Filmmaker Karim El-Shenawy talks "Odd" and Egyptian social realities
Karim El-Shenawy created a short film that captures the subtle struggles of minorities in Egypt. (Image: Facebook)
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On a mission to explore social realities and tensions in a nuanced and entertaining manner, Egyptian filmmaker Karim El-Shenawy created Fardy (Odd), with a group of Goldsmiths MA in filmmaking graduates.
The 13-minute film is a snapshot into the life of Adel Iskandar, a subdued Christian Egyptian played by prominent actor Khaled El-Nabawy, who embarks on an extremely uncomfortable elevator ride home, crammed with two chatty neighbours (Sayed Ragab and Khaled Bahgat) and a pre-recorded Islamic prayer that had just been installed to play as the elevator starts moving.
When Odd screened at the Ewart Memorial Hall of the American University in Cairo on 1 October, at the opening of the Ismailia Festival Days in Cairo, a screening event that brings a selection of documentaries and short films shown at the Ismailia Film Festival earlier this year, it tugged at the audience’s emotions. Yet Adel’s near complete silence and helplessness in the film was interpreted by many members of the audience as an overstatement of the oppression of Christians in Egypt.
“But the tension isn’t that severe,” many people insisted during the Q&A session with El-Shenawy. Another member of the audience had a different opinion. She stood up, clutched the microphone and said: “You (the other questioners) wave away the problems of Christians in Egypt because you do not know what it feels like. When you’ve experience being a minority in a community, then you will know how it’s like.”
A portion of the audience applauded the comment.
The filmmaker was very satisfied with the debate sparked by the film at Ewart Hall, he told Ahram Online later. "I want people to question. Some will say this incident is normal or mundane. And if there weren't people who would in fact say that, I wouldn't have had the motivation to create the film in this way, because there wouldn't be a problem."
The story touches on the idea of "otherness," El Shenawy contends, but he refutes that it blatantly tackles sectarian issues.
The film was born out of a short story by Haitham Dabbour. Developed at a precarious time, in the shadows of political transition, societal turmoil and uncertainty over Egyptian identity, Odd is the product of the writing and re-writing of a narrative essentially about being “an other.”
After pre-production in London with an international crew, the film was shot in Cairo in the fall of 2012. The filmmaker and crew exhausted near all possible funding channels to raise money for Odd, from a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to El-Shenawy's British Council Grant, to a contribution by the Media Diversity Institute, to the director's personal input.
Director El-Shenawy says that the film ultimately intended to depict the subtle struggles of “the other.” In Odd, the protagonist is not physically assaulted, but his personal space is violated.
“People often deal with sectarianism by pointing out direct discrimination, but the issue is often a hegemonic narrative that underlies social dynamics,” says El-Shenawy.
In preparation for the film, El-Shenawy delved into readings about subaltern classes in postcolonial studies, which introduced him to dynamics of marginalisation and silence that are often overlooked by mainstream media or discourse.
"When we talk about minorities, we at times fall into the trap of over-simplifying and stereotyping," he explains.
Through portraying more than one aspect of Adel’s social relationships (he is seen as he interacts with his wife, his son, his neighbours, and with himself), El-Shenawy sought to point out that various power dynamics mediate relationships in society.
"No one is oppressed all the time. And any space is not neatly divided into men and women, or Muslims and Christians, or young and old. There are many complex layers. And therefore, victimising characters as a stereotype, in order to strike up sympathy for them, is misleading, even though it may be easier."
El-Shenawy says it may have been more appealing to present the protagonist as an endearing underdog.
"He could have been a charming and charismatic person, a loving husband and a do-gooder, and the audience would have hated the neighbours. But in reality it is not like that,” he says.
The filmmaker remembers the moment when he told the actors, “You are not picking on the man, you are friendly people, and you don't see a problem," as a defining moment in the conceptualisation of the project.
Ultimately, El-Shenawy sought to present an entertaining story. "I believe that the magic of this medium is that it can communicate with many people. You want people to identify with him. I wanted to tell a nice little story. He is not someone who starts a revolution or battles a beast … he is just trying to get home.”
Most of the film takes place in the confines of a grey-walled elevator, conveying a potent sense of claustrophobia. At certain points, the actors look straight into the camera, and into the audience’s eyes by proxy. The director, seeking to create a sense of the space, or the lack thereof, decided to experiment with this generally rebuffed style.
"If we don't experiment when we do short films, then when?" he says definitely. He explains that working with a short story, and adapting it into a short feature, allows significant room for experimentation.
Adel is silent throughout the film, save for the last minute, and this allows the audience to experience his frustration with his neighbours and the seemingly endless ride home more directly, perhaps.
"Adel's main flaw is his decision to solve his problems through silence, and to put off confrontation. And as the imperfect protagonist, he pays the price for his decision at the end of the film,” explains El-Shenawy.
El-Shenawy and Haitham Dabbout started working on the film in 2010, but it only materialised this year. Looking back, El-Shenawy realises he would have produced a completely different film had he actually carried out the project three years ago, and that it would have in fact been merely a depiction of tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt rather than the picture of otherness the filmmaker has tried to create withOdd.
“I would have probably produced something more stereotypical,” he says honestly.
"Everything that has to do with the changing of power dynamics, space, and the performance itself would have been different," he continues.
But he says his early readings on otherness and subaltern classes changed his outlook on the complexity of societal dynamics. The radical changes Egypt has witnessed also contributed to the evolution of his initial vision for the project.
"After 2011, the main difference was that we realised how little we know this country. We thought we knew it very well; we had this feeling that we were in tune with the streets, and knew society inside out,” says El-Shenawy.
“Some of us discovered after 2011 that there is a lot that we don't know about the country. The spaces of difference between us are much wider that we thought,” he elaborates.
The filmmaker believes that Egyptian art productions do not accurately represent the nuances of societal relationships. “And this is our problem, as artists. We do not really represent the complications," he says.
He cites many other problems for the lack of depth in the majority of artistic works coming out of Egypt, including a deficiency in pre-production and planning, a reluctance to take risks with big stories, and the profit-driven attitude of producers.
"So we write things that only perpetuate stereotyping and otherness, rather than breaking them."
El-Shenawy seems confident that his film has managed to present a more nuanced version of the discourse on religious minorities in Egypt.
“One of the best feedbacks we got in international screenings was: 'We didn't know it was this complicated.'"
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