An Egyptian film has cleaned up at this year’s circuit of summer film festivals, winning the Golden Bull award for best film at Italy’s Taormina film festival, and the award for best first film at the Rotterdam Arab Film Festival last June.
The film is Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun), a digital-turned-35mm independent film from Egyptian director Ibrahim El-Batout that has garnered controversy since its release in 35mm format earlier this year. Shot in the busy Cairo district of Ein Shams, the film paints a picture of the inter-connected lives of Egyptians from all walks of life, centring on an 11-year-old schoolgirl named Shams.
While the location and director are both Egyptian, the film will be considered an international production when screened in Egypt due to El-Batout’s filmmaking philosophy.
For a film to be considered Egyptian, the filmmaker must present a completed script to Egypt’s Censorship Bureau prior to filming. For El-Batout, however, this system does not fit his approach to making films.
“I do not give my script to the actors,” says El-Batout. “They are always in the dark. I give them a character history, but I don’t tell them what is happening. There is a script of course, but it is a script that is hidden in me all the time. I can change it, cut things out, change events. It is a different way of making films. There has to be some space for that in Egypt. It’s about time, I think.”
Ein Shams has been able to draw attention in Egypt and the Arab world thanks to the Moroccan Cinema Centre, which converted the film from digital to 35mm format so it could reach a wider audience. The film has also reached international cinema buffs with screenings at Cannes outside the official contest and at the Golden Boll film festival in Adana, Turkey. It has also secured an invite to the prestigious BAFTA awards, held by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts on July 12.
A documentary filmmaker with one other hybrid film — Ithaki (2005) a documentary/fiction feature — under his belt, El-Batout dreams of setting an example for Egyptian filmmakers by making a good quality film at minimum cost.
“In Taormina, [the film competed] against films that took millions of pounds to produce. This film has cost almost nothing,” says El-Batout. “It is done by people who really love what they are doing. They did it because they were really in love with the idea. Whether it was the producer Sherif Mandour, the actors, or the music composer Amin Khalaf, who is a 26-year-old composer and wrote the music for free. This is the energy involved.”
In the beginning of Ein Shams, the audience is taken from Cairo to Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion is beginning and an Egyptian doctor is studying the effect of weapons on cancer rates among Iraqi children. El-Batout utilizes footage from his previous documentary coverage of the war to add realism, but ingeniously carries the audience along through a poignant Iraqi folkloric song.
From Iraq viewers are transported back to Cairo, where the dreams of the film’s characters are crushed, one after the other: Shams, her father Ramadan the taxi driver, his boss Selim Bey, then Shams’ mother, teacher, and even her cousin Amr who wants to leave the country to work abroad. The film weaves together the disappointed lives revealing a spiral of corruption, stagnation and the lack of hope festering in modern Egypt.
But are things really that dark?
“That is what I think,” says El-Batout. “I think there is no hope, therefore I have to invent it. I have to make hope. Hope is not just going to come to me as I watch television at night. The reality is really very bad. This is why we must work. We must go beyond things like censorship. People must believe in this idea for them to fight for it.”
With the international spotlight on Ein Shams, light is dawning on El-Batout’s dream of hope.