Known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, Cairo is the center of Arab cinema. It was not till the last decade, however, that the industry has seen the rise of so many women filmmakers who have made their mark producing critically acclaimed works. eniGma’s Farida El Sayed sat with four rising Egyptian women filmmakers to discuss each of their journeys in what is still a field mostly dominated by men.
Nadine Khan, the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Mohamed Khan, grew up in an environment that appreciated and encouraged art in all of its forms. “Since I was a child, I was exposed to various forms of art, but my first interest was in painting,” Khan recalls. When she was not accepted at the College of Fine Arts, she decided to pursue her second love, filmmaking, at the Higher Institute of Cinema, graduating in 2001.
Reminiscing on her early days in cinema, Khan recalls, “After graduation, I spent a year in London discovering myself before my father urged me to come back and start working. I started as a trainee, then I worked up the ranks of assistant director, beginning as a third assistant, second assistant, and finally first assistant director. I was also directing my own short films on the side.” It wasn’t long before Khan’s filmmaking skills were noticed internationally. She was recruited by DreamWorks, Arte and Pathé to participate in productions abroad, most notably in Whatever Lola Wants and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Khan’s debut as a full-fledged director came fifteen years after she started in the industry as a trainee. Her debut feature film, Harag w’ Marag (Chaos, Disorder), was a dream come true for her. “I worked on it for almost six years before going into production. There were a lot of bumps along the way and at times, I felt that it wasn’t going to come to light. I was fighting for it like it was my child.” The film went on to nab multiple awards, the first being the Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2012. It was followed by the award for Best Film at the 2013 Oran Film Festival in Algeria. The film also went on to win the Best Film award at the Muscat International Film Festival in Oman. For Khan, receiving the award at the Dubai Film Festival was the most exciting, and is etched in her memory. “I never expected the film to achieve the success that it did. Going to Dubai to receive my first award was one of the best moments in my career,” she exclaims.
Khan is grateful that her late father, who passed away in 2016, witnessed the success of her feature film. He continues to inspire her and she cherishes the lessons she learnt from him. “Keeping up your determination and working hard to reach what you want without sacrificing your passion or your sensitivity, are lifelong lessons I learnt from him,” she explains.
Most recently, Khan delved into the world of TV series as one of three young women directors of the highly popular series, Sabe’ Gar (Seventh Neighbour). Directing alongside Heba Yousry and Ayten Amin proved to be a fulfilling experience for her. “The experience taught me a lot about myself and about the industry. Co-directing and having to coordinate and execute three visions wasn’t an easy task, but I think it was worth it,” she recalls.
Despite her success so far, Khan explains, “My biggest challenge is to be taken seriously. It takes time and a lot of effort for others to understand your vision, especially when it is out of the box.” Judging by the projects she is currently working on, she seems well on her way to overcoming that challenge. These days, Khan is working on two projects, one of which is a feature film titled, In the Land of Wonder, currently in development. The second is a thriller titled, Abu Saddam (Saddam’s Father), that is currently in pre-production.
Khan’s late father would surely be pleased that she is succeeding in conveying her vision to her partners in those films without sacrificing her passion, as he taught her. Film critics and her growing fan base will also be looking forward to viewing her new productions, which promise to be interesting and, hopefully, will bring more awards for the rising director.
“I wanted to work in cinema ever since I can remember. I was always dazzled by the lives portrayed on screen,” says Ayten Amin, the young film director who grew up in Alexandria. However, like many other young people, once she finished high school, her family convinced her to follow a more conventional path and to study commerce at university, rather than join the Higher Institute of Cinema, as she had wanted.
After graduating from university, Amin worked at a bank for a while, but she was not happy at this ‘mundane job.’ To satisfy her passion, she decided to apply to the American University in Cairo’s newly inaugurated cinema program, the Art Lab. Though it was hectic, she tirelessly juggled her job and her studies, and it proved to be all worthwhile. In 2006, her graduation film project, Her Man, was chosen to participate in the Clermont-Ferrand Festival, the biggest international film festival dedicated to short films.
After bravely quitting her banking job, Amin worked her way up the ranks in the film industry, and eventually landed the coveted role of assistant director to the esteemed filmmaker, the late Mohamed Khan. Amin recalls that at the time Khan’s wife, Wessam Soliman, was working on a script for a project of her own and Khan recommended Amin to direct the film. That project, Rabie ‘89 (Spring ‘89), produced in 2009, would be Amin’s second short film. It went on to win several awards, including Best Short Fiction and the Special Jury Prize screenplay at the Alexandria Film Festival, as well as a Special Mention award at the Dubai International Film Festival. The film was also screened at the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner.
