“What do you wish for?” a voice behind the camera asks in Ahmed Hamed’s Necessity Has No Law. We assume it is the director who’s posing this question to his subject, Shaaban, a 53-year-old worker at a brick factory, his face dark and withered. “I want to perform Hajj,” Shaaban answers, and he bursts into tears.
In the six-minute film, Shaaban’s last day on the job is juxtaposed with 14-year-old Gamal’s first. Yet when Gamal is asked the same question, his answer is a flat and unflinching: “Nothing.”
Despite occasionally compelling visuals, Necessity Has No Law, the winning film at the first Cinedelta Documentary Film Festival (CDFF) this month, felt like an artfully shot report on brick workers rather than a film.
This impression was even more palpable in Not for Girls, the recipient of the festival’s second prize, directed by Dalia Faziy, Rasha Hosny, Nouran Hatem and Nada El Khouly. The film follows women who choose to make a living doing work that is traditionally “masculine,” or pursue activities rarely taken up by females. It’s a compilation of interviews where each woman speaks of her experience and the challenges she is often met with.
The festival was the culmination of a six-month educational program on documentary filmmaking held in Alexandria for students from the Nile Delta region, a collaboration between Italian NGO Ricerca e Cooperazione (RC) and Alexandrian production company and film collective Fig Leaf Studios that started in 2016.
RC had operated in a similar format before, supporting and co-organizing Rising Stars and Cinema Net, film training programs that took place in Cairo and ended with the Masry Asly Itinerant Film Festival in 2013 and 2014 respectively. In 2016, the organization felt it was time to head out of Cairo. They came across Fig Leaf because one of its co-founders, Islam Kamal, won an award in Masry Asly.
“The Delta region has always been marginalized, socially and economically, not to mention educationally,” says Ahmed Fouad Rageb, Cinedelta’s energetic coordinator and project manager, an artist who himself has participated in alternative education programs such as MASS Alexandria and Sharjah’s March Project educational residency, having officially studied pharmacy. “There’s a serious lack of services there, especially when it comes to education and culture. Cinedelta is an attempt at filling parts of the gap.”
The training sessions, however, were held in Alexandria due to the ease of finding venues there — most were held at the Geothe Institute Alexandria, while the rest were divided between SwedAlex, the French Institute, and Alexandria’s Museum of Fine Arts. The program covered the travel expenses of students from other parts of the Delta.
The focus on documentary filmmaking stemmed from a similar observation: “There are no educational institutions in Egypt that specialize in teaching documentary filmmaking,” says Rageb. “This — in a country like ours, with such a wealth of subjects to explore — is unacceptable.”
“It is also important to show the reality of Egypt outside of its borders, and documentaries are a great way to do that,” adds Jenny Di Maio, RC’s young Italian cultural project manager. “Especially when media coverage in Egypt right now is restricted and not very professional.”
The shortcomings of both winning films reflect what Walid Elsawi, a 30-year-old visual artist and Cinedelta student, views as a trend in most documentaries coming out of Egypt right now. “They often focus on similar subjects — mostly suffering, marginalized individuals — and they tackle the issues the same way,” he says. “You end up feeling like you’re watching Wael al-Ebrashy’s TV show, not a work of art.”
Yet Elsawi says the program was a fulfilling experience, even though his own focus is essentially digital and video art. “The mentors always encouraged us to experiment rather than stick to a specific format, and that was very useful,” he elaborates.
It started with an open call last February, to which 65 applicants responded. Twenty students were selected, mostly from Alexandria, but also from cities like Tanta, Mansoura, Kafr al-Sheikh and Beheira. “Our objective is to train students for all stages of the documentary filmmaking process, not just as directors,” Rageb explains, “so we picked some who were good researchers even if they had no filmmaking experience, and others who had the skills to make good producers, for example, or showed promise as photographers.”
A certain aspect of documentary filmmaking was covered by each of the main mentors, who are also the driving forces behind Fig Leaf: Mark Lotfy (screenwriting and storytelling), Kamal (editing style), Marouan Omara (production), and Mina Nabil (cinematography).
Elsawi, who has previously participated in the artists’ independent study programs at MASS Alexandria and Beirut’s Home Works, found Nabil’s and Kamal’s workshops particularly insightful. “Studying the technical aspects is fascinating, because you come to see how each of them is almost as important as the directing,” he says. “It’s really interesting to witness, for example, how editing can entirely change a story or alter a meaning.”
