I Have a Picture: Between romanticized art and an authoritarian industry

Screening as part of this year’s Cairo Cinema Days festival, I Have a Picture: Film No. 1001 in the Life of the Oldest Extra in the World (2017), independent Alexandrian filmmaker Mohamed Zedan’s debut feature, won the award for best documentary, after it premiered in the first edition of El Gouna Film Festival last September.

The film, which took seven years to complete, evoked discussions in Egyptian film circles about the problems facing documentary filmmakers, and, more broadly, the authoritarianism of the industry.

Here, we present two different perspectives on the film and the debate it sparked, questioning romanticized perceptions of cinema.

A film shackled by years in the making

Bassam Mortada

Zedan has become known among filmmakers as a walking cinematic archive, due to the knowledge he gleaned during the lengthy process of completing his first documentary film, I Have a Picture. He knows by heart all the names in the opening and closing credits of films from the 1960s and the 1970s, and he often uses this encyclopedic knowledge to create guessing games that enrich our evenings with enjoyable discussions about cinema. Friends are often amazed at his ability to recall even the the most marginal crew members of the industry, from clapper loaders to title designers.

Zedan’s long-awaited film tells the story of one of the most prolific extras in the history of Egyptian cinema: Motawe Eweis. Zedan began his lengthy research process by searching over 2,000 films for scenes of Eweis, who can often be seen moving silently in the background, behind leading actors.

The documentary opens with classic scenes featuring Eweis, creating a connection in the minds of viewers, as they quickly recognize his ubiquitous face. A scene in which Eweis helps iconic Egyptian actor Faten Hamama board a train to join football superstar-turned-actor Saleh Selim in the closing scene of Henry Barakat’s Al-Bab al-Maftouh (The Open Door, 1963) is a clear reference to the pivotal role that Eweis plays, both in film and in Egyptian memory.

I Have a Picture is a celebration of the cinema industry. For Zedan, the documentary is a dream come true, as it showcases all the elements of filmmaking, disassembled and exposed to the camera. Helping him accomplish this feat isKamal al-Homossany, the film’s co-protagonist and Zedan’s assistant director, who has worked as an assistant director with some of Egypt’s biggest filmmakers but stopped working in this role many years back. Rather than keep their collaboration behind the camera, where directors usually work, Zedan films all of his interactions with Homossany, including their viewers at every stage of filmmaking. He presents their raw spontaneity and confusion, showing the messy and fraught process that often precedes a film’s final, polished image.

The documentary lays bare every step in its own production process: from location scouting and deciding on camera angles and shot sizes, to the dubbing process overseen by sound designer Michael Fawzi, and the humorous side of conversations that take place between crew members about the art of composition. Most importantly, it displays the role of the directorial assistant, including the clichéd instructions Homossany gives Eweis to help him act like himself in front of the camera.

The motion of cinematographer Mohamed al-Hadidi’s camera, coupled with compositions that simulate the famous 1970s films on which Homossany himself worked, give I have a Picture an experimental feel, creating a film that does not seem to be obsessed at all with perfection. Mayye Zayed’s editing also helps maintain smooth transitions between the film’s lighthearted wit and the tensions that accompany the filmmaking process. Her editing also effectively articulates an alternative cinematic language to the consecutive, television-style cuts that filmmakers often resort to when using archival material.

The film is not a biographical documentary about Eweis. Though, it is set around him. Rather, it is a reflection on how three generations of filmmakers hold different perspectives on the art of cinema.

Initially, recruiting Homossany was sort of a nod of gratitude from Zedan, as well as a noble attempt to give an opportunity to those often marginalized by the industry in less high-profile roles. After a while, however, conflicts began to arise between the director and his assistant, leading Zedan to realize that gratitude alone does not necessarily make for a good film. The process of making the film challenged its protagonists, going beyond a fascination with cinema and questioning the basic tenets of the industry itself. It matured Zedan’s initial vision for the project, developing it beyond a congratulatory love letter on the art of cinema. With intelligence, talent and an ambitious sense of adventure, Zedan was able to produce a work that is as lively and enjoyable as it is passionate.

Work started on I Have a Picture in 2010, but the process was shortly afterward interrupted because Zedan, Hadidi and Zayed were all busy working on their joint feature film, Odet al-Feran (The Mice Room, 2013). Zedan then participated in two different post-production programs in an attempt to complete the film: DOCmed 2013 and Final Cut at the Venice Film Festival. The fact that the film took this long to be released reflects the crisis currently facing Egyptian filmmakers, and the limited production and distribution opportunities.

Egyptian director Salma El Tarzi’s documentary Elli Yehebb Rabbena Yerfaa Eedo Le Foa (Underground/On the Surface, 2013) exemplifies this crisis. Although many had high hopes for the film, which was warmly received and won several awards, the documentary received little commercial success, due to a flawed distribution plan. In Egypt, films often remain in limbo for years, plagued by production problems before their completion, and then face distribution issues afterward.

Directors often spend years trying to secure local or international production grants, which in turn interfere with how the film itself unfolds, as producers make new suggestions about the form and general framework of the project. Consequently, the film can lose part of its essence. This is evident in I Have a Picture, particularly in the disconnect between the film’s overall lighthearted confusion and the accompanying narration, which imparts a sort of a retrospective wisdom, as if the narrator has reached a resolution about the role of extras, marginalization and life in general — a reflection of Zedan’s initial romanticized notions when he first began thinking about the film. Even if Zedan is aware that such a disconnect exists, it would have been difficult to go against time and be able to maintain the same pre-2011 spirit that existed when he first started working on his project.

