Bound for the Berlinale: On Egyptian director Marouan Omara's works, artistic vision, plans

Amina Abdel-Halim, Wednesday 8 Feb 2017

Egyptian director Marouan Omara’s documentary One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake, will be screened at the 67th Berlinale Forum Expanded section

Marouan Omara
Marouan Omara (Photo: Nadia Mounier)

Born in 1987, Marouan Omara is an Egyptian director, video artist and photographer. After studying filmmaking at the Art and Technology of Cinema Academy, he went to obtain his Bachelor's degree in applied arts from Helwan University in 2011. He initially directed several short films, including Taxi in 2008, a film about the societal expectations placed on women, and The Doll, in 2011, a film about arranged marriage.

His more recent works include the mid-length documentaries CROP (2013), Azziara (2015), and his film One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake, set to have its premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The film follows a musical collaboration between Egyptian shaabi music artist Islam Chipsy and Swiss electronic musician Aisha Devi. 

Although the film showcases several elements of the shaabi music scene, a music genre that has been approached in other cinematic works, unlike what one might expect the documentary is not about shaabi music per se. It is, Omara believes, about “something much broader.” 

“One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake uses music as language, a form of communication. I was more concerned with the people creating the music and the dynamics between them than with the music itself,” Marouan Omara commented to Aham Online.

Thus the film focuses on the characters’ dynamics, which include but are not limited to the two performers: Egyptian shaabi music artist Islam Chipsy and Swiss electronic musician Aisha Devi. 

“There are other protagonists as well. Thomas Burkhalter, and his company who brought us all there to work on the project, would obviously be central to the film. I also wanted to bring to light Mahmoud Refaat, Chipsy’s manager, in whose studio we were filming.”

Aside from the story, the directors were also careful in their choice of cinematic technique, which included using a VHS camera. 

Omara explains that as he thought of Chipsy often performing at weddings, where photographers usually use VHS cameras, this choice is meant to preserve the element of performance, something he found to be central to both musicians’ styles. 

“In this sort of filming (at weddings) there is no planning, no tripod, no lighting. It’s all long, improvised shots. The photographers themselves are, in a sense, like performers. Therefore, I asked Islam Kamal, my partner in direction, photography and montage, to shoot this exactly like a wedding.”

This element of spontaneity is in fact key to the movie. Islam Chipsy is known for the fact that all his performances are improvised. As for Aisha Devi, she has previously stated that live performances are at the core of her work and create an energy that cannot be reproduced on record.

The same spontaneity bleeds into the narrative itself. Each of the characters’ traits and reactions to the documentation of their creative process are evident in the final product, 

“Chipsy was completely indifferent to our filming; he did not care about what we were doing and simply wanted to get on with his own work. As for Devi, she was initially reticent about being filmed and often avoided the camera. We respected her choice,” Omara explains. 

A conditioned freedom

The road from shooting to the final film was not easy. After filming was over, Omara sent the film to the musicians’ managers, who offered their feedback. Although Norient Sounds accepted the film as is, Devi’s manager was not favourable to the entirety of the content. “I decided to include [the managers’ comments] into the narrative so the viewer is simultaneously witnessing my point of view and another person’s thoughts on it, and can decide for themselves whether they agree with either side of the dialogue.”

This was not the first time that Omara experienced disapproval from those involved in the making and distribution of his works. 

His film Azziara (2015), co-directed by his wife Nadia Mounier and in collaboration with Islam Kamal, was commissioned by a German organisation concerned with agricultural development. The film follows a World Bank team’s visit to an Egyptian rural area, the filming of a TV show in that same area, and a group of students’ visit to the Museum of Agriculture. The viewers witness a double narrative: that told by the official documentation of the events, as well as the behind-the-scenes staging, preparations and conversations. The German organisation rejected the full version of the film and instead took a much shorter version.

“They were expecting something more traditional that you would likely see on lots of television programmes: the poor female farmer, the hardworking man and the conclusion that things will be better in the future,” the filmmaker comments. 

“All the parts where we saw things backstage, where the TV presenter asked me questions, were worrying to them because they make people think.” 

This reticence to offer viewers something out of the ordinary, the director found to be condescending. “They thought that people would not understand. I think neither I nor the commissioner can claim to know whether people will understand. If they like it that’s fine, if they don’t, that is also just fine, but we do not get to decide for them. I still believe it was a success just to be able to release the film. With One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake, I met greater success, because the commissioner actually approved the film.”

Images of society

The interest in his own country and society is a recurrent component of all Omara’s works. “I think I make movies to learn about my society, my country and myself,” he says.

This was equally evident in CROP (2013), his first documentary, co-directed by Johanna Domke. It is set inside the buildings of Al-Ahram newspaper and narrates the events of the January 2011 revolution without showing a single shot of the actual uprising. The story is told entirely through the heavy censorship written news and images suffered at the hands of the former regime. 

The director says it is not his intention to present recurrent themes in his works; rather, he discovers their presence as viewers do, while watching his own films. 

“To paraphrase Woody Allen, every time I create a film, I think I’ll do something entirely new, something I have never done before. But after all these years, I found out that I keep doing the same thing in different ways. So of course with each film, I decide to do something completely innovative, but without me knowing my works do show some similarities,” Omara explains. 

The director says that in his upcoming film 'Dream Away' -- the first full length feature -- he works together with Johanna Domke, and in collaboration with Salam Yousry. A fruit of five years of work, the film delves into the complexity of Egyptian society and talks about “young people from modest backgrounds in Sharm El-Sheikh, most of whom are originally from Upper Egypt and from rural areas. They come from very traditional and religious families, and the aim is to observe the impact that going to Sharm El-Sheikh has on their mentality, the way they view their country and their families,” Omara reveals.

One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake will be screened as part of the Berlinale Forum Expanded, which is set to open 10 February. The film will be made available to Egyptian audiences after its release, and will likely be screened in the opening of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (DCAF) that will take place between 17 March and 8 April.

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