DUBAI: Sometime next week, film director Sameh Alaa will walk into a public presentation at the Cairo International Film Festival and pitch his debut feature to the Cairo Film Connection jury. Whether he is successful or not, he will arrive having made Egyptian cinematic history.
In late October, Alaa became the first Egyptian filmmaker to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes. In doing so, he was catapulted from the fringes of Arab cinema into the glare of the international spotlight.
And yet very little is known about him. Only a limited number of festivalgoers have seen any of his films, he’s a hard man to track down, and even the opportunities to watch his winning short, “I Am Afraid To Forget Your Face,” have so far been few and far between. Yet here he is, the recipient of one of the most prestigious awards in global cinema.
“I was happy just to be nominated,” admits Alaa on the phone from Brussels. “I said to myself, ‘I’m happy to be here, it’s fine for me if nothing else happens.’ But to win was very big and it’s hard for me to put into words. I guess it’s like having a baby. I always think it’s hard to imagine that I will have my own child, but you can easily imagine other people having one. Then once you have one you don’t think the same way. Your perspective changes. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have more hopes and dreams to make more movies.”
“I Am Afraid To Forget Your Face” tells the story of Adam (played by Seif Hemeda), a young man who attempts to return to his girlfriend after an 82-day separation. Shot in 4:3 format and characterized by a sparse, utilitarian use of dialogue, the 15-minute short premiered at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in September and, aside from the Short Film Palme d’Or, has already won awards at both the Moscow and El Gouna film festivals.
“I always have this feeling of fear, this feeling of being afraid to forget people,” he says. “To forget what they looked like. I have had this experience with a lot of people who passed away, and when I suddenly think of them after 10 or 15 years the only picture that comes to my mind is a photo that I took of them. The face somehow begins to fade away. This is where the title comes from, although the film is based on a personal story that happened to me in 2017. It took me three years to bring the film to life. We changed producers, we struggled, we found investors, but we’re all really happy now.”
Alaa, who lives between Brussels and Cairo, is no stranger to the breaking of new ground. His 2017 short, “Fifteen,” was the first Egyptian film to feature in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Short Cuts Program, while his directorial style favors improvisation. But he is also a stickler for preparation.
“The best time for me is when I’m on set. I’m always very calm. It takes me a lot of time to prepare and it’s like studying for an exam. You study a lot and when you go to the exam all of your friends are scared but you’re relaxed. Because I studied the film, I studied what I’m going to work with, I know my locations, I know my angles pretty well, so the hard time was before the shoot. Three years of preparation to shoot for one-and-a-half or two days.”
Not that there weren’t any problems in the run-up to shooting “I Am Afraid To Forget Your Face.” Four days before filming was due to commence, Alaa found himself without a male lead after the actor he’d lined up suddenly quit.
“It was pretty tough,” he admits. “How can you imagine a film when you don’t have an actor? So to find Seif was a great piece of luck. I must’ve looked at 500 or 600 photos looking for guys in the right age group, and then I saw Seif. I was asked to choose two or three other actors as a safety, but I was like, ‘No. I met him, we spent 10 minutes talking, and he was perfect.’ I believe luck plays a very big role in filmmaking.”
Throughout his career, Alaa has sought to move away from any form of artistic mimicry, favoring the personal and the meditative over the universal or the brash. Hence the use of long, languid shots, the intrusion of external sound, and a cinematic style that borders on the melancholy. The end result is an artistic vision that places great emphasis on observation, rhythm and experimentation.
“I only make films about personal experiences or about personal feelings,” he says. “When I was at film school I was like any other young filmmaker who doesn’t have their own voice. I was trying to create a cinematic language — a cinematic world — that was similar to the masters that we love. And then little by little you start to feel that you’re not doing anything. You’re making small projects to satisfy the fan inside of you but you don’t really express yourself. That’s why, slowly, I began to write my own stories.
“This started with ‘Fifteen’ and it felt much stronger in terms of the emotions and in terms of my connection to the movie. It might not be as cool as the movies of the masters, but it is truer to myself — and that makes me feel better towards my work. And audiences feel it more, too, because it’s a story that only I can tell, or I’m the best person to tell the story in a particular way because it’s something I experienced.”
This connection with personal experience will continue with his debut feature, “I Can Hear Your Voice… Still,” which is in the early stages of creation. A coming-of-age story featuring Alaa’s first female lead, it will face its first funding test during Cairo Film Connection. “The first draft is there but there’s still a lot of work to do. It will change and change and change, but I’m at home because of the lockdowns so it’s a great time for writing and for taking your time,” he says.
“At the same time, I’m also working on another short. A different type of short. I want to try something really new with virtual reality and so on because I want to experiment and to try new things. Short films were always the place for experimentation, that’s why I will continue to make them. There are stories that only fit into this format and you don’t have the pressure and expectations of an audience. You can do whatever you want in 10 minutes.”
Both projects will take time to finalize given the challenges of making independent films in the Arab world, but for now Alaa is focused on finishing his feature-film script. He’s also waiting patiently for the production industry to return to some semblance of normality.
“You know, you have to be very patient and to believe in yourself. It took me more than 10 years of thinking, watching, and really being in love with films,” he says. “There was a lot of disappointment in the middle, but there was a bigger love that kept me going. People might think, ‘Ah, he made a film in 12 minutes and he’s doing well,’ but it’s 12 years of hard work, not 12 minutes. Twelve years of working on myself as a person. And I still want to try new things all the time because I love storytelling and I love the language of film.