Where Did Ramses Go?: Filmmaker Amr Bayoumi's adventure with modern Egypt’s best known Pharaoh

Nahed Nasr , Sunday 9 Jun 2019

Amr Bayoumi’s 60-min documentary Where Did Ramses Go? won the best long documentary award at the 21th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts

Amr Bayoumi
Amr Bayoumi

"Where did Ramses go?/ Maybe to Khufu in the Pyramids/ We searched for him but we did not find him/ He might be visiting Hatshepsut/ But we still did not find him/ Oh, here is he/ Where have you been, Ramses?/ I was getting Ice Cream/ Where from?/ From Misr Dairy, its products are everywhere.” - These are the lyrics to the Misr lil-Alban (Misr Dairy) advertisement, one of Egyptian television’s best known, dating back to the late 1960s-early 1970s. 

Today Misr Dairy, a public sector company, is no longer very successful. But the ad, directed by animation pioneer Ali Mohib (1935-2010) and produced by Al-Ahram Advertising Agency, remains a nostalgic reminder of a specific time in Egyptian pop culture and social history.

Its lyrics feature in the closing scene of Amr Bayoumi’s 60-min documentary Where Did Ramses Go?, which won the best long documentary award at the 21th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts.

The last part of the film records the last few hours spent by the 3,200-year-old Ramses II colossus in Ramses Square before it was relocated to the Grand Egyptian Museum in 2006 (where it would move again from an enclosure there to the newly opened museum’s entrance in 2018, after the film was completed), a significant moment in his and his generation’s personal history; the night the statue was being moved, thousands gathered to watch and trail it on its journey.

Born in 1962, and best known for his daring documentary Sex Talk(2010), Bayoumi is the protagonist as well as the director, and he traces aspects of the statue’s life since its discovery and its connection to one of the more visible settings of modern Egyptian history. But the premise of the film was not always very clear when he decided to shoot the statue’s journey back in 2006.

“It was a big event. It was everyone’s concern, not only the media’s or the state’s. I thought I should document it with my own camera no matter how many TV cameras would be there. I knew that would become a part of a film, though I couldn’t have told you what that film might look like. It would have something to say about me, too. At that time the Jesuit Cairo Film School was just starting and my friend the filmmaker Karim Hanafy was its director. He helped with equipment from there: two cameras, tripods, and sound recorders.” Now Bayoumi had to come up with a filming strategy.

Where Did Ramses Go?
Poster of Where Did Ramses Go?

“I scouted some of the higher buildings in Ramses Square, Tahrir Square and Kasr Al-Aini Street as well as other areas where the statue would pass, and I obtained all the necessary permissions. That is how I had an accurate and beautiful record of the voyage from the beginning until the closest point to the statue’s final destination I could shoot.”

It would be many years before Bayoumi found a context for this material. During that time Bayoumi researched the colossus, not only as an image of ancient Egypt’s most powerful pharaoh but also as part of his own childhood.

“I was born and brought up in Al-Sakkakini, a neighbourhood very close to Ramses Square. The statue was the most remarkable thing in the world of a teen venturing out of his home for the first time.”

But memories of Ramses Square quickly brought on memories of his by now late father. “How far can the destiny of a piece of stone be connected with that of a human being? I didn’t find out what my film would look like until I started asking that question.”

Together with archival material telling the story of the statue and the square where it spent nearly a century — how it lay in Mit Rihana, the site of ancient Memphis, for 130 years before president Gamal Abdel-Nasser ordered that it should be restored, reassembled and installed outside the city’s main train station to celebrate the 1952 Revolution’s second anniversary — Bayoumi senior’s presence through words, stories and letters Bayoumi reads out loud connect the personal with the public.

Replacing Mahmoud Mukhtar’s landmark Egyptian Renaissance (the emblem of an earlier time), Ramses thus becomes “a significant example of the intersection of the stone and human destinies”.

While Bayoumi engages with his father in the narration, the visuals focus on successive episodes of history in which Ramses Square was a central setting. And the family’s proximity to the statue comes to light.

Where Did Ramses Go?
Still from Where Did Ramses Go?

The film’s own journey is almost as significant. Despite a long career in filmmaking prior to it, Bayoumi could only make Where Did Ramses Go?once Rahala Production and Distribution was on board. An emerging independent company founded in 2011 by director Naji Ismail, it was Bayoumi’s perfect match.

“It was frustrating trying to think of a way to make the film with a big production company and, having made documentaries of TV channels, I knew they would impose their own restrictions as well. I wanted a producer who would support me making the film on my own terms.”

Besides, working with a younger film person like Ismail, whom he met in 2016, “was a fruitful, eye-opening experience”. And so Where Did Ramses Go?became the company first feature-length production.

“We had been searching for a long film project with which to start with,” Ismail explains. “And this was a great start for many reasons:” an experienced filmmaker, beautiful footage of Ramses’s 2006 journey and a rare meeting of generations, with an older established director trusting — indeed “eager to support” — a younger one’s initiative.

“It was Amr who approached us. This helped us overcome all our doubts about having a different mindset from people of his generation. Amr’s predicament also made me think about my own future. I believe the very limited opportunities for production and distribution in Egypt are narrowing the gap between generations and making us realise this is a much bigger problem than that of young filmmakers deprived of the chance to make films. We’re all in the same boat.”

Rahala could not finance the film entirely — a two-month Docs Box initiative in Germany was necessary — but it did provide cameras, editing, colour and mixing equipment. And it set a precedent. The next challenge for both Rahala and Bayoumi is distribution of the film.

Bayoumi wants to continue with the adventure: “They wanted to produce a long film and they successfully started with mine. Now I am more than happy to support them until they succeed as a distribution company.”

Ismail says independent film distribution requires a new mentality: “For many years independent filmmakers have been stuck with the famous European and American festivals and markets which give them very limited opportunities, although markets and festivals in Asia and Africa are wide open for us to try our luck. That’s what we’re planning to do as an alternative way to market this film and as an alternative distribution strategy for independent films.”

The company’s debut has an attractive subject linked to Egypt’s brand, as it were, and the Ismailia Festival prize can thus be the start of a long and exciting journey.

* A version of this article appears in print in Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Ramses link

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