DUBAI: Ayten Amin is learning to show her true face. The Egyptian writer-director, based in Cairo, has long chronicled the lives of women in modern Egypt, but, as she basks in the glow of her feature film “Souad” making this year’s official Cannes selection and the success of her hit TV show “Saabe Gaar,” she insists it is not her filmmaking that has evolved, it is her — deep in her core.
“Something happened to me and to the way I see life,” Amin says.
At the time Amin spoke to Arab News, she was still hard at work on the final edit of “Souad,” one of 56 films chosen as the ‘official selections’ of the cancelled 2020 edition of Cannes — the world’s most prestigious film festival, an honor intended to highlight the films’ excellence.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Souad” will not be released until winter 2021, but it could not be more of-the-moment if Amin were writing it today. Taking the themes that she has explored for her whole career and making them even more relevant to our current digital-first moment, the film follows young Egyptian girls far from Cairo as they each lead a double life on the Internet.
Since her first film, Amin has tried to make sense of what it means to be a woman living in modern Egypt, often pushing the boundaries of what polite society is normally willing to discuss. Her first major short film, “Spring 89,” followed young girls lying to each other with stories of imaginary romances. Her first feature, “Villa 69,” drew directly from her own experiences — loosely recounting the story of the final two years of her father’s life, in which his mortality allowed him to get closer to his family and see life in a different way.
Looking back on the making of those films, Amin recalls a version of herself who was less confident about exploring a scene and improvising with her actors.
“‘Villa 69’ was my first film, and everything was planned out, because I had a lot of fears when I was doing it,” says Amin.
Most recently it has been Amin’s foray onto the small screen that has captured her nation’s attention. “Saabe Gaar” (Seventh Neighbor) follows the interconnected lives of people who all live in the same apartment building, often living very differently behind closed doors than they do publicly. The show generated heated discussion across the country. Amin is a creator who wants to have conversations not everyone is ready for.
With “Souad,” Amin is once again asking when it is that people show their true faces, and arguing that maybe we never do.
“You're always faking. Either you're faking in front of your family because you want to be accepted, or you're faking to impress some guy you know on social media. You want to give people an idea — a fake idea — about yourself,” she says. “For me, it's never real.”
The key topic of “Souad,” which Amin began writing in 2015, is how social media affects the lives of young girls approaching adulthood.
“For girls in small cities, it's a more conservative society. Their life is much more limited. They don't mingle much,” she says. “Social media is very important for them; it's like a window to the outside world. Most of them have fake identities on Facebook, they don't use their real names, and they have relationships with people from other cities.”
While social media may allow young women to have digital adventures they might never have experienced otherwise, it’s not always a positive experience. Often when young women in Egypt have to put on a mask — or hide their true identities — it is to protect themselves.
“Even when you’re me — from a totally different background and living in a big city — you always have to pretend to be someone else in order to walk down the street or to deal with people in the cinema. You always have to pretend to be in a certain box so you can protect yourself. It's something women in Egypt can relate to,” says Amin.
Amin was able to fully come into her own behind the camera during the “Souad” shoot, improvising, breaking down scenes, and trying different approaches with inexperienced performers who were more naturalistic and automatic in their approach.
“I was experimenting. It was so much fun to do, actually, because they are not professional actors. They don't take a lot of time. They are always ready to experiment. We did not take time for them to have makeup or to do their hair. It was just them and the camera and we were trying everything,” says Amin.
Far from the rigid technique that she had followed earlier in her career, following inspiration as it struck her allowed Amin to find her true self on set.
“I feel that I'm capturing things that I really want. This was more ‘in the moment,’ and I wanted to go with the flow — it’s something to do with me as a person more than just as a filmmaker. I wanted to go with the characters, to be with them. I wanted to work with non-actors and discover, with them, things about myself. This is the way I feel about cinema now. And this is the way I want to go on working,” she says.
Amin made other choices that she says aren’t deliberate, but rather reflect how she herself has changed and who she surrounds herself with, working with a mostly female crew behind the scenes.
“My perception is really different than it was seven years ago,” she explains.
Being selected by Cannes from over 2,000 submissions was, of course, a huge honor, but the film was not made with international accolades in mind. While it may be easier to ratchet up the drama and perhaps add the perceptions of the Western gaze upon Arab society to gain traction overseas, Amin deliberately makes her stories as true to life as she sees it lived in Egypt as she can, believing that those stories are most deserving of attention.
“I want to tell the stories of people — ordinary people — and I feel that they are worth being selected in festivals like Cannes,” she says. “I want to make a film that reflects the way I see life and the way things are. I don't want us to be labeled.”