In August 2022 filmmaker Ahmed Yassin Aldaradji’s debut Hanging Gardens became the first Iraqi film in the official selection of the Venice film festival. Although not her first connection with the Arab film world, it was also the first feature film from the Middle East for Margaret Glover to work on. Through her work overseeing development through delivery of MA graduation films at the London Film School (2009-13) she met many international talents including emerging Arab filmmakers. Aldaradji’s first, award-winning short Children of God (2012) was developed with her input.
In addition to being one of Jordan’s Royal Film Commission consultants, Glover is now running screenwriting workshops in the Middle East. Last February she was in Cairo for a workshop entitled “Short films in residency: from concept to completion” in collaboration with the prominent Egyptian screenwriter-producer-director Ahmed Amer. The workshop was run by the Al-Dahshureya residency, founded by producer-director Marianne Khoury in collaboration with the American Embassy in Cairo. It targeted developing 11 short films by Egyptian filmmakers from concept to completion where in the first phase participants were invited to spend 10 days in the residency to develop ideas after which, in the following months, the evolution of their project will be overseen by both Glover and Amer until the post production and distribution phases.
Glover’s visit to Cairo this year took her back a few decades to August 1981 when, as a literature graduate who practised photography, she visited Cairo for the first and only time, staying for two years as a Fullbright scholar immediately on her graduation. “I was a fresh graduate who had no idea what I wanted to do except travelling, but I had no job,” she recalls. “One day I was wandering in the street and I wanted to have a glass of water, and on the water fountain there was a piece of paper that says: Teach English in Cairo, and I said that is it, that is me.” The opportunity was for her to be a teaching assistant for a Fulbright scholar working at Cairo University. When she arrived the political situation was unstable, so the plans were changed, and instead of working at the university she was offered a job by the Fulbright commission as an English language teacher for final year secondary school students at Ramses College for Girls in Downtown Cairo.
The location of her residency and work and the timing of her visit to Cairo was an eye-opening experience. “My students came from many different backgrounds. They were inviting me to their homes. It was very interesting how it gave me a deep insight into what life looks like for a 17-year-old girl in Cairo in the early 1980s.” However, the assassination of president Anwar Al-Sadat on 6 October 1981 made the greatest impact on the young American. “On that day, in the morning from my window I was able to watch the Sadat motorcade, then I had done some work before I took a nap,” she recalls. “I was awakened by an American supervisor who had been working there for ages, inviting me for an immediate meeting. And there she said, ‘The president has been assassinated.’ At the beginning I thought it was Reagan then I realised what had really happened. I was told that it was confidential and I was not allowed to tell anybody else. I was asked to leave the school with a light suitcase to the Fulbright flat in Zamalek,” she adds. “So in the back of the taxi taking me from Ramses to Zamalek, I was thinking that nobody knew what I knew! As a foreigner I know what the people of the country don’t know. That was a moment for me,” she says. After one year at Ramses college, the Fulbright opportunity ended in this way but Glover decided to extend her stay in Egypt for one more year, finding a new job as an English language teacher at the Cairo American College in Maadi before she went back to the United States. “I went back with a reverse culture shock, where everything was strange for me in my own country. The Egyptian experience was kept in a box deep in my mind,” she says.
In the US Glover managed to join the Yale School of Drama where she earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism. “I realised we were allowed to study a lot of non-Western literature except for the Arab world. I thought about that in terms of decolonisation, something we could see also in the cinema,” she reflects. “I worked for a while in theatre as a writer and director, then in 1990 I moved to the UK where an American working in the British theatre does not match. So I started working in television and that is how I became more connected with filmmaking,” she says. She began her UK career as a script editor, providing content for children’s television. Her credits during that period include adapting Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Janni Howker’s The Egg Man for Channel 4 Schools as well as producing Peter Travis’s first short Faith based on a Nick Hornby story, and Olivia Hetreed’s adaptation of E Nesbitt’s The Treasure Seekers.
She then moved to Granada Television, which was a big company making some of the best UK documentaries and dramas of the 1960s through the 1980s. “After some time, some of Granada Television’s productions about the first Gulf War were not politically correct for the time. People in power did not want the public to be aware of the impact of the first Gulf War. After that Granada Television became a public company, more interested in the shareholders’ interests than anything else, and it was the time of reality TV. I was not making anything any more and I got bored so again, I moved,” she says.
