INTERVIEW: Egyptian filmmaker Kawthar Younis explores human relationships in debut documentary

Nahed Nasr, Tuesday 6 Dec 2016

The documentary film is currently screening at Zaywa cinema in Cairo

A Present From the Past
(Photo: still from 'A Present From the Past')

A Present from the Past, the first feature-length documentary by young Egyptian filmmaker Kawthar Younis, is currently being screened at Zawya, Cairo's art-house cinema.

The protagonist of the film is Younis’ father, who receives a present from his daughter to travel to Italy in search of his former love.

The filmmaker shot her film on hidden cameras which her father was not aware of, including her mobile phone.

The documentary is Younis’s graduation project from the High Institute of Cinema in Cairo, and was screened at the Cairo International Film Festival last month.

Kawthar Younis talked to Ahram Online about her experience creating her film.

Ahram Online (AO): How did you develop the script of your film and how sure were you everything would work out the way you planned?

Kawthar Younis (KY): It was a risk on many levels. I had this clear idea but during the preparatory level, I did not know if and how I would be able to collect the money to buy the mobile phone and the laptop to do the film.

Also I had to find money to buy two tickets to Italy for me and my father to make the journey that the film is based on.

After that there were so many questions: will my father accept my present? Will my mother accept that her husband embarks on a journey to search for his former love in Italy?

And pragmatically speaking, will he get the visa? Will we find Patricia?

All this led to even bigger worries such as: will I have a film and will it be ever screened?

So with all those questions at each stage of the making of the film there was a lot of pressure. It was an adventure that I was not sure it would have a happy ending. But I kept recording everything with my mobile camera and here we are.

AO: So are all the scenes shot with your hidden cameras?

KY: Mostly yes, except the scenes when we shot some scenes in Italy since it was normal that I carry a handy cam and shoot us two tourists. Some of the scenes in Italy were even shot by my father. I used my mobile camera as well as Pivothead Video Glasses and a MacBook Pro camera.

Also, it was a very personal story. I didn’t think about creating a beautiful picture, but rather to capture the feelings of my father. Anyone can make a beautiful picture if he studies the rules of how to make a good composition. I wanted to film the emotion.

A Present From the Past
(Photo: still from 'A Present From the Past')

AO: Some scenes must have been very difficult to shoot without showing your father that you were recording. For example, the scene where you drive a car and your father is beside you. How did you deal with such challenges?

KY: During the journey of shooting this film I learned a lot about how to position my camera while driving, walking at home, moving from room to room after my father. It was an interesting experience.

AO: When did your father know that you were making a film?

KY: After it was already finished, one day before the graduation jury met at the High Institute of Cinema to see my graduation project. I was not sure if he would accept that it be screened but in the end he did.

I am also glad he didn’t know anything during the shooting or editing. If I told my father I was filming him he would become very formal as if he were in the classroom or on a TV programme. With my hidden mobile camera I was able to present him the way he really is.

AO: Since there was no script and no traditional planning involved, how did you deal with this unexpected material and did it create problems in the editing process?

KY: It was a tough mission. When you shoot with a hidden camera you cannot control the material.

The editing phase was the most difficult phase in the whole project. Between July to October, I shot 350 hours of footage and it took one year and six editors to finish the editing.

When you have 350 hours of your personal life material and you are not a famous director, it is difficult for one editor to bear the burden. Maybe if I had one editor, the result would have been different.

The last editor in the editing mission was Heba Othman. She was very helpful and her ideas were very important and made the film the way it is now.

A Present From the Past
(Photo: still from 'A Present From the Past')

AO: Besides the relationship between a daughter and a father that you capture in the film, it is also an ode to the unfulfilled dream of a man who is to meet his old love. What if the dream was in the mind of a woman not a man?

KY: Everyone had that question in mind when they saw the film. I think it would be very difficult if the situation was about my mother and not my father. The big challenge would then be my father himself--I mean the man.

At the end of the day, we live in what is an Eastern society where even if men show how accepting they are towards issues, when directly faced with specific situations, we find that they are not what we thought.

AO: Did you have moments of doubt in the whole project?

KY: I had my moments, especially during the editing phase, and at some point I wanted to give it up. But with a lot of assistance, I managed to overcome those feelings.

Today, this film means a lot to me. It is not merely about searching for Patricia. It is about the relationship between a 20-year-old daughter and her 75-year-old father.

To find Patricia or not, to go to Italy or not was not the main factor; our relationship was. Those tiny details between me and my father added light and a warm spirit to the film.

AO: Did you expect this positive feedback?

KY: The first time this film was screened during the graduation at the Academy, I received wonderful feedback from the jury. The same happened when the film was screened during the Cairo International Film Festival.

Then Zawya decided to screen the film and to be in charge of the distribution.

I am very happy also with the audience feedback, whether in Egypt or in foreign festivals: the Arab Film Festival in Berlin, the Brussels Mediterranean Film Festival.

I hope that after Zawya other cinemas will consider screening it.

AO: Speaking of your studies at the High Institute of Cinema, how did you find the years spent there? How beneficial were they for making of this film?

KY: At the High Institute of Cinema you study all the basics and the rules, and then everyone can use this knowledge in their own way. This is when it is different with everyone.

A Present From the Past
(Photo: still from 'A Present From the Past')

To me, the academy, my family, my father, my life and watching movies, all of those factors formed my conscious and my experience.

And on the other side, my film is like a statement, in terms of breaking all the rules and techniques that we studied in the institute. I believe that the bottom line is that you have to make your film, regardless how limited the resources are or what obstacles you encounter on your way.

AO: Did the fact that your father is a professor at the film institute play a role in your choice of this career?

KY: I believe we make films to reach a physiological balance. It is therapeutic in a sense.

I am not a filmmaker because of my father. I have loved cinema since I was young, and I knew this is what I wanted to do since I was a high school student.

Human relationships are my favorite theme and I hope I will always be able to do the films I love and not that I have to do.

AO: Do you think it is difficult for a female filmmaker to proceed with this career in Egypt?

KY: I believe it is more challenging for a female filmmaker in our society, especially when she is a director. In our culture, men are not very comfortable when it comes to taking instructions from a woman. I am saying that out of my experience as a female assistant director to a male director.

I do not know if there are the same challenges in terms of film production. I might discover that in my next film.

AO: You have a next film in mind already?

KY: Yes, and it is a feature film about a real experience. It is about my relationship with very close foreign friend of mine who had to leave Egypt. While the film looks at the last five hours of my friend before she leaves Egypt, beneath that I touch on topics such as motherhood, friendship, me, her, her husband.

AO: How will you finance it?

KY: I will launch a crowd-funding campaign. Also Upfuse, a campaign that sells recycled products for the sake of the environment, will support me.

A Present From the Past
(Photo: still from 'A Present From the Past')


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