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People in Film: Rahab Elewaly

Jun 14, 2012

Rahab Elewaly is an Egyptian American animator. Her 12-minute short ‘Rain’, Doha Film Institute’s first animation project, will premiere in Tokyo on Friday (June 16). The film is based on a Middle Eastern folk tale and provides a new platform for stories usually told by grandmothers and mothers to their offspring. Before Doha, Rahab worked with industry giants Warner Bros, Fox Searchlight and MTV. As well as filmmaking, she spends a lot of her time teaching animation to undergraduates.

DFI: Which three words would define the work-process you witnessed when making ‘Rain’?
Rahab: Confidence, sincerity and team-work.

DFI: The film draws inspiration from the late German silhouette animator Lotte Reiniger. Who else inspires you in the industry?
Rahab: I don’t have a specific person that I look up to. What inspires me is when people make something that they are sincere about. I always said ‘If we’re going to work hard, it better be for a good reason,’ to my team.

DFI: Was your ‘good reason’ for making ‘Rain’ to revolutionise the way folk tales are traditionally related to children?
Rahab: Anyone from the region or related to the region knows that folk tales are a huge part of our childhood. We grew up listening to folk tales from our grandmothers and mothers. They become a part of our daily lives. If our elders want us to avoid doing something bad, or to do something good, they tell us a story. The best thing about these stories is that they had elements of reality and fantasy. What could be a better form than animation to put these stories in?

DFI: It sounds like you’re still very passionate about the roots of these folk tales and ‘Rain’ has definitely not been ‘disneyfied’. How did you manage to achieve this?
Rahab: The thing that makes you feel like it’s a folk tale is the narration (Rahab is the narrator throughout). I tried and tested using other people’s voices, male voices and a selection for the different characters but then it didn’t feel like a folk tale. It didn’t feel true.

DFI: The music in your film is composed by Nitin Sawhney. What was it like to work with him?
Rahab: I’ve known him for a while and something about his personality, spirituality and way of thinking made me feel like we would click in work. I went to London twice to work on the score, once for composing and once for mixing. He’s always calm and sweet, even when he’s upset.

He’s a genius. I left him with the Arabian oud (a guitar like instrument) for 15 minutes and he learnt how to play. He worked in London and found Arab musicians to play the ney (flute) and tabla (drum).

DFI: You’ve worked for a number of big name organisations. Was it difficult getting your foot in the door?
Rahab: No. I believe very strongly and was taught since childhood that nothing is impossible. If you want something really badly and for the right reasons, there is no doubt you will get it. When you’re confident, you have the skills, you’re doing it for the right reasons and you’re hard working, why should you be scared?

DFI: Sounds like good advice for the students you teach. What are the qualities you see among the ones you work with in Qatar, compared to in the West?
Rahab: In abilities and creativity, there’s absolutely no difference. In terms of behaviour I find people here to be more shy. They take a while to open up to the instructor. Once they do trust us, that’s it. They pour their hearts and creativity out. Qatar is a melting pot; I saw students from all over the world in one classroom.

DFI: Having worked with the younger generation, what do you think about Qatar as a hub for filmmakers?
Rahab: It’s such a beautiful place for animation and filmmaking. They (students here) are so ready; the amount of creativity, work and persistence they have? You wouldn’t believe. You teach them a little thing and they fly with it. All they need is the proper channels, genuine support and for someone to believe in them.

DFI: What was the first animated film you watched?
Rahab: I can’t remember, but the film that stayed with me and I remember from my childhood is ‘Snow White’. It made me feel happy, and not only me. I noticed it made everyone in the theatre happy. At that point I realised the power of film; it has a major effect on everybody.

DFI: What’s your favourite animated film?
Rahab: Finding Nemo, because of the writing. The writing is very tight.

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