One more problem posed by international involvement is the preoccupation with imbuing the film with an “international appeal.” In a conversation I had with Final Cut head Alessandra Speciale, who selected the film for participation in the program and was a jury member in El Gouna Film Festival’s CineGouna Platform, Speciale said that the film’s biggest challenge lay in reaching an audience beyond Egyptian viewers, who are already familiar with Eweis’s face, as it constitutes part of their shared visual memory. This fixation on making the film more accessible to a foreign audience weighed down Zedan’s vision of the film, as he became embroiled in a search for international references to elaborate an idea that his local audience would have easily grasped had he focused on them, as well as on Eweis’s and El Homossany’s familiar expressions of joy, fear or sadness. However, for the sake of appealing to international viewers, Zedan — driven by the idea that films are products of their environments, from which they cannot be removed — was forced to include what came across as isolated footnotes, detached from the general flow of the film.

It is striking that a film, which celebrates the film industry and is bent on dismantling its sanctity and critically engaging with its mechanisms, faces the same dilemmas imposed by the industry on Egyptian filmmakers. It is as though the industry, too, engages with the film, producing a new version that emphasizes the necessity of a conversation on how we can liberate our documentary films from the shackles imposed by years in production.

I Have a Picture is imbued with happiness, experimentation and fervor about individuals on the periphery of filmmaking who wouldn’t normally be noticed. Cast as protagonists for the first time, Eweis and Homossany both passed away before the film premiered, missing the chance to see themselves celebrated by the Egyptian film industry in which they had, for years, been relegated to the background.

Dismantling the authoritarianism of the film industry

Ahmed Refaat

Zedan searched purposely for Eweis as his main character, having seen him in the background of many Egyptian films. He found him in a coffeeshop known colloquially as “the extras café,” where Eweis, who retired in 2013, is often referred to as the “chief of extras.”

The project initially stemmed from Zedan’s fascination with the cinema extra as a nameless face recognized from dozens of films. It took a different path, however, with the introduction of Homossany as assistant director. Zedan met Homossany during his first meeting with Eweis.

There is a romantic dimension to Zedan’s film, which can be seen in his own narration in the opening scenes of the film, and which reappears from time to time. Zedan recounts how, as a kid, he used to ditch school to go to the movies and memorized the names of all the film stars. Though, he never knew the names of the extras. He also speaks of the sadness he feels each time he hears that an old movie theater has closed down due to a lack of ticket sales, indulging in his nostalgia for an era of “beautiful cinema.”

The film is also experimental in terms of the space it gave crew members in front of the camera. On the one hand, there is Zedan’s vision — that of a director fascinated by the story of a film extra and attempting to shoot his first film. On the other, there is Homossany, the veteran assistant director, who performs his role as he always has, bringing a wealth of past experiences to the set. There is also Eweis, the extra, who is playing his first central role in a film. We even see Mark Lotfy, the film’s producer, every now and then, and we hear the voice of cinematographer Hadidi commenting on the shots and camera angles.

This formula disturbs the traditional hierarchical process of filmmaking, where the director has absolute control. In fact, the moment that the film breaks free from Zedan’s control, it is more open to a number of artistic possibilities and exposes the active dynamics and relationships involved in the process of making a film.

For instance, there is a scene in the film in which — after the crew complies with Homossany’s vision of Eweis’s return to his hometown, placing a sign on a suburban road in Alexandria that reads “Sohag”— an argument ensues between Homossany and Zedan. While the older assistant director tries to push for a romantic dialogue about homecoming, Zedan attempts to create a lighter atmosphere that allows Eweis to improvise and open up without the pressure of a strict script.  

The highlight of the film is the editing, which smoothly transitions between the romantic and the experimental, and between the perspectives of the different characters. At times, the film follows Eweis and Homossany’s visions as they ask to repeat certain scenes that they think aren’t good enough, while at others, it obeys Zedan’s desire for spontaneity. The film intertwines these visions with archival shots that accompany Eweis’s accounts of his experiences working on old films, as well as Zedan’s own relationship with the cinema, both as a spectator and an active participant in the industry.

Because the filmmakers were not rigid in how they envisioned the film, they allowed space for their documentary’s subjects, members of a different generation of filmmakers, to implement a different version. In this way, the film was liberated from the authoritarian tradition of filmmaking, becoming a lighthearted work filled with possibilities, and posing integral questions about filmmaking in general.

While the film approaches cinema as an industry, Zedan chooses to keep a distance from discussing its commercial aspect. He explained in a Q&A that followed the screening of his film at the Gouna Film Festival that this decision was motivated by a desire to move away from presenting extras as victims of the industry.

Members of the crew behind the film are affiliated with the two Alexandrian studios, where most of the city’s films are produced: Rufy’s and Fig Leaf. Both production houses present a model that, while not necessarily free of problems, should be taken seriously when discussing production in the Egyptian film industry, which is conditionally tied to funding opportunities, and the constant search for alternative methods of production.

Translated by Assmaa Naguib

I Have a Picture screens Monday April 30 at 6.30 pm at Karim Cinema.

Ahmed Refaat 
Bassam Mortada 

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