On a cold winter night in January 2008, filmmaker Ahmed ElGhoneimy — back then still preparing to apply to Alexandria’s Jesuit Film School — was walking in the bustling neighborhood of Bahari, Alexandria, taking pictures of the whirring activity and the people at its center as an exercise for his upcoming admission test. Hours later, he was held and interrogated by two local men who saw him speaking with a group of homeless children, and suspected him of being a child molester.
That incident would go on to become the main subject of ElGhoneimy’s first short film, Bahari (2011), where he cast one of his assailants to play himself in the film. In his second project, The Cave (2013), he drew inspiration from his own life once again, this time casting an old schoolmate, Adham Fazary, to play the eponymous protagonist, an aspiring musician who is also a hustler on the side.
In 2015, Ghoneimy joined Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works program in Beirut, where his work — influenced by the program’s focus on critical theory — took a different turn, culminating in 2018’s Tripoli Tide, which competed at the 16th edition of Doclisboa.
In this interview, artist and filmmaker Salma al-Tarzi speaks to the Alexandrian filmmaker about his body of work, the subtle but central political component in his films, and his unconventional creative process.
Salma al-Tarzi: The first question I want to ask is why did you want me in particular to interview you?
Ahmed ElGhoneimy: Because my films don’t really have female characters, but a big part of them is concerned with the representation of masculinity, and I know — based on your writing and what I saw in your film Underground on the Surface  — that you are interested in gender. Also because you’re a filmmaker, which I thought would make this conversation richer, since I hardly come across any filmmakers willing to discuss each other’s work in depth.
ST: For me, all three of your films deal with the same questions, which are closely related to gender, of course, but they also display a certain kind of disquiet towards the idea of masculinity and what it means, be it in the context of friendship or even love, as well as the idea of masculine performativity. It was refreshing for me to see someone working on the notion of masculinity with such vulnerability and unease.
AG: That disquiet is always there, of course. It expresses itself differently in each of the three films, but I think I can say that certain moments of conflict have led to it rising to the surface so that it’s no longer just an intangible presence.
In Bahari, for example — which is based on a real incident that happened to me — there is a very clear situation where that happens; it’s a literal confrontation with social dimensions. After that altercation, I returned to the same spot in order to speak with Yasser, the person who had threatened me that day (he went on to act in the film), and it was clear then where that disquiet came from. I was feeling pressured by the questions Yasser and his friend were asking me, but at the same time I didn’t want to run, so throughout our interaction there was this constant possibility of violence breaking out at any moment. Even if that possibility wasn’t made explicit, it was still there.
In The Cave, meanwhile, I think that Adham, the protagonist, is the one who feels that disquiet. He is worried about being alone, about not achieving anything — it was that anxiety that drove his actions, the charming ones and the violent ones as well.
In Tripoli Tide, it is the child protagonist who is the source of that disquiet, because of the moment of transition he is forced to go through — that moment when he stops being a boy and becomes a man, and where he needs to start “acting like a man” in order to be accepted. The boy, Youssef, had enough presence as an actor to show these emotions, but in reality they’re not often visible. This is what draws me to certain situations that appear normal or harmless when they actually involve a sort of subtle violence, and I feel that this dynamic is more common among men. This has been my experience growing up, at least — as a teenager especially I went through many moments where I tried to prove a high threshold for violence in ordinary situations, with my friends, for example. In Bahari, I tried to create that kind of hidden tension, and in the films that followed I tried to plant it between the characters with no direct confrontations or revelations. In The Cave, for instance, one scene that highlights this dynamic is the one where they’re counting the money — it appears to be humorous, but in truth each of them is taking jabs at the other with every line of dialogue.
