From Minya with love

Soha Hesham , Thursday 6 Jun 2024

Meeting the makers of the Egyptian documentary that won a major prize at the Cannes Festival.

A still from The Brink of Dreams
A still from The Brink of Dreams


A group of girls from the remote village of Al-Barsha in Minya, Upper Egypt, is the focus of the Egyptian documentary Rafaat Einy Lel Sama (The Brink of Dreams), which won the L’Oeil d’Or (Golden Eye) in the Critics’ Week at the 77th Cannes Festival. 

The documentary, directed by the married couple Nada Riyadh and Ayman El Amir, follows a female Coptic street theatre troupe named Panorama Barsha, who speak up about their predicaments and struggles, condemning underage marriage, domestic violence and patriarchy in a way that no one has ever done before.

The girls are bold, voicing what others shy away from right there on the streets of Al- Barsha, where Riyadh and El Amir trace their attempt to build a more equitable community, speaking to the girls’ parents and fiancés as well as the girls themselves. Ironically, as much as this was a chance for Panorama Barsha, it was even more of a chance for the filmmaking duo’s career to take off.

Riyadh explained how the journey started: “In 2017 we met these young women, during our work with a Cairo-based feminist institute that aimed at supporting women in the field of arts, especially in marginalised communities. During which we needed to travel to southern Egypt, for the nature of that work at the time. The first time we met them, it was during their street performance and we kept in touch. In 2018 they asked us to come and screen our documentaries as they were very curious about our work. The whole experience was exciting and we wanted to know more about them, then they basically asked us if we could film them.”

El Amir continues the story: “At first, we didn’t know anything about them, their real lives, but in time we started to know their families, their neighbours, and we started to explore their complexities, their dreams, their challenges, and the biggest challenge is that they have no theatre education background. These street performances they put on are spontaneous, based on their instincts and what they have to say. After the screening of our documentary, Happily Ever After, the girls saw that we were not just filmmakers but also protagonists of the film, so I think that was the turning point as they saw that cinema could be another tool to express themselves.”

Happily Ever After was Riyadh and El Amir’s debut documentary. It had its premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2016, and went on to be screened at more than 20 international film festivals. Their short fiction film Fakh (The Trap) was selected for the Semaine de la Critique at Cannes Film Festival and at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. 

El Amir comments on the nature of the performances: “They aim to push boundaries through their artistic performances, you might say they aim to create their own community. It is worth mentioning that in Egypt the cultural world revolves almost exclusively around Cairo and Alexandria. Anyone who wants to become an artist has to be based in one of those two cities. Majda, Heidi, and Monika represent a generation of young Egyptian artists who intend to create, act, sing, and dance, without necessarily leaving their village. They’re trying to create a community, but also to raise awareness. From this perspective, what they’re doing is in fact more about performance or happenings than actual theatre.”

Riyadh adds, “even though these girls have not been exposed to feminist thought as such, they can spontaneously express themselves. They express their own thoughts out loud and this is how the simple act of being together empowers and inspires them, giving them the strength to keep them going.” 

But do the girls aim to perform professionally one day? According to El Amir, “they don’t aim to perform at a major theatre in Cairo. When our project was still in development, a consultant told us their performances were chaotic, but that’s what makes them spontaneous and natural and they were never exposed to classical theatre performances. There comes a moment when you have the feeling that the challenge for them is not only making art but also survival. Their theatrical performances are actually a matter of survival.” 

Riyadh explains: “What they’re doing is very important, for example when they sing popular tunes that aren’t known outside their region. Their very existence is a miracle. In my view art has to have urgency, it has to be necessary.” 

“They’re Copts,” El Amir says. “Their church has a very rich tradition.” 

Riyadh adds, “the first time I saw them perform, I was in awe. Not only was the performance artistically good, it was also a brave and interactive show. I mean they used to discuss issues with their audience in the street. The controversy derives from the fact that they come from very traditional families, their mothers for example would want them to be housewives. But through their exposure to the aforementioned feminist organisation, they were also able to meet a lot of people, talk to them. But for me, the most important thing remains the community they’ve created for themselves. In the film, we can see that some families are more open-minded than others, like that of Majda and Haidi.” 

How did the two directors go about filming in the village? What obstacles did they face? “It took us four years to film,” El Amir says, “and prior to that there were two years of preparation. We were invited to the houses of the families. We discussed every detail. There was a bond of trust and respect between us and the families, and that made our work much easier later on. Our challenge was to film the smallest details that reveal the reality of the characters and to do so we needed to be invisible to the girls, which required the girls to be familiar with our presence. We’re a team of three or four people, which helped the characters to feel more comfortable in front of the camera. And fortunately, the team didn’t change much over the four years of filming.” 

