“Fluid, seamless, up-close-and-personal camera work in a moving portrait of Egypt’s youth. Ayten Amin carefully builds a precious world where local tradition and universal hope are fused. Here, a young girl dreams, hopes to please and seduce, aspires to be loved, to wear make-up, to be born into the world. In sumptuous Alexandria, all of the life and sounds of the city can be heard outside, juxtaposed with the silences of the heroine and the director. Following in the footsteps of Yomeddine by A. B. Shawky and Mohamed Diab’s work, here is proof if ever more was needed of the dynamic energy of the young, up-and-coming Egyptian scene...”
Thus the Cannes administration on Ayten Amin’s Souad, which is among the 56 films in the official selection of the festival’s 73rd round. Sadly the event itself is not taking place due to Covid-19.
Souad is the first feature film by an Egyptian female director to have that distinction. The first Egyptian-Tunisian coproduction since the 1970s, it also brought together three Egyptians producers. Amin’s friend Sameh Awad, a New York-based business management consultant was so keen on the project he founded a production company, Vivid Reels. Mark Lotfy, who cofounded the Alexandria-based Fig Leaf Studios in 2005, took care of outdoor shooting (the film is set between Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Zagazig).
And Mohamed Hefzy of Film Clinic – also the head of the Cairo International Film Festival since 2018 – also took part in the production. So did the renowned Tunisian producer Dorra Bouchoucha of Nomadis Images, who had asked Amin to attend her biannual script development workshop in Tunisia before she decided to involve herself in the project.
It wasn’t easy to transform Souad from an idea in Amin’s head in 2015 to a Cannes selection entry five years later, and the story illuminates the conditions of the film industry in Egypt. Together with screenwriter Mahmoud Ezzat, who had collaborated with her on her debut Villa 69 (2013), Amin had completed writing by 2016 but did not secure any funds until 2018 when she won several awards at the CineGouna Springboard in the course of the second El Gouna Film festival. Despite the success of Villa 69 and the highly acclaimed television series, Seventh Neighbour (2017), Amin says this was not deemed sufficient proof of her potential. The film was not the kind the immediately interests producers.
“It is a very simple story about the everyday life of teenage girls who live away from the centre and connect with the outside world through the internet,” Amin says, pointing out that many factors made it hard to finance the project. “It uses actors who have no experience. There is a script, but it is largely a reflection of the real-life stories we kept hearing from the dozens of young women we met during auditions and in our own lives. The actual shooting makes a lot of room for improvisation, it is a cinematic language I loved and wanted to explore, like a narrative film in the form of a documentary.”
Amin says Souad was a story she instantly wanted to tell: “I felt that these girls do not have a voice in our cinema and I wanted to give them that space. If there is one reason I now feel it’s the closest film to my heart it’s that I made it exactly the way I wanted to. I enjoyed every second of the process where we had the space for creatively building it up gradually with the input of everyone in the crew.”
The film received funding from the Organization International de la Francophonie (OIF), the Produire de Sud, the Beirut Cinema Platform and AFAC, but Amin went against the usual practise of employing a foreign professional crew.
“Another adventure I’m proud of: all the crew members, with some of them doing what they’re doing for the first time. The point is – I was looking for people who could find themselves in the film one way or another. I love to work in a team and Souad’s team was very homogeneous with each person happy with their role. The thing about Cannes for me is that the story of the film, the way it was made, the people it represents can click with people everywhere. It is universal in a way but it also shows a very real aspect of us that they did not realise existed. I am proud that this film could pave the road for our real stories to be told and supported. It’s also very important to maintain the connection with Tunisia and other Arab countries who went a step ahead. We should look for co-production within our own sphere.”
Amin is looking forward to the theatrical release of the film, and hopes that Souad’s success story will make her next journey easier.
As a cinephile with numerous friends in the independent scene, Sameh Awad had kept up with Amin’s creative developments. “I witnessed the early stages of the film when Ayten was writing it and we were discussing it as friends,” he says. “Actually I was very keen on the story and on Ayten’s ambition to explore a cinematic language she had not used before. I also witnessed her having a hard time securing funds for three years. It’s cruel how producers reject a project like this because it has nothing to do with her style in previous works. That was the main reason, besides the story not being exotic enough.” It felt daunting, he says, when Amin asked him to be the lead producer. “But she was confident and it turns out she had amazing foresight.”
Their strategy for making it happen was to stress artistic value and present conceptual proof rather than written material. With a small financial contribution from Awad himself, they shot a pilot demonstrating what the film would look like – and the first positive response came from El Gouna, which enabled them to start shooting, followed by the IOF grant with which half film was completed. That was when Hefzy could be brought in.
“The role of local film festivals is crucial,” Awad says, “though there should also be state and private sector initiatives so that filmmakers can find room to be creative, experiment and explore new horizons.” Amin, he goes on to explain, truly does not believe in the kind of exoticism that draws Western support. She simply believes in her story, and Souad is proof that there are ways to be true to your vision and convince others of it still. “Once you have the film, postproduction funding comes far more easily. By early 2020 the project was complete.”
Approaching Cannes was another daunting step but both Amin and Awad were convinced of the power of Souad whether in terms of content or style. “You don’t make a film for Cannes,” Awad says, “but it makes you happy when you’re recognised by Cannes. It’s also a good thing I think that the film’s broad audience – and it is a kind of popular film – will be proud that their tastes are shared by one of the world’s most prestigious festivals.” It could also push producers to think out of the box and filmmakers to stick to their creative guns. Souad was already an inspiration for its crew members, Awad says.
For his part Mark Lotfy believes Souad benefited from the way it pooled the skills of different producers with different specialties: “Sameh Awad had the business acumen to rescue the project at a critical moment, Dora Bouchoucha the project development and Mohamed Hefzy the independent cinema investment skill and experience to make it financially possible. Fig Leaf had experience working on low budget projects and making shooting possible where it is very difficult, and so we facilitated filming in Alexandria and Zagazig.” Amin’s persistence, he adds, was inspiring to everyone.
Like other members of the crew, the film’s cinematographer Maged Nader (also a film director now working on his debut feature) was deeply invested in the experience. With several short films to his name as director, Nader also did the cinematography for films like Ahmed Fawzy Saleh’s Poisonous Roses (2018). “As a director of photography,” he says, “I like to work on films that I’d like to see, and also ones that are different from my own style.” Though a Cinema Institute graduate, Nader appreciates this as a learning experience. “I learned a lot from Souad not only as a cinematographer but as a film director. For example, the way Ayten deals with the actors – they don’t teach you that at film school.” Using natural light – “the only way you can make room for improvising on location” – was a real challenge, he says, but he had full creative agency to choose how to take it on.
“I was there during rehearsals as well as during editing, and before that I was there after the script was ready because as a friend of both the screenwriter Mahmoud Ezzat and the director I was asked for my input at every stage. It is an overwhelming experience in every sense. After the challenging years when Ayten was not able to secure the funds for her film and although I loved the project, I began to suspect that a film like this would have difficulties in the world of big festivals. Cannes was such a mind-blowing surprise. Every contribution to the independent scene is an inspiration to other filmmakers. Working on Souad was epoch-making.”
Another young filmmaker whose shorts have garnered praise, Khaled Medhat Moeit, did the editing of Souad. “I used to edit my own shorts and some of my friends’,” he says. “This is my first feature film as an editor and I believe it was courageous of Ayten to take that risk.” An engineering student, Moeit had loved Villa 69. He was so keen on taking part in the new project that he moved from Port Said to Cairo for the purpose. “What I loved the most about Ayten’s debut was her poetic style. My concept in Souad’s editing was how to make it as poetic as possible.” But there was another aspect to the job. “When I saw the material, I felt I could relate to the characters and the story, especially in the second part of the film. I believe everyone will relate to it as much as I did.”
Moeit feels that Souad is a significant step in his filmmaking career, both as experience and education: “My understanding of how you can communicate a meaning or a feeling through a scene or a sequence of scenes has improved. I got to find out about the rhythms I like, my taste in pacing, all those difficult questions found answers.” But the most significant lesson he had as a film director is that it has empowered him to do exactly what he wants. Souad’s selection in Cannes, he believes, will free both filmmakers and producers and help them see that human relationships in our part of the world are a worthy cinematic subject.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly