Egyptian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky on Egyptian film and his forthcoming documentary
All images courtesy of Abu Bakr Shawky
This week, “Letters From Egypt” focuses on Abu Bakr Shawky, an Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker, writer and editor who lives and works between Cairo and New York. Shawky is currently pursuing a Master’s in Filmmaking at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Over the past three years, Shawky has made a name for himself internationally with his intense socio-political documentaries that shed light on little-known facets of contemporary culture.
In 2008, Shawkry directed “The Colony (El Mostaamara)”, a documentary about the struggle in Egypt’s Leper Colony. The film went on to win numerous awards at festivals in Egypt, the United States, Europe and Japan. In 2010, he directed “The Road to Atalia”, a 20-minute short film about illegal immigration to Italy. The film was produced by Zad Communications and the International Organization for Migration. “Martyr Friday” is his latest documentary, in which he followed the events in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution in 2011.
Mehri Khalil: You returned to Egypt in the midst of the Revolution. What were you thinking on the flight back to Cairo?
Abu Bakr Shawky: During that period, the changes in Egypt were so frequent and sudden that my worry was that after a 12-hour flight I would arrive to a completely new situation. The rumors did not stop about flights being diverted, hordes of thugs running through the cities, foreigners being arrested; an army spokesman even hinted at the danger of war at the borders while the country was in turmoil.
MK: What were your impressions during the couple of hours after you landed?
ABS: I immediately realized that my worries were just due to excessive rumors spread intentionally by those in charge. I noticed the streets were safer than described, the spirit of the people defiant and strong.
MK: When did you go to Tahrir Square, and what was it like?
ABS: I went to Tahrir Square straight from the airport. Even though I had seen a lot of news footage, it was absolutely mind-boggling to see in reality how Tahrir Square had transformed from a traffic-stricken nightmare to a historic place of national protest in the matter of days.
MK: Tell us more about what you saw in the square, what you remember.
ABS: I immediately saw the square as almost a country of its own, like a “Tahrir Republic.” You have to go through security to enter, show ID, and no police officers were allowed. Inside the area of the square, it was a blooming city where people live, eat, sleep, pray. Art was flourishing through paintings and graffiti, there were vendors, clinics, even a barber.
MK: You were also filming the whole time you were in the streets. What kind of footage did you capture?
ABS: Because I was a one-man crew moving around with only my Handycam, I was able to get up close and personal with everyone and was able to sneak my way through most locations to get shots where I usually wouldn’t be able to film (for example, the burned down building of the National Democratic Party) to which regular access was restricted.
MK: You just edited that footage to create “Martyr Friday,” a 10-minute documentary. What are you planning to do with it?
ABS: “Martyr Friday” has been going around in the festival circuit and has been getting great feedback, especially with the film’s actuality. To date, the film has played in major festivals like Palm Springs, Raindance, Angelus, Manhattan Shorts, and has won Best Film Promoting Human Rights at the American International Film Festival.
MK: What do you think about the growth of the film industry in Egypt over the last couple of years?
ABS: The film industry has its highs and lows. There is a very large commercial aspect to it, unfortunately the intellectual aspect of the film has gone down dramatically over the past decade. But there is a flourishing independent movement that has gained some success and recognition, but should be supported more financially.
MK: Do you think that the Revolution will change the industry?
ABS: I hope that the Revolution will give a push to the overlooked independent talents and dampen the stupidity that has plagued Egyptian movies over the past years. But I am also worried that the same industry will just commercialize the Revolution and everyone will jump on the bandwagon to create cheesy, clichéd films about the events.
MK: Do you see yourself coming back to Egypt after you graduate to contribute to its film industry?
ABS: I would definitely would like to contribute to Egypt’s film industry, and I would love to see Egypt at an international level of filmmaking, instead of it being regional and restricted to the Arab world. Over the past years, Iranian New Wave Cinema has created a huge niche market in Europe and the States that proved very successful. Egypt could be the same, even more given the resources we have.