Ahmad Maher brings Italian freedom to Egypt
Close friends of Egyptian film director Ahmad Maher call him Bertolucci, after the famous Italian filmmaker and director. Maher - considered the second most important Egyptian director after Youssef Chahine - does not deny that he is a student of the Italian school. The walls of his small apartment in Cairo are covered with posters of Italian films, especially films by Federico Fellini.
The walls are also covered with prints of paintings by Matisse, Modigliani and Giacometti. Books by Nietzsche, Borges and Saramago are stacked on the bookcase.
“These are my teachers,” Maher explains, the ones he found on his journey to self-discovery, though Fellini continues to occupy a special place in his heart.
“We are all the offsprings of his film 8½,” he says, laughing, referring to a famous quote by Woody Allen. “Fellini and Charlie Chaplin are two legends in cinema that are hard to imitate or think of as mere names. They are pillars of modern art.”
He brushed off comparisons between Fellinis famous work and his own film, The Traveller (2009), which was shown at the Venice Film Festival.
“[The comparisons] did not bother me and I won’t be Fellini because my culture is different and my film is the product of Egyptian culture” he says.
From the Italian master, Maher learned “the freedom of the imagination,” he adds.
“Our imagination is shackled under inhibitions and restraints,” he explains “The important thing is to get rid of them so we can dream. Fellini was able to summarize cinema in a long dream and that is what dazzled me about him.”
Perhaps that is why the most common set pieces in Maher’s films are horses, trains, silence and long distances. This vocabulary does not reflect surrealism so much as metaphysical worlds that are closer to nightmares than dreams.
Maher never planned to go into cinema, although performance runs in his family. His father is screenwriter Maher Ibrahim who wrote many of the commercial movies of the 1970s and 1980s such as Rajab On A Hot Tin Roof and Said Saleh. His maternal uncle is the late actor Salah Qabil.
Maher was more interested in the visual arts than in filmmaking. From the age of ten, he participated in drawing competitions on a national level and won many awards. That is why even his family did not expect him to start a career in film. They were surprised when he received a scholarship to study directing in Russia after he graduated from high school.
The political situation at the time, however, prevented him from travelling, so he applied to the Higher Institute of Cinema in Egypt and was accepted. Upon graduation, he trained for a short while with Youssef Chahine, during which time he directed three short films that won the State Award for Creativity.
Maher then traveled to study in Rome. There he began to study art more intensely and wrote his MA thesis on Place in the Cinematic Dream
“Art is everywhere in Italy,” he says. He studied and taught acting, and was introduced to different schools of visual arts as well as to psychology and philosophy.
In Italy, he also learned “freedom”, he says.
In his first feature film, The Signs of April, the clash with society was palpable. The film dealt with the sexual repression of two spinsters sisters and a teenage boy who appears in their lives.
Maher was inspired by the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement. That became evident later on in The Traveller, in which Maher experimented with time and mysterious philosophical dialogues, while the playful use of color in the film is reminiscent of a painting.
“I pay more attention to time than history,” he explains. “But time leads you to use history. The main character’s crisis in the film stems from his relationship with time and time in the film is manifold. There is the time of the film, time for speaking, time for the event and the relationship of the character with time which does not affect him as he confides.”
History in the film is just a background for political events - the 1948 Nakba, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war - but Maher privileges the “human path for the viewer who is not concerned with dates.”
“I was afraid of the Arab viewer and his interpretations because it would spoil the spectacle and because I am against the deliberate use of symbolic connotations in an artwork,” he says.
Maher writes his films himself. Although his father is a screenwriter, their work could not be more different. His father is one of the most famous screenwriters of hugely successful commercial movies, while the son’s films are artistic “adventures” laden with philosophy, which tend to lack the same broad appeal.
“I did not intend to be elitist or populist,” he says. “What I care about is making films. I do not take festivals or the public into account. What I make could be nothing but hallucinations.”
Maher’s films always reflect his fears, not his certainties. He says: “Uncertainty is the fountain of creativity, certainty does not produce an artistic work. This uncertainty has accompanied me throughout the film and it is through it that I am able to accomplish my work.”
Before the January 25 Revolution Maher was interested in politics and he took public political positions. He announced his view of the Hosni Mubarak regime on a famous political show. The authorities retaliated by banning screenings of The Traveller..
Then the revolution broke out. Like some people, Maher did not think it would amount to much. He postponed a trip to Italy so he could take part in the protests, thinking it would soon fizzle out.
Then on 25 January 2011, Maher saw a small group of young men whose “voices reflected a will that surpassed their numbers.”
“After their first chant in front of the Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, the police in all their arrogance pounced on them for no reason,” he recalls. “That was the explosive moment that lasted until Mubarak left.”
The clashes, fear and the Islamist ascension to power have not diminished Maher’s enthusiasm for the revolution. When his friends ask him if the revolution failed, he says: “The revolution has not yet begun!”