INTERVIEW: Crowd-funded documentary to examine spousal murder in Egypt

Nourhan Tewfik , Friday 9 Oct 2015

Aida El-Kashef's crowd-funded film, The Day I Ate the Fish, tells the stories of women imprisoned for murdering their husbands

The Day I Ate The Fish
Still from The Day I Ate The Fish trailer.

On 3 October, director Aida El-Kashef launched an  Indiegogo campaign to secure funds for her upcoming film The Day I Ate the Fish.

El-Kashef is a filmmaker and political activist. She has co-founded important initiatives like the media collective Mosireen in 2011, as well as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish) in 2011.

El-Kashef’s previous works include A Tin Tale (2011), a simultaneously grim and light-hearted film that explores the life of an Egyptian prostitute. The young director’s new project, The Day I Ate the Fish, documents the stories of women serving prison sentences for murdering their husbands.

The Day I Ate the Fish is yet another ambitious project, in which the filmmaker touches on the truth behind the crimes, while considering the realities that led to them. El-Kashef goes beyond the crime scene, digging deep into the personal realm while questioning the human capacity for anger and violence.

“Crime, what is it? Who decides it? Who decides who is ‘the criminal’ and who is not?” El-Kashef writes in the campaign’s description.

Ahram Online talks to the director about her choice of topic, preparations for the film, some of the challenges encountered, and how she regards this project as a very personal one.

Ahram Online (AO): In the Indiegogo crowd funding page, you state that you were fascinated by the topic of crime since a young age. Tell us more about your personal interest in tackling this subject?

Aida El-Kashef (AK): When I was younger, my father would get really angry because I was not reading the papers. So I began reading them, merely focusing on the crime page because it was the most interesting for a child of my age. It was in the 1990s, at the peak of marital crimes in Egypt, so a lot of stories were about women who killed their husbands.

Later on, when I joined the Film Institute, I was interested in working on a film that tackles this subject, but as a fiction film. Nevertheless, I did not share this idea with my professors.

Then came the 2011 revolution and violence against women spiked. This is when I began to revisit this old idea, hoping I’d be granted permits from the authorities, prisons etc. This is also when I started thinking more about a documentary format.

AO: You also write that the film does not attempt to suggest a certain theory, or advocate for these women as victims, but was rather triggered by a set of questions. What kinds of questions were these? And how difficult is it for the filmmaker to let the story unravel itself?

AK: This is the very challenge of the film.

The film definitely includes a certain bias towards these women. We cannot hide this. The issue is complicated. It tugs at human nature, notions of violence, and anti-violence. Among the stories we researched were cases of women who committed the crimes out of jealousy as opposed to self-defense, for example. So this pushes you to ask different kinds of questions to women who committed the same crime, but for different reasons. You begin to sense that some had the incentive and others not, etc. There are those areas of bias, and sometimes not, as you realize that the women involved might have had options other than murder.

Aida El Kashef
Filmmaker Aida El-Kashef during the documentary shooting (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker)

AO: The film does not stand in isolation from gender politics in Egypt. You link the very idea of the documentary to 2012 and what you describe as the unfolding of an “epidemic of mass sexual assault in Tahrir.” Can you elaborate on this point?

AK: I come from a comfortable economic and social background, so I was not subjected to many of the things that the women we interviewed have experienced. I cannot put myself in their shoes. That said, the most difficult time for me, as well as for other women, was the period of 2012, when we started forming groups to rescue women who were being subjected to cases of collective harassment.

While it is true that harassment was always there in a way, it wasn’t with such degree of violence. This is precisely the moment that enables me now to understand where these women’s anger comes from. I remember how I also, at the time, developed violent ideas towards the harassers.

So I am asking questions about this very notion of violence, and how we feel about it as humans, and also how we’re all prone to experience it despite our social or economic backgrounds. I asked myself if [at the moment of attack], would I be able to restrain myself and hold on to my principles of anti-violence? It is a question relating to the very nature of humanity, more than social, political, or economic circumstances. 

AO: The Day I Ate the Fish also fits in with the ideas that have thus far underpinned in both your career as a filmmaker and as a political activist. Is this film an act of activism?