Rageb says they initially planned to hold only five workshops, but things kept evolving and expanding to include 25 workshops by guest mentors and master classes by filmmakers from Egypt and abroad. Filmmakers who led master classes included Lebanon’s Rami Nehawi, where the director’s film Yamo became a case study for a discussion with the students; French Iranian director Reza Serkanian (Ephemeral Marriage, 2011); and Nadine Salib, whose 2014 film Um Ghayeb is one of the most notable Egyptian documentaries in recent years.
French producer Michel Balagué, who has co-produced Arab films such as Mais Darwazah’s My Love Awaits Me by the Sea (2013) and Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016), led a workshop focused on the production process in the region. It was important that students hear firsthand accounts of working in the industry in this part of the world, says Rageb.
One objective was a balance between theory and practice. In a workshop by Danish filmmakers Mia Fryland and Flemming Lyngse, students took part in daily exercises where they would film on the street, then edit their footage, screen the outcome and discuss it. “Practical workshops that allowed us to have more hands-on experience were definitely more appealing to me than those centered on theory,” Elsawi says. That is one thing he thinks organizers should work on in the future: make sure the classes allow for more practice.
A workshop by US director and cinematographer Richard Pearce, Primetime Emmy nominee for The Final Days (1989), and editor Lynzee Klingman, Academy Award nominee for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), introduced a different kind of cinema than that explored in the rest of the program. “Since it’s an EU-funded program, we often showed students films from Europe,” Rageb says. “In this workshop, however, they got to see American works, emphasizing important factors that have to do with the market and audience preferences.”
All in all, students worked in groups on six short documentaries, two produced in collaboration with the Geothe Institute and the rest joint productions between Cinedelta and Fig Leaf Studios. Rageb says the most rewarding thing about the project was how determined the students were to make those films despite the limited resources.
He was particularly impressed by Joseph Adel’s A Jar Full of Fish, a sequence of vignettes that he found entertaining and visually and mentally stimulating, despite having no narrative thread. He also mentions the interventional aspect of Mohamed Mahmoud’s Am Sobhy, which follows a shoemaker in Alexandria whose shop has become a city landmark — Mahmoud helped Am Sobhy relive an old passion of his.
All six student films were screened in the festival — which ran from February 1 to 9 in Alexandria, Tanta and Rosetta — in addition to two documentaries by Swedish-Italian filmmaker Erik Gandini, who also gave a master class. The line-up of the competition, titled the Instant Egypt Contest, consisted of 20 Egyptian documentaries tackling Egypt-specific issues, and the first prize was a two-week residency at Stockholm University for the Arts.
“Cinedelta is all about exposure,” Rageb says. “We seek to bring exposure to the largely neglected Delta, to students with potential, and to films with promising potential that don’t have enough reach — this was our main criterion when selecting the competing films.”
Although attendance at festival screenings was highest in Alexandria, Rageb and Di Maio agree that Tanta was a pleasant surprise in terms of both numbers and the energy of the discussions. In recent years Tanta has been relatively connected to Cairo’s culture scene, mostly through a collaboration with Zawya, led by Tanta’s Cinema and Literature Lovers’ Association (CLLA). Rosetta, being more detached from cultural activities in the big cities, was more challenging, but Di Maio says that makes it even more important to work there.
For the next round of Cinedelta, Rageb says, they intend to rely more on filmmaking professors rather than filmmakers as the main mentors. “It’s become clear to us that someone who is a brilliant filmmaker doesn’t necessarily make a brilliant teacher,” he says. “Bringing in more film professors means they will already have the skill of communicating with students.”
It would also be useful, Rageb thinks, for each student to work on one project throughout the program’s duration, rather than a separate project in every workshop. There’s also a hope to get the program accredited, to help students apply to other institutions if they wish to take their studies further. Cinedelta is currently in talks with a documentary filmmaking school in Germany that has a similar approach about a permanent framework for exchanging curricula, students and mentors.
One more aim is to develop better outreach in the Delta cities, recruiting more students, further involving communities and holding training sessions outside Alexandria. To attract applicants, Cinedelta will rely on local coordinators in each city to organize screenings of this round’s student films, followed by information sessions about the project. “There are so many people out there who want to make films but can’t find the right channels,” Rageb says. “Our job is to scout until we find them.”