Rules of Engagement: Documentary Filmmaking According to Tahani Rached

Mai Serhan, Thursday 20 Dec 2012

Egyptian documentary filmmaker Tahani Rached creates powerful socially engaged movies about contemporary Egyptian and Arab struggles, yet is challenged by narrow audiences

Film still from These Girls (2006)

Tahani Rached’s latest documentary film, Nafass Tawil (Deep, Long Breath), premiered in September at the American University in Cairo as part of the International Summer Academy’s Aesthetics and Politics: Counter-Narratives, New Publics, and the Role of Dissent in the Arab World, a research program organized by the Center for Translation Studies and the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien.   

As I sat in the packed, historic space of Ewart Hall waiting in anticipation for the screening, there were many questions running through my head. Why would a film about the January 25 uprising in Egypt take so long to be released? And why would an award-winning director, who is used to premiering in international festivals, choose a relatively private, academic venue for her latest project?

In order to answer these initial questions (and others) I arranged to interview the director, whose powerful films I have always admired. Before meeting her, I had planned to base this feature on three main questions: How does she perceive her role as a documentary filmmaker. Where does documentary filmmaking stand today? And why is a revolution such a challenging subject to capture on film. Her reply was completely in line with who she is and the kind of films she makes. She said, “Let’s just talk.”

If you are familiar with her films, you are aware that Rached has made an art out of bringing people together, preferably in an informal space, like a kitchen or even a bedroom, to engage in conversation. Through these intimate talks, guards fall off revealing some very hard facts about the state of the world, and its economical, political, and social mechanisms. The effect is one that allows a debate to dress down as a chat, a historical event to pose as an anecdote, and a universal truth to escape like a secret, which leaves her, the director, in full command of our attention, entirely engaged. 

It is this penchant for human experience that provides Rached with such a vast personal reach. It is also what has allowed her to present such a rich and diverse body of work. With almost 40 years spent in Canada, it was only natural to ask whether she relates more to her Canadian or Egyptian roots. “I have no identity,” she replied, “identity is not about citizenship, it is made up from the sum of my life experiences.”

Look no further than her film projects to see that she indeed practices what she preaches. To give you a brief overview, in 1983 she made Beyrouth! Not Enough Death to Go Around, about life in the refugee camps in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacre; In 1985 it was Haiti, Quebec, about Haitian immigrants grappling with exclusion and racism; In 1990, it was Au Chic Resto Pop about universal themes such as poverty and hunger as experienced from a restaurant in Montreal that served those in need for over 25 years; In 2004, she made Soraida, a Woman of Palestine about women living under siege in Ramallah; In 2006 it was These Girls,which followed a group of Cairene street girls as they battled with rape, drugs, and beggary.

Through it all, her approach has provided unprecedented access into the lives of her subjects wherever they may be. Asked about her secret, how she manages to make people speak so openly about their deepest and darkest desires, worries and memories, she simply says, “I love them.” It is that underlying love for life, art, and people that enables her to identify with the most crackling of characters, and have them in turn, reach out to her.

To better understand what constitutes her as a filmmaker, one must hark back to her formative years. It was 1966. Rached had moved with her family to Quebec, Canada, and had enrolled in the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts to study painting. As it were, the times were changing, and the effects were polarizing. By then, the world had become a hotbed, a contested space, teetering between battlefield and Utopia.

In Canada, the energy caught on. It was a time of high consciousness, activism and social responsibility, with youth and women assuming key roles in the public arena. Wide-based intellectual debates about a better society and improving conditions and opportunities were abound. The Feminist movement was also gaining ground. The Montreal Women’s Liberation Movement was founded in 1969 and The Front de Liberation des Femmes du Quebec had published its first manifesto by 1970. Health and rape crisis centers were created, and so were shelters for battered women and child care services. Almost everywhere you went, there were public events, entertainment in various forms, and demonstrations, all in order to raise awareness and disseminate information.

The zeitgeist was infectious, and Rached caught the bug. Suddenly, atelier life seemed too detached, and like everyone else, she wanted to break free, to engage and to contribute. So she approached her professor, whom she also considered a good friend, and shared her state of mind. His reply was all she needed to make up her mind. “If you want to help the poor,” he said, “be a lawyer.”

