Egyptian director Ayten Amin presented her first full-length film to the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Tuesday, winning the special jury award for a film from the Arab world.
Having worked as an assistant director with established and younger directors associated with ‘quality’ cinema – that might or not generate big revenues – Amin has made her first film which also promises to be of high quality.
Starring Khaled Abul-Naggah and Lebleba, Villa 69 is the “simple story of family relations and people's daily lives – their feelings, their fears and their preoccupations,” Amin says.
“It is not designed to have a deep message about the current political scene or anything of the sort. It is just the story of a man in his 50s who is lonely before his sister breaks through the walls of his solitude while her house is being renovated. We get to see the interaction of family members,” Amin states.
"Quality cinema can be commercial, the kind of cinema that makes money and is pleasant to watch,” Amin says. "It is about a good idea that is well written and is nicely produced with good casting, lighting, sound and of course good acting," she adds.
The black and white films of Fatine Abdel-Wahab from the 1960s, including Mirati Moudir Aam (My Wife is the Director-General) are still very popular and are considered by Amin to be “a very good example of what makes quality commercial cinema; it is simple but well-made.”
Amin also likes Dawoud Abdel-Sayed’s Kit-Kat which she says is “an exceptional mix” of a successful commercial film with very good production values.
Amin has been following the debate over recent films whose poor quality and lack of taste has prompted much public disquiet. “The problem with these films is not that they are commercial, it is that they are bad films where the voice is bad, the lighting is bad, the acting is bad and so on.”
Villa 69 is certainly not a commercial film. It is can be described as ‘independent cinema’, the category of films produced on a limited budget away from large production companies whose names have often been associated with films of questionable quality.
During the last ten years some of the best films have been made independently. “This is not to say that the all good films are produced within this category, but it is a space where artists tend to work with fewer restrictions. And we should also remember that some very good films have come within the commercial scope,” Amin argues.
Amin first appeared at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2007 with a short film based on a short story by Ahdaf Souief called Her Man.
Villa 69 was Amin’s idea but was turned into a script by two new writers and it should be showing in Cairo this winter.
Amin is hopeful but not very confident about the reaction the film will receive. “It is certainly a different experience from my previous work with short films or documentaries that are usually shown at cinema clubs and cultural centers,” she says.
In her documentaries and short films, including the work she did on the January 25 uprising, Amin has always manifested a deep fascination with human relationships. It is a fascination that is beautifully displayed in her first long film, according to those who have seen its final cut.
"Villa 69 is about the everyday lives of people and this is why I think it might relate to many people – each in a different way,” Amin says.
Amin links her passion for exploring the complexities of human relations with her love of literature – something that her studies at the faculty of commerce and her early career as a banker did not prepare her for.
Amin says there must be more coherent support for the cinema industry in Egypt.
“There is a big audience for cinema but those who want to see good films can't afford to buy tickets. There is much potential among filmmakers but they don’t necessarily have the means to make the films they want because there is a lack of support for the cinema industry,” Amin says.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Ziyad Baheddine headed a ministerial committee on the ailing cinema industry with an eye on restoring it to its golden age of the 1950s and 1960s.
Amin is hoping to see Egyptian cinema regain its lost glory. She thinks it is possible but it will require commitment from all sides.
“Let us face it, the decline in Egyptian cinema, despite there occasionally being some good movies, is part of an overall decline that has hit society. We have to improve our cinema but that cannot be divorced from a larger effort to lift the bar for everything. There was a time when things [in Egypt] were made to a high standard but now things are mediocre – the cinema industry is no exception this,” Amin states.