In and out of the room: The life of a hangman

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 13 Apr 2011

In Dina Hamza’s latest documentary “In and out of the room” a rare story unfolds of the life of the man whose job is to take lives

in out of the room

The film is screened for the first time in Egypt on Thursday 14 April at the annual ‘Rencontres de l'Image’ Festival, held at the French Cultural Centre in Mounira.  

Dina Hamza, an independent director of short and documentary films, and the winner of the Saad Nadim prize at the National Film Festival in 2009, has a very unusual story to tell.

Breaking away from the horrors and myths that shadow the figure of the hangman, Hamza’s film highlights the contrast between the executioner’s life, in and out of the death chamber, in the most human way.

Opening with the popular belief that this man is God’s tool on earth, the film moves away from the bushy moustache and uniform of the man, into the life of someone who is hardly the master of his own fate. Sounds familiar?

He is the symbol of the late regime, whose main job was the Hangman, yet  his official title was the “Whipper of the sector”, for his side job was to execute of torture detainees. The film points out his justification from a religious perspective, his constant nightmares and his belief that wearing a silver ring will prevent them. It shows that even the windows of his home are covered with iron bars, and how he listens to Abdel Halim Hafez songs every day on the radio. 

The film succeeds in breaking down his life into rich scenes of human follies and virtues. Set against a powerful soundtrack that mingles oriental music with valse, it captures with sensitive insight the essence of his life and brings out the beauty of it against all odds.

Ahram Online talks to the director behind such powerful scenes.

Ahram Online (AO): Is this the first documentary depicting a hangman in Egypt?

Dina Hamza (DH): I am not so sure if it is the first, but to my knowledge he has never been documented, except on television.

AO: Why did you pick this subject?

DH: I never thought of execution on its own, until I saw Am Hussein on a television programme when he was being interviewed after the execution of Saddam Hussein. What interested me is how the footage showed his warm relationship with his neighbours, as well as how hard he tried to deflect from the public’s perceptions of him.

He was so natural and simple, explaining all the time that he was following orders and that he always consults the sheikh who assures him that he is God’s hands on earth. On asked if he had ever hung an innocent person, with tears in his eyes he remembered that it had happened once.

I was taken by the contrast between the image that is portrayed of him and reality. How come we honour judges who give out the death sentence, yet we view the one who carries out the sentence as the one responsible? I wanted to show his human side, and how he deals with death for a living.  However throughout the making of the movie, I realised that dealing with death and the death sentence is quite problematic for me. What if the person executed is innocent, would we prosecute the judge? It’s not fair.

AO:  The film smashes the myths of a fierce “ashmawi” (hangman) as it shows his human side.  How did you do that?  Was it hard to get to know him? How long did it take?

DH: The permits took a long time and I wanted to shoot him at his home as well. The prolonged period of waiting allowed me to get to know him better. For four months, I used to go home with him on the public bus, sit with him at the local café and observe. He lives in the El-Zawya Al Hamra district, smokes shisha a lot and listens to Abdel Halim Hafez songs on radio every evening. 

AO: What about the scene at the football match?

DH: I wanted to shoot him at a large event while he was unaware of the camera to catch a spontaneous reaction.  I made a connection between the football match (between Egypt and Algeria) and the ‘whipping’ (torture) that happens in Egyptian prisons.

It is as if the previous government was always eager to divert our attention from what’s really going on, by using football as a tool to create an imaginary enemy. So while he was talking about whipping, Egypt wins over Algeria and Egyptians celebrate the triumph, while the country was in a catastrophic state.

On a parallel note, he’d rather kill for a living, than whip someone to death, simply because as a hangman he is following official orders, but whipping is a verbal order from his superiors, and if discovered he gets the blame.

AO: What about his character?

DH:  He places the Quran under his arm in order to decrease the strength of the whipping in case he dropped the Quran (which is frowned upon religiously), a common ploy with hangmen.

His official title is “whipper of the sector”, but in spite of his intimidating look, he still dreads the sounds of the hanging. It was if he took this job because it gave him power outside the room, but inside he was always following orders.

He was very fond of Am Helmy, his role model and mentor who passed away. He wears the silver ring that Am Helmy had promised would rid him of the nightmares that came with the job.

AO: The last scene of the film is of two consecutive endings, one inside the execution room with the rope ending a life, and the other with Am Hussien sailing away with his family. Why did you depict two endings?

DH: His life revolves in and out of the death chamber, but I selected a better ending for him.  He will sail away from the death chamber once he retires.

He is never afraid. Those who fear him are those watching television. The media places him in a chilling context as part of the terror techniques adopted by the previous government. They wanted to keep the suspense strong, but the film is not about that.

In and out of the room will be screened on Thursday 14 April, at 7 pm at the French Cultural Centre in Mounira, Downtown.


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