Disappointed by his response, she dumped all her paints and brushes into the trashcan, dropped out of school, and threw herself into social work. Later, a chance encounter with a friend came with a job proposal- to manage a 3-storey building: the first a nursery, the second a kitchen where volunteers cooked for the poor, and the third a space to meet and discuss new projects. Still, the job lost its luster after only three months. Once again, it did not respond to her urge to play a truly active role, to communicate, and to help others in need.

It was through waitressing that Rached finally entered the world of film. A group of filmmakers from the US were shooting in Quebec, and they dropped by the bar where she worked. Through conversation, she learned of their project and decided to get involved. Eventually, the American crew left without completing their project, so she finished it for them.

“That was possible at the time,” she says. Indeed, the rules of engagement from this point forward were determined by the spirit of those days. Possibility went hand in hand with resourcefulness and responsibility. Although she never studied film, Rached learned about her craft first-hand. There were no shortcuts. She learned through interaction, practice and making mistakes. Speaking of her first project, Les Voleurs de Jobs, she recalls watching a take and thinking, “it’s OK,” and the cameraman responding with, “to the garbage!” Indeed, nothing short of perfection made the cut. It was a tip that pushed her to only seek work with the best.

But while at times that can-do spirit dictated the rules, at others the director had to fight for that spirit to stay alive. From 1980 to 2005, Rached worked for the National Film Board of Canada, the NFB, as a staff filmmaker. Speaking of the experience, she recalls how there were absolutely no problems funding projects. “All I had to do was make good movies,” she says. And good movies, she did. Doctors with Heart, a film that raises ethical questions about the treatment of AIDS and examines the doctor-patient relationship in Quebec, Four Women of Egypt, about the friendship between women of different political and religious stripes, and Au Chic Resto Pop all won her numerous awards; with Hotdocs, arguably the world’s most important documentary event, awarding her the Mid-Career Canadian Filmmaker Tribute in 2010.

Yet, the best part of it all was not the festival circuit, nor the critical acclaim. The best part was that these films made it to movie theatres and television screens. They reached a wide base, the real target audience. They were movies of the people, for the people, and ended up communicating with the people. Nothing responded to her personal calling nor spelled real engagement more than this feat.

But, again, it did not always come that easy. In 2005, Rached left the NFB to work as an independent director. While her next two films, These Girls and Neighbors, were funded by Karim Gamal El Din at Studio Masr in Egypt, Rached still found funding and distribution to be quite a challenge.  Although both films went on to receive huge critical acclaim, with These Girls making it as part of the official selections of Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival, these specific films were not known to a wide base audience in movie theatres and households across the country.

Speaking of her brief encounter with television ‘executives’ working for satellite channels, Rached describes how ‘the rules of engagement’ were somewhat different to what she was used to. Unlike Canada where you could easily make contact with someone in a TV station and propose a good idea, in Egypt “if the idea was able to sell soap and margarine, then it was seriously considered.” The man in charge was essentially an advertising guy, concerned with sensational storylines, star power and, most importantly, the bottom line. Unfortunately, that left little to no space for the director’s line of work.

The idea to reach out to a TV audience became all the more crucial to Rached with the January 25 uprising of 2010. Here you had the youth and women of Egypt pretty much spearheading the protests without a clear goal in mind, except the urgent need for change. With all the resilience and inspiring energy they had, they still lacked experience and a clear vision. The times were chaotic. The propaganda machine was working full-time to try to defame protestors and distort facts. The need to separate truth from lies, to raise awareness and disseminate information, to assume social responsibility and engage every household in the process was paramount. With this in mind, she decided to start work on a TV series about the events. The result was a pilot comprised of three episodes. As TV stations showed no interest, once again the director had to resort to work amidst the absence of a clear financial and distribution plan.

Although the 18 days leading to the toppling of Mubarak were cathartic for Rached, providing much of what she has lived for and by, the decision to translate that into her latest documentary, Nafass Tawil (Deep, Long Breath,) proved challenging. How do you simultaneously participate in the events and observe them from behind the camera without losing perspective? How do you put together a narrative in the absence of one? How do you choose a subject from among millions sharing the same experience? How can you gain trust amidst so much negative propaganda and suspicion? And finally, why would you venture into yet another grueling production without getting paid?