ST: Yes, that was actually very clear; this weight of having something to prove, as though masculinity is a constant competition — who will take jabs at whom, as you said. It is even present in scenes where the characters show a certain vulnerability or emotion, like for instance in The Cave when Adham asks Amr to go see his girlfriend with him. You can sense that this friendship is dying, and you can sense that it pains Adham, and yet that pain, that vulnerability, remain suppressed under the weight of his need to prove his masculinity. Usually, when women make films about their relationships with one another, we find it easier to accept that vulnerability, because the ties that bind us come free of that persistent need to prove something, but that becomes much harder to express in a film about relationships between men, especially when the filmmaker himself is a man. How did you work on that paradox with your actors? Were there conversations between you, or did you intentionally keep some of your ideas hidden from them and so that they’d have enough space to play and you’d just capture the feeling as it happened naturally?
AG: Usually when I’m casting I can tell that the person is charismatic and would be able to hold their own in front of a camera, and I usually have an inkling of how they would interact with the other actors, and we test that in rehearsals. But every actor has their way of working, and I always try to keep that in mind when dealing with them. With some of them it isn’t really useful to explain the wider context, with others it’s very important that they know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Adham, for example, is very skeptical, and he cares a lot about his image on-screen. I mean, he doesn’t care if he’s a good guy or a bad guy; he had absolutely no qualms about playing a conman, and he was intuitively able to create a safe distance between the script and his own life. But he had to believe every situation he acted; he had to see the full picture and it had to convince him.
In Bahari, I don’t think I discussed the details of each scene with Yasser, because the film itself stands somewhere between the abstract and the real, so there were parts of it that even I don’t know why exactly I wrote, like the scene where Yasser asks Amr to draw a goose. So I wouldn’t try to analyze the scene and explain to him why he’s asking the other guy to draw a goose, I would just say that in this scene you want to rattle him, you want to extract information from him and you’re doing that through an act that would confuse him. What I discussed at length with Yasser was our own relationship to what was happening, because he is the person with whom that incident actually took place, so I think that in the research stage I was more interested in trying to understand how he perceived me that day, to communicate how I interpreted his own aggression towards me, and to clarify why I was filming in Bahari to begin with. I wanted to grasp how he saw the whole thing. Adham, on the other hand, would have directly asked me: “Why am I asking him specifically to draw a goose?”
ST: I didn’t understand why he asked him to draw a goose either, but that was definitely the most unsettling scene in the film, and that power play was really emphasized there. It sort of called to mind how the neighborhood watches that emerged during the curfew (in the early days of the revolution) used to act; that power people felt they had all of a sudden — there were those tests of masculinity happening all the time between the men involved. I also felt that dynamic in Tripoli Tide, that the boy was being tested in order to be granted entry into manhood, particularly in the scene where his father wants him to hold the live crab but the boy is too scared. It starts off as a joke, but then it becomes a question of existential anxiety for the father; his son won’t hold a crab, what kind of man is he going to become?
AG: I agree, that’s what it was.
ST: I also want to ask you about a certain detail that has to do with your choices as a filmmaker. I don’t know if it’s just my impression but I feel that in the scene that takes place at the gym in The Cave — which, in my opinion, is the best in the film — there is this semi-erotic study of the faces and the bodies of the men lifting weights. It reminded me of the scene with the men dancing naked at a wedding in my own film, where the source of eroticism wasn’t just my own gaze but also that there is always a sexual side to human relationships, regardless of gender, even if it remains unspoken.
AG: Yes, I think so too. For me, it is always interesting how, in those spaces where men move together freely and are entirely at ease, the possibility of attraction is completely eradicated, especially in places where homosexuality isn’t accepted, sometimes not even acknowledged. Not only that, but most men in such settings wouldn’t even admit to feeling jealous if a male friend becomes famous or gets engaged for instance and so starts spending less time with them — such feelings are always suppressed even if they aren’t necessarily homosexual. I think part of the reason why I chose the gym as a location and to focus on the men’s bodies stemmed from that idea, that these feelings are always there but are always denied because of certain perceptions that have to do with masculine performance, or how a man should act.
