INTERVIEW: 'We Are Egyptian Armenians', a film about the history of the Armenian community

Nahed Nasr, Thursday 15 Dec 2016

Directed by Waheed Sobhi, the documentary 'We Are Egyptian Armenians' aims at documenting the long history of the community in the country through the stories told by its representatives. Ahram Online talks to the film's creators

We Are Egyptian Armenians
(Photo: fragment from the poster of the documentary We Are Egyptian Armenians)

The documentary ‘We Are Egyptian Armenians,’ directed by Waheed Sobhi, relays the history of the Armenian community in Egypt as recounted by many of its members and supported with archival materials including photos, videos and paintings.

The film, created in cooperation with scriptwriter Eva Dadrian and researcher and executive producer Hannan Ezzat, was screened at the Cairo International Film Festival 2016.

The documentary also participated in the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and the Karama Human Rights Film Festival in Jordan.

The film is set to be screened in Egypt, the US and Canada.

Ahram Online sat down for an interview with the filmmakers Sobhi, Dadrian, and Ezzat.

Ahram Online (AO): How did the project begin and where did you get the idea for the film?

Eva Dadrian (ED): In 2014, I met Waheed Sobhi and Hanan Ezzat when they were working on a film about the late prominent Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo [1921-2002]. I referred them to someone who knew Van Leo.

Not much later, Waheed returned and said [that the story] “is much bigger than introducing one photographer, I am overwhelmed by the stories I hear. I want to introduce the Armenian community in Egypt.”

This is how it began.

Waheed Sobhi (WS): True. As I started looking into Van Leo and the Armenian community, I found out that we have 150 years [of history of Egyptian Armenians] that we know nothing about. I learned about many talented Armenians who contributed to every field in Egypt. This film became a personal trip to discover and to let other people discover. It is about a forgotten part of our history, and an unseen part of our present.

AO: Most of the Armenians you feature in the film represent the older generation. Why was this choice made?

WS: There are many ways to make a film about the Egyptian Armenians. We chose to focus on their history in Egypt, and their contribution to Egyptian history and society. The film has many archival images and videos as well as information relayed by a narrator.

On the other hand, we wanted to introduce the oral history of the community through real stories as recounted by its members.

The older generation is an eyewitness with many stories; people who create vivid links between their own lives and the stories of the trip their ancestors and parents made to Egypt to escape the [Armenian] genocide.

Two of the interviewees lived in the era of King Farouk, others during [the era of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser]… All of them have many memories and stories told by their families.

AO: You also focused on the Armenian community itself, rather than on its relationship with those outside the community. Was this a conscious choice?

ED: Let us not forget that in the 1950s and the 1960s, the Armenian community in Egypt had approximately 60,000 [members who were] active across many fields. Today, the community is much smaller. It has decreased to less than 5,000 people, most of whom belong to the older generation.

On the other hand, the society itself has changed.

We did not mean to focus on the inner part of the community, however, though because of the presentation of the facts I mentioned, this can be the impression the viewer gets.

The film also presents how [the Armenian community is] very loyal to Egypt. For instance, one of the people who appear in the film says “I am 100 percent Egyptian and 100 percent Armenian.”

The prominent singer Anoshka said in the film, “if I were a man, I would have joined the Egyptian army.”

WS: I would like to add that people representing the Armenian community are very close-knit. After long years of genocide in many countries, they learned how to rebuild their life and how to preserve their culture and heritage through Armenian clubs, schools and churches. And as the community gets smaller and smaller, its members become closer and closer to each other.

The point of the film is to show the history and the memories of those who are still in Egypt. It is a portrayal of the community through their stories more than anything else.

AO: The only non-Armenian Egyptian voice in the film is that of prominent novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid. Why the choice of a novelist rather than a historian or a researcher?

WS: We chose a storyteller and not an academic because the film is about the oral history of the people. Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid is from Alexandria and he has a long history of contact and interaction with the Armenian community in Alexandria. He shares his stories about Egypt and Armenians in the good old days.  

