Downtown Cairo has always played a big part in Mohamed Khan’s life.
A city wanderer by nature, Khan’s earliest childhood memories surround the areas of Ard Sherif, Attaba, Emad El Din Street and Metro cinema and accordingly, his films have been highly influenced by the streets of Cairo.
One recurrent theme in his films is of a citizen taking a journey through the city. This goes back to his earliest attempts at making films, as seen in his three short films Daea (Lost), Al Haram (The Pyramid) and Bateekha (Watermelon).
Though at that time, in the sixties and early seventies, he still hadn’t acquired his own style, subconsciously he was following a pattern that became dominant in his work. “It was obvious from the beginning that I loved scenes on the streets and in elevators,” he said.
In Daea, a man commits suicide after having an accident on Salah Salem road.
“We actually found the accident by coincidence,” he said “and I have no idea why the man committed suicide,” he continued jokingly. “My friend’s late father was a police officer and had a gun so we wanted to use it.”
Yet despite the amateurish approach of his first film, his primary intention was depicting a man lost in the city.
In Bateekha, a man receives a phone call from his wife asking him to get the groceries on his way home.
The camera follows the man, observing the rise of the prices in the market. “He was complaining that a piece of meat cost 90 cents,” Khan joked and remarked that this acts as a good documentation of the prices of that era.
To delve into the ideas of his films and trigger points of discussion, some scenes of his films were shown. By screening two scenes from Darbet Shams (Shams’ Blow) and Nos Arnab (1/2 million), the idea of chases in his films, also quite dominant among his work, was discussed.
In Darbet Shams, the car chase was shot from a bird’s eye view, not a standard angle for shooting car chases.
In this scene, which was shot in the late seventies, Khan wanted to depict the amount of traffic and how it slows up the movement of cars, even police cars. “I didn’t know that it would be ten times worse now,” he pointed out.
In Nos Arnab a chase takes place amid pipes, stumbled upon by chance. Those pipes weren’t included in the storyboard, but when Khan noticed them he observed that they make a good visual image and continued the chase to there.
In an interrogation scene in Wife of an Important Person, Ahmed Zaki, the police officer, takes off his watch in the middle of the interrogation. Khan explained how little details as such make a character more human and realistic.
He also added that memory sometimes comes in when shooting a scene; he had seen the taking off of a watch fifteen years before he shot the scene while in a police station.
A discussion ensued about his characters, the way they were drawn in his films and how actors followed a more realistic and subtle acting approach in his films.
“During that era the films were all about office employees and multimillionaires,” he said. “I wanted to have characters that you find on the street.”
As for extracting sincere emotions from actors, Khan used several tricks. In order to get the desired expression on Aida Riad’s face in a scene in Ahlam Hind We Camilia (Dreams of Hind and Camilia), where she was mopping the floor while being eyed by a bunch of Arab students, Khan reminded Aida of an incident from her own past. For a scene in El Hareef (Streetplayer) in which Adel Imam has to hit Fardous Abd El Hameed, he only told Imam about it catching Fardous off-guard.
“We had several takes of that scene,” Khan said. “But the first one was the best.”
Khan also mentioned the difference between producing films now and in the seventies and eighties when there was such a thing as small producers.
He relayed the story behind starting up his film Taeer Aal tareek (Bird on the Road), which he considers his first film to have a personal tone and style. While taking a break during a film editing job, a young producer approached him to ask if he has a film. This later developed into the production of the film.
“Now there are major corporations owning the Cinemas and the distribution,” he said. “And it’s challenging making personal films in that environment.” He then added that when he makes films, he wants them to be seen, yet this doesn’t affect adding a personal touch to them.
The lecture was held in parallel to Futuropolis, an exhibition that looks into the possible future of the city, held at the same venue.