ST: There’s a different kind of disquiet that I sensed in your films that has to do with class, and your own position as a person with power, in that you’re the one wielding the camera and you also come from a different class than the subjects you’re filming. It makes me think of many conversations I had with myself as a filmmaker, that when we have a camera and we decide to make a film, at the end of the day we’re doing that for our own personal glory, right? So, in the event that we’re filming in a place that’s foreign to us, how aware are we of our privilege, and how does that awareness translate in the act of representation? Because there’s always the danger of taking it to a really bad place, you know, where we envision ourselves as heroes giving voice to the marginalized or showing society as it really is or all that nonsense. But there is a certain awareness in your films, not only in the stories they tell but also in how you chose to tell them — the process itself, and where you position yourself within it.
AG: That question in particular is what prompted me to work on Bahari. I think that awareness only dawned on me the moment I was stopped by Yasser and his friend. I was taking pictures around Bahari when I saw those kids playing in the area…they were street children. I spoke to them and we laughed and I bought them koshary, and I was about to go home when they told me they slept near the boats, on the beach, the same ones you see in the film. I went with them, out of curiosity, and this is where Yasser and his friend stopped me. They asked the kids what I was doing with them; if I’d asked them for anything unusual or said anything inappropriate. The kids looked confused, and when the questions wouldn’t stop they ultimately said yes and ran off. It was a nerve-wracking moment, of course, but it was also the moment when I realized that what I’d done wasn’t okay. If the kids gave half a damn about me they would’ve defended me in that situation, but the truth was I had used them and they had used me: I wanted good pictures, they wanted dinner — not to equalize their desires and intentions with my own, of course; there is a world of difference. But this is why I initially started to question my position, as you’re saying.
As for The Cave, what I always found compelling about Adham was how different he was from other kids I was surrounded with growing up. We had no smart phones back then, and we came from middle to upper middle class families who sent their children to language schools and certain sporting clubs; this is where we spent most of our time — school and the club were the only places where our parents felt we were safe. But at the end of the day they were all closed spaces. My relationship to public space was restricted to the time I spent on the tram to the club; then I would get off and cross the street to its gates. When we were teenagers, Adham seemed like a bit of a free spirit to me; he knew a lot of other places and had many stories that transcended the narrow circles within which we moved. I see Adham as a class-crossing person, in the sense that he has real life experience beyond the limited social milieu that I was part of when I was a teenager. This was a major driving force for me while working on The Cave.
So, yeah, I guess in my first two films it was relatively easy for me to position myself in relation to the characters, the story, the production process and my own self as a filmmaker, mostly because I was part of both stories somehow — with Yasser in our first encounter in Bahari, and with Adham, with whom I share a personal history.
ST: In the time between The Cave and Tripoli Tide, you took part in a few art residencies that were more geared towards contemporary art rather than film. How did that affect your work afterwards? Also, how did it influence you personally, in light of the constant process of labeling that we impose on ourselves and others impose on us?
AG: After The Cave I wanted to start working differently, without relying on my own personal stories. I wanted to find a new way to stimulate my ideas that didn’t necessarily have to do with difficult situations I experienced or real people who had influenced me. I was a bit stuck in the beginning because, as I mentioned before, my presence within these stories usually led to a sort of automatic formulation of a political position, and then all I could do was examine it further and critique it, so for a while I was unable to find a place from which I could tell stories that didn’t belong to my own lived experience.
The time I spent in Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Program in Beirut and dealing with artists who work in different mediums such as text, sculpture, installation, video and photography, prompted me to re-examine my own creative process and to not take it for granted, and also to re-think ways in which I can create a political position from the issues I wanted to address in my work. This probably has to do with the nature of the program itself, how it focuses on critical theories about image production rather than storytelling. This made me think of my subject matter itself as a priority, before thinking of the form in which I was going to present it. The craft of story and structure would come later. Because it wasn’t a cinema program, I had enough space to experiment without the restrictions a film academy would impose, for instance.
Today, two years after I finished the program, I often feel that a balance between both approaches is what I want to build my next project on. The truth is I started working on Tripoli Tide when I realized that the films I’d made before resembled fiction in form, even though there was something in the process of making them that echoed the process of making documentaries. So I decided to repeat the process inversely: to make a film that looks like a documentary, but in which none of the characters or events are real.
Bahari, The Cave and Tripoli Tide screen back-to-back on July 18 in Alexandria’s Wekalet Behna.