Three Egyptian short fiction films that participated in the competition of the 44th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). Mama by Najy Ismail, My Girlfriend by Kawther Younis, and From the Work of the Devil by Dessil Mekhtigian each reflects a progressive vision in terms of one or more of these elements: subject matter, cinematic style, production journey.
In Mama, his second short, Ismail remains faithful to the thriller genre, to which his debut The Builders (2016) belongs. Each film begins with the statement that it is based on a true story. While The Builders is set in a small rooftop apartment shared by two builders who emigrated from Upper Egypt to Cairo, Mama is set in a modest middle-class home in Alexandria, inhabited by a 20-year-old girl and her little brother, who face an unfortunate fate after the death of their mother.
Ismail likes to raise sensitive and deep social issues indirectly in the course of mystery and suspense. In 18 minutes, the duration of The Builders, he tackles the miserable conditions suffered by the poor, toiling domestic migrants in the capital. But in Mama, the film raises the issue of legal guardianship, when it is in the hands of dishonest people. The main character in the film, a girl approaching the age of 21, finds herself forced to commit a horrific act after the death of her mother in order to protect herself and her little brother’s rights against her uncle.
Written by Najy, Mama which had its world premiere at CIFF stars May Elghety and Danial Sherif. Its producer, the emerging director-producer Kawthar Younis, whose own short film My Girlfriend won CIFF’s Special Jury Award, founded Two Stories, which together with Ismail’s Rahala and producer Mark Lotfy’s Fig Leaf produced Mama. But most of the funding came from VIU, the Hong Kong-based video streaming provider competing in the region. The editor of Mama, Sandro Kanaan, on the other hand, produced My Girlfriend by Younis, who in turn produced Kanaan’s 2016 debut The Other Cheek.
This is a good example of emerging collaborative forms on the independent film scene in Egypt, which is based on the exchange of roles and support, as well as benefiting from electronic platforms as partners in production.
In the director’s statement for My Girlfriend, the first Egyptian film to officially participate in the short film competition at the Venice International Film Festival, Younis says, “If you put yourself in my shoes, you’d probably take them off too. I belong in a society where couples are pushed to extreme measures to express their love for each other. My Girlfriend explores how gender constraints are shaping our perspective on our own identity. This film takes a close look at a couple driven by love but challenged by conventional gender norms by asking what if the tables were turned.”
In 2015 Younis’s debut A Present from the Past, her third-year project at the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema, was a hit, as it was a rare documentary feature by an undergraduate, and it was made wholly using a mobile phone camera with a few scenes benefiting from a glasses camera and a laptop camera. At that time, it was seen as very bold of Younis to defy the norm for the Institute’s students and produce a long and beautiful personal film about her relationship with her father, with equipment that was not traditional in film production at the time.
But in her second short fiction film My Girlfriend, after About Separation (2020), Younis crosses even further horizons of daring by addressing a thorny topic that deals with gender identity and gender restrictions in a direct, aesthetic, and perhaps shocking way. The film is about Ali, who is trapped between two genders in order to spend the night with his girlfriend. Younis does not rely on dialogue so much as she implicates the viewer through every shot and every frame, bringing them into the character’s shoes and all the feelings the character experiences, which are strange at times, uncomfortable at times, and exploratory at other times. The director does not push the viewer to judge the characters, but rather to coexist alongside them and adopt their position at the moment they experience the situation.
But nor does she pass over those moments when fixed gender identity turns out to be a lie, with each of us carrying within us a whole spectrum of genders. In one scene, the male friend who sneaks into his girlfriend’s house dressed as a girl sits alone in front of the mirror in her room fiddling with her make-up and trying it on his face, looking relaxed, curious and absorbed.
The 17-minute film stars Marc Haggar as Ali, Ilham Safei El Din as Sara, Fadel El Garhi as Sara’s father, and Sonia Farid as Sara’s mother. Produced by Sandro Canaan, it is edited by Khaled Marei who together with the emerging Sudanese director-producer Mohammed Alomda is also the coproducer of Buzz, a Sudanese short by Mohamed Fawy that premiered at CIFF.
Armenian-Egyptian director Dessil Mekhtigian’s debut From the Work of the Devil, on the other hand, is about a woman who returns from Paris to Cairo to organise an exhibition of the work of pioneer Armenian photographers – only to discover a deeper reason for her return after 10 years. A graduate of the Lycée Français du Caire, the Paris-based Mekhtigian was a costume designer before she enrolled in L’Ecole de la Cité de Cinéma.
From the Work of the Devil is different from many takes on the Armenian community, its history and unique contributions – Waheed Sobhi’s award-winning 2016 We Are Egyptian Armenians was the first fiction film on the topic – in that it is by an Armenian woman and is mostly in Armenian, with some French and a little Egyptian Arabic. It delves deep into the life of an Egyptian Armenian family, dealing with identity crisis, social relations, and generational conflict with unprecedented boldness and transparency.
Mekhtigian belongs to an Armenian-Egyptian family with a long history in art and design. As a main character in the film, she is able to draw on a huge archive of artwork that highlights a long-standing tradition which she sets out to uphold and extend. An actor-director, Mekhtigtian, connects past with present in an aesthetic narrative that matches the work of the artists whose legacy she tries to explore. Although her film is fictional, it is difficult for the viewer to tell it apart from documentary with so many real-life famous Armenian figures in it.
Another interesting production story in From the Work of the Devil is that it is produced by Medrar for Contemporary Art, founded by young artists about a decade ago, which had become a leading institution in the contemporary Egyptian art scene before joining the convoy of alternative film production entities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.