Explaining her decision to go ahead despite the hurdles, she says, “you do that once in a lifetime. It was a Utopia. I wanted to capture that energy.”  Here were the rules of engagement at their best. The doors were open and the barriers were broken. Men, women, and children were out on the street, and everyone was part of that indomitable whole. Every individual took it upon himself, or herself, to become an agent of change. The can-do energy was invincible, the sense of possibility unlimited. While a lot of artists understandably felt crippled by the magnitude of the moment, and decided to put their artistic pursuits on the backburner, Rached decided to throw herself right in.

Yet, she will be the first to admit, “It is very hard to construct a narrative for a revolution.” Events were hurling like curveballs from every direction, and no one was prepared. There was the fear of not being able to absorb it all. Even when she decided to be selective about what to include and what to leave out, there was the problem of distinguishing between speculation and fact.

One way to anchor the story was to choose a subject. Her choice fell on Sameh, her sound engineer and his father, Gamal, a university-level Engineering professor. If the point of Deep, Long Breath, was to "capture the spirit of the revolution," as she explains, then that spirit found its balance in Sameh and Gamal, the former representing the impetuous yet admirable spirit of the youth, and the latter providing the wise guidance needed to move forward. From their house, the audience is introduced to a constant stream of youth, walking in and out, relating stories, asking questions, and together, with Gamal, disseminating information to formulate answers. 

Yet the real challenge was not filming in the house, but outside, in Tahrir. As events unfolded, protesters suffered the backlash of the old regime, from spreading rumors about foreign infiltration, to spreading terror through state media and hired thugs. Suddenly paranoia was rife, and everyone in Tahrir was suspect. The easiest targets were women, those with cameras, and those who looked foreign, even in the slightest way. Unfortunately for her, Rached was all three. To navigate easily and with limited harassment, she decided to print her Egyptian national ID number on a t-shirt and wear it to the Square, so as to leave no room for speculation.

Deep, Long Breathwas finally wrapped in 2012. Yet even after its wrap, the film was met with a whole set of new problems. By that time, the film market was already saturated with projects about the Egyptian uprising. Egypt’s moment in the limelight had passed and the new hot topic doing the festival rounds was now Syria. With satellite channels giving the cold shoulder and world festivals moving on to the next big thing, Deep, Long Breath was facing its biggest problems yet, promotion and distribution.

As a last resort, Rached even considered posting her latest project on YouTube or Facebook. But as she puts it, “technology has a way of helping you and working against you at the same time.” For example, in terms of exposure, more than 800 million users visit YouTube every month, but at the same time 72 hours of video are uploaded every minute. In the absence of proper promotion and high visibility, the film risked being washed up amongst millions of videos being posted every day. To add insult to injury, the film quality would have had to suffer, a kind of compromise that Rached was not prepared to make. Yes, the need to get the film out was important, but at the end of the day this was not reportage, this was film, an art form, and its integrity had to stay intact.

With the film finally making its debut at the American University in Cairo, Rachid reflects, “Documentary filmmaking is such a fragile business.” Projects are hard to make, hard to finance, and hard to promote, but at the end of the day, this is often part of the process. By nature, documentary films are audio-visual investigations that require a tremendous amount of in-depth research. Seeing it in this light, perhaps it is not surprising that a group of scholars would likely be the most receptive audience to their appeal. In some instances, it is the best that a documentary filmmaker could hope for. Each film has its own journey and the rules of engagement differ from one time to another, from one space to another, and from one project to another.

Be that as it may, one thing is for certain, Rached is reluctant to continue working pro bono, especially if her films do not reach the audience for whom they are made in the first place. Yet, she confesses, she is still full of ideas and will continue to try to work around such obstacles. There is no escaping it, “you do it, because you cannot live without doing it.” Right now, she is focused on providing training courses for the next generation of documentary filmmakers, those she lovingly calls, El Shabab (The Youth.) And with a final statement that ensures that the beautiful values informing her life and her craft will live on, she says, “I am giving back not what I have, but what I have received.”  

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

Search Keywords:
Short link: