Ain Shams_1800

Posted: June 6, 2008 in Culture, Entertainment, Society

Ain Shams as seen through the eyes of an independent artist.

 

Perhaps they are independent since they wander through their souls looking to unveil the key to true freedom of speech. And artists because they teach their personal truths through weaving public displays of beauty, or that which is beautiful in their eyes?

 

In a time where formula-based entertainment has become an almost global staple, more and more learned minds are making the transition back to independent production. This is a new breed of independent artists who are not ‘independent’ simply because they lack the cash to back their work; they more importantly refuse the hold of money in placing limits to their imaginations.

 

All around the world, artists and filmmakers are coming to terms with the fact that with the burden of assuming the reigns of production, they take a crucial step towards ensuring they say what they want to say in the way they choose to say it. According to their respective budgets of course.

 

One can try to understand the appeal of having nothing and then making something beautiful out of it.

 

"I’d just like to say that I’m rarely proud, but I am very proud [of Ain Shams]. The only professionals on the set were the DOP and myself, all the rest were first-timers. All kids from Ain Shams, coming in with their “What do you need done? Just push these buttons and do this and that ? sure!” And without any background, or knowledge they worked by my side, and got [the gist of] it in no time, in no time really. It kind of opened my eyes to the real potential we have in this country and that is not used. In the end for a group of kids to manage a production that gets funded and blown up to 35mm and shown in festivals. To me it’s like a miracle… proves to me that despite all the shit we’re living in and facing everyday, we have a strong will to survive and an ability to work through it, shares El Batout. “Then add to that the equation of making the film; no permits, no [ministry of] interior, no censorship, no khara. In the end this was the problem that was created… Yet to my surprise every journalist who saw the movie backed it, irrelevant of their party background; Nasserites, Wafdis, NDPs, or even people in the ministry of culture, they all backed the film by saying ‘we need to find a way so these films can be made …and shown."

 

“So I had to think of a story that fit the place…” reiterates El Batout. An invitation by one of the actors, Mohamed Abdel Fattah, to use his Cairo neighborhood of Ain Shams as the movie location, in addition to El Batout’s faith in young actress Hanan and an idea to involve her in a project, were behind the birth of the pleasant character of Shams, and the story that ensues. “…I needed something that can fit Hanan & Ain Shams and then we had our story,” says director Ibrahim El Batout.

 

The commotion over Ibrahim El Batout’s movie Ain Shams was over the accusation of having been ‘made in the dark’. That is to say without going through declared channels to register, monitor, issue permits, and provide supervision and protection during the filming.

That is why in festivals Ain Shams’ entry applications claim it a Moroccan production. Morocco did reward Ain Shams with a grant that in fact funded the transfer from digital format to 35mm. El Batout however, is still labeling it an ‘Egyptian movie’.

 

One thing that sets El Batout apart from other directors is his experience as a war zone cameraman. El Batout has worked in 12 different war zones, and presented both sides of the same issue at times i.e., portraying the atrocities in Iraq by Americans, while in another instant considering the angle that presents them as heroes. He has walked the corridors of hospitals filled with the dead and wounded, and interviewed doctors and soldiers. His weathered stance derives from the balance of all previous experiences, and presents itself with a documentary-style filming and an unfolding of the story that misses no cue whilst maintaining its simplistic elements of telling it. The symbolism used throughout the movie so tastefully and in ample measure keeps the ostentatiousness of melodrama at bay, and delivers hard emotional blows with the pleasantness of a warm desert breeze.

 

“War zone experiences have shaped me personally in every sense; emotionally, professionally. I can either try to deny it and let it grow [fester] …, or try to channel it into something that could be of use to me or to anyone,” says El Batout.

“When I had spent some time in Iraq, I started imagining how unsurprising it would be if I wake up one morning to find American tanks blocking passage across Qasr el Nil bridge. These are just the hallucinations you get after spending one day too many in Iraq.” As to why the plight of Arab Iraq and not maybe Palestine; “To me Palestine is a comical issue… Iraq is something we have all contributed to and the results are immediately there for us to examine…” explains El Batout as he starts talking about the movie itself.

 

“In Ain Shams you have a very clichéd plot that can easily turn it into a melodrama; a little girl who gets sick and dies, her father is a poor man who works for a rich guy. It’s a very boring story. The trick is how one can work with this and make it into something else. In cinema it’s not what you tell, it’s how you tell it,” says El Batout.

 

The female characters in the movie are strong and well rounded, and are portrayed with a compassion you do not often see in Egyptian films. Whether it is a woman in Iraq losing her daughter to symptoms brought on by depleted Uranium or in Egypt to police brutality, cancer, or the ever-increasing cost of living, the loss is the same. In many of them a hint of the Mother Mary figure shines through. They love and care for their own as they watch them suffer. Asked of his sympathy towards their plight, EL Batout responds with a very personal story. “In retrospect I think this recurring theme is a reflection of what I myself have lived through. When my son was eight years old my wife passed away. She was ill, and went through many surgeries, and with every surgery I felt we were losing her a bit more. It was as if she went to her grave bit by bit… In Ain Shams I feel I have reversed the story, instead of an 8 year old watching his mother die, the child dies as the mother watches. I believe this captures the moment… the feelings of my own experience were raised in me by the story of Ain Shams and have found their way onto the screen,” undoubtedly creating a more powerful visual experience.

 

The Mary-figure, as per the movie, also applies to different models within our society, El Batout says. “It’s an honest portrayal of the status quo; the government pressures the ministry of interior, who in turn comes down hard on the people, the people then abuse the Sudanese or the weakest elements amongst themselves. Even in the framework of each family, oppression is apparent and often women are the victims. Women and children, they are the weakest links in the chain.”

 

Ain Shams’ current status: cleared by censorship, “we need a piece of paper that declares it a Moroccan movie, and my producer is working on it now, and that should facilitate being in the market by June 5th.”

 

As for future projects and upcoming releases, keep an eye out for El Batout’s newest endeavors; a joint project of undisclosed subject matter other than it’s a joint effort involving two other reputed filmmakers, and of course the silver screen adaptation of the now best-selling Arabic book ‘¼Gram’; “I’m enthusiastic about the project not because ¼ Gram is a great piece of literature, but more so because it breaks through the mould we have been conditioned to perpetuate. For the first time comes a story about addiction written from an addicts point of view, which in itself pushed lines that no one imagined existed. Thus the craze to buy the book that followed.”

 

In Egypt a camera can get you arrested in 5 minutes flat, according to El Batout, “I just need them to leave me alone to work. I don’t care about funding. I can make a film that costs nothing. Just give filmmakers the chance to go down to the street and shoot, without ending up in prison and your camera confiscated. It’s not about funding at all, it’s about unleashing freedom of speech for filmmakers. I knew these problems would ensue before I shot the first frame.” To El Batout  Ain Shams was a conscious and ground-breaking choice.

 

“Otherwise you go through the motions; censorship where you are delighted to see your script is good for something as it functions as a serving platter for basterma sandwiches, then the ministry of interior, and back to censorship where the question of being recognized by the cinematographers’ syndicate is waiting for you. Not being a graduate of cinema school means you can’t produce your movie unless you pay LE 150,000.” Quite valid concerns for all artists that do not have the diverse resources of large production houses.

 

“My aim was to help filmmakers produce their movies without all the hassle concerning movie-making nowadays. I do not object to the current system that allows movie release in Egypt, and let’s call it system A. But just like there is a system A, there should be alternate systems governing producing of movies such as B, C, D etc. I do not mind passing through censorship if I want to show my movie in Egypt. But if I’m tackling a controversial subject I certainly do not wish to have the movie shredded by censorship first. For some movies I just won’t do it.” Concludes ‘the independent’ El Batout.

 

 

 

 

 

Independent is not a label of quality. Ains Shams is a noteworthy movie that many people would pay money to see, exiting the theaters grateful for the chance of being in contact with such a personal experience. A system should be in place that allows for works of quality an opportunity to be presented to the masses. A chance for them to palate and criticize independent efforts; leaving the final choice of whether something should or should not be within their sphere, to the most valid critics—the people. Not censorship.

 

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