AK: This is a dilemma for me, because while I don’t want the film to come out as an act of activism, I also find it hard to shy away from this very idea because this is who I am.

Also, at the end of the day, the film is about me as much as it is about the actual women featured in it. In my film Hadouta Min Sag (A Tin Tale), which was about prostitutes in Egypt and in which I played a role, I didn’t know much about the women. I was only listening to the story and trying to present it as a filmmaker.

On the contrary, The Day I Ate the Fish is very personal. While I do not understand their economic grievances, for example, I can still very much understand the details the women recount regarding their romantic relationships with their husbands, and can also see where the capacity for violence could have come about. While I do not agree or support the crime because it has in fact ended someone’s life, I can understand how and why it took place.

AO: What are some of the choices you made regarding the film genre? 

AK: The script is still being written. The nature of documentary film allows you to keep developing the story as you move on with your research and filming, because you never know what you will film and where it will guide you. It is an ongoing process.

It is a documentary because I am very interested in maintaining reality as it is.

As for the cinematography choices we opted for, we used natural lighting for interviews conducted inside the prison. This was for a number of reasons that first have to do with lack of finance, but it was also related to the very nature of this documentary. Characters didn’t have a chance to befriend the camera. Each woman was essentially being approached by strangers who were asking her very intimate questions, so we did not want the lighting to intensify the already existing sense of anxiety. 

The Day I Ate The Fish
(Photo: Still from Indegogo video about The Day I Ate The Fish)

AO: In the teaser, we see that one woman is showing her face, so there’s obviously a degree of comfort with the camera. What were the criteria for choosing the women, and what were the challenges you encountered during filming? Also, did the women ask to see the documentary once it’s released?

AK: We already had names of the women we wanted to interview (and whom we read about during our research) before approaching the authorities for prison permits. However, not all of them agreed. For example, women who came from a higher economic status, or those who were still in touch with their children, would not agree to sit for interviews. Also, some of them only agreed to talk to us behind the camera, others were okay with being filmed.

The biggest challenge we encountered was when the women asked if we were journalists, and told us that they were previously interviewed and that their stories were twisted. So it was an obstacle trying to gain their trust.

The filming began last March. We interviewed four women and the degree of openness differed from one woman to another. Understandably, the interviews took place inside prison and in the presence of officers, so there was definitely a limit to how open they could be. Had they been answering these questions outside of prison, it would have been a different story altogether.

Because they have clearly lost hope, most of the women featured were dealing with us as visitors. For them, the interview was a break from the routine, but they definitely had no bigger hopes. As such, they didn’t ask to see the film, but we did request from the prison authorities to screen it there once it is ready. 

AO: In the trailer, we see the featured women singing. Why did you choose to include this?

AK: The women were recounting very bitter moments during the interview, and we wanted to leave them on a good note. So we’d ask them to sing to us. And they really enjoyed singing.

AO: What about the actual film title? Is it a play on the symbolism of this act of murder?

AK: The title was inspired by one of the women’s stories, which is featured in the trailer. She was telling us that her favorite hobby was playing this computer game where big fish ate up smaller fish. We were surprised at this particular detail because she was a very traditional, uneducated woman. So in a way, this minor detail damaged the cliché we might have had towards women like her. Also, the idea was that bigger fish eat smaller fish, whether the ‘big fish’ (anyone in a position of power) is manifested in the man, society, media, etc. These women are definitely not the bigger fish.

AO: You recently launched a crowd-funding campaign. What’s next?

AK: We still have more filming to do inside and outside prison. We’re trying to find women who already served their sentences and left prison. We also want to get started with the editing.

The whole post-production stage needs a lot of money, hence the need for the crowd-funding campaign to afford renting the equipment, getting the permits, and paying the team’s fees. We also want to buy an archive from the Egyptian TV and other televisions to use the footage in the documentary, which will also cost a lot of money. 

The global funding system is very cruel and requires you have a good amount of money before asking for more. We were also not very lucky with the funds we applied for. So far, we only received support from a fund in Abu Dhabi, a great help, but it covered only part of the film’s budget.

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