It was September 1985 when Ibrahim El Batout graduated as Physician at the American University of Cairo. He started almost immediately to work in the world of media-communication and TV, and thereby in the cinema. Undoubtedly he had to have a certain predisposition in his DNA for films, plus an unusual sensitivity to explain the whole amount of work that he’s been able to produce. In the first part of his career Ibrahim was working as a correspondent in Bosnia, Kosovo, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Iraq shooting documentaries for European broadcasters. In recent years he’s been focusiong on making films with a social background which describe a different Egypt, completely forgotten by the trivial representations of official Egyptian cinema.
What distinguishes El Batout’s films is his way of shooting which reminds a certain type of Italian neo-realism, combined with a touch of reminiscent noir of a certain French cinema. The approach to the golden age of Italian cinema is not forced, since the use of street people, allows him to grasp the nuances and the typical facial expression of the Egyptians. It is not artificial cinema the El Batout’s one, or subjected to the regime propaganda, how partially was for the Egyptian neo-realism in the 50s and 60s, which indirectly indulged Nasser pan-Arabism. His cinema is a subterranean complaint, melancholic and dramatic that has the ability to touch parts of the human soul, regardless of any social extradition.
We can recognize some autobiographical hints on his first film Ithaki, characterized by a bitter story, perhaps because he strives to embrace too many concepts and facets of modern Egypt.
We find a more mature Ibrahim on Ein Shams, which combines the experience gained during the years he was working as documentary filmmaker (specifically those in Iraq) and the deep knowledge of the Egyptian reality: manipulated general election and corrupted candidates, the polluted metropolitan ground water, the careless use of antibiotics in poultry farming … the lack of rules in every aspects of daily life. The plot includes the harrowing story of Shams, an eleven years old girl whose parents discover she suffers from leukaemia. Shams has one desire: to see Cairo downtown, the same which is well represented on the commercial Egyptian films and on TV which she watches a lots. She is fascinated by the buildings that boast a fake richness, built by the same European colonialists at the beginning of last century on a piece of desert that decades by decades has become the centre of the city. The film glides on the contrast of a distant suburb and a crumbling downtown, that only the imagination of a child can return to its former glory; then courage of her father to take his daughter on his taxi to the first (and last) trip through the surrealist deserted streets of Cairo’s centre. The film is a sad poem that catapults into romantic and ruthless reality of Cairo.
In Hawi set in Alexandria, El Batout skilfully describes through his filmic poetry the traumas of Egyptian society. The highlighting colours in the film make seem the scenes as contemporary art exhibitions, as suspended reality, in a pursued fixity. The plot is a clear denunciation of corruption which prevailing in the apparatus of the Egyptian police and its ruthlessness in eliminating awkward person, an anticipation of what the revolution will uncover and show.
Ibrahim El Batout worked many years in international televisions, beginning as a sound engineer, and becoming latter a cameraman, editor and director. He worked for television TV-am, ZDF, Japan TBS and ARTE. His documentaries have won several awards: the Honorary TSB (Japan 1991), the Axel Spring Award (Germany 1994 and 2000), the International ECHO Award (EU 1996), Rory Peck (England 2003) and in 2008 the International Carthage (Tunisia), The Golden Hawk (Rotterdam) and the Golden Bull (Taormina, Italy).
“What film and director influenced most your work?”. Ibrahim takes his time before answering, as he’s weighing well the words he will use.
“Making films is a personal experience then I prefer not to be influenced by anyone, but if you want me to list my favourite authors who maybe hit my cinema, there are different: Krzysztof Kieslowoski, Alejandro Inarritu, Wim Wenders, Emir Kustoriza, Shain Youssef, Shadi Abdel Salem and others”
“In 2008, I personally participated inCairoat the illegal presentation of your film Ein Shams, then you mentioned you work without a script, why?”
“There was a very important aspect that pushed on this choice: the lack of money. But there is an implicit truth: I do not like a movie balancing my choices on a budget; the important thing is to have a camera, the staff, the right places and editing. In one side, this does not allow me to have control of the films in the classic sense. Normally, in cinema, you have to check all the details: the single cue, the shot, the frame, the intensity of the light … for me the only way to do movie was not, and is not being in control, playing with this uncertainty”
“So it is a studied uncertainty?”
“Undoubtedly, for me it is essential to have and get the film has an emotional flow, although this kind of emotional feeling is not cinematically correct, the accuracy is not the purpose I intend to achieve. It is not important to adhere to the written plot, but that the viewer feels something when he watches the scene. Many experts would say that my films are cinematic imperfect, but it is not my intention to follow categorically the cinema’s rules”
“With the missing of the screenplay, technically and the structurally, how is important the montage?”
“It has a very prominent role; the cutting, along with editing and sound, does the rest of the film. I write briefly the story to follow in the film, then we have meetings with actors, extras and the film assistants. Once I shot all the scenes and I have the material I need, we go into the studio and working on the assembly. The choice of music is crucial, as well as to instruct any single actor on what I want; this happens on set, the actors discover their part from time to time. As I said, this way of shooting gives me the opportunity to be freer”
“Your films are focused on social problems: alcoholism in Egyptian society, the trauma of the soldier returning from a war, women infibulations in Eritrea, diseases due to pollution and post-conflict radiation … those are issues which affect the moral prejudices that many people, in Egyptian society, would willingly hide. What do you aim in your films? How much the documentary experiences have an impact on you?”
“Yes, but all the topics explored in the film are very personal. All I represent is something that I really feel and that I touched by hand, as the bombing of Iraq in the first Gulf War with depleted uranium missiles”
“You might label yourself as a committed artist?”
“I don’t see myself as an artist, but as an individual who is impressed from what surrounds him and who possesses the ability to express it; I do through my films, working as a filmmaker. The world around us is not fair and it makes no sense, how we live our lives does not make sense. These sensations which I feel from the outside, turn into thousands of ideas buzzing into my head, their pressure is so strong that the only way to get them out is through movies, only when these are finished I feel fully freed and released, only then I can find a certain harmony with myself”
“I believe that through your first film, Ithaki, people can understand how Ibrahim El Batout shots movies, am I right?”
“I experimented in Ithaki. I wanted to know if I could make a film without money, and I think it is possible. I think it might be a new way in Egypt that others can follow. It is unfair that there are people who eat garbage by can bank, and at the same time there are directors who spend 5 million Egyptian pounds to make a movie: so it is important to be able to shoot in another way and not depending only on money”
“You lived in Europe from 1991 to 1998 where you could have found many sponsors to make a film, why you wanted to go back to Egypt? How important are Cairo and Alexandria in your films?”
“I was born and raised in Egypt; I have a secret love for my country. I love every single part of Egyptian life; it’s something that can not be explained: when you’re in love, you are in love, just it! Egypt is a rich country, but nothing makes sense here. Going around Cairo, you can see how people are affectionate, friendly, beautiful, enthusiastic, strong and stupid … because they’ve been oppressed for so long time and they never rebelled to demand their rights. I could never understand, I can still not understand how investors built mega-cities neighbourhood on the shores of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, cities that cost billions of Egyptian pounds and are used only two months per year, and then, having 3 million homeless children in the rest of the country! The contrast is so confusing”
“It’s called neo-capitalism …”
“I don-t know what it’s called, it makes no difference”. Ibrahim laughs with hilarity, as now knows the right word to label the injustice, at the end for him does not change the result, as for millions of people living in the slums of Egyptian metropolis.
“Watching the film Hawi, I was impressed by the intensity of colour, sometimes I had the feeling of attending a major exhibition of post-modern painting, has the colour a special meaning? And why you chose Alexandria for the film?”
“With Hawi I wanted to create a colour photo, a broken moment in contraposition to the characters, the contrast of the colour was also the contrast into the reality. In the film, the silences speak, they tell stories and the truth of an Egypt that we hope will be part of the past, although it will take years before things will really change. The silences are a tragedy that reaches its peak when the moustachioed old man has to tell the blind teenager that her father died; her tears will tell everything, meanwhile the mature man is unable to communicate as trapped in his time. The void left by the untold words is a complete break opposed to the colours that fill the image. Why Alexandria? Because it symbolized the cosmopolitan and intellectual atmosphere in Egypt at the beginning of last century, before the military-political regime had begun in 1952. Then it was an international city, a meeting point for artists from all parts of Europe and Middle East; today from that time there is nothing left, except a few photos and a few faded Art Nouveau building”
“In your films there is a changeless reality, like the poetic dragging of some characters. This is a constant of your style in a way that reflects the reality of Egypt: after the revolution, how will Ibrahim El Batout be in future films?”
“Different, definitely, but not so much; we will see in the next film”
“How do you see the revolution? Did you expect it?”
“I did not expect anything of this size. On January 25th I was at home, I thought it could not succeed a demonstration organized on Facebook. On 26th I started to doubt my scepticism, so I went to Tahrir, but the square was empty. I was back on 27th, and it was still empty. The evening there was a demonstration in front of the workers unions headquarter, and there, in front of the door, people were chanting slogans for democratic freedom and against the regime. I joined them, and for the first time I was able to raise my voice, shouted: “Resign, resign Mubarak!”, and “Young people want the collapse of the regime”. When I started singing these slogans, I felt that something was changing in me: in my films I always use metaphors to get around censorship, otherwise the police would have thrown me in jail, but at that moment, for the first time, I could cry openly in a loud voice … it was a considerable change for me. On the 28thI went with my fiancé Ramzi to Qasr el Nil Bridge, but it was full of tear gas and we headed towards the other bridge May 15. The next day the army entered the square, that morning I had to go to Holland because Hawi was presented at the festival in Rotterdam. On the way to the airport through the centre I saw the tanks and I thought it was over: we’ll have a curfew for a long period and the revolution would die. I left with concern. When I arrived in Netherlands I found that once again I was wrong. I tried to find information about what was happening in Egypt through the television channels, with the rest of the crew wanted to go back to Egypt, but we did not know how, there were no planes, the situation was unclear and there was so much uncertainty”
“I personally had the same problem: go back to Egypt when all foreigners were evacuated? I was afraid and what I would just obtain, was to be sent back to Rome”
“For us it was rather the fear of being put directly to jail! At the end we managed to get back on February 9th, I went immediately to Tahrir, as well the next day. I was thrilled. On 10th I decided to make a film about the revolution. I thought it was no morally right shooting in the middle of the revolt, but I said to myself not to care about false moralism. So I started shooting on 10th and 11th … I’m currently working at the same film”
“I guess you did not want to talk about?”, The ironic expression on his face is a clear answer to my feeble attempt to extort some small clue about the plot of the film, although we have seen running the story of the Egyptian revolution on television screens around the world. “Back to the movies, what role religion plays in your films? For instance, in Ein Shams you talked a lot about Christians in Egypt, why?”
