Boys, girls, and filmmaking

Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 12 Mar 2024

Nahed Nasr enjoyed seeing Youssry Nasrallah’s documentary classic for the second time

On Boys, Girls and the Veil
On Boys, Girls and the Veil


The 25th Ismailia International Film Festival (IIFF, 28 February-5 March) included a silver jubilee program of retrospectives. According to Marouan Omara, parallel program curator, the Silver program includes some of the most compelling documentary and short titles from the festival’s three-decade history: “These films illustrate the richness of the art of documentary and short filmmaking through a variety of forms, stories and voices.”

The documentary feature films screened in the Silver program are: The Act of Killing (2012) by Joshua Oppenheimer,  The Arbor  (2010) by Clio Barnard; Hoop Dreams (1994) by Steve James; Notalgia for the Light (2010) by Patricio Guzmán; The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) by Brett Story; Samouni Road (2018) by Stefano Savona; and On Boys, Girls and the Veil (1995), by Yousry Nasrallah.

The Short films screened in the silver program are: The Bigger Picture (2014) by Daisy Jacobs; I am Afraid to Forget Your Face (2020) by Sameh Alaa; Kenopsia  (2022) by Mohamed Omar; Last Days of The Man of Tomorrow (2017) by Fadi Baki; Night  (2021) by Ahmad Saleh; The Walking Fish(2018) by Thessa Meijir; Wave ‘98 (2015) by Ely Dagher; 1982  (2015) by Cristina Motta; Bab Sebta (2019) by Randa Maroufi; The Old Man and the Sea (1999) by Aleksandr Petrov; and Without Reason! (2004)  by Islam Ahmed,

Among the highlights of the Silver program is a restored version of On Boys, Girls and the Veil by the renowned Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, which premiered at the Ismailia Film Festival in 1995. Despite the passage of nearly three decades, the film is still vital, its vision fresh. In it Nasrallah accompanies actor Bassem Samra, who is still in the prime of his career at the time, to Samra’s family just outside the city, and through observing the various interactions between family members, the social, cultural and economic environment of a middle-class family in Egypt in the first half of the 1990s is gradually revealed.

At the beginning of the project, Nasrallah — preoccupied with the phenomenon of the hijab and rising religiosity at the time — was full of ideas he wanted to prove through the film’s journey. But on the journey, and through his careful observation of the interactions between family members and his contemplation of their surroundings, he grew less judgmental and more open to what those interactions could add to his own sense of self and of his prejudices.

Nasrallah says that preparing for the film took a full year, which he spent getting close to family members, communicating with them, and reaching a stage of familiarity with their daily lives. “It would not have been possible to understand the context that determines the decisions of family members, including those related to hijab, without such intimacy,” he says.

The Wahhabi ideals with which the father returned from the Gulf, where he went to work; the confused dreams of the son, Bassem, a teacher at a vocational school who aspires to becoming an actor; love and marriage and the challenges they present young men and women with: all this presented Nasrallah with a rich intellectual mine. Is what these young women doing with their bodies a choice? Is it changing them? How might it be changing society?

Nasrallah says that editing the film took 9 months, and the reason it took so long was not so much the amount of material, 75 hours, but his desire to convey reality as he saw it, not as he wanted to see it. “For example, the material could have been arranged in a certain way to reflect specific judgments about the choices of the characters. I went in this direction while editing the film, but then I backed away. I spent a long time with these people and they gave me their trust, their friendship and their time, treatingme as if I were one of them. I felt it was dishonest to twist the facts to form a picture of my imagination, while reality itself has its own unique way of telling the story.”

Having Samra as a main character in the film was an ideal choice, Nasrallah says, since he was an aspiring actor as well: “Bassem Samra was an ambitious young man at the beginning of his career as an actor, and that’s how I got to know him. One day I talked to him about the idea of the film and he suggested that I film with his family.”

At first, Nasrallah  was afraid that Bassem’s ambition to be a movie star would negatively impact the film. “But I found that I loved everyone in his family. Bassem was a rich character with many threads that lead to multiple social worlds. An ambitious young man who wants to work in acting and is therefore always present on film sets and camera tests, he is also a teacher at the vocational school. He hails from Belqas in Dakahlia, but he moved with his family to Nazlet El-Batran, close to the Pyramids. It is an area that combines urban and rural traits. His father worked for a while in the Gulf seeking economic advancement, like many at the time, then returned with what he brought back.

“So there are many social threads and layers that a character with a complex life like Bassem can lead to in an organic way. Much of the filming and dialogue was improvised. Bassem was not only the main character, he also worked as an assistant director. He would introduce me to people, help create events and situations that generate questions, and often ask questions of other characters. This eliminated any chance of the characters feeling alienated. The film was like a free-flowing chat…”

In this way hijab and social attitudes to became a secondary element, rather than the primary motivation for the film. “The main focus became the relationship between young people of both sexes in a conservative society. The ability of people to circumvent the restrictions imposed on them with intelligence and light-heartedness is what captivated me most about Nazlet al-Batran.”

It is worth noting that, out of about 13 works directed by Nasrallah, 11 films and two series made in 1988-2022, Samra has participated in nine, playing the lead in most cases. On Boys, Girls and the Veil is Nasrallah’s only documentary film, which he directed six years after his debut feature, Summer Robberies, in 1988, which was followed by Mercedes in 1993. Nasrallah says the film was an important shift in his career. “In On Boys, Girls and the Veil I departed from the norm I had grown accustomed to,” he says. “It opened up a new path.”


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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