Ahmad Abdalla’s Decor, and the personal vs. the common
 
 

Decor is Ahmad Abdalla’s fourth feature. It’s a black-and-white movie about Maha (Horeya Farghaly) and Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga), two set designers working on a “commercial” film by an “independent” director played by real-life director Ibrahim El Batout.

It had its international premiere at the London Film Festival and premiered in Cairo at the Cairo International Film Festival. Can we link it to the “wave” that started with Ibrahim El Batout’s Ain Shams (2008)? After all, even if Decor is a studio production (New Century), Abdalla’s name is closely linked to Egypt’s “independent cinema.” Is that term becoming a burden on filmmakers? How does Decor differ from Abdalla’s earlier movies?

Below is a conversation about Decor among other things, between cartoonist Andeel, film critics Ahmed Refaat and Ahmed Abdel Wahhab and filmmaker Tarek El Sharkawy.

Ahmed Abdel Wahhab: Most of Ahmad Abdalla’s movies were more personal than this one.

Andeel: Do you really find them personal, or just not very popular?

AAW: Personal in the way he expresses his own ideas, communicates his thoughts and feelings without a solid scenario. Like how Heliopolis (2009) is no more than a collection of memories and feelings. In Decor there’s a scenario and an idea that’s not so bad, unlike Heliopolis.

A: I actually feel like Abdalla’s movies are very much invested in collective concerns like “our movies” and “our generation’s problems,” values that have become a bit paralyzing for filmmakers recently — they make movies while thinking about independent cinema generally, and “artistic movements.”

You brought up the personal, but the way I see Abdalla’s movies is the opposite: They could be better if they cared less about the group.

AAW: It’s not personal to the extent that Abdalla personally exists in the movie, but his personal surroundings are always there, like real friends of his. [Filmmaker] Bassam Mortada for example appears in Farsh w Ghata (Rags and Tatters, 2013) as himself. In Decor there are no characters that align with Abdalla’s personality.

Ahmed Refaat: But in Decor one character is an independent filmmaker making a commercial movie, Ibrahim El Batout, which is Abdalla’s situation with this movie.

A: Especially as Batout appears in the beginning, recites a detail of the ethics of making a commercial movie, then only reappears at the end, when Abdalla himself cameos in the background. Ibrahim’s character must mean something.

There’s something else that’s to me very personal as well. In one scene in Decor, Maha is reading news that the shooting of a series called The Prisoner’s Escape has finished. Rags and Tatters is about a prisoner who escapes. If you look at all his movies there’s always an escape. In Decor, Maha escapes from one reality to another, like you said: From Madinat Nasr hell to the heaven of Heliopolis.

Something I like about Abdalla’s cinema is that even when pretending to be making a commercial movie like this, he’s not denying his presence. He keeps reminding us of himself, floats around in the background.

AR: But that recreates the recurrent argument of personal and objective, arthouse versus commercial. I don’t think this is revealing enough of movies I appreciate. I only see it as anti-categorizations.

A: You mean you don’t find this dichotomy necessary?

AR: At least it needs refutation. What’s different in Decor is that nothing’s new in it. It’s a classic movie aspiring for commercial success.

A: Isn’t this new for Abdalla? Not just the black and white, but the stability and quietness — it’s a new style for him.

Tarek El Sharkawy: I think this was probably a result of the fact that someone else wrote the script for him, unlike his previous films. Abdalla’s signature is in the way his movies feel — like he thinks of a look or cinematic style first, and then tries to find a subject for it. I don’t think he’s always lucky with that, and the results sometimes come out superficial.

A: I can see the process of building a movie more clearly in commercial movies, it’s easy to understand in the context of trends — how common taste flattens at a certain moment so everybody expects a shaky handheld camera, flattens again so we go back to the still, classic shots, and so on.  

Directors possessing the ability or luxury of doing what they want is something I totally respect — regardless of the result, it’s a huge achievement. It’s such a big decision to reveal yourself and say what you think. It’s difficult to have anything to say, and it’s more difficult to know how to say it.

It’s understandable that many people are pissed off by “doing whatever you want.” That’s why we shouldn’t be overly sympathetic, as this bounces back hard eventually. After watching El Batout’s last movie, El Outt (The Cat, 2014), I was impressed by how much his work has developed. It was his best movie so far. People came out angry and aggressive toward it, and this felt like a reaction to how much support people were giving him when his movies were much cheaper and more difficult to produce.

AR: I was more excited about Abdalla’s other movies. Like when he made a movie without dialogue or something …

A: You didn’t feel he was experimenting in Decor?

AR: Not at all, it aspired for wide commercial success.

A: Isn’t that in itself experimental for someone who doesn’t usually make that kind of film?

AAW: It’s an experiment for him but not the audience. For the audience it’s a movie from a big production company written by Mohamed Diab and Sherine Diab.

A: It’s an experiment for the audience on a very simple level, I mean it’s black and white and all that.

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AAW: True, and the story isn’t even that conventional, and Abdalla usually doesn’t do things in a completely new way. But in Decor there’s an obvious story about three people that’s easily told — that’s a step closer to the audience.

AR: That’s why I see commercial ambition in Decor.

A: Isn’t that also in his other works?

AR: I can only see it in Decor and Microphone (2010).

A: But don’t you think that despite all the resources he could rely on to make a very commercial movie, Abdalla’s still keeping a distance from this commercial area?

AAW: True, he’s deliberately keeping a distance, but there’s his constant obsession with doing something new — a movie without dialogue, a black and white movie …

A: For me the newest thing about Decor is the decision to make a commercial movie. If you know you’re categorized as independent or alternative and you’ve had enough success on that path to be able to make a film every year, you’re investing in the language you’re already developing. But Abdalla decided to leap into the risky area of the box office where sharks eat each other. It’s a dangerous experiment.

AAW: He must be doing something challenging for him, but for me these are all details outside the moment of perceiving the work. The story of how it developed and how he ended up making it isn’t something we know much about.

A: I guess what I find interesting is the fact that when you say “experimentation,” people think of unusual or less popular artistic approaches, but here the experimentation is in exploring the ordinary, revisiting common taste. You’re born in the middle of a current state, a market in which everybody kind of agrees on what to expect from a movie. There will always be a confusion if your movies don’t have an attractive male protagonist, a woman who loves him. You can see where you don’t want to be as a filmmaker, and you’re consciously moving away from it. There’s a state of exploration in that movement, courage.

To carry your experience back to that area you don’t like much — it’s a risk. The moments between these two cinematic worlds were very entertaining for me, like when Sherif and Maha are discussing leaving the job — he tries reverse psychology to make her stay and think it’s her own decision. It’s a traditional scene, the dialogue’s rhythmic, and it’s tempting to shoot close-ups with lots of cuts, but it’s shot through the decor, with minimal editing, and feels weird, staged and slightly annoying. Even though I wasn’t so into the plot, I enjoyed those cinematic details.

AAW: I don’t totally agree that experimentation is measured by how far you are from common taste. You can experiment with something people know very well.

AR: There are things I liked in the movie, like the hospital scenes near the end. The train scene was nice, when she stood by the door. I also liked the fire scene …

A: One ingredient of commercial movies is nice houses — people want to see nice places, nice cars, nice schools. This gave the movie production value, but it wasn’t done cheaply like the flats in Ahmad Helmy movies with American furniture and two levels. I like how Decor’s exploration of this commercial side didn’t go for straightforward sex or violence, it explored a detail even commercial movies aren’t that aware of.

Decor by Ahmad Abdalla

TS: Yeah, and in commercial filmmaking, set designers are good as far as they can build fancy-looking sets. Everybody builds impoverished sets, so designers of impoverished sets are looked down on. That’s why someone like Mohamed Attiya has a prominent name — he builds Helmy’s sets.

AW: Attiya built the set of Bolbol Hayran (Confused Nightingale, 2010), right? Also written by Mohamed Diab. That movie also had a story of confusion, very similar to Decor.

A: Right! I also felt throughout Decor that there’s something very familiar about it. That’s another trait of commercial movies — a familiar feeling.

AW: I just don’t want to assume that the movie’s sets and wealth only existed for that purpose. I’m sure the characters’ profiles were created with income consideration.

AR: But income in Egyptian movies is always messed up, like Andeel said — wealth is always unexplained, it’s usually directly for production value.

A: I’ve just realized that there’s always wealth in Abdalla’s movies. One of the first impressions I had about Heliopolis was how posh Khaled Abol Naga’s character was, with his jacket and camera and everything looking very good, in these posh, old Heliopolis flats where he meets people. I think Abdalla does have certain interest in wealth.

AW: I don’t like going inside a director’s brain as much as I’m interested in the movie’s reception. But I feel like in Heliopolis he spoke about something he knows, people he knows  — not an exotic type like in movies by Ibrahim al-Abyad. But this didn’t last very long, and I don’t think he likes talking about rich people.

A: I mean there’s awareness of wealth and how it feels in reality like ours. Here if you’re in a real rich person’s house you’re a bit shocked, because you open the window and there’s shit outside. I like the presence of wealth in his movies, because it’s something we make an effort to ignore. Heliopolis focused on it the most. It’s basically a movie about classism.

AAW: It doesn’t seem like a contrasted or dialectic dynamic as much as it seems like a panoramic scan of society in general.

A: Commercial filmmakers know their audience is mostly poor and watching shiny things hypnotizes us. They use BMWs because they know there’s a very poor person watching and the more expensive the car is, the smaller the audience will feel. I think Abdalla’s aware of that dynamic and is opening conversation around it.

AR: How was the conversation opened? Just by having wealth in the movie?

A: Yes, that’s how Heliopolis states its opinion on it at an early stage. In Microphone it became more abstract, people versus government, the voice of the people, etc.

AAW: Decor promised a mystery, and that it fulfilled — most of the time I wasn’t sure what was going on, or what was about to happen. The other thing I expected was dialogue with more depth and life, and give me something I could understand and sympathize with.

A: More realistic dialogue? Or more poetic or arty?

AAW: Just to not be so shallow.

AR: Shallow like in boring, daily-life conversations?

A: What I think you’re trying to say is for the character to be a bit more complex, less stereotypical?

AAW: It’s not about stereotypes. But in Decor there’s a character complaining all the time, but we don’t really know why she is.

A: I’m with you on that. That’s why I didn’t care much about the story, the way commercial movies turn feelings into emotional stunts you have to get involved in even if you don’t want to, like the dramatic shop-selling subplot.

AAW: It’s a situation repeated in most of his movies, in Heliopolis and Microphone.

AR: Yes, there’s always a shop being sold in his movies!

A: I found the plot in general nothing but a not-very-well-executed trick. So I wasn’t involved in it. I liked that early subplot a lot more, the one in which Maha has that struggle against the actress who was interfering with her work.

AR: This is why Magid al-Kidwany’s character was clear and pronounced, a man who’s in love with his wife who doesn’t love him back. Things are clear and emotions are delivered.

Decor by Ahmad Abdalla

A: Another thing I like in Abdalla’s movies the way he includes special sides of our normal life, like Maha and Sherif’s house. You don’t usually see houses like that in cinema because they’re a type of people not many of us are familiar with. When Egyptian cinema portrays artists it’s a very cartoonish over-the-top model, to entertain. In Microphone there’s a house party — that lifestyle is rare in Egyptian cinema, normal young people having parties and drinking alcohol without having drinking problems or being millionaires. Even just showing young people living independently.

TS: The house party scene in Microphone was one of my favorites, in terms of visuals.

A: It was shot in a young way, the camera milling about in the the hallway, in and out of the kitchen and the rooms in a rhythm similar to that of people in real-life house parties.

In Decor when Maha visits Sherif in his new house she comments on the taste in furnishings — he has his eye on those details. I feel like I also had escaped from the ordinary, so I can relate to that.

AR: But having two young people in a relationship creates specific expectations for me as well. Dialogue is very important. I want to know what their concerns are.

A: One thing I don’t like about Abdalla’s movies — sometimes he just says what he wants to say in a very blunt straightforward way, like in the confrontation between Maha and the actress, when she defends her taste in clothes.

AR: Or the monologue where Sherif explains why they don’t want to bring babies to this world where there’s no freedom, blah blah blah …

A: When I said “our movies” at the beginning, you all nodded in agreement. Do you think you belong to the group of people for whom Abdalla is meant to be making movies?

AR: I think I have to admit that it’s a “yes,” and this is an outcome of an ambition I had to be part of this “group.”

A: I’m asking because I think we’re a society invested too much in collective values. Being a part of a group is very important — we feel we always have to be a part of some group, move with and think like it, and this is one of the reactionary values that creates other problems. When you look at the types who might suffer from the majority’s way of living or understanding things, you can’t help but notice how they escape social pressure and then end up forming their own society that behaves the same way, starts forming their own version of the values that they loathed in their bigger societies, and then a bible is created and specific rights and wrongs. And so you hear things like Ibrahim El Batout or Abdalla are hurting independent cinema. Is that a choice, and is being part of this group beneficial?

AR: I have to admit that it’s a choice. But it’s a choice of necessity. The support networks provided by this small society is important, but I agree that dissidents from the big group end up building the same values they escaped.

A: I have a problem with art being consumed that way, I believe art benefits a lot from individualistic values, experimentation and adventure, but at the same time I suspect that my respect for these values might make my opinions a bit too sympathetic. I’m always childishly dazzled by experimentation in artwork.

TS: I think experimentation can be an obstacle if it turns into an end in itself, when the end of the ambition is the movie being made.  

A: One thing about the commercial market challenge in Decor — it’ll make the next movie very interesting for me.

AR: I’ll certainly be excited to see his next movie.

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