Short films make a big splash at Panorama
Still from Ibn Benoot

Imagine an Egypt where stereotypical gender roles are reversed — an Egypt where men stay home cooking, cleaning and raising children while their wives are out bringing home the bread.

Imagine an Egypt where men are required to wear baggy clothing and cover their chest hair in order to ward off female offenders and societal misconceptions.

Or how about an Egypt where at ceremonies, men are the ones serving sweets or dancing around and covering their mouths to zahgrat (ululate), while the women sit around talking business.

Welcome to the poignant and darkly comedic world of Mina Magdy, 23, and his filmmaking debut, “Ibn Benoot” (Male Virgin). In the 11-minute film, we follow our protagonist, Adam, as he transforms rapidly from boy to young man while constantly facing gender issues, discrimination and limitations due to the matriarchal society in which he lives.

When Adam says, “Papa, I want to ride a bike like all the girls do,” his father replies: “You can’t habiby, you’re a boy and it’s improper for boys to ride bikes in Egypt.” His parents give him crucial life advice and warnings about sex, like “Adam, the virtue of a boy is like a matchstick” (which sounds much funnier in Arabic).

The film premiered to a full house at the sixth Panorama of the European Film Monday as part of “Women in the New Egypt,” organized by Misr International Films (MIF) with support from the British Embassy and the British Council in Cairo.

In early 2012, an open call asked beginner filmmakers to submit short film ideas relating to women in Egypt for a competitive project that would transform ideas into storyboards, and hopefully productions. Of the 70 applications submitted, 10 were selected for a three-day workshop with heavyweight Egyptian director Mohamed Khan. After that, five were chosen to screen in this year’s Panorama.

The evening started with first-time filmmaker Mavie Maher’s introspective drama “Bahiya,” which tells the tragic story of 8-year-old Bahiya — who dies during an attack on Mohamed Ali Mosque during a fieldtrip in Cairo — and her teacher Mariam. Mariam gives up teaching and falls into a state of depression and self-loathing. The object of her desire, Ahmed, comes to see her at the cemetery on the first anniversary of Bahiya’s death. Ahmed is Muslim and she is Coptic, and while he seems eager to pursue her regardless of this sectarian hurdle, Mariam hides her love away and falls deeper into despair.

The 11 minute, 30 second film is both heart-wrenching and highly relevant, given the all-too-frequent flare-ups of sectarian strife in Egypt. It very effectively tells the story through Mariam’s inner monologues, which are often highly poetic. As viewers, we really get a sense of what Mariam is going through and just how deeply rooted her self-restrictions and limitations are. The filmmaker shows impressive stylistic capabilities through some stunning shots, most notably a melancholic blue-filtered shot of Mariam on her balcony, staring into the distance.

Maher, 27, tells Mada Masr she felt compelled to tell the story even before the open call.

“Originally, I was writing the script for ‘Bahiya’ as a feature-length film because I have felt deeply affected by topics presented in the film,” says Maher. “When I saw the open call I applied, and with the help of Mohamed Khan and Marianne Khoury, I was able to transform the script into a short film, which should hopefully help me secure more financing for the feature length version of ‘Bahiya’.”

“It wasn’t based off a true story, but we wrote the script, then the story happened later — if you recall, this past October there was an 8-year-old Coptic girl named Mariam who died during a violent attack, a spree of gunfire by masked assailants, while attending her cousin’s church wedding. And so we dedicated the film to her,” Maher adds.

Shady al-Hakim’s “Masrya” is a somewhat fantastical attempt to portray the status of Egyptian women in society from Pharaonic times until present day. The film opens with scenes of what appears to be Cairo’s Pharaonic Village, where women are working laboriously to create papyrus along the Nile.

But, rather incoherently, the film then snaps forward to a short scene about a character named Dr. Wafaa, who is attempting to film a documentary about Egyptian women — we watch her call several to schedule interviews only to find them hanging up. Dr. Wafaa asks a female confidant to act in her documentary film. It’s here that the film loses the plot, leaving viewers with a series of loose threads that do very little to tie any story together.

The next film, “Virtual,” by 26-year-old Alexandrian director Nada Riyadh, is a humanizing and empathetic portrayal of the often misperceived lives of Egyptian activists. Through Facebook updates, we experience a day in the life of a fictional activist and lawyer who works on laborer’s cases, played brilliantly by Nesma al-Batal.

The film opens with the activist leaving her house to go to clients striking at Alexandria’s Fath factory. Her mother asks her not to be late, to which she replies, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll be home by 9 pm latest — you get the cake, and I’ll be here on time” (every activist’s famous last words to their parents).

We watch her go through a series of obstacles at the strike as violence ensues outside the factory. Her mother calls, but the activist ignores it to continue her work, which involves sending social media updates regarding the events. As things settle down, she waits patiently for her colleague to relieve her of her shift as the clock ticks far past 9 pm.

When she arrives home later, we see the heart of the film’s subject, the notion that every activist has a mother waiting up until her child arrives home safely. We then witness a beautiful, endearing scene of activist and mother quietly sharing birthday cake and tea together — one small moment without politics or arguments. With little dialog, and only a few scenes, the director evokes a strong sense of empathy, void of clichés or pedantic lectures. The protagonist’s struggle is not so much with the strike, but with the ticking clock of her 9 pm deadline with her mother.

Riyadh tells Mada Masr that the story is not about “setting things right,” or “an attempt to change stereotypes about activists” — she just hopes her film will shed some light into their lives.

“I don’t think the lives of activists are at all what people think — it’s much more emotional. The digital presence of activists on Facebook and Twitter can often be quite aggressive, which is the only side most people see. What they don’t see are things like worried mothers, missed birthdays and all those things that make these people human,” she explains.

The evening closed with the brilliant three-minute “Al-Bint” (The Girl), by Sondos Shabayek, 28, who is widely known for feminist theater project, the Bussy Monologues.

In her first attempt at the big screen, Shabayek reflects on how society perceives women through the journey of a girl walking down one of Cairo’s streets. She responds to a rapid-fire of sexual harassment and insulting commentary from the people she passes. Shabayek creates an edgy and visceral display of the debilitating transformation most women go through while walking in Cairo — looking down to avoid eye contact with potential harassers, crossing arms to cover one’s bosom. The film is remarkably powerful. It is also inspiring to see Shabayek experimenting with a different medium — it seems she has an ability to make innovative films that could raise awareness of pertinent societal issues.

“I’ve always been interested in filmmaking in general, because the reason I started doing theater to begin with was for the purpose of telling people stories from real life,” says Shabayek.

“Theater is often limited. There are certain ideas that cannot build through theater, and I think this film is one of them. This is a story that if it were told on the stage, wouldn’t have worked so well — it wouldn’t have been as powerful as it was being told through a moving picture, so this was my motive in joining the competition.”

Four out of the five films were extremely well received by the audience, but it was Magdy’s hilarious and penetrating “Male Virgin” that stole the show, prompting a boisterous display of applause, hoots and hollering.

“I think Egyptian women played a big role in the revolution, but despite this they are continuously deprived of their rights in terms of gains made by the revolution,” says Magdy.

“The film is aimed more at men and is telling them to wake up. I wanted to shock men into realizing that if the things happening to women were happening to men, they wouldn’t be able to bear it.”

When asked about the competition title, “Women in the New Egypt,” Magdy says, “I don’t think we’re necessarily in a ‘new Egypt’, but I have faith that we’ll become a new country one day soon.”

Maha ElNabawi 

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