About Asham The Movie
The film’s idea began in 2010. The springboard was seeing someone wearing a clown costume and standing on a street, near a store opening, shoving flyers at all passers-by. He shoved a flyer at Maggie. Shortly thereafter, she came across a poem by Amin Haddad. One of its lines reads as follows: “No one deserves to wear a huge costume and stand in front of a burger store.”
Cairo is a crowded city, full of people rubbing shoulders with each other all the time. Recently, it has become noticeable how even though people cross each other’s paths all the time in such a crowded city, most small groups live in isolated bubbles. There are many invisible walls between people—segregating Egyptians according to social class, religion, gender, line of work and so on. Maggie wanted to make a film that showed how this overwhelming city with its many people resists this segregation. “The multiple storylines and intersecting stories reflect my own experience of Cairo, the people I know, the people I’ve met,” she said.
The film tries to break these invisible walls. It does so by giving the different characters space in the story and choosing multiple storylines. A bathroom attendant who could easily be an unnoticeable character in the background gets visibility. The flyer guy behind the mask is part of this story, as is the doctor, as is the lonely woman trying to have a kid, as is an accountant who worries about being ill, etc.
Including all these characters in one film is a choice that insists to notice many of Cairo’s people. It also reflects that the city itself can succeed at moments to break people’s bubbles of seclusion. It is these small moments, when two characters meet and really see each other, that are life-giving.
This is Maggie’s first feature length film and it was a huge risk for her. She considers herself very lucky for many reasons. Egyptian producer and screenwriter, Mohamed Hefzy came on board as the film’s producer. His company, Film Clinic, has been monumental in presenting new and independent films. Egyptian veteran director Mohamed Khan acted in the film. Finally Ahmad Abdalla El Sayed, editor and director, agreed to edit the film. All these people worked together to bring the film to the light till it was selected as part of the official competition at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.
Thoughts about Asham
Maggie feels that she has been very lucky to shoot the film in the wake of the January 25 revolution. Everyone was on a high and energized by the experience. This charge certainly went into the film. They were very lucky to get help from so many people—from actors to shooting locations. “One of the perks of independent cinema is that people who join the project can only be motivated by their willingness to wholeheartedly work on it. They are certainly not in it for the money! I was lucky because I worked with a team of people who did not approach the work thinking ‘what’s in it for me’ but rather, ‘what’s in me for it.”
The Asham Team
Having the great director Mohamed Khan as one of the actors of the film was a big surprise for Maggie. She had gone to see the actress, Salwa Mohamed Ali, during her work on a film, in order to ask her to play a role in Asham. Mohamed Khan was sitting in the caravan and he heard them talking about the film. He told Maggie, “I can play a role in your film, if you like.” Maggie quickly pointed out that hers would be an independent production and that it would be a small production, “with no caravans or big production like this.” Khan told her about how he made his independent film Klephty with a very limited budget. He pointed at the caravan and big crew and said, “All this doesn’t matter. You can make a film without it.” And he was right.
Most of the actors in the film are new actors. Some have never even acted before. They bring a freshness to the film. Maggie was looking for certain qualities in the actors during the casting. It wasn’t simply about their ability to impersonate or act. It had to do with whether the actors found a genuine moment of empathy with their characters. “If they can look at the character’s story and on some level say, ‘me too’
This is a quality of vulnerability and openness that the actors were brave enough to bring to the film.”
It requires a very sensitive actor to convey the “non-events” in life. Asham is not a film about events but it’s about moments. The “here and now” so to speak.
In the film, we tried to create an awareness of the small moments of life, instances of small epiphanies in the characters’ lives. It is as if the film wants to point at small events and say notice “this.” This vespa ride, this hug, this view of Ramses square, the sound of this wind chime, these pistachios. Only very real and liberated actors can do that.
The shooting took place in Cairo and Alexandria. It was difficult because they were shooting on the streets and in real locations. We were given access to restaurants, hospitals and public spaces for shooting. But we had to work within their working hours and without disturbing their clientele. So of course, there were technical issues related to sound.
