I have been following Ahmed Elghoneimy’s work for a few years now. The 30-year-old filmmaker’s approach borders fiction and documentary, casting real-life characters and zooming in on their interactions in pseudo-fictional situations.
His 13-minute film Bahari (2011) re-stages a personal encounter with a man working at a playground in the titular neighborhood, who suspects Elghoneimy of being a pedophile for filming there and locks him up for the night. Elghoneimy cast the man, Yasser, as himself. The Cave (2013) is a 23-minute character study of a childhood friend as a con artist, also played by the friend himself. Both were set, if not fully, in Elghoneimy’s hometown of Alexandria, where he studied fine art at Alexandria University before taking a one-year course in film at the Jesuit Culture Center in 2009, during which he made his debut film.
Elghoneimy’s fourth and most recent film, 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You (حاجتين تلاتة نسيت أقولهملك), is a bit of a departure, having been filmed in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, and developed from within the Home Workspace Program, a graduate-level independent study program offered by Lebanon’s Ashkal Alwan, which Elghoneimy attended in 2015. Over 30 minutes, we follow Youssef, an 11-year-old boy, exploring new spaces on a day out with his father. In addition to a more experimental use of visuals, sound and transitions, 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You differs in the distance Elghoneimy had from the characters and in that the father-son relationship is more colorful, elaborated beyond the themes of intimidation and aggression in male culture that was at the core of both previous works.
The film premiered in mid March during the opening week of Sharjah Biennial 13, curated by Ashkal Alwan’s director Christine Tohmé. It was screened to a full house at Al Hamra Cinema, a retro style movie theater from the 1970s, famous for showing Tamil and Malayalam films.
When Elghoneimy dropped by Cairo in March on his way to join a year-long residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin to develop his first feature-length film and a short documentary, we caught up to discuss his filmmaking process to date and how 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You came about.
Mai Elwakil: Alexandria enjoys a strong and supportive film community that allows filmmakers to produce quality work with limited resources. What was your experience producing 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You like in Lebanon?
Ahmed Elghoneimy: The Cave was a big production supported by the Goethe-Institut South Africa. For Bahari, I received a small production grant from the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF), and I had access to the team and facilities of Fig Leaf Studios [a collective and video production facility that has been supporting independent and-low budget productions in Alexandria for the past decade], as well as Badroum Studio, an audio production studio whose founder, Samir Nabil, worked on sound design.
In Lebanon it was different, as I did not have a network to build on. I had to start from scratch. I tried putting together a crew with little success. I approached people who had very different visions about film production.
ME: Why did you decide to show 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You for the first time in a biennial context? How have audiences received it?
AE: Video Works [Ashkal Alwan’s grant and screening platform] commissioned the film, and Sharjah Art Foundation supported the post-production stage. That’s why it was included in the biennial’s program, and I finished editing the film right before the opening week. I’m still getting feedback. Some people who are used to finding a logical sequence of events in my work, a complete dramatic arc so to say, are confused by the film.
ME: You experimented with visuals, sound and text, but also flow and transitions, layering the storyline. How did these stylistic developments come about?
AE: My personal implication with the main characters of Bahari and The Cave had too strong of an influence on the films. Adham [The Cave’s lead] is a childhood friend, while my relationship to Yasser developed over time. My ideas on the film language to use were based on casting them.
In 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You, I started with a few visual experiments, some ideas I wanted to express and texts that influenced me. Casting followed that. I felt more distance from the subject matter, which is something we worked on for a year during the Home Workspace Program. By considering the distance between us and our subject matter, we thought about ethics of representation and possibilities of empathy. These questions are pertinent when I make real-life characters re-present themselves in fictional situations.
ME: We could see this approach for the first time in Bahari. How did you start developing screenplays based on real people you encounter, and casting them in your films?
AE: My drive to make Bahari back in 2008 was to overcome my fear of Yasser, which frustrated me. I was also interested in capturing my feelings and his — our relationships to our bodies in space at the time. There was something genuine about our embodied experience that I wanted to translate. I didn’t have the ambition that Yasser would act in the film at first. He was a research subject. But as our relationship developed, I felt that this experience wouldn’t come across through an actor.
I approached a friend, filmmaker Islam Kamal, who was familiar with the Bahari neighborhood, for advice. We showed up regularly near the playground and waited for Yasser to approach us, so as to reverse the power dynamics from my previous encounter with him. Eventually, he came, infuriated, asking what brought us here. We claimed to be journalists researching the neighborhood and asked him to be our fixer. So I got to spend time with him. We stayed in touch although I moved to Cairo, and when I returned to Alexandria in May 2011, we started working on the film.
I realized when I reflected on my experience in Bahari that I enjoy this process of getting to know people and creating drama between us off-screen. The dynamics, conversations and relationships I develop with the “cast,” these sort of games that happen behind the camera, are a big part of what excites me about filmmaking.
ME: Was Yasser upset that you claimed to be journalists in the beginning?
AE: No. These details weren’t important anymore since we had developed a strong relationship over two years. He had already figured that out anyway. We became collaborators. He was my support throughout the film, giving me access to the neighborhood. The cast gets implicated in the films somehow, and we develop them together.
ME: How do you train the cast to act the final screenplay? I know that in The Cave you chose supporting characters to trigger certain reactions from Adham. For instance, because he is your childhood friend, you know he would be comfortable around your mother, whereas Mahmoud Refat of the 100Copies music label would intimidate him while critiquing his music. Tell me about your process and how you balance between improvising and acting out the screenplay?
AE: I always cast characters while considering their effect on the others. In 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You, because my main character is a child, I also had to make sure that it didn’t seem like I was giving him orders, otherwise he would push back. I thought about locations the same way I do with casting. For instance, I took him to the fish market because I knew he would be fascinated, and start moving around and touching everything.
I also try to capture the cast’s first, spontaneous experience. So I need to find a balance. I don’t do too many rehearsals so the actions seem natural. But I do enough to generate ideas and reactions that I can incorporate while writing the screenplay.
ME: You also include personal texts and stories by these characters, such as the fish seller Sameh’s story about his father in your latest film. How do you choose these stories? In what context do they come up?
AE: I don’t over calculate. I was looking for actors on foot and talking to people in Tripoli when I saw Sameh sitting with his friends on the street. I approached him and asked for his number. We met up the next day.
ME: Don’t people get suspicious?
Being an Egyptian in Lebanon gives you access that I haven’t felt while trying to film in other places.
AE: Sometimes they do. But being an Egyptian in Lebanon gives you access that I haven’t felt while trying to film in other places, such as Europe. Sameh loves Egyptian actor Adel Imam. So we joked and acted out scenes together. I was lucky. It was the perfect icebreaker. We started meeting regularly. We spoke about our lives, our relationships with women and our families. I told him about my relationship with my father. He told me about a specific incident he remembers in detail which involved his father beating him up when he was 14. This story registered [with me] because his narration was exciting.
Later I wanted to expand his role in the film, give his character more depth, so I asked him if I could use one of the stories he told me. He agreed and chose this story. I was thrilled, because the film is about the relationship of a boy to his father.
ME: Tell me about the locations in your films and how you choose them. You mentioned that you set 2 or 3 Things I Forgot to Tell You in Tripoli because the politics of spaces in Beirut were too present. Tripoli also felt familiar.
AE: Tripoli is a flat, seaside city. You can see the sea from the corniche along the coastal road. It is somewhat isolated economically, with limited investment, so you don’t have skyscrapers blocking the sea view. There is something very Alexandrian about it. Beirut has a highway that at times cuts the city from the seaside — you don’t get to see the sea while walking three or four blocks away. Tripoli is also a conservative, male-dominated city.
In Beirut, where I lived for over a year, every neighborhood has certain political, religious and cultural resonances, which affected my views on places. I feared it would dominate the film even if that wasn’t the intention behind choosing any one location. I spent very little time in Tripoli, on the other hand, which allowed me some distance. I was able to deal with it as a series of abstract filmic locations: to be with Sameh at a fish market — not the fish market in Tripoli; to be with Youssef at a port — not specific to a city. This was important to my storyline, as I wanted to be able to suspend the characters from reality and put them back whenever I wanted.
ME: How are the locations relevant to the people you cast?
AE: The characters’ relationship to places is something I like to build on. It was Sameh who led me to the fish market where I filmed. Bahari was filmed in real locations that reflected how I wanted to reinterpret the event. I had difficulties choosing the locations that I wanted to film The Cave in, as constraints related to its production and marketing as part of the [Goethe Institute’s] African Metropolis series made me film it largely in Cairo. Adham is from Alexandria, he lived next to me, we took the same route to school everyday, we went to the same social/sporting club. Our shared history is there and I wanted to present it. So I had to re-write the film with Adham exploring Cairo for a day. There was also pressure to make it in a conventional narrative style, whereas I had hoped to try out different methods. This is why, while looking back at my work after the Home Workspace Program, I felt I wanted to revisit The Cave with a different logic. So I will develop it into a feature film during my upcoming residency — it will follow the same characters in different settings.