'Cinema is the art of illusion': Interview with director Tamer Mohsen

Sarah Mourad, Friday 7 Jul 2017

Ahram Online talks to Tamer Mohsen, creator of television series This Night and Under Control, about how he creates his unique dramas

Tamer Mohsen
Tamer Mohsen in an interview on Hona Al'Asema, on CBC (Photo: still from YouTube)

Tamer Mohsen is one of Egypt’s most talked-about directors. His creative repertoire includes a 2015 drama film Cat and Mouse ("Ott we Far") and television series: Without Mentioning Names ("Bedoun Zikr Asmaa"), which aired during Ramadan 2013, followed by Under Control (“Taht El-Saytara”) in 2015, and This Night (“Haza El-Masaa”) which aired this Ramadan, last month, and created a lot of debate among audiences.

This Night explores the secret world of phone hacking, giving viewers a darker and certainly more dangerous perspective on the phenomenon, one that they have probably not paid attention to, and a topic that is fairly new for Egyptian and Arab viewers. In addition, the elements used in the cinematography worked to underscore the issues tackled and the moods created throughout the series.

The series garnered praise on social media in the last week of Ramadan, from those describing it as a unique drama series which raised the bar for Egyptian television serials.

Ahram Online spoke to director Tamer Mohsen about how he creates his unique series.

Ahram Online (AO): You direct one series every other year, which is a different approach to other directors. Is it an intentional strategy? 

Tamer Mohsen (TM): I do that for a number of reasons actually. First of all, success is a bit dangerous; if people are heavily talking about This Night now, in a month that heat of success will slowly fade away.

Next year, when my colleagues will be working on their own shows and creating success, I will be home watching and joining the audience. This will charge me, an adrenaline rush will push me to wanting a comeback.

But if I had chosen to work on a new project in the heat of the success of Under Control in 2015, for instance, I would have lost so much.

I also believe that a filmmaker shouldn't spend their lives behind the camera and on the set.

Working on a project is like inhaling and exhaling, with the latter being the actual work. I need to inhale first in order to be able to exhale. I need to know people’s stories and interact with them and watch them, and also spend time with my own self, and work will follow all of that. Creating art comes from that.

Bedoon Zikr Asma
(Photo: still from Bedoon Zikr Asma: Without Mentioning Names, 2013)

AO: This Night brings together many different concepts such as curiosity, stalking, fear, suppression, satisfaction. Tell us more about working with those different threads.

TM: One day I was speaking on the phone with a friend who was telling me a story of her friend who's been married for seven years and is facing a huge marriage crisis.

Her husband found out about a mobile application that manages to show whatever is on the phone. And although they're happily married and the husband has never been suspicious of that wife, his curiosity made him download that application on his phone, then realised that in a moment of weakness she had spoken to her ex-boyfriend. 

This situation was a very confusing dilemma since he neither caught his wife cheating nor was able to just forgive and forget about it. I loved that story and it made me think about the main concept and themes of the series.

The series has many layers and different topics that I have wanted to discuss, including issues that have been personally on my mind and have confused me. Is it a positive act to be curious? To know is referred to as "the world’s most beautiful fault". But sometimes knowing opens the gates of hell. It’s quite complicated.

The same goes for “satisfaction." Is it my right to search for happiness if I'm not completely fulfilled? Or should one just feel content?

Those are all questions inside me. And we shouldn't judge if any of the characters were right or wrong in their decisions or actions because there are always many layers and reasons for those actions and thoughts.

I was also thinking about people who can barely read and write, yet they own smartphones and have the ability to send pictures on WhatsApp for instance. Those people and others lack any knowledge of how dangerous this is, and how cautious one should be when sending anything through and to a smartphone, because whatever comes out of your phone will never be fully erased. It will always exist, in one way or another.

AO: Do you prefer character-based plots? Believing that through characters and their worlds, stories can be told?

TM: I do. I look for the characters I want to present and their worlds. Telling stories is the easiest thing in the world. This Night is a 30-episode TV series and there won't be a sequel to it. But if we had wanted to keep telling stories for 60 more episodes, it would have been possible; taking a whole different approach of course.

Taht El-Saytara
(Photo: still from Taht El-Saytara, 2015)

AO: The characters in This Night are not complicated in reality, because after all they're real and human despite their complexities. But the approach you have taken is very rare and almost non-existent in Egyptian and Arab drama, which is probably one of the main reasons why the series has become very successful, and why many people are attached to the characters. How do you feel about that?

