Anna-Theresa Bachmann
Last updated: 9 October, 2016

“I want them to walk out angry”: A conversation with two Arab film directors

Directors Hala Khalil and Amal Al-Agroobi talk to Anna-Theresa Bachmann about the Arab film industry, their sources of inspiration, and politics.

The distinctive smell of freshly roasted popcorn fills the air as the crowd enters the grand hall at the Royal Cinema. Almost none of the classy red armchairs are empty at the opening screening of the sixth annual Malmö Arab Film Festival (MAFF), the largest film festival focusing on Arab cinema outside the Middle East. For this year’s occasion the organizing team around founding figure Mouhamad Keblawi chose the Egyptian independent production Nawara by Hala Khalil. Throughout the six day festival Khalil’s latest film had been shown along those of 54 other directors ranging from established names to promising newcomers like the Emirati film maker Amal Al-Agroobi.

Despite the fact that only one fourth of the directors represented at MAFF are women, both Khalil and Al-Agroobi are not particularly fond to be labeled as ‘female directors’. Khalil explains: “When writing my scripts I feel more comfortable to concentrate on a female perspective but I do not consider myself to be a feminist”. Just like in Nawara her previous works have centered around female characters whose fate is intervened by political and social dynamics. Still, carrying the burden of female representation is not in her interest. Al-Agroobi on the other hand, who unlike Khalil has been working on documentaries and short films, says that she would like to think gender aspects play no part in festival selection processes, even though lately she feels more exposed to discrimination in the film business.

Funding has been one of the main obstacles for both directors: “After the second film in 2006 I wrote three scripts but I could not find a production company even though I won so many prices,” Khalil recalls. It was then that she decided to establish her own production company called Nazrah. Al-Agroobi took a similar path and founded AlAgroobi Films in 2013: “We are considered to be a rich country so we do not get a lot of funding,” she explains. Her latest short film entitled Under the Hat, which celebrated its world premiere at MAFF, was made possible much thanks to crowdfunding.

Under the Hat is the story of the muezzin (person who cries out the call to prayer) Sheikh Abdul Kareem who loses his voice and then gets threatened to be sent back to his home country if he is not able to find a suitable replacement. In growing despair his wife turns to their next door neighbor, a young wannabe rock star who might be persuaded to take on the task if the Sheikh buys him a new “devil’s instrument” (a guitar). Throughout the negotiation process both men discover some common ground despite their different lifestyles. What could be described as a humorous generational conflict becomes even more hilarious as Al-Agroobi reveals: “In real life it is quite the opposite: The actor playing the Sheikh is actually very liberal whereas the young actor is very religious.”

Up until the shooting of her fifteen-minute piece, Al-Agroobi did not think censorship was part of the UAE film business: “But authorities called the film too blaspheme which I did not really see,” and so the shooting had to be moved mostly indoors. Al-Agroobi’s ideas derive from her motivation to depict Emirati everyday life from refreshing perspectives in order to start a societal dialogue. Just like the characters of the Sheikh and his wife, Al-Agroobi was exposed to the idea for Under the Hat in her immediate surroundings when she moved close to a mosque and the local muezzin’s voice irritated her to the extent that she started to imagine the story behind it.

That locality matters is also true in the case of Hala Khalil’s Nawara: Shortly before the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Khalil moved to a gated community. Within this upper class context she wondered how those employed in the households perceived of the political circumstances and the fact that “They are feeding their employer’s dog meat that they can’t afford themselves”. Accordingly, the life of fictional character Nawara gets reshuffled after the wealthy family she has been working for leaves the country in the wake of the revolution. Entrusting her with the house (and the dog) Nawara is able to temporary escape her impoverished life in the informal parts of Cairo where she and her Nubian husband Aly can’t even afford a place of their own.

Through the eyes of Nawara, Khalil reminds us that the majority of Egyptians did not participate in the January 2011 Revolution because they simply could not afford it: “When I participated in the demonstrations in Tahrir Square to me the most important part of ‘Bread-Freedom-Social Justice’ was the accomplishment of social justice for the poor,” Khalil explains.

Currently, the director is working on a revolutionary trilogy which she plans to produce over the course of ten years. She has already finished the script for the second one which will focus on the days during the Muslim Brotherhood. Responding to the question how Nawara’s life would look like in today’s Egypt, under Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi’s economy Khalil simply says: “Until one year ago people believed in charismatic leadership but now they realized that nothing changed.” Nawara comes to the same painful conclusion as no happy ending is granted to her: “I am really sorry for this as a screen writer,” Khalil concludes, ”but this is what happened. I wanted the people to walk out being angry.”