Revisiting history with ‘Neighbors’

Tahani Rached’s latest film Giran (Neighbors) is a piercing dissection of the community of Garden City and an examination of how the neighborhood’s transformation over the years has come to reflect the turning of political tides in Egypt’s recent history, as well as the current global security situation.

Tahani Rached worked as a documentary filmmaker for the National Film Board of Canada for over 20 years, producing and directing over 12 films, before returning to Egypt in 2004. In 2005 she directed el-Banat Dol (Those Girls), which was selected as an official out-of-competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival. Giran is her follow-up feature length film.

Mona Assaad began working in the film industry in the 1980s as a production assistant on several of Youssef Chahine’s films. In 1996 she worked as a production and directing coordinator on Radwan el-Kashef’s Araq el-Balah (Date Wine) and has since worked in the industry on a full-time basis, collaborating closely with directors Youssry Nasrallah and Tahani Rached. Assaad worked as a co-director and line producer on Rached’s Giran.

Al-Masry Al-Youm met up with Rached and Assaad—aptly, at Rached’s Garden City flat overlooking the US embassy—to discuss their latest film.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How did the idea for Giran originate?

Tahani Rached: When el-Banat Dol was accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, the US embassy invited us to hold a screening. Ambassador [Francis Ricciardone] told me he was hosting a party for the neighborhood locals, a “neighbors” party, and invited us. I asked if we could bring along a crew and film it, and he agreed.

Mona Assaad: The extended security barrier surrounding the US embassy was put up in 2003, following the invasion of Iraq. The ambassador wanted to host a party–the party you see in the film–to let community members know that the embassy had a project in mind to “beautify” the area. That’s how the film began.

Rached: We started out making a film about the security situation in the neighborhood. Then we realized that wasn’t enough. It would have made a pleasant film, but not one with any weight. So we decided to open it up. We met a lot of people who told us their stories. Some were fed up, others weren’t.

Assaad: Through speaking with people we realized that there was another important story that could be told. The security barrier was just one of many marks that historical events have left on the neighborhood, and we started to look for others.

Al-Masry: What story did you want to tell with this film?

Rached: We wanted to tell the story of Garden City, and then have the story of Garden City narrate something important about Egypt as well as the security situation across the world today. That was our guideline and we insisted on it.

Al-Masry: On what basis did you select your speakers, or “neighbors,” in the film?

Rached: It was a long process. We met many people who proved to be an immense source of stories. The first thing to consider in selecting a certain personality is their ability to draw people in. There were those with important things to say, but they didn’t have…

Assad: …Charisma…

Rached: …They don’t “cross the screen.” [Our housekeeper] Mahmoud, for instance, introduced us to the farmer/land guard Saad Ali Shlo. For me he’s the best personality in the film. He really exuded a love for his work, and you feel an immediate love for the person. I consider myself the film’s first viewer; If I feel that I like someone, I trust that the viewers will like them too.

Al-Masry: Was there any pressure to be comprehensive in terms of choosing speakers, to cover as many professions and social classes as possible?
Assaad: We decided that the speakers had to be Garden City residents, or have a special relationship with the neighborhood. We also did work to find people who, together, would be representative of an entire society–and that’s possible in Garden City–in order to produce a balanced film.

Al-Masry: Generally speaking, were most interviewees forthcoming or reserved?

Rached: About 60 percent were forthcoming and 40 percent reserved.

Assaad: The way Tahani works, one interview is never enough. Most speakers were interviewed at least three or four times, to get to that point where the person is no longer self-conscious.

Rached: Most people did not feel uncomfortable discussing the security issue, though.

Al-Masry: In such a process, with an ever-growing cast of speakers, how do you know when to stop–when is the film is over?

Assaad: [Laughing] That’s a good question…

Rached: We faced difficulty, for example, finding people to discuss the neighborhood’s architecture and its history. You can usually identify where more work is needed. One gets a sense from the material if the film is all there or not.

Assaad: We spent over a year compiling the material, but there was a month-long continuous block of shooting at the end where we brought things together. We hit the streets, basically, and by then the neighborhood locals were familiar with us and the film we were making.

Rached: It was at the end of that period that we decided the film was there.

Al-Masry: How long did the editing phase take?

Rached: Six months.

Al-Masry: That seems fairly short for a feature length documentary.

Assaad: That’s where Tahani’s experience comes in.

Rached: The film’s narrative was interesting to me and a fresh professional challenge. You meet characters with complete stories and don’t return to them again. It’s edited in blocks. Most films are centered around one or two principal characters that you always return to. The challenge here became how to make the separate blocks enjoyable, and have them flow from one into the other to tell a larger story, which was difficult.

Al-Masry: Did you make any interesting discoveries making this film?

Rached: The Baraka family, living on the rooftop, the love in that family, the laughter, I felt… That’s Egypt for me. The Egypt I love. And Aleya Rashad, what a strong woman. What I love about films are the people. People are what draw me to make movies.

Assaad: People’s need to talk was also a discovery for me. And their need to revisit, and often revise, history. We need to revisit our history, and not just that of Garden City, with honesty and objectivity and without preconceptions, to realize how we arrived at the state we find ourselves in. We got this sense from practically everyone we met.

Al-Masry: Where does the film go from here?

Rached: When I saw people’s reaction after the press screening. I was as pleased as when I heard el-Banat Dol had been invited to the Cannes Film Festival. I was happy, and relieved. Producer Gaby Khoury, together with Galaxy cinemas, is prepared to give it a commercial run.

Assaad: To take the risk with us, financially. But first we need to make a good print of the film, in the proper format required by theaters, and mount a broad and well-targeted publicity campaign.

Rached: There’s no history of screening documentaries in theaters in Egypt with the exception of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. It would be great to make that breakthrough.
Al-Masry: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Rached: It’s important to mention that this film was only made thanks to [producer] Karim Gamal el-Dein and Studio Masr. I was lucky to find a rare receptivity with Karim and Studio Masr.

Assaad: In addition to procuring financing, the producer is the one who ensures a suitable climate for the director to make the film, so it’s a partnership. Perhaps people have stopped thinking of producers in this way in light of the current condition of Egyptian cinema.

Rached: [Karim] gave us complete freedom in the work, in terms of direction and content, in addition to providing the necessary resources. The film simply could not have been made without him.

Al-Masry: What’s next for Tahani Rached?

Rached: I have a crazy idea, but I won’t talk about it yet. It’s a documentary, but it’s a bit crazy. You’ll have to wait to see it.

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