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People In Film: Ahmad Abdalla

Jun 10, 2012

Ahmad Abdalla is an Egyptian film director, editor and screen writer. His 2009 debut ‘Heliopolis’, one of the first films of the country’s independent wave, followed the lives of five fictional characters over one day and was considered a bold critique of Egyptian society. It hopped around the festival circuit successfully, notably being screened in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery Programme.

In 2011 ‘Microphone’ became his award-winning documentary-styled fiction feature about Alexandria’s underground artists. It’s entirely shot on a Canon EOS 7D (originally intended as a still photography camera). Last week, Doha Film Institute supported a screening at the Northwestern University of Qatar. We caught up with the filmmaker.

DFI: You’re working on a new film using footage from real people. Can you tell us more about it?
Abdalla: It’s called ‘Farsh W Ghata’ (mattress and cover), a feature narrative based on online videos of prisoners that ran away from prisons during the revolution.

It all started during the 28 days of the revolution, where my friends and I were involved in what was called the media tent. It was a place where we collected material filmed on phones or through small digital cameras. We organised them into a database and it became a resource for many websites. Many news outlets got their footage from the tent at the Tahrir Square. The popular media coming from the people themselves was more reflective of reality than news agencies.

After I viewed the data, I was so inspired. People with mobiles or small cameras are capable of powerful storytelling. This encouraged me to work on a story based on these videos and the difficulties prisoners faced after they ran away.

DFI: As one of the pioneers in digital filmmaking in Cairo, aren’t you worried on the loss of cinematic language?
Abdalla: Some filmmakers like Béla Tarr shifted to digital when I thought they never would. But for some this is the effect that they’re looking for, this is the feeling they want to portray and the digital camera becomes much more convenient,

In ‘Microphone’ for instance, we filmed with the 7D, probably one of the first films shot with this camera in mid-2010. It was a tool that couldn’t be replaced by film…besides we didn’t know what we were filming; we didn’t have a plan or fixed deals with the artists. We needed a small camera, sensitive to low light, where we could change lenses to keep up with my artistic and aesthetic needs. I still believe in the digital camera, at least for me it suits perfectly the type of films I make.

DFI: How did audiences in Egypt react to a film style they’re not used to?
Abdalla: It’s not the first digital film in Cairo, there’s been Ibrahim El Batout. The public is not used to independent films in general where the acting is closer to documentary than fiction. Many people, including industry professionals, don’t want to be part of this new wave because they want everything to be clear before they go on a shoot.

DFI: What are the pros and cons of digital cinema?
Abdalla: Honestly I can’t think of many cons. For what I do there’s nothing but pros. I can shoot a large amount of footage that doesn’t cost much, not like cinema at least. We can improvise more, not only with the script but also with the locations as we were following musicians (in ‘Microphone’). I couldn’t have had a cinema camera with all of the lighting equipment. In editing, the process and the costs differ.

DFI: Now that these tools are accessible to everybody, aren’t you worried people will underestimate the filmmaking process?
Abdalla: That’s what we’ve been saying for a long time, both Ibrahim El Batout and I. Anyone with a mobile and a laptop is a filmmaker. The question remains; what are they going to film? We’re all now filmmakers.

DFI: What would you like to tell up and coming filmmakers?
Abdalla: I never went to a film school so I learnt in the streets, by trial and error in the editing suites. That’s why I advise everybody to just go and film. Don’t worry on how your first film is going to look. Keep trying and learning from what you do by watching them over and over again. Go film, post them on YouTube and see what people have to say about your work.

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