Osama Fawzi: A Thousand and One Nights in Helwan

It’s the mid-1990s. School mornings on the streets of Helwan are always quiet and redundant. At that hour, the only people leaving Maraghi Street are its residents as they make their way to work, and the only people entering are the students of my prep school and the one adjacent to ours.

But one day everything changes. Big pick-up trucks line the sides of the road. The street is closed off, and young men stand guard to redirect passersby, asking us to steer clear of the area facing the entrance of the Japanese Garden. We try to bypass them but only manage to steal a glance from afar. There they are, at the end of the road: Mahmoud Hemeida and Gameel Rateb preparing to shoot a scene, a young man with a light beard standing between them, moving a lot as he gives out his instructions.

A street in Helwan as it appeared in Demons of the Asphalt.


The same street in 2019. - Courtesy: Bassam Mortada

It is Osama Fawzi, directing his debut feature, Afarit al-Asfalt (Demons of the Asphalt, 1996), written by the novelist Mostafa Zekri, a constant and voluntary dweller of those streets himself. We continue to watch for a while before we have to run off to school, overwhelmed by the spectacle we have just witnessed. We recount the encounter confidently to everyone we see, describing the fascinating world of the movie set in detail, and agree to sneak into the location that afternoon.

We carry the adventure with us to school; we carry the first threads of the story.  

When the school day is over, we go back to the same spot in a large group, only to find nothing there. The neighborhood has fallen back into its usual tranquility, but the shoot has already become the stuff of legend. In the days that follow, one of my schoolmates claims that a number of boys from the Salah Salem Secondary School attempted to break into the set at night near the “Cabritage” (a famed therapeutic sulphurous spring in Helwan), while a teacher swears the shoot is taking place in the building right next to his, the West Helwan Youth Center on Khesro Basha Street. Another friend tells us his uncle came across the cast and crew shooting in the microbus stop next to the Brazilian coffee shop, and another says his older brother saw Laila Elwi there — the ultimate blonde, green-eyed bombshell of the 90s herself. That last one, however, is probably entirely false, or the narrator has mixed up Laila with the other blonde beauty of the time, Manal Afifi. In all cases, we listen to the stories intently, attempting to gather clues and track their movements in the hope that we would meet them again, to no avail.  

Hemeida in a scene from Demons of the Asphalt, standing at the micro-bus stop with the Brazil coffeeshop in the background.


The micro-bus stop and the coffeeshop in 2019. - Courtesy: Bassam Mortada

One year later, the film becomes available on VHS, shortly after it has been released in cinemas. From the very first viewing, one can sense the deep effect of Helwan on the story, to the extent that it bears some resemblance to the tales told by the neighborhood’s residents of the time it was being shot. The events unfold in a near-mythic dramatic structure, one that follows the circular flow of The Thousand and One Nights — only these nights are purely “Helwanese.”  

The frames capture the stillness of Helwan’s mornings, interrupted only by the sporadic coughing of smokers on their way out onto the streets. A mixture of masculine swag and physical performativity permeates through doorways and window shutters, with just a tinge of ingrained meanness. This is not a social film about the poor. Rather, it is a film about fateful sins, and the collusion created by the geography and class structure of a place; its one concern is to delve into the complexity resulting from such factors. It is Helwan as myth, surrounded by an aura of mystique similar to the folk-tale narrated by Osta Muhammad the barber (Hassan Hosny) about the poet Ibrahim al-Mawsili, who chooses to have his head cut off rather than his tongue after his lover, Mozna, betrays him.

It is a visual world that swings from blue to black, amongst dimly lit interiors and mist-shrouded streets where the characters move in a spellbinding manner. A thin veil of magic covers every moment, detail and line of dialogue, prompting me to walk the streets of Helwan in search of Fawzi’s protagonists. I meet Osta Ringo (Abdullah Mahmoud) — with his silky hair, leather jacket, weary face and insolent eyes, moist with a lover’s tears — waiting for his microbus to fill up with passengers. I see Halazona (Maged al-Kedwany), the homeless man with a learning disability who lives at the stop, and Enshirah (Salwa Khattab), the angry, deprived beauty whose screams pierce the silent Helwan night, followed by Osta Sayed’s (Hemeida) cough. Tired, collapsing bodies, overflowing with desire.

I grew so attached to the film that my school friends and I would often reenact Hemeida and Rateb’s final scene, which we had memorized beat by beat. We would stroll along the street, our back to the Japanese Garden, eating oranges and throwing the peel over our shoulders, dreaming of the day a woman would step on the red marble tiles of a ground-floor balcony like the one in my grandfather’s house. We would lean onto her foot, kissing it, and the scent of rose water would give her away. And then we would begin to recite Mawsili’s poem: “The coolness of the marble seeps into one’s body…”

Still from Demons of the Asphalt.

Four years after the initial fascination, we find out that Osama Fawzi and Mostafa Zekri have a new film in theaters: Gannat al-Shayateen (Devil’s Paradise, 2000). From Helwan, we head to Odeon Cinema and enter the small hall (which becomes Zawya from 2014 up until 2018), where we watch the film with only five other people.