She worked as a visiting lecturer in screenwriting at different places before she got her job at the London Film School. “During my work at the London Film School I had the opportunity to meet again someone from Egypt. It was Reem Morsy, a talented emerging Egyptian filmmaker. That was the first time I encountered an Egyptian since the 1980s, so the Cairo box in my mind started to open again. Reem made a beautiful film called Their Feast as her graduation project. Then an Iraqi student named Ahmed Yassin Al-Daradji joined the London Film School, but he never came to any of my writing classes so I kept complaining to the head of studies about that. Al-Daradji had to meet me in order to do his graduation project. He came to my desk in 2010 and it was an amazing moment when he found me greeting him in Arabic. I said to him Ahlan wa sahlan so he was full of surprise asking me in Arabic whether I could speak the language. I said shewaya, “a little”. And is how it started.”
Glover realised that Al-Daradji’s oral culture made him better at telling the film’s story than writing it. So she used a method she had previously used with the prominent Indian director-actor-writer-producer Subhash Ghai when she co-wrote his film Kisna: The Warrior Poet (2005): “I used to let Al-Daradji tell me his film story then I would ask him many questions to help him refine the storyline. And that is how he made his graduation short film Children of God which he amazingly shot in Baghdad using a 35 mm film camera. It won the FIPRESCI Prize, and the Muhr Arab Special Mention from the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, and it participated in many other festivals. Then after some years in 2016 he re-contacted me to tell me about his debut feature project.”
That feature film project, at first entitled Made in America, led Glover to a new level of involvement with an Arab filmmaker as she became the co-writer and co-producer. “I made this film because I knew that nobody else would give him the chance. It took six years of hard work. And it took me back to the Middle East but this time to Baghdad,” she adds. “In 2018, I said to Al-Daradji that if I was supposed to continue being involved, I needed to see the landscape where the story was happening. Because until that moment I kept referring to my memories in Cairo in the early 1980s. When I went to Baghdad I realised that Baghdad and Cairo are phenomenally different. There are some small similarities like the fact that both cities were cosmopolitan in the past. But what happened to Baghdad in the 1970s is profoundly different from what happened in Cairo. In Egypt that was a time of growth for the middle class. Education took hold and nationalisation ended, whereas Baghdad was at the beginning of the Saddam era and it was cut off from the rest of the world. When I visited it in 2018 I realised that people were not used to seeing foreigners unless they were military or the press. In the Green Zone, they live in isolation,” she explains, saying that after that visit she had a deeper insight into how the story of the film needed to develop. “Now Ahmed is working on three different stories, and when he is ready I will probably take part. We have the same birthday though not the same year,” she laughs, “and he keeps saying that I am stuck with him for the rest of my life because we are twins!”
Part of what Glover is keen on about working with emerging talents from the Middle East is that she does want the Cairo box to stay closed. “This area has a lot of raw stories that should be told,” she says. But for that to happen she feels Arab talents should be encouraged to think independently and to grow deeply, but at the same time, to recognise the need for a sense of dialogue as filmmakers. “Film is an international business. There is a need for you as a filmmaker to be able to enter into dialogue with the international market. To reach an audience, you have to have that capacity to hear other perspectives, and to recognise expectations. You need to be able to express a story in English so you are not beholden to other people to translate your ideas,” she explains.
On the other hand, she thinks that the filmmaker should go in on the storytelling terms that are particular to their culture. “If the history of this region is more of poetry than drama, maybe you should think of the structure of poetry that could be integrated into filmmaking. Not only words can rhyme but also images and sounds. You have resources within your culture and your oral tradition, and there are always other ways of knowing,” she adds. The third dimension according to Glover is for the filmmaker to develop their own language as an artist: “How are you as an individual going to find the language, the visual language, the language of sound, the language of communication between human beings to tell the stories you want to share where your perception of the world is specific to you but at the same time you can communicate to the world? You have to know what your story is about and what you want to say with this story and to find the simplest, clearest way to communicate it. However, sometimes you may meet people who could not be a good match who have an agenda or an expectation that is not for your film and you will realise that when it happens.”
Glover believes that her involvement with filmmaking has something to do with the fact that she always wanted to be an archaeologist when she was growing up. “I was fascinated by going to the source of something and digging deep into layers,” she says. “I also think that there is a link between my initial curiosity about archaeology, making the past present, revealing what is hidden and bringing it to the surface, and my fascination with Cairo. I remember walking around the old city of Cairo and seeing how the medieval builders took bricks from the temples to build something new. This is all that filmmaking is about. We need to turn the old building blocks upside down and use them to make something new. I learned that from being in Cairo.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly