Each week, Mada Masr convenes over breakfast and invites a friend whose work has stirred a curiosity among team members, often because of a tendency to push boundaries. This week we’re discussing Ahmad Abdalla’s film Rags and Tatters, recently released in Egypt, with the director and film critic Joe Fahim. (SPOILER ALERT: The film’s ending is discussed.)
Mada Masr: Since I saw the film, everyone has been asking me what my opinion is about it — and I don’t know why I feel that this is an unfair question. I feel like this film is just a thing, that’s out there. It has its own decisions and it wanted to be the way it wanted to be. And this in itself is worthy of respect. I found it really difficult to tell people what I think of this film. It’s more like an impression you have of a person.
Ahmad Abdalla: I find it very difficult to talk about the film, still, even after I’ve done so many interviews about it. It was just a feeling that we were trying to develop. I never had a final image in mind of what I wanted this film to look like — we just gathered forces to make it. For me it was about trying something and seeing how it would look. I don’t consider it even a real film, it’s just something to play with, to change something within our artistic practice. For example, for Tarek, my director of photography, it’s like going to an exhibition: you can give your impression but you can’t really talk exactly about a painting.
Joe Fahim: The essential nature of cinema from the very beginning was the act of watching. And somehow all through the years and maybe because of the culture here, we tend to forget that.
MM: It’s something that touches you and keeps you thinking. To be honest, the ending sort of took that away from me — I would have preferred to see him continue on wherever he’s living, the nameless person who goes with his life.
AA: I agree with you, but only now. When I watch the film these days I have thought, why does he have to die? But when we were working on the film, the idea of death surrounding all around us, every day, it was very overwhelming and we had to do something. When I was writing or thinking about the idea, I thought — he has to die. I couldn’t find an alternative ending. But right now I see it in a different way, of course.
Many things we learned about as we worked on the film. Using silence for example — we didn’t have the know-how to tell the story with no words. I admit that the first four to five days of shooting, I had no idea. Unfortunately, the first four days were the first 20 minutes of the film — we tried to work in the real sequence.
We like to call it an organic project because we kept learning, changing concepts, adding documentary, removing documentary, doing different kinds of documentary in the middle. After finishing the film and the editing, I wish it was still an organic project, that I can change something or do something else, bring back some documentaries I never used. From my point of view, the film should be something that really lives with us, you can keep playing with it — it’s alive. It’s not a solid creature you have to make a solid opinion about.
JF: Was it a conscious decision from the beginning to make the hero not speak?
AA: That was not the first decision, the first decision was about the character. We wanted to talk about this character specifically. When we were talking about the style of filming, I found a YouTube clip, a clip somebody filmed at the Qasr al-Nile battle on January 25. It’s silent. Some error happened and you don’t have any sound, even ambient. It’s three minutes of some of the best kind of storytelling I’ve ever seen. It starts very calm and turns very violent, then you discover that the guy filming is injured, then he continues and talks to the police officer, then he flees and comes back — and you can’t hear anything. That was my first inspiration, this guy with one shot and a very shaky camera managed to tell the story in an amazing way and we don’t even have the sound, so I thought we could play with this. Of course we couldn’t make it dead silent, but instead use the normal elements of cinema.
MM: Did you ever consider making it entirely dialogue-free? And did you consider different ways of putting the documentary parts on screen?
AA: Yes, of course. I don’t know if I considered everything about silent film or not, but it has to be related to the topic, to the new topic. For example, my new film has to be black and white, because that’s the topic.
About the documentary part, I tried to break the joy of watching, I didn’t want people to keep enjoying the film. I was trying to contradict the normal, classic way of telling a story. So I said to myself, just sustain the story for a while, then suddenly if the camera is moving it can stop and say, wait a minute someone’s sitting here and may want to say something. Actually I never asked them to say anything specific, we just kept the camera filming and they told us stories about their lives. One guy told me about his wife and the problems he has. So we had to pick very few stories from them, intentionally added to the film to cut the flow of the story. I’m not sure if I was successful in achieving this or not.
MM: I want to go back to the silence thing. There are scenes where in the real life situation they would be talking to each other, so you have characters miming things out. And then other scenes where talking seems unavoidable, so you have them talking to each other, even if they are just mumbling. Did you consider making it entirely silent and couldn’t, or is that level that you wanted — you didn’t want silence, you wanted mumbling?
AA: Honestly, we didn’t know how to do it, as I said. Sometimes you go to your friends “psst psst psst” and communicate somehow without saying anything. So we wanted to try this — we do it in real life — but it wasn’t as real as we do in real life, it appeared like mumbling, for example. In other scenes I thought the relationship between character and camera was far enough to convince the audience that they’re not going to hear him. He is not far enough, yet based on our culture of watching films, he’s very far. But in the cinema culture we have to hear him, that’s why you feel he’s also mumbling. Such mistakes we learned through making the film and then we decided to find a different way of telling the film. I feel the second half was more successful. Unfortunately, I never had enough money to reshoot things. I only refilmed one day because it was totally a disaster. But if I do another film with no dialogue I think it would be much better — we’d know how to do it next time around. When you’re trying things you have a 50/50 chance that you’re going to fail, but the beautiful thing is trying.
MM: It’s very refreshing to hear you talk about the film as someone who watched it — it’s like you have the same perspective as a spectator. I really loved the film, but I felt it could have been done within the two months following the 18-day uprising [in 2011]. Was it a challenge telling the story two and a half years later? What do you think this time added in terms of depth to the film?
AA: I never considered it a story about January 25 or the zabaleen [garbage collectors’] neighborhood. It’s about the neighborhoods of Cairo, the unseen places. We don’t want to know what’s happening in places like Makaber and the people of the moulid, how they were forced to live for over year with no jobs because the government decided to stop all the religious festivals. For me, this film is about those people. Unfortunately, after two years nothing will change for these people. I think it will be the same situation for the next 10 years.
