I Have a Picture by Mohamed Zedan is the winner of the Gouna Star For Best Arabic Documentary at the first edition of El-Gouna Film Festival (GFF) which took place between 22 and 29 September, where the film had its world premiere.
The full title of the film is “I Have A Picture: Film No. 1001 In The Life Of The Oldest Movie Extra In The World”. Though the statement “in the world”, and which refers to the Egyptian veteran extra Metawee Eweiss (1929-2015), might sound a bit exaggerated, it is more of a tribute to an actor who appeared in over 100 Egyptian films and TV series in the decades between black and white cinema of the 1940s and 2010.
Zedan’s film project started as a biographical documentary of an actor but turned to be a dialogue between two generations and two cinemas — “a greeting to the history of the Egyptian cinema in all times” as described by the jury of the feature length documentary competition of GFF.
The film is the second feature by Mohamed Zedan after The Mice Room (2013), which was a collaboration of six film directors and six stories. It is also one of the first feature films produced by the Fig Leaf Studio, a production house initiative in Alexandria established in 2005.
Ahram Online met with the film crew: film director Mohamed Zedan, producer Mark Lotfy, director of photography Mohammed El-Hadidi, and film editor May Zayed to speak about the process of producing an alternative film on a low budget in Egypt.
Ahram Online (AO): The first piece of information you found about Metawee Eweiss, in 2010, was news announcing his death. But you did not believe the news piece and decided to reach out to him. You found that indeed the news piece was erroneous. What was the reason behind your insistence to find him?
Mohamed Zedan, director (MZ):
(Photo: still from I Have a Picture)
I always wanted to do a film about this man who appeared in almost all Egyptian films throughout so many decades. He was there all the time, but we know nothing about him. I refused to believe he passed away and fortunately the news proved to be false.
It took two months to find Eweiss and to arrange a meeting with him at a café in Downtown Cairo, a location that is known to gather many Egyptian actors and particularly the extras. There we also met with Kamal El-Homossany, the other main character in I Have a Picture, and an assistant director in many Egyptian films during the 1960s and until the 1990s.
As follows, the film does not focus on Metawee Eweiss only, but it is also about Kamal El-Homossany, the man who spent all his life as an assistant director and who had the chance to be front of the camera. It was also about me and Mark and May and El-Hadidi.
AO: How did this change happen?
Mark Lotfy, producer (ML):
The changes were due to dramatic necessity. For example, when we met Eweiss in the cafe he loved Zedan very much because Zedan knows all the scenes and sequences he appeared in the movies. But the existence of Kamal El-Homossany was also important because he is his old friend and they worked together in many films, so he was a catalyst to Eweiss’s story too.
When we decided to have El-Homossany as an assistant director in this film he had his moment of feeling that he is the director and not only an assistant because he himself has his own dreams and frustrations. El-Homossany's relationship with Zedan, the director, and his friend, Eweiss the main character, was full of tension. This tension became part of the film. It was even a triangle of tension comprising of the main character, the director and the assistant director, and this tension gave the film its fresh, live and humorous taste.
AO: Editing was an important part of this film in the sense that it is full of archive inserts from many of the classic movies where Metawee Eweiss was a background actor. Can you tell us more about the editing?
May Zayed, film editor (MZ):
(Photo: still from I Have a Picture)
This film was shot during eight intense days in 2010, I am not sure about the length of the material but it totaled about 50 or 60 hours. The archive inserts and the footage was an important part of the film, but we decided to have a first draft of the film without any inserts. Then we started to fill the spaces with footage. Zedan, the director, created bridges between the different parts of the film by telling parts of his own story.
AO: Was it an easy task to track the many spontaneous actions and reactions of the film characters with your camera?
Mohammed El-Hadidi, photography director (MH):
I Have a Picture might look like a spontaneous film but in fact the process of its making was very conscious. There was a mix between spontaneity and control. We were moving together all the time, we were thinking, taking decisions and acting together. Also the main characters of the film lived all their life in front of and behind the camera, so they were very familiar with it.
AO: You established Fig Leaf Studio in 2005. What motivated you to produce I Have a Picture in 2010, a story that might have seemed more like a director‘s passion since a movie extra does not sound like a topic for generating sufficient funds for the production?
Let me reply with an example of Microphone, a highly successful film by Ahmed Abdullah which was released in 2011. It was the first independent film in Alexandria and one of the first independent films in Egypt. Fig Leaf Studio was part of this filmmaking in terms of co-writing and co-producing. Before Microphone we were more concerned with short films, yet Microphone was a big step that encouraged us to think of producing more feature films.
In 2010, we have had the feeling that now Alexandria is ready to take the risk of producing films that tell an alternative story by young filmmakers who want and are able to tell them. This is in fact the main concept of why we produce those films. An independent producer has to have a passion for certain ideas and concepts. This passion was shared by both of us, Zedan and I.
AO: Although Metawee Eweiss was born in Upper Egypt and he lived almost all his life in Cairo acting in its several film studios, you brought him and Kamal El-Homossany to Alexandria. What was the dramatic context of Alexandria in this film?
Now when I think about this point I do not really find an answer (laughs). Maybe we want to show our appreciation and support to the city that supported and appreciated us.
In a scene Metawee Eweiss asks about why he is here in this street in this city; but for him and also for me the important thing was to build a relationship that allows him and me to tell the story, his story and the cinema story from his eyes and also my own story with this man who is a part of my perception of Egyptian cinema.
But there is also another financial reason since we had a very limited resources so it was easier for us to invite El-Homossany and Eweiss to Alexandria than moving the crew and all the equipment to Cairo.
AO: I Have a Picture broke the typical style of a biographical documentary that is made in Egypt. Was it a conscious cinematic statement?
Metawee Eweiss in one of his roles
From day one we had in mind that we are not going to do a typical biographical documentary, we will not to place the characters on a chair asking them questions and recording the answers. It was a conscious decision.
Another point is that El-Homossany has a long career as an assistant director in fiction films and his ideas and vision enriched the documentary.
I think what mattered was not to make a different film but to be liberated from all the typical artistic expectations that limit us from experimenting and exploring. There should not be one way to make your film.
AO: In some sequences it was very clear there is a thin line between sarcasm and humour. You were laughing with El-Homossany and Eweiss, but not at them, and so too the audience. Again, was it a conscious decision?
Art is to play in a way or another and to enjoy your game; in this sense we were playing together. For example most of the humouristic scenes of El-Homossany were dubbed by him and he was happy to repeat his funny words and style of talking.
Another thing was my voiceover, which made some parts of the story clearer so the audience realised what am I standing for and what this film is standing for. It is a film that creates a dialogue between generations of filmmakers and sends a greeting to Egyptian cinema.
AO: And it took over seven years to release the film. Was it due to budget limitations?
I Have a Picture costs less than EGP 30,000 in cash. The main crew members contributed without money.
It is true the political instability during and after 2011 was a factor of delaying the film, but it was not the main factor. I believe the main factor for the delay was the confusing input of international film experts in various platforms who wanted to make big changes in the film's script to find in it so-called “international appeal." When you enter those platforms you deal with experts who have their own vision.
If you are a film director in your first or second or third film, this advice is not always suitable or good for the film. The freshness of your experience is better because it reaches new horizons. We tried to seek input, but we saw everyone wants to make the film in his way. They became a pressure and not a help.
At the end of the day we produced the film from our pockets and it reflects its filmmakers who are more concerned with the local appeal. If I am asked to produce this film now, I would not recommend the film director seek the consultancy of international experts. If only they deal with the film director as a film director they would help him much better.
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(Photo: poster of I Have a Picture)