Amin’s most daring project came two years later when she co-directed the documentary, Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician, with Amr Salama and Tamer Ezzat. The documentary was divided into three parts, with Amin directing the part that dealt with the Central Security forces and their treatment of the protestors in 2011. The gripping and raw portrayal of the Egyptian Revolution was well received at the Venice Film Festival and was also included in the official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Amin’s first feature film came in 2013 with Villa 69, starring Khaled Abol Naga, Lebleba and Arwa Gouda. The film revolves around the terminally ill Abol Naga who is forced to change his solitary ways when his sister, played by Lebleba, moves in with him. The story resonated with international audiences due to its universal tale. The inspiration for the story was actually plucked from Amin’s own personal experience with her terminally ill father who passed away in 2007. The film received the Special Jury Award for a Film from the Arab World at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and was screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and Malmo Arab Film Festival in Sweden.
A couple of years later, Amin took on another bold adventure, joining two other women directors at the helm of the TV show, Sabe’ Gar (Seventh Neighbour). It started when Amin’s dear friend and fellow filmmaker, Heba Yousry told her about the idea. Around the same time Amin was getting to know Nadine Khan, a young director whom she admired. Amin told Khan about the project, and soon thereafter the three directors began filming. “The experience was so enjoyable because we were friends, and we had the same vision,” she recalls. The TV show was a great success. Its authentic screenplay with its realistic portrayal of daily life and the show’s static camera work, resonated with audiences.
Touching on the difficulties she faces in her field, Amin finds that the biggest impediment to her art is the difficulty of securing financing. “To find the money to do the projects you want is not the easiest thing,” she says. Yet, despite the financing challenges, the standout filmmaker has already embarked on her next passion project. Reflecting her unique vision, her upcoming feature film, titled Soad, focusing on the relationship between two teenage sisters, is expected to, once again, highlight the complexities of daily life. Judging by her past projects, Amin’s next film is sure to please her growing number of fans who are eager to see more films they can identify with.
Mariam Abou-Ouf had always aspired to become a doctor, until her dreams were dashed when she failed to qualify for medical school. At that point, she decided to enroll at the American University in Cairo (AUC), where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. However, being the daughter of renowned actor Ezzat Abou-Ouf, it wasn’t long before she found her way to the university’s theater. “I became friends with the theater people and got involved in some plays. I just fell in love with the whole thing,” she recalls.
Upon graduating from AUC, she first became involved with the film industry by working at the Cairo International Film Festival. A fortuitous introduction to acclaimed filmmaker Kamla Abou Zekry bolstered her love for the directing profession. Abou-Ouf credits Abou Zekry for showing her the ropes of the industry. “She gave me movies to watch, taught me all about the independent film scene, and she introduced me to Ossama Fawzy, Youssry Nasrallah and many other filmmakers,” says Abou-Ouf. She was so fascinated by what she learnt from Abou Zekry that she decided to forgo her plans to pursue a postgraduate degree in Islamic Studies at SOAS at the University of London and to study filmmaking at the London Film School, instead.
Abou-Ouf successfully graduated from the prestigious London Film School in 2003 and began working as an assistant director. She got her big break in 2009, working on the TV show Hala Wa Al Mestakhaby (Hala & the Hidden) starring Laila Eloui. Up till that time, TV series had been shot with unappealing lighting and with over dramatised acting. Abou-Ouf worked with Amr Arafa, the chief director, who decided to shoot the series the way feature films were being made, forever changing the way Egyptian TV series are filmed.
Two years later, in 2011, Abou-Ouf would release her first feature film, Bebo W Bashir (Bebo and Bashir), a romantic comedy starring Asser Yassin and Menna Shalaby which became a box office hit. The film was also special in that it gave Abou-Ouf the opportunity to work with her father. “It was quite nerve-wrecking being on set with him. He expected me to treat him differently, but I didn’t!” she lightheartedly recalls.
In the same year, Abou-Ouf took part in the ambitious film project, 18 Youm (18 Days), where ten directors were chosen to direct ten short films centered on the Egyptian Revolution. It went on to premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival to rave reviews and, until this day, it’s Abou-Ouf’s favourite project. She fervently explains, “Although it was only 12 minutes long, I wrote and directed it, so it’s the one film that I can say I love wholeheartedly.”
Most recently, Abou-Ouf was hailed for directing the music video of Talat Dakkat (Three Beats) by Abu and Yousra, which has amassed close to half a billion views on Youtube. Initially hesitant to venture into the world of music videos, Abou-Ouf took the plunge and decided on the idea to feature different couples from different backgrounds in what turned out to be a hugely successful music video. “It was the most fun and hectic shoot. It was all shot in one day!” says Abou-Ouf. Yet, even after the edits, she felt unsure of the result. “I was reluctant to reveal it, but much to my surprise everyone loved it. At first, I couldn’t believe that Abu and Yousra’s positive reaction was honest! Actually, I am still in shock at the reception the video has received, but it is thrilling to hear it everywhere from Geneva to New York,” Abou-Ouf exclaims.
