In one memorable scene in Omar El Zohairy’s magnificently condensed The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375, a large goldfish swims around in an oppressively small glass bowl, evoking an inescapable sense of frustration and confinement.
That particular feeling persists throughout the film’s 17 minutes as we follow the protagonist, a nameless employee in a governmental institution who sneezes as his supervisor, a top official, inaugurates a public bathroom in the middle of the desert. While the official shows no reaction, the employee fears he might have ignited his boss’s wrath and spends the rest of the film’s duration trying to apologise.
The film, a haunting adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Death of a Government Clerk, made history last month when it was selected as a contender in the Cinéfondation competition at the Cannes Film Festival, marking Egypt’s very first nomination in that category. Aftermath, initially Zohairy’s High Cinema Institute graduation project and his second short film after last year’s Zafir (Breathe Out), was one of only 16 titles chosen from 1631 submissions from film schools across the globe.
The Cinéfondation and Short Film jury, headed by iconic Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, eventually gave the competition’s first prize to the United States’ Skunk (directed by Annie Silverman), the second to Japan and Singapore’s Oh Lucy! (Atsuko Hirayanagi) and the third to Italy’s Sourdough (Fulvio Risuleo) and the United Kingdom’s The Bigger Picture (Daisy Jacobs).
According to Zohairy, not only the four winners but all 16 films in the competition were excellent in form and quality. “They were all very well-made, very ambitious, and the selection was quite diverse,” he says, “I think the decisive factor in choosing the winners was originality; and perhaps this is why our film didn’t win, since the screenplay was based on a work of literature.”
Yet despite leaving the festival without an award, Zohairy says there was still much to gain from the Cannes experience. “All 16 filmmakers got to sit together, discuss their films and share inspirations and ideas, and that was very enriching,” he recounts, “not to mention the fact that we attended a master class given by Kiarostami, who is a brilliant filmmaker and who told us things I know I’ll keep remembering -- especially his advice to follow your instinct as a director because, at the end of the day, this is what gives your film value, rather than seeking the approval of others.”
Being at the world’s biggest and most prestigious annual cinematic event also granted the 25-year-old director the unprecedented chance of getting in touch with producers, distributors and all sorts of industry professionals. “The one thing I valued most about Cannes is the priceless opportunity it offered me to create valuable connections,” he says, “throughout my time there I always had my next project in mind; my first feature film. I wish I could use the privilege of having made it to Cannes to benefit my upcoming work and the industry in Egypt as a whole.
“The glitz and glamour were a treat of course, and the fact that the film was right under the spotlight, but I’m not letting the buzz get to my head; I’m constantly thinking about what I want to do next,” Zohairy continues.
When Zohairy first started working on The Aftermath in 2013, it was out of necessity -- he needed a project to graduate -- there were no thoughts of film festivals or international recognition. “When I read Chekhov’s story I could instantly relate to it, to the idea of fear and the isolation of individuals in the modern world,” he says, “and I could see myself building upon that; how we’re all pressured into suppressing our emotions, to look and think and act alike.”
With only one month to work on the film, Zohairy approached screenwriter Sherif Naguib to formulate a script, which he did in only three days. Later, Zohairy himself made some final amendments to the screenplay, which eventually gave the film its palpable Kafkaesque quality. “I’d always loved The Metamorphosis; it’s the ultimate work of black comedy, and I realised how very similar it is to the story of the film – so incredibly absurd and utterly miserable that it can actually make you laugh.”
Absurdity is indeed abundant in The Aftermath, right from the opening scene. As the government official lays the cornerstone for a public toilet in the desert, a donkey randomly loiters next to the clapping congregation. Yet, as Zohairy himself notes, although parts of the film might prompt out a laugh or two, every scene ends on a sombre, unsettling note. “There’s a mood of foreboding throughout, because it’s essentially a story about fear.”
The desolation that permeates the film is heavily emphasised by the locations picked out by Zohairy: massive, ramshackle buildings – beige, dusty and overpowering on the outside, with drab and austere interiors. The isolation of the employee on his quest to express his repentance to the official is often pronounced by precisely orchestrated long shots. It is a visual translation of the premise Zohairy founded his film upon: within the institution – the system – the individual is small and insignificant.
“I chose this particular old factory in Helwan to film because I believe that the Russian architecture of the 1960s, which the building belongs to, can act as a symbol of the time when Egypt began its march into modernity, shedding uniqueness for uniformity,” Zohairy says. “That concept was central to the socialist community the regime back then was trying to establish, and it is also at the core of the globalised world we live in today,” he adds.
Zohairy underlines that idea with another striking scene: the employee’s wife urges her husband to keep seeking his boss’s forgiveness, while each of them nibbles on a piece of fried chicken from KFC, a blank, listless look on their faces. “Fried chicken is the ultimate modern meal; plain and fast and eaten by everyone, everywhere,” Zohairy elaborates.
More bleakness is found in deliberate details throughout the film. In a press conference held to celebrate the opening of the public bathroom, a Chinese official proudly speaks about the ‘project’ to a roomful of men dressed in identical suits, listening with straight, emotionless faces. At home, the employee watches TV with his wife, but onscreen we see nothing but a sea, the waves lazily lapping at the shore. “The sea’s movements are slow, predictable and monotonous, just like their life,” Zohairy explains.
The sole trace of raw and unfettered humanness in the film can be found in the protagonist’s face, compelling from the very first close-up, right before the sneeze in the opening scene. Yet he, the last surviving grain of sincerity, eventually collapses beneath the weight of his own fear.
“My debut feature, which I’m currently working on, explores similar themes,” Zohairy says, “it’s a story of how this fast-paced, modern life we lead alters relationships and drives people apart.”
But although Zohairy is already busy working on his next project, the international interest in The Aftermath has not yet waned. Not only did Zohairy receive firsthand praise from acclaimed filmmakers like Palestinian auteur Elia Suleiman and Chadian director and Cinéfondation jury member Mahmat Saleh Haroun, who called it ‘a new direction in African cinema’; the film is also generating favourable reviews worldwide, and is likely to continue touring the international festival circuit for some months to come.
Zohairy especially hopes that the film will make it to the line-up of the Cairo International Film Festival, set to take place next November after the cancelation of the 2013 edition due to political instability. And although its director cannot yet disclose details on where in the world the film will next be screened or compete for an award, one thing remains certain: the aftermath of The Aftermath is far from over.