At the inaugural launch of the UK’s recurring Arabic Film Festival, Omar Kholeif, the festival’s director caught up with the Egyptian film director, Khaled El Hagar, after a retrospective screening of El Hagar’s first feature film, Little Dreams (Ahlam Saghira, 1993). Here is some of what Khaled had to say:
What made you want to tell the story in Little Dreams, especially as your first feature film?
Because I was born in Suez and I have seen the destruction and it has always weighed heavily on my mind. I also wanted to talk about the defeat of Egypt during the war of 1967, and how this affected our parents. I wasn’t very comfortable with the revolution [of 1952] because since then we have ended up with three presidents, whom despite their popularity, we did not choose. So it grew from a kind of anger about really being forced into a situation that you don’t feel a part of. It was an autobiographic reflection of those feelings. I remember Youssef Chahine [the renowned Egyptian filmmaker and producer] when he saw the film, he was very angry because he said, ‘you killed our generation by killing the little boy at the end’, and I said but this was my feeling about this time. [Chahine] even threatened not to show the film in cinemas if I didn’t change the end, but he eventually agreed that it was the right decision for the film.[i]
Little Dreams has a very dream like quality about it. The colours of your palette produce a nostalgic, almost Sirkian quality, it seemed to me that you were trying to overcome or sweeten a very harsh reality.
It is like a dream because it is one of the few Egyptian films ever made that is told from a dead person’s point of view and also in many respects, it’s [narrative] is also similar to a fairytale. It’s worth mentioning though that because the 35mm print is old and worn [out] that the colours are much darker than what they look like in the original film.
You’ve tackled some quite controversial subjects, what has the response been like to your films in Egypt, and the Arab world?
When my first feature film, Little Dreams was released in 1993, it was refused exhibition on Egyptian television because of the way I portrayed the late Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser, and as such, it was seen as an anti-revolutionary film. But actually since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, it has been allowed onto Egyptian television again and has been seen many times. It’s been given a new life.
You said something once that interested me. You said that despite the film’s subject or content that you always saw cinema as being a medium for and of the people. I felt that this was a very apt thing to say, especially at this moment considering the growth of an independent cinema movement in Egypt, but also because the mass of Egyptian cinema is ‘popular’ within Egypt and produced purely for Egyptian audiences, as opposed to comparative world cinemas such as say, Iranian or Moroccan production, whose ecology is supported by the export market?
[Traditionally], most Egyptian films are financed by Egyptian producers who want to make their money back from the Egyptian market. The rest of North Africa on the other hand is funded by Francophone and/or German funding. So in Egypt we make films for our audiences and if it is a hit it will make good money and then it can be sold to all of the Arab countries automatically. So you don’t need for example, European [funding] to make your own films. This is a good and bad thing because sometimes the quality isn’t great and only a few films can represent Egypt abroad, while say in a small Arab country like Lebanon they only produce three films a year, but all of the films become very international, but not necessarily successful at home. It’s a little like India, both the cinema and audience for cinema in Egypt.
There are also many filmmakers who don’t even care about their films ever being shown abroad, like for instance Hassan Immam, who made classic films, over a hundred of them, but who has never been to any major international film festival. Of course, there are exceptions like Youssef Chahine and Salah Abou Seif. Also [going back to my earlier point about production], films get made so quickly in Egypt, I can get a call and in a matter of days we’ll be making a film. In Europe you have to apply and apply and apply, and then in the end, you are up against the likes of Mike Leigh. Of course, Mike Leigh will win. Not me.
How do you feel about the future of Egyptian or Arab cinema?
I think it is going to be much easier for filmmakers to work. Producers are keener to hear younger voices and less interested in creating genre and/or comedy films.
Omar Kholeif is an Egyptian-born, UK-based writer and curator. He is currently Curator at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), Liverpool. His article ‘Room to Rent: Sexual Dissidence in the Films of Khaled El Hagar’ will be published in Film International in 2012.