Despite her evident passion for cinema, Abou-Ouf’s bread and butter is her work in advertising. While she has risen to the top ranks of the profession, Abou-Ouf says that advertising proved to be more difficult to break into than cinema. “In advertising, I was the only female for the longest time. Until today it’s hard to land the big jobs. Being chosen for a big project, remains the biggest challenge,” she explains.
Looking forward, Abou-Ouf is currently finishing a script she has been working on for the past three years. “The film, Complete Checkup, revolves around a crazy week that I spent in a hospital in Beirut with my father, aunt and cousin,” says Abou-Ouf. Although her aunt and father are begging her to star in the film, Abou-Ouf is hesitant to take that leap. Whether she gives in or not, chances are that the film will be as successful as previous projects by the rising filmmaker, if not more.
Hala Lotfy was always enamored with cinema and drawn to daring filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Shadi Abdel Salam.However, her passion did not translate into a desire to become a filmmaker until she was in university studying something else altogether. “When I entered the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, I was very excited because I was going to study topics that I thought I had a genuine passion for. But I wasn’t happy at all there, and I would always hang around at the Faculty of Arts across campus,” Lotfy recalls. Determined to study what she knew she really loved, she promptly enrolled at the Higher Institute of Cinema as soon as she graduated.
From 2001 to 2004, Lotfy was a diligent documentarian focusing on unique Egyptian stories. On the heels of her third documentary, she was given the opportunity to travel to Latin America to prepare a series of documentaries licensed by Aljazeera. For three and a half months, Lotfy travelled to Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica to uncover the untold stories of the Arabs of Latin America. The spontaneity and anthropological nature of the experience was a fulfilling moment for the rising filmmaker. “The experience of shooting in a foreign country and conducting interviews in a language that is not your own to uncover hidden stories, was very enjoyable,” she recalls.
Like many people of her generation, Lotfy was inspired by the renowned filmmaker, Ibrahim Batout to pursue narrative films, especially after his film, Ein Sahms (Eye of the Sun). She began writing the script for her debut film Al Khoroug Lel Nahar (Coming Forth by Day). The film follows a woman who cares for her bed-ridden father along with her mother. The film was inspired by Lotfy’s own struggle while caring for her ailing father. “My father became very sick after his stroke, and I was seriously hurt when he couldn’t recognise me. The complexity of emotions one goes through caring for a loved one are what I wanted to show in the film.” When she couldn’t find a suitable producer, Lotfy ended up not only writing and directing, but also producing it. “Over the course of two years, I tried to find a suitable producer for the film, but was unsuccessful. Due to these circumstances, I had to fulfill all these roles,” she explains.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t a commercial success, having earned just LE15,000 in revenue, the film was a personal victory for the daring filmmaker. “For me, success is the ability to do what you want. The film achieved that for me,” says Lotfy. The film was recently screened at the Cairo International Film Festival’s 40th edition as a homage to female filmmakers in the Arab world, placing it firmly among the oeuvres considered trailblazing cinematic projects.
Lotfy’s experience with her first feature film gave her the necessary skills to take on the production of her next project, Leil Khargi (Ext. Night), which was directed by Ahmed Abdallah. Lotfy has the utmost regard for Abdallah as a director. “He is a true cinematic genius with an unwavering commitment to search for truth. I really enjoyed working with him,” she explains. The film was recently recognised at the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival, and its star, Sherif Desoky won the festival’s award for Best Actor.
The production of Leil Khargi was not an easy feat. At a certain point, Abdallah had to stop filming to raise funds to complete the project. From this and her other experiences, Lotfy believes that the biggest impediment to filmmaking is the dearth of finance, making independent projects that much harder to produce. This bleak landscape encouraged Lotfy to set up her own production company, Hasala. “We try to help small projects by funding initiatives we believe in. It is very painful to see a project that is supposed to take one to two years drag on for five or six years due to lack of funding,” she explains. Currently, Lotfy has two passion projects that she is trying to produce. The first is a documentary directed by her younger sister Mona Lotfy, titled The Wildness of Dreams, while the other is called A’al Selem (On the Fence) and is directed by Nesrin El Zayat.
With her initiatives to help independent projects see the light of day, Lotfy forms part of a small group of daring individuals striving to democratise filmmaking in Egypt. While this selfless undertaking often goes unnoticed by many, it is certainly appreciated by those who stand to benefit from it and from other similar initiatives offering a helping hand to independent filmmakers.