Yesterday a documentary film, Stories of Faggala, was featured at the opening of the American University in Cairo’s documentary festival, being held from Sunday 20 March until Saturday 26 March.
Stories of El-Faggala is a 40-minutes long, debut documentary film by Mohammed Abdelbary, who studies filmmaking at the American University in Cairo. This documentary is a part of El-Faggala tahki wa Toghani (El-Faggala sings and tells her stories) and is phase two of the project, El-Faggala Menawara Be Ahlaha (El-Faggala honoured by its people), which was created by the El-Nahda NGO in 2009.
The goal is to establish a trusted connection between the indigenous community of the El-Faggala neighbourhood, and professionals working in the artistic and cultural arena. The project aims to document and revive the memories of the neighbourhood, through various artistic areas.
The film opens to a distorted scene with the camera unsure where to focus. A voice-over says “Where? I can’t see”. Then the camera zooms in on an inscription hidden away on one of the corners of the old building, reading 1917.
This ethnographic film unveils the stories of the ancient district, layer by layer. It starts with a peek at the daily rituals of three young residents of El-Faggala. Between numerous utilities shops and the washed-out streets of what appears to be a popular district of Cairo, they laugh away the hours in local coffee shops and on street corners.
The camera then strolls through the heart of the district and unfolds yet another layer of rich social history behind the big windows. El-Faggala is located in the heart of Cairo off Ramses Street, and was first built in the mid-19th century during the reign of Khedive Ismail.
Known for its publishing houses and bookstores, it has gradually become one of the main cultural hubs in town. One of the gateways to modern Egypt, the district was the residence of the upper middle-class in Egypt, as well as the home of numerous artists, such as renowned singer Farid El Attrash and famous poet Khalil Mutran.
In the early twentieth century it became a popular area for the cinema industry, as it held one of the most famous privately-owned studios in Egypt, Studio Nasibian.
One of the older residents of the neighbourhood recalls how he was an extra in one of the movies shot there. “I remember running up a fake staircase which ruined the whole setting of the scene,” he laughs. Now the El-Nahda NGO is based in the premises of the old studio, with lots of artistic workshops held there to encourage the indigenous artists of the neighbourhood.
The camera then delves into the personal photographs of Madame Suzy. The old photos show her holding her first- born against a background of one of the oldest churches in the neighbourhood.
“There was no differences between Copts and Muslims, we were all neighbours,” she reminiscences.
“This is my Armenian neighbour, who has lived here all his life and refuses to leave” are among the comments that emphasise the great sense of nostalgia this film evokes in the most subtle of manners.
Finally the film ends on a melancholic tone as it shows the martyr of the 25 January revolution, Ahmed Bassiouny, along with artist Mohammed Abla, painting graffiti with the neighbourhood children, as part of their street atelier initiative in El-Faggala. A dedication to the martyr brings the film to a close.
“It took me three months to get to know the people,” explained Abdelbary and said it was important for him to blend in so that he could get a real taste of the neighbourhood. And indeed he has.
Throughout the film, one is taken with the simplicity and authenticity of the district, which the film succeeds in showcasing without getting lost in details. The story-line sails smoothly across the backdrop of the ancient district, which has witnessed the ups and downs of the city for many decades.
This film encourages people to re-evaluate their social heritage, restore their architectural gems and most importantly, revive their old customs of tolerance, diversity and much love and respect.
A neighbourhood we all would love to live in.