The young Egyptian film editor Mohamed El-Manasterly moved to the USA three years ago after winning an Emmy for Best Picture Editing on The Square, which was directed by Jehan Noujaim and nominated for Best Documentary at the 2014 Oscars.
He returned to Egypt to co-write and edit Soufra, a documentary by American director Thomas Morgan. Soufra had its world premiere at El Gouna Film Festival, which ran between 22 and 29 September, winning the Cinema For Humanity Audience Award, as well as a special award by Mentor Arabia for Best Arab Feature Documentary.
The film is an inspirational documentary that tracks the hard journey of a group of desperate female refugees in the Lebanese Bourj El-Barajneh camp until they achieve their dream of setting up a food-truck project.
Ahram Online met with El-Manasterly during his short stay in Egypt following the El Gouna Film Festival, which he said was "a two-months vacation after three years away from Egypt. I am very homesick, missing everything and everyone."
Ahram Online (AO): Soufra is not your first film dealing with a humanitarian issue in the Arab world. It's also not the first film that you've made in cooperation with a human-rights activist director. Both Thomas Morgan, the director of Soufra (2017), and Chris Temple, the director of Salam Neighbor (2015), are passionate about raising awareness of human-rights and social-justice issues. Do you go after such films?
Mohamed El Manasterly (MM): Salam Neighbor, which featured two filmmakers who fully embedded themselves in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, had a vision to be an eye opener for the American audience on the refugee crisis. In this sense, Soufra shares the same cause, though in a more inspirational way.
I believe The Square (2013) was the reason why I was chosen as the editor for Soufra or Salam Neighbor, not only in the sense that I won a Primetime Emmy award for the outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming, but because The Square was really a film that had the ability to approach both the Arab and the foreign audience. This point is shared also in both of the other two films. There are few editors in the USA who are fluent in Arabic and English and who have that link between the two cultures. I believe I belong to this group.
AO: And what was your recipe for cultural fusion in Soufra?
MM: You should tell a simple, emotional story that could be understood by everyone everywhere. Too many details are confusing and distracting. I believe that is how we introduced Mariam Shaar in Soufra. She was a normal woman and a human being who has the same dreams, frustrations and needs as any other woman, no matter where she lives. Everyone can relate to Mariam, a Palestinian refugee in a camp in Lebanon.
AO: How did you contribute to the script of Soufra?
MM: Of course, I was not there in Lebanon during the shooting. But when Thomas decided to have me on his team, there were 600 hours of material shot over two years, and we wanted to make a 70-minute film in six months.
It was a very interesting journey, watching and arranging the story from the material, and the good thing about working with Morgan is that he is accommodating of other visions and point of views.
For example, they, Morgan and the producer, wanted to load the film with more details about the Arab Spring and its sequence of events, because they believed the western audience needs to know all the details. For me, this could have negatively affected the simple human story of Mariam.
At the end of the day, we reached a common understanding about the general idea of what we want this film to say. It is a human story where politics and geography exist in the background. We wanted to introduce a successful model.
Mariam secured a stable living not only for herself but for many ladies around her. This is inspiring. It is about hope and not a tragedy.
AO: Going back to The Square, your first feature-length documentary, did you expect the film to have such an impact or success?
MM: The Square was a life-changing experience. I was a young Egyptian man in Tahrir Square, like thousands of other Egyptians, when I met Jehan Noujaim, the film director, who was shooting a film about the square. I offered to give a hand with the editing, since I was already an editor on TV programs for many channels. She agreed and this is how everything started.
We did three years of shooting and editing, until the moment came when we decided we had the ending scene of the film. We were working day and night with passion, because we felt this should be our contribution to the revolution. I believe this was the spirit that captured the minds and souls of the audience.
Unlike many other films, which were made about the revolution quickly, The Square was more sensible in terms of its vision and its ending. This made sense for the non-Egyptian audience who were not in the square themselves.
AO: Why did you decide to move to the USA following your Emmy award?
MM: A few months after we finished the editing of The Square, I was told that The Square was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards and that I should travel immediately. It was a surprise in every sense.
After that, I won one of the three Emmy awards given to The Square. Everything was inviting me to use the opportunity to serve my dream as a professional film editor.
But there is also another reason for my stay in Los Angeles in particular. It has weather similar to that of Egypt, in contrast to the very cold city of New York, which I cannot stand living in. [Laughs.]
AO: And did your dream came true?
MM: Although I am homesick for Egypt and I missed my family and friends, professionally speaking, I am not the same person I was three years ago. I had the opportunity to work with many people from different backgrounds and cultures where film production is huge, which means more experience and a wider vision.
Now I am very excited to work between the two worlds, to bridge Egyptian cinema, especially the emerging movement of filmmaking, with international cinema.
AO: How will you do this "bridging"?
MM: I want to keep telling stories about our Arab countries and about the Arabs. I am looking forward to producing films that could connect Egypt with the USA.
I have a small editing company in the USA and I intend to produce or co-produce documentary films about the Arab countries and about Egypt by Arab and Egyptian filmmakers. Now we are in a phase of searching for the right stories.
We, the Arabs and the Egyptians, need to introduce ourselves to the world as we truly are. They do not know who are we. I lived there and I can see how they feel astonished when they deal in person with an Egyptian. Because they realize that they did not really know us. Cinema should be the bridge.
AO: In what way does the work atmosphere in Egypt and the USA differ for you?
MM: I have to mention that I am one of many Egyptian editors and filmmakers who have skills and who spend long hours working professionally and doing great work in Egypt. What happened to me is that I found the chance to develop my skills and to get involved in many networks, and this what is lacking in Egypt.
Artists in Egypt work in isolated islands where they do not have the opportunity to meet the others and to cooperate with the others. The Square was an opporunity, but I was ready for it, and I am pretty sure that many of my colleagues in every field in Egypt are ready for the opportunities when they come.
AO: Do you have any advice to give to young aspiring film editors and filmmakers?
MM: Is it is a tough and long road, but my tip is that you should never give up. Keep working, no matter the quality, because every working experience is a learning experience. You will never learn if you do not move forward.