Director Sameh Abdelaziz on his new film El-Leila El-Kebira and why 'mawlids' are so special
El-Leila El-Kebira screened at the 37th Cairo International Film Festival. (Akhbarelyom.com)
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Egyptian film El-Leila El-Kebira made its debut on 14 November as part of the ongoing edition of Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF).
The film is written by Ahmad Abdalla and directed by Sameh Abdelaziz, and stars Samiha Ayoub, Safiyya El-Emary, Soumayya El-Khashab, Sayyed Ragab, Ahmed Bedair, Sabry Fawwaz, Ahmed Wafik, amongst others. El-Leila El-Kebira is participating in CIFF's official competition.
Al-Ahram met with the film's director Sameh Abdelaziz prior to the screening, and discussed the film's specifics.
Al-Ahram (AA): Is El-Leila El-Kebira a continuation of your past films Cabaret and El-Farah?
Sameh Abdelaziz (SA): As Ahmad Abdalla and I were working on Cabaret, we were interested in elaborating on many of the one-scene stories that featured throughout the film. For example, there was a scene of girls dancing in a bar, which ended without revealing much about their lives. The same applies to the Egyptian wedding, which is swiftly introduced in a single scene, showing the bride and groom celebrating, and stops there. We were eager to elaborate on these scenes more in El-Leila El-Kebira, and in that way the film becomes the third narrative in this trio.
AA: You seem to be interested in the Egyptian Harra (narrow alley), would you agree?
SA: Certainly. As I see it, the Egyptian Harra is not only a place comprising people, but also a spirit that we feel and react to. It is reminiscent of the alley we encounter in the novels of the great Naguib Mahfouz. As such, a couple of people could be sitting in a five-star hotel but the essence of the stories they share could be the Egyptian Harra, beginning with how people greet each other, up until the gatherings at Cairo's coffee houses. As such, it isn't accurate to view the Harra as comprising thugs, or as a chaotic place. It’s important to differentiate between the Harra on one hand, and slum areas on the other, because many seem to confuse both.
AA: But many films have presented the hayy shaabi (popular neighbourhood) and mawalid (birthday celebrations of religious figures) before, right?
SA: Yes, but these pictures did not present the Egyptian alley we know of and which was embodied in Naguib Mahfouz novels. Only some works respected the Egyptian alley, like Qadeyyet Am Ahmed and Bil Waledayn Ihsanan. As for mawalid, they were indeed swiftly presented in single scenes. We always see a scene of the festivities, but no real presentation of the essence of this celebration, the people involved in it, and their rituals. In El-Leila El-Kebira, we took this Egyptian alley concept and elaborated on it, presenting the particularities of the moulid's (singular of mawalid) world.
AA: What's the objective behind El-Leila El-Kebira?
SA: The aim is to find out why we attend the mawalid, and what thoughts recur in the minds of those who seek mawalid to ask the intercession of righteous people, or those who take the shrines and moulid as intermediaries to God. As filmmakers, we are trying to stress that we respect one another, despite our differences. In other words, El-Leila El-Kebira is an invitation for us to respect one another, and unite in our love of this place, for us not to categorise ourselves as 'salafists', 'sufists', etc., but rather to unite around 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great).
AA: Have you attended mawalid prior to filming?
SA: Indeed. We conducted much research prior to filming. There are 840 annual Egyptian mawalid, including 300 Christians ones, and the Jewish Abu Hasira moulid. We visited more than 25 famous mawalid, including the mawalid of El-Sayyida Zeinab, El Sayyed El Badawi, and Al-Hussein.
AA: Your films always take place within a short-time setting, mostly one night. Why is this?
SA: I like this approach, despite it being a hectic one. While in both Cabaret and El-Farah, we were dealing with a huge cast. The situation was even more difficult in El-Leila El-Kebira.
AA: Why so? It is because of the moulid's crowded nature?
SA: It was difficult for many reasons, really, including the 30+ cast, and that the film comprises many events, and the dramatic lines must converge.
AA: Participating in festivals has its own allure. How do you feel about El-Leila El-Kebira's participation in CIFF's official competition?
SA: I attended Cannes Festival years ago. It was a special invitation by the festival's organisers to screen my film 'Sarkhet Namla’. I was beyond happy, especially since I also received a certificate of appreciation, which I really cherish. But to participate in my home country's festival, and especially the official competition, is indeed a huge honour and a confirmation that Egypt has an established festival, which respects our work, and appreciates cinema. I hope El-Leila El-Kebira can secure an award too.
By Sayed Mahmoud