Villa 69: Life, intimacy and death captured by first-time director Ayten Amin

Menna Taher, Saturday 7 Dec 2013

Director Ayten Amin's highly anticipated first feature film, Villa 69, was met with acclaim from Egyptian audiences at the Panorama of the European Film in Cairo on Wednesday; the film will hit Egyptian cinemas on 25 December

Villa 69
Still from Villa 69

The audience gathered at the Galaxy Theatre was eager to watch new filmmaker Ayten Amin's highly anticipated first feature film, Villa 69, a highlight of the European Film Panorama festival taking place throughout Cairo last week.

Tickets were sold out early on Wednesday, 4 December, so another screening hall was opened to accommodate the influx of interested viewers.

The hype was not unwarranted. Villa 69 is intense and dramatic, yet light and humorous, depicting complex, believable and interesting characters.

One clear reason behind the film's success, apart from the obvious talent of the actors and director, is the passion the cast and crew reveal for Villa 69. In the Q & A session following the film's screening at the Panorama, passion radiated from the cast and crew members as they talked about the film.

The film's producer, Mohamed Hefzi, and actor and co-producer Khaled Abu El Naga both expressed long-held interest in the film and admitted how happy they were when approached by Amin.

The film, Amin said, all started with one idea: a dying man staying at home. "I wanted the whole film to take place within the house and I wanted it to be light," she explained. "I watched the short film Atef by Mohamed El-Hajj, and I knew immediately that I wanted him to write the film script for me."

The script-in-progress, co-written by Amin and El-Hajj, won the Cairo Film Connection Award, the Cairo International Film Festival 2010, and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival Sanad Grant. At a later stage, Mahmoud Ezzat joined the script writing process.

Prior to the screening of Villa 69 at the European Panorama on Wednesday, a short film in memory of the recently deceased Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm was screened. The short film was made to introduce the poet at the Dutch Prince Claus Award for Culture and Development ceremony, where Negm received an award.

Villa 69, formerly called "69 Mesaha Sqaure," is nostalgic film infused with a youthful spirit. Within the confines of a beautiful, dusty villa in a quiet neighbourhood, the viewer feels transported to an older version of Cairo or one that is hidden in the cracks of bustling contemporary Cairo.

Hussein, played by Khaled Abou El-Naga, decides to confine himself to his house after becoming ill. He is an old soul, locked in an earlier time that he does not want to return from. As a result, Hussein refuses to use cell phones and other modern technology. In one beautiful scene, the camera pans across the rooms of the vacant house as the antique landline telephones ring.

At first, Amin wanted Hussein to be played by an actor the same age as his character, but after a number of fruitless searches, the younger actor Abou El-Naga was approached.  

"When I met Ayten I told her one sentence relating to the character's inner psychology. After that it was settled," Abou El-Naga said. "I think getting the inner state of the character is much more important than the make-up."

 "The script really affected me," he continued. "It reminded me of something I forgot, caught up in my own everyday problems."

Apart from Lebleba (Ninochka Manoug Kupelian), Abou El-Naga, and Arwa Gouda, all of the cast members are relatively new to the acting scene; some had never acted professionally before and others had experience with short films. Despite their inexperience, all actors embraced their roles beautifully.

"When I look for someone to play a part I look for someone that inspires me," Amin said, "someone that could add to the character."

It is these vivid characters that make Villa 69 so unique. The intricate details of dialogue, costume and acting reveal the characters' lives without further explanation. In current Egyptian cinema, such believable, natural characters are almost obsolete.

Veteran filmmaker Mohamed Khan, whose films always depict meticulously complex and engaging, commended Villa 69 during the Q & A. "I am a little bit jealous," he said jokingly, "but some jealousy is always healthy."

The film will be screened in Egyptian cinemas beginning December 25.

Saturday 7 December, 6.30pm at Plaza Cinema, Americana Plaza Mall, Sheikh Zayed

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