Produced by Red Star, a film production company headed by Safy El-Din Mahmoud, Nawara — a film showing the failure of post-revolution "what should have happened" romanticism — was released in Egyptian mainstream cinemas last month.
The film and Menna Shalaby, in the protagonist's (Nawara) role, have aleady garnered recognition at the Dubai International Film Festival and the Luxor African Film Festival.
Given that the film is Mahmoud's debut production, the awards and wide attention of audiences and critics alike pave a promising path for the young producer.
Curiously, Mahmoud’s career started off in theatre before entering the “world of cinema,” as he calls the field in an interview with Ahram Online.
“I worked a lot with the state sponsored theatre, but I became fed up with wasting public money, an issue which provoked me very much,” he says.
“A lot of money, effort, and resources were spent, and then you end up with three or four people watching the show.”
Having also gained experience as an assistant director, Mahmoud says he does not believe that “art is not for sale."
"Art can be sold and bought, where people can profit.”
Mahmoud started his journey in cinema in 2000 as assistant director for Magdy Ali’s film Asrar El Banat (Girl's Secrets).
“The job of the executive assistant director is more administrative than creative. It includes casting, schedules, scene preparation, and choice of actors,” he explains.
Since then, Mahmoud rose in this position working with director Hala Khalil on Ahla El-Awqat, and then with Marwan Hamed on three films: Yacoubian Building (2005), Ibrahim El-Abyad (2009) and The Blue Elephant (2014).
In Ibrahim El-Abyad, a love story staged in Cairo’s popular slums where violence rules, Mahmoud assisted in location settings, decoration, fight scenes, and the movement of extras.
About his shift to production, Mahmoud explained that “From my experience as an executive assistant director, the so-called ‘light movies’ don’t do any good or bad to the scene. I don’t believe in the saying that ‘The market needs this.'”
He adds: “The Egyptian market needs production. It needs well made movies. When young people go and watch a foreign film, they know they will get the worth of the EGP 25 or EGP 30 ticket."
“Doing a good movie doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of money, it means that you should allocate and distribute your resources wisely.”
Nawara is the debut production of Mahmoud and his company.
“We started in 2010 and were looking for a good script. Nevertheless, good things happened in 2011, and many things stopped."
By coincidence, creative producer Sabri Al-Samak introduced Mahmoud to the script of Nawara, and “it is at the moment that I read the script I decided to produce it.”
Having at hand a script containing a humanitarian story with a focus on extreme poverty, a Nubian character, with around 40 percent of the scenes shot in slums, the production did not sound like an easy one. At the same time, Mahmoud hoped to create a purposeful and profitable film, and that only added to the challenge.
“Market wise, I secured big stars to do supporting roles. I shot complete scenes in the popular area of Al-Hataba, despite the many dangers myself and the crew faced,” Mahmoud said.
Starring Menna Shalaby, Mahmoud Hemeda, Sherine Reda and Amir Salah Eddi, and written and directed by veteran filmmaker Hala Khalil, Nawara tackles the issue of social justice from the point of view of the impoverished classes.
“I couldn't get a shaabi singer and a belly dancer. I also couldn’t have a very optimistic ending; otherwise I would be faking it. The topic is handled in a very sensitive and passionate way.”
Nawara was categorised by media and critics as a “post-revolution film” which openly puts the anti-authoritarian uprising as the starting point to its events.
When asked about a possible confrontation with censorship authorities, Mahmoud denied that the film had been subjected to any intervention.
“We had no problems with the authorities. The film is focused on an idea, and didn’t have a bias. There were no bad guys or a single accused entity. There is poverty and the absence of social justice. Why would anyone be against the right of the poor to live or to have a clean glass of water?” Mahmoud said.
The film raises questions, and viewers may or may not find in it an oppressor and the oppressed. To its credit, it avoids a simple good and evil plot.
Unlike films made after the 1952 Revolution, Sadat's 15 May “corrective revolution,” and the Open Door Infitah period, Nawara focuses on the humanitarian and social issues that coexisted with the aftermath of revolution rather than directly tackling what happened in Tahrir Square.
For example, Khalil made the shortage and abundance of water, and not direct melodrama, a sign of different elements in her films: poverty in slums, corruption and nepotism in public hospitals, and hedonistic pleasure in gated compounds in the outskirts of Cairo.
“There is no devil. There is the rich man who enjoys his pool, but whose maid is deprived of running water in her shared house. In the film there was no revolutionary and no reactionary,” Mahmoud explains.
“I am happy that these two were not included, as I believe that if people are to find a decent way of living where their humanity is not violated, the loud, sometime irritating revolutionary, and the opportunist reactionary who gives the poor hope in a better afterlife, because they lived in hell on earth, would cease to exist.”
Mahmoud went further to assert that the film shouldn't be taken as part of the underground film scene. “It is a film for the market,” he clarifies.
“From now on, any story can include the revolution, with a variety of topics discussed. But that does not necessarily mean they are about the revolution.”
Mahmoud provides an example: “I can't, for instance, do a film about a police officer without going through how the revolution affected him psychologically.”
Nawara (Photo: still from the film)
Although the filmmaker claims to have shied away from direct political rhetoric in his work, he did not always manage to avoid politically infused messages.
For example, in one scene, the protagonist walks the streets of her popular slum while viewers can see graffiti reading “Down with Hosni Mubarak." Another scene shows a police officer assaulting Nawara.
“Of course, I am on the side of the revolution. So is Hala,” Mahmoud said, arguing that using the graffiti was to “document the daily life of the period that preceded the revolution. For sure, they were about Mubarak and not about El-Sisi, for example,” Mahmoud explains.
Mahmoud argues also that the assault scene, brilliantly acted by Abaas Abu Al-Hassan playing a police officer, was not political. He rather sees the assault as a catalyst in the development of Nawara’s character from being defensive of the house owner where she serves to being critical of the whole system.
Nawara, produced five years after the 2011 uprising, shouldn’t be seen as a revolutionary pamphlet that is propagating class conflict between the proletariat, who lack the prime necessities of life, including water, and the posh decision making bourgeoisie who enjoy clean water in specially designed pools.
Rather, it should be seen as an attempt to pose question marks above an unstable and controversial epoch of Egyptian history.
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