AO: The film is filled with the stories of many people. It must have been very challenging to include all these voices. Tell us about the process of collecting and sorting all the data.

WS: All the stories were very important and reflective. They were also close to our target.

We wanted to show the many different aspects of the Armenian community, their contributions to Egyptian history, and so on. It is like a panorama of the Armenian community in Egypt. This film may even invite more research and more work on the Armenian community in Egypt.

In the interviews, we asked specific questions about the interviewee’s parents and/or ancestors, about how they came to Egypt and in what context. These were questions about their memories.

The other part of the discussion encouraged the interviewee to tell the stories they wanted to share. We did not want to interrupt them because they had treasures in mind. We ended up with a lot of material.

We spent over 250 hours in interviews and up to three months to arrange the material and to build the structure of the film before the editing phase.

AO: There is also narration in the film based on historical research. What were the sources you turned to for your research?

WS: The historical research took place parallel to the interviews. There were many stories and historical viewpoints. It was the role of Eva Dadrian to check and verify the historical information.

Eva got in touch with academic institutions here in Egypt as well as in Washington, London and Yerevan. All the information in the film comes from several trusted academic resources.

AO: What about the photos, videos and paintings?

WS: The visual aspects of this film are very important. Photographs, videos and paintings gave the film its beauty and richness. The film’s structure is based on these elements in parallel with the stories of the people.

ED: Many people who work in the film industry in Egypt were astonished when they saw the visual material in the film. They asked us about their source.

It took a lot of effort to collect the material, because unfortunately most of the material [on this subject] is no longer in Egypt. We bought some photos on eBay, while others were provided by the Armenian families.

Also, Hanan Ezzat is a photography collector. She has her own collection of precious photos. That was very useful.

We took many videos from academic institutions outside of Egypt.

AO: All this is topped with musical choices. Editing must have been a huge task.

WS: The editing took nine months of working fulltime on a daily basis. Music was very important in the film to break the heaviness of the historical stories and information. Music helps the viewer get involved.

I also used other elements like special effects and a fast sequence in the editing to make the film lighter.

AO: How was your experience in working as a team?

WS: This is actually my first film [as director] after long years of working as an editor in many feature films. It was also the first time for the three of us to work together. It was a very interesting experience because we shared the same vision and the same target.

Hanan Ezzat and I knew each other through Masr Zaman, a twitter group she founded where people share vintage photos of Egypt.

Eva Dadrian was very enthusiastic from the beginning to cooperate, and she contributed greatly to every aspect of the film. She is a documentary/feature reporter with BBC World Service and is an Emmy Award-winning independent broadcaster and writer.

We are preparing for doing more projects together.

AO: The film was officially selected for the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) 2016, and has already had a few screenings outside Egypt. How has the film been received?

WS: It is all very encouraging, even though the film was not a part of the official competition in Cairo nor has it been part of other festivals so far – each for different reasons. Still, it has received great feedback from the audience, and not only from the Armenian community.

At the CIFF, it was the only film that was screened for three nights and with all tickets sold out.

The feedback was very encouraging at the Karama Human Rights Film Festival in Jordan as well.

We are preparing to submit the film in more festivals and we are looking forward to having more screenings in Egypt and abroad.

AO: What have you learned in the process of making this film?

WS: I learned a lot during every phase of the filmmaking process, as this is my first film and it had many components and no budget. I know I will be very different in my next film.

The film also helped me know Egypt from a different angle. And I would like to tell everyone who wants to tell a certain story through film, “do it and do not wait!”

ED: We faced many challenges during the making of the film, but we looked at them as experiences and not problems. All my life I wanted to tell the story of the Egyptian Armenians and my dream came true, thanks to the teamwork.

Hanan Ezzat: I hope the young people in Egypt will learn something from this film and from those people [in the Armenian community], and how at one point Egypt was very diverse and tolerant. I believe this film can tell them something.

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