Tamer Eissa: Capturing the magic of folk arts

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 13 Aug 2015

As his documentary on Sira guru Said El-Daw is about to be featured, Ahram Online interviewed the man behind the camera

Tamer eissa
Courtesy of Tamer Eissa

For the young director who grew up in Suez, studying in Cairo was the beginning of his journey. At the age of 17, as a student at the faculty of mass communication at Cairo University, his folk passion showed its first signs when he was directing his first college project in Al-Hussein district, during the holy month of Ramadan. This was where stumbled upon the pillar of Sufi chants, Yassin El-Tohamy in 2001

“I was taken,” Eissa remembers. “The next day, I taped him without even quite understanding what I was filming and followed his concerts wherever he went,” he added.

From 2000 to 2005, Eissa studied percussion and film making with a special interest in documentaries. He also founded the Sakkia annual film festival that is celebrating it's 11th round this year. Being part of the independent cultural scene, he took part in numerous indie-films out of which the internationally accredited film Microphone emerged, directed by Ahmed Abdalla; where Eissa was an assistant director and musician.

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Director Tamer Eissa with Sira Guru Said El-Dawi at Story teller's festival in Sharja 2014; during which a short version of Eissa's documentary Agyal was featured. The festival also honored El-Dawi along with Sufi Chanter Ahmed El-Touni

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Director Tamer Eissa in the closing ceremony of Sakkia's Second annual film festival for Documentary films 2006

But the real turning point started after documenting the 18 days of the 25th of January revolution in 2011.

“We were shooting a series on the night of 25 January and my friends were there and they had nothing to do with politics and then I reached home to find that all the streets were blocked. I ran, found my friends and lots of the injured were lead to my apartment and from that day I got out the camera to document. Up until now I still do not understand,” Eissa laughed.

“From that point onwards, realising the major contrast between what I saw in real life during the first 18 days and what I was part of in commercial cinema, I realised that this is not my call. Eissa sold his car, bought equipment and created Port Tawifk Independent Company for Film, Television and Music Production in 2011.

Renowned director Hassan El-Geretly became his partner in 2013. Since then, Eissa has documented folk art and various folk troupes including Nubian heritage, The Nile Project, Zar Music and The Sira Guru Said El-Dawi.

What’s unique about these documentaries is the artistic approach and the keen interest in the artist’s featured who are as genuine as their art. Zar music is itself a piece of social history that is slowly fading away. The ritual itself, affiliated with purging oneself from jinn and darker supernatural sources, is more of a community venting ritual for women. There are several types of Zar and each has its own music and origins. Currently, Zar music is only played in Makan- the Egyptian Centre for Arts and Culture in downtown.

“Despite being professionals, they see themselves as workers, and see their music as their job," Eissa recalled to Ahram Online, from what he heard from Zar artists themselves.

“When Om Sameh was playing her duff next to famous jazz musicians, she was far more superior and talented,” Eissa exclaimed.

Though what made Eissa concerned is the fact that most of them do not want to pass their art on to their children, fearing that they might live the same hard and unappreciated life. However, there are others who want to hand down the legacy to their children, but who are not necessarily ready to follow in their parents footsteps. But the problem is that it seems like a challenge most folk artists are facing and not in Egypt alone.

"I realised that all folk art suffers from the same negligence, Gamal the drummer at ElWarsha troupe and Kassiva, the Kenyan artist shared the same concerns regarding preserving their heritage."

"After Zar, I worked on documenting El-Delta gypsies and then I met Hassan El Geretly, founder of El-Warsha Troupe for folk arts. He wanted to make a film on Said El Dawi, the Sira guru.  And so we wanted to make a 30 minute documentary profiling Said El Dawi. I wanted time to study – for five days I attended the workshop. We taped and I understood nothing. I failed to connect. I followed him to Sohag (Upper Egypt) to recite Sira. And I found him a different man. He was in his own skin- he hates Cairo. And sitting with El Afandiya (Modern people), I saw him from a whole new perspective. He memorizes 5 million verses, and has real richness is his life experiences. He became part of the Sira he is reciting," he added.  And the Agyal (Generations) documentary was created to capture the magic of the folk epics and the people who recite them. 

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Director Tamer Eissa among Microphone, independent film crew

Despite all the modern dramatic techniques in theatre and film, storytelling remains an enchanting rich art in its own right. Bewildered by the power of preserving our stories, Eissa founded a cinema school project that allowed Upper Egyptian high-school teenagers to tape their own stories.

"I wanted the children to film the stories from their main source, their parents, and the output was so genuine that it brought tears to our eyes," Eissa said.

He remembered how a film about a girl's young cousin and her struggle to marry the one that she loved reflected more on the young teen who taped it and her own fears.

"The moment the uncle knocks on the door, they would automatically turn the camera off because they were shooting behind his back," he added.

Eissa with one of his talented young students

Another boy from Aswan conducted an interview with his grandma that brought them to tears.

"It was about the stories of immigrants of old Nubia," Eissa recalled. Now the project sustains itself, because Eissa gave the students the camera and now they share it in rotation.

"I've learnt a lot from this project, and documenting stories is genuine and truly magical," he added.

Asked about how he perceives the future of folk art, Eissa believes that someone outside the folk realm would discover the artistic legacy and revive it or perhaps infuse it with other modern music. The fact is that the audience themselves are the true preservers of such a legacy, so if they remember and demand its presence, it will never die.

"I remember when El-Dawi skipped part of the Sira and started a new story at an 8 hour long wedding performance in Sohag. The 200 in the audience were so attentive that they noticed the shift, and hence roared and asked him to continue on with the first story," he concluded.




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