Between Humanist Fiction and Raw Reality
One of Cairo's oldest neighbourhoods goes by the name of "Ein Shams", meaning "eye of the sun". Outsiders know this part of the labyrinthine city as "Heliopolis" – but people who don't know anyone here rarely find their way into the neighbourhood.
This less well-off part of Cairo is far removed from the attractions in glossy tourist brochures.
"Ein Shams – Eye of the Sun" is also the title of a feature film now showing in Egyptian cinemas. The film is remarkable for various reasons – including the fact that it was made independently, without the approval of the Egyptian authorities.
No shooting without permission
Egyptian films always have to be approved by the state censorship board. Even the screenplay is usually checked in advance, although in this case that was difficult as the film works with a great deal of improvisation.
Films are still only officially Egyptian productions if the script is approved in advance, location shootings are permitted by the interior ministry, and the completed movie is released for the cinema by the censorship authorities. And even then the trade unions have to grant their "blessings".
Even the first requirement was difficult for El Batout and his scriptwriter Tamer El Said to fulfil, as the screenplay was written during the actual filming.
Official permission for the wealth of location shootings was equally impossible, as it would never have been granted in the first place, without previous approval by the censors.
Documentaries from war and crisis regions
The production is only the second feature film made by the Egyptian director Ibrahim El Batout, who has a number of award-winning documentaries under his belt. He has a penchant for shooting in crisis-ridden and war-torn regions, including Iraq, Sudan and Kosovo.
His films depict successful military operations and their devastating effects on civilians. Although this carefully balanced approach is not absolutely unique, it is certainly an exception for Egypt's contemporary cinema.
It was El Batout's colleague Mohamed Abdel Fatah who prompted him to make a film about the people of "Ein Shams". The narrative, which El Batout drew up along with the scriptwriter Tamer El Said, centres not only on a number of kaleidoscopically linked protagonists. The film also focuses on the neighbourhood itself.
One of the many characters is eleven-year-old Shams (Hanan Adel). Although she loves to escape into fantasy worlds, she is inspired above all by her wish to leave her neighbourhood behind her, to make it downtown into Cairo's centre around Tahrir Square – a world that she knows exists only a few miles away, but which remains out of her reach.
Shams is dying of leukaemia. She is a victim of high radioactivity levels resulting from the mass deployment of bunker-busting bombs in Iraq. There is scientific evidence for this link – and against it. This is one of the film's themes, though not the only one. The tragedy of the dying girl is aligned directly with the birth of another child.
Narrative strands mirror fiction and reality
At the beginning of the film, once the taxi driver Ramadan (played by Ramadan Khater) has introduced the neighbourhood, the doctor Mariam (Mariam Albodouma) travels to Iraq to find out more about possible effects of radioactivity.
The film shows documentary material made by El Batout, interviews held in a hospital and remainders of the civilian infrastructure. Then a young GI holds a photo of his girlfriend up to the camera. He looks tired and frightened. The Iraq war only specifically enters into the film on one other occasion, yet it remains present as a kind of backdrop of the larger context.
Making "Ein Shams – Eye of the Sun", the filmmaker El Batout also returned to the place where the cameraman El Batout had been shot at by the police during rioting two decades previously.
The documentary material shows one of the major anti-war demonstrations in the centre of Cairo, where extreme violence broke out. These documents intertwine the humanist tone of the film's fictional elements with raw reality.
Instead of steamrollering irreconcilable contradictions, the film accentuates the possibility of change. The taxi-driver Ramadan, initially uninterested in politics and burdened with financial problems, drives an injured demonstrator to hospital, but when the neighbourhood later elects a representative, it is he who speaks out about people's real concerns and worries.
Beyond commercial entertainment
Other strands depict everyday life in the neighbourhood, portraying a wealth of sights and sounds in a calm and unexcited tone.
Egyptian cinema has a strong comedy tradition but otherwise produces almost exclusively imitations of Hollywood genre movies, usually set among the upper middle class. So the film's wedding scene in a poor neighbourhood is a virtually revolutionary novelty.
Yet there is another side to Egyptian film, with outstanding proponents such as Dawoud Abd El Sayed and Ousama Fwazi. Young directors are making a name for themselves, including Sherif El Bendary, who won a number of awards for the short film "At Day's End".
Ahmed Magdi's first works portray Cairo's rag-collectors and street children with neo-realistic intensity. Yet this other cinema is almost invisible in Egypt. Cinemagoers love the stars and their glittering unreal world.
"Ein Shams", however, features a star of its own with Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the role of a businessman in major debt.
The fact that the film is even showing in cinemas is a major success and signal for the future. The seven copies available for screenings will only reach people who are genuinely interested. But these people are well networked via Facebook and other channels. So there is reason to hope that the film will find an audience.
Even more important, however, is that Ibrahim El Batout and Sherif Mandour have paved a way for their art and its political background, against all the bureaucratic resistance Egypt has to offer.
© Qantara.de 2009
Ibrahim El Batout, born in Port Said in 1963, studied at the American University of Cairo and spent two decades working as a cameraman and director of documentaries. He has reported from various war and crisis regions, including for the arte, ZDF and BBC television channels. His 2005 debut feature film "Ithaki" was the first time he combined fictional and documentary material.