“Regardless of my religious beliefs, Ein Shams is not religion focused, I am more interested about the figure of Virgin Mary, because it is the iconography of the mother who sees her son dying in front of her eyes …”
“As in war?”
“Exactly, as it was the case in formerYugoslavia,Iraq,Palestine… inLibya”
“Why has this recurring theme of war and injustice?”
“There are many reasons, two above all. My previous experience in the world of war documentaries, made me reflect on the brutality and senselessness of killing another person; when you are an eyewitness of this brutality, you change inside. Also in the Iraq war in 1991, I was shocked to see Iraqis soldiers captured by Egyptian ones, the former escaping and retreating powerless under the bombs of American fighters”, Ibrahim takes a sip of tea as it would erase away the recurring images that no herb tea can clear.
“… and the second?”
“The second is linked to 1998. There was a great revolt in Abbassia, a district of Cairo; I went there to film. The police responded by brutally firing on demonstrators. I was wounded in the arm and I was carried straight to the hospital. While doctors took care of me there were some officers who seized the extracted bullet and made it disappear. No evidence that could incriminate them, only a scar on the arm of a correspondent which is not an evidence in front of any tribunal”
“On March 19th a referendum was held in Egypt to amend the current constitution, did you agree with those changes?”
“That day was very important to all Egyptians, regardless of my vote. For the first time in centuries we could express out opinion, the voice of the people counted. There was a huge participation, which was very important too. Over the past sixty years, the population has been brainwashed: just had to follow and accomplish the dictates of the regime. For sixty years people have turned on the TV alleging that the country was prospering and all things were ok, whereas everything was collapsing instead. March 19th was just the beginning, it will take months, years before the Egyptians accustomed to democratic reality, but the important thing is that we finally feel part of our nation”
“Even if you’re not a politician, do you think that Turkey could be a model for Egypt?”
“Turkey, Indonesia, Argentina, Brazil … at the end it will come a recipe that will adapt to the Egyptian situation. You can already see that happening, even within the same Muslim Brotherhood”
“What exactly is happening inside the Muslim Brotherhood?”
“The debate: one morning a mullah gets up saying we are going towards a more westernized society, that we will lose our values and our roots, we must only pray; the next day another mullah gets up and discredit the words of the previous one. It is a debate, which is also within the Muslim Brotherhood movement where there are divergent points of view, and it is significant that there is one. We are watching a new Egypt, with great difficulty, but the important thing is to start”
“What do you think of what’s happening in the Arab world and the intervention of the West against Gaddafi?”
“I can not explain why it happened simultaneously in many Arab countries. Obviously, Tunisia was the spark that made possible the revolution in Egypt; if within 18 days we were able to oust Mubarak, the same can happen in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Libya … is a contagion. Which one is the main reason for the revolt? Simply this regime ruled with oppression and tyranny for decades, and the Arab peoples are tired of this system. They saw on television that it was possible to change regimes; the people in the street of different countries are singing the same slogans that were chanted inEgyptandTunisia; I insist, is a contagion for all Arab country because each one is affected by the same disease: tyranny. People are ready to ask for change, and this is positive. Gaddafi? Was bombing and massacring his own people, he had to be stopped”
“We are both against the war, but according to you, if there had no been the UN resolution and thereby the OTAN intervention, most likely Gaddafi would have regained all Libya territories, spilling the blood of his own people. Therefore, do you think that Qaddafi’s victory could have stopped the revolutionary movements in the Arab world?”. He takes an imperceptible pause, the length of a second to answer.
“Probably yes, he could be one of the possible scenarios and it would have given rise to the presidents of Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to use force to prevent the fall of their regimes, the same way that Gaddafi was doing. It would be desirable to resign in front of the facts of history, but they have too many interests to be protected to give up their power, which should be the right and the fair decision to take”
I will leave Ibrahim El Batout in the same way the film Hawi ends, with this song from the band Maser Egbari:
I became a juggler
I am addicted now to holding my tears, when grieving the most
And learnt how to dig out a piece of bread from the ribs of poverty…
I learnt well to hide my tear inside my heart, no matter what…
I accepted having to sleep with my head dangling down like a bat.
It is because I got used to seeing my dreams pass me by
I gave up and left the dust on my face untouched