Eight years ago a group of young friends were caught in a snowstorm on their way to the top of the Bab Al-Dunya Mountain in South Sinai. The event and its aftermath was a media sensation. The temperature dropped to minus 13, and the intensity of the wind dispersed the group. A few died, including up-and-coming filmmaker Mohamed Ramadan. A close friend of Ramadan’s, audio engineer Abdel Rahman Mahmoud had planned to join the group but was waylaid at the last minute. For his directorial debut, Bab Al-Dunya (or Door to the World), Mahmoud decided to trace his friend’s path. That is the only the feature-length documentary competition at the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Short IIFFDS (17-23 March), where it is having its world premiere.
The grieving Mahmoud chose not to appear in any way in his film, relying instead on a member of the search and rescue team that looked for Ramadan and the others. “I’m not the first to try to trace our late friend’s journey to his death. Maybe I am the first to document it, but I didn’t want to attribute the trip to myself. I would be selfish if I did. That’s why I decided to have the camera follow someone who personally witnessed everything,” he says. Mahmoud’s presence can nonetheless be felt in the camera movement and the unusual angles from which it explores the terrain, perhaps mimicking Ramadan’s perspective at the end. In the absence of a snowstorm Mahmoud of course has an entirely different experience, but using his mobile phone to shoot he combines the urge to document what happened as closely as possible with his own grief. This comes through in his choice of black and white.
“It is very difficult to use a professional camera in the Sinai heights for all kinds of reasons, and you can’t just wait indefinitely for permits that might not come. I was desperate to relive the moment I missed and to keep it forever. Nature in Sinai is delightful and magical, but for me this film was like questioning Bab Al-Dunya and nature about what happened.” Though he had not intended to make a film, he never forgets that he was supposed to be there. “When Ramadan did not come back, the shock was great, and I felt I was somehow part of what happened. For many years I resisted the need to know the details. Three years ago I decided to take the same trip without intending to document it. I just wanted to experience the same paths that Ramadan took. But by chance along the way there were people living and working there in the mountain, and for some mysterious reason they started telling the sad tale or fragments scattered from the story.”
Mahmoud, who had worked only in sound and production since graduating from the Higher Institute of Cinema in 2007, recorded what he heard and documented what he saw, just to remember. But after a while, he returned to the mountain again, having decided that perhaps the only way to reconcile himself to the bitter memory with the bitter memory was to make a film about the trip, or rather about his own journey into the world of his late friend’s journey. “It may have taken me eight years to be able to communicate with the trauma. But this film does not belong to me alone, it belongs to everyone who knows Ramadan.” Door to The World is a personal statement, but it acts as a kind of collective dirge for the 2010 Higher Institute of Cinema graduate who was a teaching assistant there when he died. Ramadan’s only film is his graduation project, the short film Senses (2010), which won the Jury Prize at the National Egyptian Film Festival and the Oran International Arab Film Festival.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly