director’s chair and the making of her two films Ravings and Catharsis: Self Portrait.

Catharsis: Self Portrait was screened at a few festivals: the ninth annual 'Rencontre de l'image', a festival organised by the French Institute in Cairo, where it won the Special Jury award; Cabriolet Festival in Beirut; Hal Badeel Festival in Cairo's Downtown; and the Ismailia Film Festival, held early this month, where it won the Jury Prize for Short Documentary.

She started filming the independent self-portrait film Catharsis in November 2012 with the help of her workshop professor at New York University (NYU) and her friends.

“I never thought I’d screen it anywhere. I never actually thought that anyone would relate to it,” Ayman tells Ahram Online.

She explained that Catharsis transformed her, and the person she is today is completely different to the person she was before the film.

Catharsis started off as a documentary about a restaurant, Mombar, in Queens, New York, owned by an Egyptian engineer. There was a conflict a week before the beginning of the project and the owner backed out. “I was then forced to write a fiction script,” Ayman explained. 

"The idea of Catharsis came to me as an epiphany. As the workshop was ending I had been referred by my professor to an assignment I did earlier in the course," Ayman explains. "It was a four minute silent film about an Arab writer that was confused about the language."

The professor urged her to create something similarly personal and authentic. “It had a lot of visions on culture, and the Middle East."

Ayman’s big inspiration during that period of preparation of the movie was the Lebanese director Simone Fattal and her 46-minute 1971 auto-biographical film which was screened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). That was when Ayman decided that she was going to make a movie about herself.

"The first footage of Catharsis was shot while I was at the hairdresser cutting my hair," Ayman said. From there she got the idea of turning the camera on to herself. From there she started exploring her identity crisis, a feeling shared by many others of a similar background, stuck between East and West.

In the bilingual film, Ayman brings into question her academic background in psychology and her Bachelor’s degree at the American University in Cairo, where she took a class that helped her discover the term "cultural imperialism" which then helped her understand the hybrid that she is.

Ayman told Ahram Online that to her a sense of purification expressed through the term Catharsis was equivalent to getting rid of piles and piles of dirt or the residues of years of conflict one carries within himself.

"This liberation of those accumulations is what has become my catharsis," Ayman continued.

The director also explained that it is easier to get to her audience using cinema as medium: “Cinema shows visually what might be perceived as boring when in written form. Cinema gives one more freedom to express. Not to mention that Egyptians don’t read anymore.”

Ayman's interest in cinema goes back to her senior year at university when she took a script-writing workshop headed by writer and actor Tamer Habib. After graduation she got a job at publishing company Dar El-Shorouk, which introduced her to the contemporary art scene. 

Ayman then took three photography classes and started playing around to produce sketches that eventually lead to her first movie Ravings.

The idea of Ravings came from the theory of building speed bumps and jumping over them. "The idea revolved around the pointlessness of the human quest," Ayman explains.

The director is reluctant to label herself part of the cinema industry.

“I only started mingling with the industry in Egypt at the Ismailia Film Festival and I’d say that the industry is very tricky. You can easily get fooled by the spotlight, praise, which leads you to forgetting the essence of why you’re making films,” she said.

Ayman is currently working on a short film about a musician. She is also still writing a script for a new feature film.

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