Paris' Ateliers Varan brings hands-on documentary workshop to Cairo's Cimatheque

Soha Elsirgany, Sunday 16 Aug 2015

Cimatheque and Ateliers Varan teamed up for a three-week documentary workshop, recently concluding with a screening of eight films

38 Kilograms/Cimtheque
Screening of 38 Kilograms, a film by Usama Ghanoum, at Cimatheque (photo: Soha Elsirgany)

In a workshop organised by Cimatheque, Ateliers Varan’s documentary makers David Tretiakoff and Jean Noel Cristiani mentored eight amateur filmmakers to produce individual short films.

Cimatheque is a platform for alternative cinema, catering to both filmmakers and film enthusiasts. After inaugurating with their programme Revisiting Memory, this is Cimatheque's first major workshop, collaborating with the French group Ateliers Varan.

Based in Paris, Ateliers Varan is an association of filmmakers that runs documentary making courses in France and workshops around the world. Since its founding in 1981 by Jean Rouch, they have held their workshops in over 20 countries.

Cristiani and Tretiakoff were in Egypt in 2011 and again in 2012.

“We’ve been wanting to come back, because we felt there was a demand in the field of documentary in this country,” Tretiakoff told Ahram Online.

With a hands-on teaching approach, the workshops are typically held over the course of seven weeks. However, this round in Egypt ran on a tight budget for only three weeks.

Joining the workshop required no prior technical knowledge of filmmaking, and as such the participants varied in skills and experience, with some having previous experience with film, and others freshly introduced to it.

“Of course, they must have very basic technique, but our focus was not on the technical aspect as much as story and content development,” Cristiani says.

Though technically the results all seemed like studies or suggestions for films yet to be made, many of them displayed originality and freshness in their choice of subject.


“Usually participants would have lot of time to practice before working on their projects, but this time they had to shoot their films right away,” Cristiani says.

“We would film every day, and meet the next day in the workshop to work on the material and discuss it with the participants personally and with the group. The first three times of shooting we just went out and made mistakes,” Dina Hany, one of the participants, told Ahram Online.

Cristiani points to the values that this method incorporated: “We showed them films of different styles, and also by sharing their work in the group, they could learn from each other’s mistakes and choices."

The filmmakers were also encouraged to develop a critical approach to their own work and be objective with the image.

“When they show us their footage, we ask them what they see, not what they were trying to say,” says Tretiakoff.

He adds that as mentors they "tried to help the filmmakers develop their own vocabulary, imagination and sensibility.”

All the films’ montage was executed by freelance editors, something Cristiani believes is important and helpful in the learning process.

“Having an editor teaches you, and it helps to create distance from the material and to be objective, because there is the film you imagined and the film you can practically make,” he says.

Ateliers Varan writes on their website: “Rather than observe from a distance, we encourage the trainee to be part of the reality he is filming, with the respect due to the people filmed. Curiosity is not a matter of skill. It’s a question of being attentive to others.”

“We also discussed the relationship between the filmmaker and their characters; how to approach the people who will let you into their life,” Cristiani says.

Different stories, different experiences

“All the projects are very different, with each having a singular language,” Hana Al Bayaty, co-founder of Cimatheque, adds.

Marguerite Farag experimented with her own vocabulary in her film Neon God, where she creatively marries image with sound.

She chose to tell the story of the city’s plethora of glowing lights. Street lamps, mobile screens, advertisements, decorative lights, in short shots like moving photographs, played with unexpected tunes and sounds to match them, as if each type of light has its own voice.

Youmna Khaled El-Khattam chose a more intimate subject in her film Gene, where she films her aging grandmother in an attempt to connect and relate to her.

Yet some of the filmmakers have paid more attention to technicality, like Mohamed Adel’s careful framing of his film My Father.

Many of the films successfully achieve naturalism with their subjects, who seem comfortable speaking directly to the camera, as in Mama by Qusay Asaad, or are seemingly oblivious to the camera’s watchful eye, like Tashkeel by Muhammad Mustapha and Watcher by Dina Hany.

Hany took security guards in her residental compound as her subjects.

“I see these people every day and just politely salute them, but I’ve always wanted to understand how they endure their work and go about their day in this confined box (the security kiosk),” Hany says.

Spending time with her subjects, Hany built a friendship with them in a short time to earn their trust before shooting her film.

“I had breakfast with them, helped them with a broken kettle, and told them about my project. When they got used to my presence and I talked to their chief, they became more accepting of my presence and the camera,” she adds.

“When I started shooting, I think that I provoked them into complaining. Now that someone was microscopic on them. Its like they were waiting for someone to hear them out.”

However, this level of comfort posed some challenges for the film, which wasn’t intended as a reportage. As her subjects started directly complaining to the camera, Hany felt the film would be drifting too far from her intentions.

“These conversations were great for me, but they didn’t help the film. I wanted to paint a picture of the place, get the essence of this confined space. To portray without words this emptiness, void and confinement,” she says.

Watcher succeeds in exuding this heavy emptiness of the guards’ workday, with Hany’s long shots of silent empty streets, and tight shots of the kiosk’s binding geometry, all with an absence of action.

Creative crop

Cristiani and Tretiakoff measure the success of a given project by looking at how much the participant developed through the workshop.

“Hany is one, among many others, where there’s a huge difference between the level she started off with, and how her final project turned out,” Cristiani says.

“We would surely like to come again and work with Cimatheque because they were so professional,” Tretiakoff says

“Professionalism is not just a technical thing, its about a work ethic,” Cristiani adds.

“There’s a lot in common between how Ateliers Varan and Cimatheque function — a common language in how they work, how to deal with film, and how to discuss with filmmakers, making the collaboration very easy and successful,” Al Bayaty says.

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