In the fifth El Gouna Film Festival GFF, the Arab premiere of Amira and Captains of Zaatari took place. Two feature films by Egyptians, respectively Mohamed Diab and Ali El Arabi, they depict the lives of Arab characters outside Egypt – unusually for Egyptian film. Amira deals with the social and cultural life of Palestinian family under occupation, while Captains of Zaatari is a documentary dealing with the dreams and aspirations of two football-obsessed boys at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Both are different in terms of perspective and approach to previous films exploring Arab issues.
For El Arabi, the selection of his debut to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival was a dream come true. Another happy surprise was the positive response by festival audiences from different nationalities and backgrounds. “Part of this may be due to the fact that the dramatic structure of Captains of Zaatari is close to that of a fiction film,” he says. “There is also the dream, the hope, and the friendship that bind the two boys who grow up before the audience over seven years of filming.” Yet the Middle East premiere at El Gouna, where the film won the Golden Star for Best Documentary, was a different order of achievement. “El Gouna Film Festival supported the film at a crucial stage. We came to the CineGouna platform in post-production, after an arduous production journey, to showcase parts of what we filmed, and that›s how we ended up having co-producers.” For the foreign audience, the friendship between two teenagers who dreamed of becoming professional football players was the crux of the story. For an Arab audience, however, the film had all kinds of political dimensions however much its author sought to avoid politics. That is why El Arabi was concerned about the local response, and that is why the reward was doubly satisfying.
“It was a bit risky to make such a movie,” El Arabi says, “because it required following the daily lives of its characters in the camp over the course of seven years without being sure where that would take us: will they become professional players, give up and stay in the camp, or will they go back to Syria? All roads lead to my film, but the uncertainty is unpleasant for producers.” That›s why Ali decided to take the risk and produce his film using his own sources, and later to look for partners. He feels he did the right thing. “If I could go back in time, I wouldn›t hesitate to make the same decision.”
For many years El Arabi worked as a war correspondent for a news channel, during which he made dozens of television documentaries. “But I had often felt guilty for feeding on the agony of war victims who are mere numbers and statistics for news reports, not human beings who have their hopes and dreams.” After a short period of time away from the news channels, he decided to tour refugee camps in 22 different countries so as not to be a passive observer. His goal was to convey the refugees’ stories from a closer and more humane point of view. That was how he met Mahmoud and Fawzy at Zaatari in 2013. “When Fawzy asked me, ‘What is life like outside the camp?’ I felt that to him we were aliens carrying cameras and chasing his life.” At this point, El Arabi decided to stay for a week or two to film, but the process went on for six years and 700 hours of footage.
Despite El Arabi’s background as a news reporter, the structure and style of Captains of Zaatari is different from the news. He set out to free the work from expectations and prejudices, as he had no intention of showing the film in a festival or channel or an interest in persuading producers of supporting it. “I had no fear of failure, dissatisfaction or losing money, and my team was extremely supportive. We never interfered with the course of events or directed the characters in any way. We filmed so many recurring events from which we chose the most expressive during the editing phase, and this was quite a challenge.” He adds that he grew closer to Mahmoud and Fawzy than to his own brothers, which comes through in the way they appear to the camera. They were more inspiring than others because of “the dream and their friendship”: “I can meet Mahmoud and Fawzy in India, China, Egypt, Tunisia – anywhere. Anyone will feel they have something in common with their story. At their age I myself had a similar experience. I dreamed of being the world champion in boxing in my poor village in Mansoura, and it was seen as madness.” That is what he has chosen to make his fiction debut about. He is in the process of writing it.
The film may have cost El Arabi, but what he got out of it at the personal and professional level is incomparable. “It’s an affirmation that I can tell the stories I want to the way I want to, and that a documentary can be popular, at least that’s been the case with Western audiences so far, and that it can succeed without a famous producer, director or actor as long as people believe in it. This movie changed me, it put me as a director and producer on the map. Through this film, I realised that as a generation we can make films by ourselves without guardians.”
For its part Mohammed Diab’s Amira premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it had an impressive reception and won three awards. “I saw how Amira’s story pierced the hearts of the audience, who were touched by her journey,” he says. “On the other hand, the critical acclaim was quite important for me.” Diab was proud of showing the film at El Gouna and confident that the Egyptian and Palestinian audience – who mattered the most to him – would respond positively to such a “fast-paced, thrilling and mysterious” as well as moving story. This is Diab’s third feature, and it is the story of young woman under occupation inspired by the idea – which he and his wife and producer Sahar Johar read about years ago – of Palestinian detainees smuggling their sperm out of Israeli prisons so that their wives could have children in their absence. Working to develop the primse as a team with Johar as well as his brother Khaled and his sister Sherine, Diab came up with “a Greek drama full of existential questions”. That is why he feels the film is universal.
Diab feels it is risky to make a film about “a world other than your own”. You are likely to judged harshly even if you do not stumble. “Our collective decision as a team, from the first moment, was to explore this world through familiar eyes. My dear friend, the Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad, my role model, was the first person I turned to, along with his wife, the producer Amira Diab. They were our partners in the project, from scriptwriting to filming.” Except for direction, cinematography and editing, the cast and crew were all Palestinian, and they include such stars as Ali Suleiman (who was already on Diab’s mind while he wrote the script), Saba Mubarak, Ziad and Saleh Bakri. He focused on the human side of Palestinian experience, and the grey as opposed to black and white reality of life, benefiting from the opportunity to explore a world with which he was unfamiliar. The spirit of independent cinema in Palestine, and Abu Assad’s support, opened many doors. Written in Egyptian dialect in collaboration with Abu Assad, the script was later translated into Palestinian dialect, letting the actors add their own individual variations.
As for the choice of Tara Abboud in the role of Amira, a bewildered character faced with the question of who we really are, Diab says she was nominated by Saba Mubarak, who played the role of Warda, because she had worked with her before. “When I met Tara at the audition, I was fascinated by her angelic, stern facial features, as well as her natural acting skill. I felt she was the girl I was looking for. Tara has a special talent and I expect she will achieve global standing if she continued to nurture that talent.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly