INTERVIEW: Challenging the norms: Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah on his latest film Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces

Mohamed Atef, Tuesday 20 Sep 2016

The director Yousri Nasrallah talks about the behind the scenes of Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Al Ma’ wal Khodra wal Wajh El Hassan) which will screen in France starting 21 December

Yousry Nasrallah
Yousry Nasrallah (Photo: Al Ahram)

The latest movie by Egyptian filmmaker Yousri Nasrallah titled the Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces (Al Ma’ wal Khodra wal Wajh El Hassan) will probably please the local audience, though may also be troublesome to more conservative critics.

The film has been already screened in the Locarno Film Festival, Switzerland (August 2016); Toronto International Film Festival, Canada (September 2016) and will be released across French cinema theatres in December this year.

Based on an idea by Bassem Samra who also acts in the film, Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces was co-written by the director Yousri Nasrallah and writer Ahmad Abdalla.

Nasrallah chose Belqas, a town located in the Nile Delta, some 20 km from Mansoura, as the film’s backdrop, where he takes us to the many tangled relationships. We meet the big family of Yehya, the cook (portrayed by Alaa Zeinhom) who runs a small catering business. Given the nature of his job, there is a strong interaction between Yehya and each of the characters.

At first, the viewer gets lost in the mazes of the relations, however, as the plot progresses, we start understanding the nature of life in a village, where everybody knows everyone or has family ties.

Another family, that of Abu Raya – where Farid Abou-Raya (played by Mohamad Farag) is dominated by his wife Umm Roqaya (played by Sabrine) – competes for popularity with Yehya’s family. Everything seems to be going well with wealth and power having their strong say, until the most famous singer of the community is killed for entering a customary marriage with the younger sister of Farid Abu Raya.

The plot idea had to provide the usual ingredients of commercial films produced by El Sobky Film Production, a strategy that has succeeded, more or less. The film interweaves a popular singer and a dancer, who play a role of an accessory allowing the film to give a dramatic justification for inclusion of singing and dancing during an event organised by the cook’s family.

Similarly, love and relationships are sculpted with finesse, a reminiscent trait of Nasrallah’s previous films, and the three love stories narrated in the film always evoke a relationship that challenges the social reality and the weight of tradition. We find Shadia (Laila Elwi) and Salah, Galal and Karima (Menna Shalabi), and Ashour and Faten, who are all forced to camouflage their feelings fearing to be judged by the traditional community.

It is not new for Nasrallah to break the taboos, even if they include sex. This bold step attracted a lot of negative criticism from those reviewers who cannot accept scenes in which people from the villages make love just like everyone else. And though those scenes remain highly aesthetical, some viewers even called to boycott the film.

Apparently this is the price one has to pay when working with the producers who for over 15 years made sure to present what they call “proper films,” stripped of any scenes depicting sensuous proximity of the characters, kisses or love scenes.

Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces has achieved a fair compromise on many levels and the director offers a good balance between his own style and the commercial trend that El Sobky Film Production company favours.

Yousry Nasrallah
(Photo: fragment from the poster of Yousry Nasrallah's Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces)

Ahram Online talks to the director about his creative choices, film and the character of collaboration with El Sobky Film Production.

Ahram Online (AO): This is your first collaboration with El-Sobky, a company that is usually identified with the commercial cinema. Does this fact have any influence on your approach in work?

Yoursy Nasrallah (YN): Each producer is considered a partner who prefers either purely artistic products or favours the commercial approach. Personally, I have never shot anything against my will or without being convinced with what I’m doing. I only do what I believe is right, without trying to please an actor, a producer or a distributor.

AO: Most of your previous films were co-productions. This was not the case of Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces. Why is that?

YN: The funds previously given to the production of the 'Southern cinema' no longer exist, and they are replaced with those given to the international scene. For instance, in my film Aquarium (Genenet Al Asmak, 2008), I cooperated with ARTE. It was not easy since the budget offered was EUR 700,000, a number far from the one we needed.

Also, since my work on The Gate of Sun (Bab El Shams, 2004), a film with a duration of 4h38min, the production formats have changed.

With the international producers, there are many complicated procedures involved and one must go through several committees, reviewers, etc.

So if I can work with an Egyptian producer, why not?

However, at the end of the day, it is the idea behind the film which dictates the choice. I could still work on an entire French production should this be justified by the film itself. 

AO: When did you start working on Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces? Tell us more about the whole process

YN: It all goes back to year 1995, the time when I emerged from working on the documentary Sobyan wa banat (On Boys, Girls and the Veil). While working on that film, I had visited the family of the actor Bassem Samra. Most of the family work as cooks, preparing food for wedding ceremonies. They are free and fascinating; they inspired the characters of Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces.

I wanted to make a sensual work about love, sex and food, somewhat in the style known to the French filmmaker Jean Renoir. I have been approaching the scenario several times.

With the tragic events taking the world by the storm in recent years, I decided to direct the film’s focus into the opposite direction, away from the prevailing despair. I wanted to create a plea to life, away from deception of politics that followed the January 2011 revolution. The revolution called for "bread, freedom and dignity," while my film addresses questions of "eating, choosing, loving oneself and one’s profession."

AO: Has the refusal of the renowned actor Yehia El-Fakharany to take the role of the father in your film created a problem?

YN: The name of a star on the film’s poster is important to the producer. To me what matters the most is to have the right actor in the right role. El-Fakharany wanted to return to cinema with a more substantial role; he did not want to ask for any changes in the scenario as not to challenge it. Such situations occur and we are all familiar with them, however in general, I do not make compromises in those matters. I prefer for the actor to be as excited about the role as I am about the whole film and his character. So the role went to another actor, Alaa Zeinhom.

AO: What difficulties did you encounter while working on this film?

YN: The scenario was quite tiring because it is full of the characters and tangled relationships. The director and scriptwriter Ahmad Abdalla helped me a lot in this regard.

AO: Some of the characters, like Umm Roqaya, are quite extraordinary. Don’t you agree?

YN: Such characters exists in reality. Umm Roqaya embodied by actress Sabrine, is a wealthy and power-thirsty woman. Married to a much younger man, she behaves strangely because of the jealousy. I did not want to provide more details to this character as not to distract the viewer from the main plot.

In brief, the common denominator characterising most of the remaining characters is that they always bet on love before anything else, and this is regardless of their age or social strata. 

AO: Why are your films often little critically acclaimed?

YN: Some people do not feel comfortable when one tries to do something different. Without trying to compare myself to Youssef Chahine, wasn’t this what he tried to do in his films?

I always try to present my characters in a way that they provoke thought. For instance, I do not see that scene where characters make love are shocking or repelling. But how will the conservative critics take those scenes? In a hypocritical society like ours, people do not like to call a spade a spade. They prefer to cover everything with secrecy so they can escape a rather vulnerable patriarchal authority.

AO: Is this mindset paralysing your generation?

YN: When you look how the 20 of my consecutive films were received, I think that things are getting better in this regard. Many of the first movies by the Egyptian filmmakers such as Mohamad Khan or Khairy Bishara were not well received by the critics. However, in comparison with the 1970s, 80s and even 90s, today, the critics become more accepting of controversial scenes. The resistance coming especially from the conservatives still exists, yet we keep challenging those ideas and eventually we tell the stories the way we want to tell them. We constantly look for alternatives.

This interview was first published in Al Ahram Hebdo

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