TM: This is a great risk of course. I love all the characters and was trying to find a part of me inside each of them; drama with no risks tells stories of characters that are either good or evil, which is not what we did here.

Many people follow stereotypes and are judgemental, then suddenly realise that the reality of what they had judged is the exact opposite. I always find that amusing.

I believe that absolute and fast judgement about other people is very superficial and cruel. 

Then we added a new layer in which these characters are not only complicated, but are secretive and discreet. The hardest thing in drama is to create characters that do not reveal through words the way they feel or easily have friends to explain the plot to and discuss their issues. In addition to them being in denial about their problems as well.

AO: The storytelling approach and narrative method you chose was different from the usual; the idea that the actions would seem slow paced or quiet, then suddenly by the end of an episode a great revelation is made. Then it goes back to being same quieter pace, then once again a bomb is dropped on the audience; and so on. Until finally all cards were revealed. Why did you choose this strategy?

TM: Part of the audience was able to read between the lines from the beginning and were able to understand and realise that behind that quietness and those whispers there was a volcano getting ready to erupt. So consequently, they were enjoying the show.

On the other hand, others were thinking that we have nothing to say because they are not used to that kind of narrative.

So I'm happy that we managed to bring back to people the joy of reading the drama while paying attention to the detail, and being able to see an image that is contradictory to the dialogue being expressed; to hear a character say they’re happy while they’re clearly desperate and miserable inside and it shows on their faces, and vice versa.

Also, this way I was sort of arguing with the characters who had mixed thoughts and emotions about their nature.

AO: There's a current direction and obsession in Egypt, and also globally, of showing off visually at the expense of the story and the project as a whole, just for the sake of creating a beautifully composed frame for instance. Do you think that in your series you challenged this habit?

TM: It is normal to hear a phrase like “the film is visually stunning and the director is great, but the film itself is really bad.” It also shows that people misunderstand the real job of a director and create a misconception about what the priorities of a filmmaker are.

You as a director pay great attention to detail and to the visuals, and your role is very clear in everything. Yet you are discreet and do not have to metaphorically raise your voice in order for everyone to see you as a director.

I love theatre, especially puppet theatre and marionettes. It was my very beginning. And there's a rule that a puppeteer should never be seen by anyone.

One time I was in the studio in New York to watch Sesame Street, and I saw a 3-year-old girl coming to see Elmo. She ran to hug Elmo very passionately, crying with joy. Then suddenly, she looked at the puppeteer and yelled at him “why are you holding him? Leave him!"

This deceptive illusion that the child held should never be broken.

This Night
(Photo: still from This Night, 2017)

AO: So do you see cinema as an illusion?

TM: In many ways, cinema is the art of illusion. It's a world created by no one; neither a director nor a cinematographer. My job is to achieve and create that illusion as much as possible. The more I do, the more people are saturated and are effortlessly able to completely enter the world I'm trying to create.

It doesn't make me happy when someone says the director is clever because they liked a specific shot. What truly inspires me is when, for instance at the time of Under Control, I see a tweet from someone saying, “Guys are we going mad? Those are merely actors! Not real people! Why are we doing this to ourselves?”

That someone is basically trying to alert himself that this is just a TV series, and how much it got people carried away.

Films expose the intentions of their makers. If someone is making a film just to show off as directors, cinematographers, or actors then it means they are in love with their own selves more than the film they're making.

Visuals are extremely important of course; the composition of a frame, camera movements, colours, etc. They all contribute to telling the story and show its characters and their worlds.

In order for to create an impact, all five senses need to work and interact.

AO: The audience at the end of watching a show could be waiting for answers and a resolution of all problems, maybe even those of their own. Don't you think that the audience is not always aware that this is not the purpose, because unwillingly they need closure and an ending and answers that would be fully satisfying to them?

TM: This is very true. I'm not supposed to give answers or assert judgements because neither the project nor I have the right or authority to do so.

When I made Under Control, we showed a married woman who is a drug addict. The first impression people tend to get is “she's definitely not a good person.”

Then 29 episodes later we ask the same question but the answer becomes: “How come her husband can’t forgive her? He's a monster!”

That’s exactly what it's all about. The idea is that there could be recovered drug addicts in society that are understood, accepted, and forgiven.

The same applies to This Night. There's a character, Toqa, who is a victim and was filmed in a pornographic sex tape. The result is that people watching the show are waiting for Samir to forgive her.

That’s what I could do; I bring up issues and topics that concern me and discuss them with the audience and try to change their point of view and show different perspectives.

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