Promotional poster for Devils’ Paradise

The film subverts all our expectations. It is a shock: a narrative chock-full of unique characters in a seedy underworld, one that is not situated in a particular place or time but that is masterfully crafted nonetheless. Hemeida is a dead, wandering body, roaming the streets with Boussy (Saleh Fahmi), Nonna (Amr Waked) and Adel (Sari al-Naggar) in an old, rundown car. His family are looking for him in order to perform a proper burial that suits their son, Mounir Rasmy, the conservative employee he used to be before becoming Tabl, a reckless, gambling vagrant. We hold our breaths in awe as we watch the work of those artists, creating drama and characters from scratch, building a detailed, infallible alternate reality on screen.

Tabl’s gold tooth. The beech wood coffin. The frog inside it. The personal photos on the desk in the washing scene. The characters locked inside the car, the doors refusing to budge, and their attempts to break them with their bodies because they can’t stand captivity. The journey’s end in a doorless car: The violent kisses the characters share, the kaleidoscopic movement of the camera, turning the frame upside down as the car speeds down the tunnel. It is a lesson in art, one that leaves you speechless and unable to move on with the same life you led before you entered that theater, only two hours ago.

At my friend Basem Mostafa’s (a classmate back then, currently a DOP) place, we discuss the film with his older brother (a student in the High Cinema Institute back then, currently a filmmaker), who explains certain scenes to us. He shows an issue of Al-Fann al-Sabea (The Seventh Art), a magazine published by Hemeida’s company, which had produced the film. The cover is a still from the film with a caption that reads, in bold letters: “How we made Devils’ Paradise.”

Cover of The Seventh Art

The magazine includes articles, interviews with the actors and filmmakers, as well as images of Hemeida with the dentist who pulled out his teeth for the role. Fawzi and Mostafa speak about the production process, the effort that goes into every scene, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray (the Jorge Amado novel the film is very loosely based on), the intentionality behind every movement of the camera and every single choice they make. It was the first time for me to watch a film and then find out, in detail, how it was made: The calculated, manufactured magic, the grammar of the motion picture. And that is when I decide I want this to be my craft and my profession: I will no longer be content with watching. I want to be Osama Fawzi.

Three years later, Mostafa is shooting a film by Ismail Hamdy, a student in the High Cinema Institute (currently a filmmaker), and he lands me a gig as assistant director on the project. I am disappointed because I haven’t passed the institute’s admission tests. At one point, they asked who my favorite director was, and I answered without hesitation: Osama Fawzi. When they asked why, I said many romantic things about Helwan and the characters in Demons of the Asphalt. While filming with Ismail, he tells me that — four years before me, when he was being tested — he, too, said his favorite director was Osama Fawzi. “Because he’s riff-raff,” he told them. “All filmmakers are intellects pretending to be riff-raff. Osama is riff-raff for real.”

We laugh about that story frequently as we shoot on the streets of Helwan. Every shot of the project is a tribute to the riff-raff we never met, an homage to the one man who inspired us to become filmmakers.

A street in Helwan. - Courtesy: Bassam Mortada

In 2017, during the first edition of the Gouna Film Festival — in manicured streets that look like streets in a closed, walled off city that looks like a city — I am competing for a grant to support the production of  my next documentary film, which has been on hold for a while. Ismail is there, too, networking to fund his debut feature, which he’s been working on for 10 years. Fawzi is present, as well, a member in one of the juries.

I meet him and I tell him everything. He smiles sheepishly and says the credit should go to his partner, Mostafa Zekri. He listens to our descriptions of our projects and celebrates my subsequent win with genuine affection. We laugh together. He excitedly tells us that he’s preparing a comeback, another collaboration with Zekri, but that he has been struggling with production hurdles for years. In the second edition of GFF, he applies with the project to the same platform in which I participated, but he is not selected.

Months ago, while attending a screening in Youssef Chahine’s restoration project, I meet fellow filmmaker Aida al-Kashef, who has been trying to finalize her first documentary feature for years. She tells me that she and DOP Abdel Salam Moussa are working as line producers on Osama Fawzi’s new film, and that they are hopeful about the film’s prospects; they even have a timeframe to start shooting.

We talk about our suspended projects, production conditions, the market, old producers and new, our expectations, opportunities for international co-production, the endless hunt for a small fund here or there, the energy we waste on “selling” our projects, pitching and keywords and supply and demand, our inner complexities and the doubt that plagues us in regards to our artistic decisions and our very talent itself, and our powerlessness, despite all the talk about breaking free from tradition and creating an alternative milieu. We talk about Fawzi, our first inspiration, the daring adventurer with the progressive, ambitious vision. We never expected him to be in the same boat with us. It isn’t fair, nor is it logical, for Fawzi — in his late fifties, with four films under his belt — to have to endure the games that young filmmakers struggling to finish a first or second feature are made to play.

On January 8, a small online news piece informs me of the death of Egyptian filmmaker Osama Fawzi. Months pass, and anger still prevails. Anger at the craft of film itself. Anger that the term “grief” is unable to cover, that the magic of his films fails to abate. Anger at an industry in which he kept hoping and on which he continued to bet, despite his concerns over its future. But I never thought such anger could be caused by the same person who first drove me to fall in love with cinema all those years ago, simply by explaining how he made Devils’ Paradise.

How can Ibrahim al-Mawsili live without his tongue, Osama?

Bassam Mortada 

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