MM: Through the use of this central silence and these peripheral elements, it actually feels like it’s more about the revolution than some films I’ve seen which are specifically about it or Tahrir.
AA: Maybe it’s about the revolution, but it’s definitely not about Tahrir or January 25, or the way we were romanticizing it. Maybe it’s about the absolute concept of the revolution itself, or why the people should move.
MM: I get the idea that you tried to decenter the narrative of the 18 days. There were moments where it seemed that two weeks had gone by in the film, but it was actually two days, so my sense of time when watching it was very thrown.
AA: You only see the night three times in the film, but I didn’t want people to feel it was three nights, or three months, or whatever. I tried to compress many things that happened through three months and three nights. Of course it’s not historically correct. It was an artistic choice. What’s happening in Mansheyat Nasr is still happening. Not on the same scale, but it’s still happening. That’s why I said, let’s play with it, let’s raise the question of whether it’s the same incident or not. I tried to play with time a little.
MM: How was it working with [lead actor] Asser Yassin?
AA: Asser wanted to do something that many people would refuse to do — he worked for free, participated with a lot of money in this project. He knew it would not be received very well in Egypt, or internationally, actually — it wasn’t as entertaining as Microphone [Ahmad Abdalla, 2010] or his film Messages from the Sea [Daoud Abdel Sayed, 2010]. He knew it would be a hard film to watch, even for foreigners. But he said it’s important, we can open doors for other filmmakers.
MM: Since we have Joe and some people from Cimatheque who are concerned with questions related to film criticism, I want to know what types of things you learn from criticism. My thinking is that it becomes documentation of how a film is consumed and understood — and so as a director, maybe you learn things about the film you hadn’t thought of.
AA: To be honest, some people had good points about many things, but I already knew those points because four months after I did the editing I watched it in Greece, in a foreign country on a big screen with a lot of people. So I was receiving the film probably for the first time, with the right coloring and mixing — I judged the film from scratch again. I don’t think I had any kind of criticism that made me see something new or that I didn’t know.
MM: The film moves away from many things that we associate with the revolution and the 18 days, but the mechanism of someone saying, “I am filming so people can see what’s happening,” is very much a repertoire I associate with the revolution. But in other parts of the film you’re trying to take it away and point to continuity.
AA: I borrowed that phrase from a real video. We had problems with the audio so had to re-record it with a professional actor. But that was what he was saying: “Record and send it abroad so people know what’s happening.” I changed it to make it shorter.
MM: Why did you use the clip?
AA: Because the story is about the video he has to deliver to the newspaper, as people have to know what’s happening in the prison. That’s why the real guy was filming, and I wanted to continue this mission and deliver the video, so we kept the same phrase.
MM: Was there any reason that Al-Masry Al-Youm was so prominent? [Laughter]
AA: Yes, for two reasons actually. The first is that I wanted to deal with the right places, and actually they were doing a lot of great effort during the 18 days — we had the media tent in Tahrir and they were collecting great material. So I wanted to make sure to film inside Al-Masry Al-Youm. Secondly, we tried to make them financially support the film somehow, but it didn’t work. But I continued with the script. The guy has the logo on his back because I wanted people to know it’s the same guy we’ll see at the end of the film — because you don’t have a lot of dialogue you try to find different solutions.
MM: When I was watching the film, there was something uncomfortable in a way because it had potential to be a very traditional, normal film about a fugitive carrying this very precious thing he has to deliver and is always in danger. The movie keeps almost taking you to this kind of experience, but breaks it with the silence and documentary bits, so I get that some viewers were frustrated. They were invited for something, and it was taken away for something else. It’s different than a movie that starts with a long, slow shot of the desert or something — then you know what you’re getting yourself into.
AA: A famous director told me that I screwed the film: I had all the essence to make a big hit in theaters, but decided to make it silent and have these strange documentary parts. He asked me to change it. But it was a choice.
JF: What differentiates an average movie from a great movie is how you tell the story, how you conjure up these images. From the beginning, I was fascinated: Here’s a guy that has the balls to have his protagonist not speak for the whole movie. It has beautiful aesthetics. No narrative. I loved that. Ahmad’s movie, and Hala Lofty’s [“Coming Forth by Day,” 2012], these are the kind of movies I’ve been craving. And it’s not about being different just to be different — it’s about having an experience that touches me on a totally different level that was not being fulfilled in your average entertainment. I don’t think a filmmaker should do a movie for the majority of people. Why is film not being treated as art? Why can’t a filmmaker, like an artist, express himself the way he wishes and present it to the people?
MM: I think it’s a question of engagement. Entertainment matters in as much as the artwork, be it a film or whatever, manages to engage people. You need to create a connection. I’m not trying to say you need to commercialize, simplify, or reduce, but if an artwork doesn’t pass this test of engagement on some level, I would worry. Even boredom can be engaging, not feeling comfortable can be engaging. It is part of your art to define your tactics of engagement.
MM: Someone was telling me that they felt the anti-romantic aspects of the film were contradicted by certain very romantic or spiritual scenes. The Sufi singing, for example, felt very warm and comforting in an otherwise disturbing story.
AA: I was very aware of this when we wrote the script. Let’s look at Tahrir Square, for example. We believe that the moment we had in Tahrir was extremely spiritual. We were totally in love with strangers, of this image of Tahrir. And yet people were dying at the edge of the square. We had this contradiction all the time. There is something beautiful happening and something extremely ugly happening on the very same spot, and I tried to reflect this in the film. It’s very realistic, it is very ugly, it is very violent, but you still find a way out for your soul in the middle of all this.