Paradisial shorts

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 16 May 2023

Nahed Nasr spoke to filmmaker Morad Mostafa, whose film is premiering this week at the Cannes Festival

The Call for the Brook
The Call for the Brook


Two shorts by Egyptian filmmakers were officially selected at the 76th Cannes Film Festival (16-27 May): The Call for the Brook by Jad Chahine in the LA CINEF official competition for film schools, and I Promise You Paradise by Morad Mostafa in the Critics Week. This is in addition to Morad Mostafa’s debut feature film project Aisha Can’t Fly away anymore being selected for development in Cinéfondation, the residency programme of Cannes Film Festival.

I Promise You Paradise, Morad Mostafa’s fourth short, takes place following a violent incident: Eissa, a 17-year-old African migrant in Egypt, is in a race against time to save his loved one. Morad Mostafa says that through I Promise You Paradise, he continues to tell the story he started in his short Ward’s Henna Party (2020), which culminates in Aisha Can’t Fly away anymore, selected to be developed in the Cinefondation residency. Mostafa is confident about his choices:

“What meant a lot to me from the beginning was my narrative. I chose to delve into a different narrative, perhaps uncharted in Egyptian cinema. It is rare in our films to take care of the way the other appears in our films, although they have always been an essential component of Egyptian society. This was my main concern and drive, especially since I belong to an environment that includes this other as an element inseparable from my daily life. The other for me is a part of my life, a part of my community that cannot be ignored. My films are not political in this sense, but rather human films about my society. And this is the vision that I am faithful to in my short films, as well as in my feature film project, and for the future.”

According to Mostafa, I Promise You Paradise deals with a community that is nonetheless familiar. “I actually belong in the same world as my characters, being from the neighbourhood of Ain Shams, and the same applies to Sawsan Youssef, my co-writer and producer. In fact, we are talking about ourselves and our childhood, and the neighbourhood in which I lived until adolescence and in which Sawsan still lives, with all its human components.” That is why, according to Mostafa, the stories in his films are intertwined, blurring the boundaries separating the life of an Egyptian from that of a non-Egyptian living in Egypt. Mostafa points out that his concern as a filmmaker, starting with Ward’s Henna Party, is how to weave a new story with a new vision, about the reality he himself experienced, and about Egyptian society as a whole.

“This is nothing new to me, it is a story I’ve told and will continue to tell.” Nevertheless, I Promise You Paradise is a very precise and realistic journey into the world of its characters, who belong to the African immigrant community in Cairo. Mostafa says that, in addition to his personal experience of this world surrounding him since his childhood, he developed the script through direct interaction with the actors who belong to the same community in Egypt, and are acting for the first time. “Through long discussions with the actors, I grew familiar with the intimate details of their world. They would take me to their homes and the places they are used to, so I found out more through direct contact with them.”

Mostafa says that since the actors in his film are not professional actors, their style of telling their stories and the details of their daily lives is fluid, honest, and in many cases closer to reality than what was written in the script. “The script is not only the original story that we wrote, my memories and my life in Ain Shams, but also the intertwining of the different fragments of the actors’ stories and the details of their world as they occupy it. This is what made the script to be more lively and intimate.”

Despite its realistic details, cinematographer Mustafa Al-Kashef’s style gives the film a unique, magical atmosphere. Mostafa says his films tend to be more abstract than clear. “The film does not focus on which group its protagonists belong to, nor their nationality, nor whether it answers the question of where and when. We do not even know the names of the characters, with the exception of Issa, whose name we only know through the title of the film.”

The focus rather is the emotional arc of the characters, without the viewer being distracted by details of nationality, place or time. This does not make the film any less about Egyptian society. “The viewer will realise that the events take place in Egypt, and that the female protagonist is an Egyptian girl of 16. As if Egyptian society is represented by this girl and her romantic relationship with the boy.” Mostafa maintains the slow pace that characterises all of his films, but despite the harshness of the events and places, an aesthetic of the image lends it a unique beauty.

Mostafa says this film is a love story, but his three previous films, Ward’s Henna Party (2020), Khadiga (2021), and What We Don’t Know About Maryam (2021) are a trilogy about three mothers who go through harsh conditions to which they respond even more harshly. In I Promise You Paradise 2023, cruelty and violence are presented in silence, not in the movement of the camera nor the image. The love affair is depicted in an artistic, romantic, and aesthetic way, rather than being sharp and violent. The lighting is also used with great sensitivity to highlight that emotional arc. Mostafa says that in his previous three films, a major event usually takes place in the middle, representing a turning point that calls for a violent movement of the camera. As for his latest, the major and influential event takes place before the film actually begins, and therefore the tension here is seen in the silence. Not only are the dialogues intense, but the camera movement is monotonous. The rough movement of the camera, according to the director, does not suit the tendency towards abstraction in this film, as the tension stems from the style of narration more than the movement of the camera.

Mostafa says he did not find it difficult to secure the budget for I Promise You Paradise, as producers, both Egyptian and foreign, were immediately eager to lend a hand despite the fact that the film’s budget exceeds the sum of the budgets of the previous three films. However, the real challenge was actually making the film, which belongs to the road movie genre. “The film was shot in several places, and despite the availability of the budget, we had to reduce the shooting days to three days instead of five. That was the challenge.”

Born in Cairo in 1988, Morad Mostafa made a name for himself over the last four years, starting with Ward’s Henna Party 2020 premiering at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Remarkably, his two subsequent films saw their world premieres at the same prestigious international film festival. His three films won several awards, and participated in more than 300 international, Arab and Egyptian film festivals.

Mostafa directed, wrote or co-wrote all of his short films, including his most recent. Although he did not study filmmaking in an academic institution, he practised filmmaking through working as an assistant director and executive director for many years, in addition to being an alumni of the Berlinale Talents Campus and the Locarno Academy.  

His short film and his debut feature being selected at Cannes is a milestone in his career as a filmmaker, he says, not only because of the exceptional importance of the festival itself, but also because the festival has always been associated in the conscience of Egyptian and Arab filmmakers with the late iconic director Youssef Chahine. “Youssef Chahine was here! Oh my God!” Mostafa says with a lot of aspiration to the future.

Producing four films and developing a feature film project in four years also represents Mostafa’s vision for what the pace of a filmmaker should be. “When a film project takes years to work on, the director loses passion, and that’s risky.” Following in the footsteps of the late, prominent Egyptian director Atef El Tayeb (1947-1995), he says, “I usually work on several projects at once, and whenever one is ready to shoot, I do it right away.”

A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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