He continues, “one of the things that happened over the years of filming is that the Panorama Barsha troupe grew smaller. It started out with around ten members. But over the years, some disappeared, whether because they couldn’t continue or were married or whatever the reason was. We could have filmed them up until the end of the shoot, but we wanted viewers to be able to feel their disappearance from the public eye. It’s an artistic choice.” 

As Riyadh says: “We can’t make up a happy ending. Those girls disappear, and that’s what the patriarchy does to women. It makes them disappear. For us, showing this is a moral issue that we chose.” 

El Amir adds: “For us, this village is a microcosm of Egyptian society. The film talks about that moment in life when we want to be ourselves, to discover our true identity while still belonging to our community. This internal struggle is unique to each of us and it’s the subject of the film.”

But isn’t four years a long time? “This film was written so many times,” El Amir says. “I mean we used to film and then edit and then rewrite some things during the process. The way I see it, documentary films have a very special nature. I mean, as opposed to the feature narrative, you start filming with a clear plan regarding the screenplay, but in the case of our documentary specifically, we know our characters and we know their world and their reality and the challenges they face, but we don’t know what will happen to them, so we used to revisit what we filmed previously and film again specific things and again edit and so on. The film was rewritten many times during the editing process too.” 

Riyadh commented on the same issue: “This genre of films requires faith, because after two years, the filmmaker is prone to doubt everything: the writing, the characters and everything, and this doubting comes from the question of whether people are going to interact well with it or not. Sometimes there is frustration.” 

Post production is always a complex journey in its own right, but for a documentary film, especially one that contains a coming of age story, it becomes even more important. El Amir explains, “Editing was a challenge on its own, as we started the editing process with over 400 hours of footage. We had four main characters and then our focus was down to three.” 

Riyadh continues, “we worked with two editors: an Egyptian and a French editor. The way we could distance ourselves from the enormous amount of material.”

As for the upcoming journey of the film and when it will be screened in Egypt, El Amir says, “The film will hopefully continue its journey through other film festivals and hopefully soon in Egypt. We’re specifically hoping it can be screened in Upper Egypt and hopefully we can hold discussion after the screening, to talk about the topics those young women are tackling in the film.” 

For Riyadh comments, “Upper Egypt is very rich with many arts and folk traditions like storytelling and folklore and their own heritage can be presented in hundreds of films just to make us realise how rich Upper Egypt is with its own heritage and its artistic forms.”

As for the award and how they feel about it, Riyadh comments: “Ayman and I didn’t expect the award at all, but honestly, these girls always dream big, and they dreamt till their film reached the Cannes Film Festival so maybe it’s not too much to ask or dream that the film will be screened in all Egyptian cinemas and to see how it will be received, we need to open up new paths. The first thing we thought about after receiving the official invitation from Cannes was that all the girls should be there to see the first screening, it’s their film too, they have a right to see themselves and their families on the big screen at the premiere of the film. In documentary films, the participation of every member of the team is very important. Of course everyone is doing their job but besides that they’re participating in everything else.” 

Riyadh and El Amir tried to explain why they make films together and how being a couple impacts their process. For El Amir, “this is not the first time we have worked together. We worked together on a long documentary where we were also the protagonists, so that was a bit complicated, and later on, we worked on films where Nada was the director and I was the producer, we played different roles, but we have a common ground and we have an understanding of the whole process and how it works. In spite of all that of course there are still times when there is a difference in views and we have long conversations.”

In that context, El Amir spoke about the difference between fiction and documentary: “For me, documentary films offer the space to make discoveries and experiment, they give you the opportunity for self discovery and finding out about your relationship with the world around you, so I think if I wanted to make a documentary film again I would repeat the experience to co-direct with Nada. In the case of a feature narrative that might not be the case, but in documentary we will be doing this together. It’s also the case that for me the documentary genre is different from before. Nowadays documentary offers a space for acting and the feature narrative offers a space for documentary filmmaking. For example, at the Cannes Film Festival they do not differentiate between the two genres. Our film was competing with feature narrative films in the same contest.” 

As for Riyadh, “If I made this film alone, the outcome would be different, and if Ayman did it alone it would be different again. That’s why it needed both of us together, in addition to our similar views and values in cinema it is inspiring to communicate and develop our visions and see how this could evolve in the field of cinema. We are keen that every aspect in the project should represent the two of us somehow.” 

Finally, there comes the question of film’s title. El Amir said, “it had a different title to start with, but then we spent a lot of time thinking what the title of the film might be and we started to brainstorm with the girls, till we reached an idea that revolves around the main theme: dreams and hope. One girl suggested that in our culture whenever you are hoping for something, you look at the sky and say your wishes and dreams or prayer, so eventually that became the title of the film.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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