Maggie explains, “In Egypt, we often work in spite of the system and not because of it. The one thing that works FOR us is the presence of a supportive independent film scene in Egypt now.”
There were many rehearsals and improvisation sessions with the actors before the shooting. The main purpose was to create the characters. During the shooting, there was room for improvisation. Maggie thinks that improvisation allows “a wealth of life experience to find its way to the film. It is not just my own life experiences, stories and anecdotes that find their way to the film, but all the actors’ as well. A story about a bus ticket and lucky numbers, an anecdote about soccer and women…I couldn’t have made that up.”
Maggie remembers certain shooting days very distinctly. “Shooting at the hospital was quite tricky because it is a real hospital with real patients, and even a maternity ward. So it’s quite noisy as you will probably hear in the film.” Also there was an incident when during shooting the scene of Asham’s arrest. “The police man really got into the role and he really banged Shady Habashy’s head hard. He had a bang on his head. So people in a supermarket nearby gave us ice and first-aid until the production manager came to take him to the hospital.”
The most difficult scene to shoot was that of the crazy man trying to jump off the building. “It is a very important scene to me because it represents the culmination of human suffering. The moment when someone loses grip…This character was the first one I cast.” The shooting took place in Korba and of course people on the street and the cars stopped to see what was going on. Some people took out their mobile phones to take pictures of the crazy man! Some were trying to convince him not to jump. Others, though, saw the camera and thought that the crew was filming a real crazy man trying to commit suicide. They got mad and tried to “save” and “protect” the man whom they thought the film team was “abusing.” Some said that the filming of crazy people tarnishes Egypt’s reputation. And even though the actor, Amgad Reyad, tried to tell people that he was an actor shooting a film, they would not believe him. They gave him a pat on the back and assured him that they would not let him be abused by the film crew. They went to file a suit at the police station. “It all ended well in the end.”
Another interesting anecdote about the shooting, is that the film team was accompanied by a group of street kids in Heliopolis, during the entire shoot. “On the first day of shooting in Heliopolis in front of TBS Bakery in Korba, these kids saw us and gathered around us. Of course they were curious. We got to know them and the actors befriended them. So they decided to help us by directing passers-by away from the camera and controlling the street. They took pictures with the crew. The surprise was that they somehow found us on every shooting day in Heliopolis and came to help. We had no communication with them during shooting days. But every time we were shooting in Heliopolis, even if indoors in an apartment, they would some how find us. I think of them as our guardian angels.”
Everything flowed to make the shooting happen. For the shooting of the skylight scenes with Mohamed Khan and Amina Khalil, we needed two apartments with windows facing each other. Maggie says, “My neighbor is a 94 year-old woman. I was very reluctant to shoot in the building so that I would not disturb her. She was aware we were looking for two apartments facing each other, and she offered her place. We were shooting long hours, well after midnight—and she would just keep her door open. She was very cool and relaxed with the film crew. Very helpful with props. Every time I asked her if we were disturbing her. She would say, ‘you can’t disturb me, I can hardly hear! Relax and take your time. Make a good film.’”
The shooting took place over the span of 5 weeks over the span of a few months. The film was shot on location in different places in Cairo and Alexandria—in homes, TBS Bakery, JW Marriott hotel, and in Maamoura and Agamy in Alexandria. They was also shooting in Maamoura’s Amusement Park, downtown, and in Zamalek.
Asham is an independent film that was shot on a low-budget. Maggie has previous experience of film production, but her experience regarding post-production was limited since this is her first feature-length film. Producer Mohamed Hefzy offered his expertise and know-how and was integral during this period. Maggie had met Mohamed Hefzy at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival in 2008. She was a member of the short film jury and Hefzy was there with Amr Salama and the film cast of Zay El Naharda (On a Day Like Today.) I got to know them a bit there. Then I saw Hefzy in the context of different screenings, like Microphone and Tahrir 2011. “I felt like he was the ideal person to bring this project to light. He is an intelligent and savvy producer. But what was great about it is that he is also a scriptwriter. He patiently went through many edits of the film with us.” Mohamed Hefzy is the one that brought Ahmad Abdalla on board as an editor and he is the one that guided the post-production process till the film saw the light.