Interview with Ahmad Abdalla
In all my previous works, I have always avoided being the filmmaker who abuses the inhabitants of a neighborhood where filming takes place. I have always been keen on building up friendships with the dwellers who receive us with hospitality. This can be a chance for those poor people to have a closer insight into this industry. The film is an attempt to delve into the deep; inside some worlds that surround us everywhere, but we consciously chose to ignore their existence. - Director Ahmed Abdallah
Considered one of the leading Egyptian directors who could weave documentation into dramatic narratives, Director Ahmed Abdallah sheds light on the other side of reality in his films. He started his filmmaking career as a film editor in several films before he presented his first screenwriting and directorial efforts: Heliopolis (2010), Microphone (2010) and his third directorial effort Rags and Tatters.
Why did you feel you needed to tell this story in the film? And how long did it take you to write it?
I joined a group of volunteers during the first Tahrir sit-ins where we established what we called a Media Camp. The camp was aiming to document the revolution through collecting all the videos and pictures taken by people across Egypt since the beginning of the revolution. Here is a link to the Media Camp's website: http://www.thawramedia.com/. Several Egyptians volunteered and we were able to successfully archive an extensive number of videos, upload them to the web, and send them to local and international television networks. There were various stories of people who suffered under repression; however we managed to replace some stories by others that were of more importance from our own perspectives. The idea was to make a film based on true stories that take place in an overlooked world. This film is paying tribute to those who took great pains to document the truth and make it accessible for generations to come.
What were your criteria during the casting?
A strong friendship has been bonding between me and Asser Yassin, who plays the leading role in the film. While writing Rags and Tatters, I couldn't have any other actor in my mind to impersonate the character of the protagonist other than Asser Yassin. His unique talent would make of him the only fitting actor in this role. I met him and we started developing the idea together and the script was ready in a short time. Producer Mohamed Hefzy and I began sorting out the suggested names of potential actors who would participate in the film. The list included Yara Gobran, Amr Abed, and Mohamed Mamdouh. Then, as usual, I decided to hire real people such as Ismail, a Chaabi singer and chanter who has played a very important role in the film. Likewise, all the characters of the dwellers in Mansheyet Nasser were played by the real inhabitants of the area, except for the character played by Mona El Sheemi.
This is your second collaboration with Film Clinic. Why Film Clinic in particular?
Run by Mohamed Hefzy, Film clinic is a very unique production house. Due to his unique talent as a scriptwriter, who can perfectly build up the characters involved and draws the outline of the incidents taking place, in addition to his reflective insight into film scripts, I have never seen Film Clinic failing to keep a balance between commercial and critical success in the films produced by the company. The image of the film and the message conveyed both are always respected.
Why do you tend to work with the same cast in every film journey you embark on?
I totally believe in cooperation, and I like to work in an interactive workshop –like atmosphere during all the phases of the film. I am totally against the "god-like director" who makes use of the artists to carry out his own superior perspective. I think it works the other way round, as the director should operate the process of filmmaking based on his own perspective in the frame of the film in progress. This is why I insist on collaborating with a creative team consisting of members open to interact, collaborate, and redefine some features of the film in the process of filmmaking, and this is what I find in my friends who have collaborated with me, especially director of photography Tarek Hefny and executive producer Hany Saqr.
Is this a film about the revolution?
The film doesn't showcase any of the incidents that took place during the revolution except for a minor hint in the first five minutes of the film opening only. The film seeks to delve into the deep: inside some overlooked worlds that most of us chose consciously to ignore their existence. Rags and Tatters tells a story that took place in a specific period of time in our contemporary history (the revolution of January 25th, 2011) where everything was thrown into havoc. The film includes several true stories of people we have met and some of whom helped us in documenting their experiences in archives. We made use of what they recorded with us in research and in writing the film's script.
What are the challenges you have faced during shooting?
Unfortunately the absence of security forces in the streets has become one of the most challenging obstacles that I face in filmmaking. For instance, it's become very hard to secure the location and the team in isolated places in the desert. However, this became a necessity since we were trying to avoid the occurrence of any troubles in the light of the growing absence of security forces in several places.
Filming took place on location in Al Sayyeda Nafisa, the cemeteries and Ezbet El Zabbaleen neighborhood. How did the inhabitants receive you?
I have always been open to building up friendships with the dwellers, who received us with hospitality. This can be a chance for those people to have a closer insight into filmmaking and filmmakers through us, apart from the traditional stereotyped image of filmmakers that they might have in their minds. This encouraged them to participate in the film behind and in front of the cameras; some of them played roles in scenes showcasing their reality and others narrated their stories to the camera. This is why in many occasions the inhabitants in these districts where the first to defend us when shooting was interrupted by some people who put obstacles in our way. The only explanation for this attitude is that these people considered the film's crew part of their community.
Did you make an agreement with the real-life characters that appeared in the film before shooting?
Some of the characters have been signed on from the very beginning, including the fugitive prisoner whose statements have strongly affected the storyline of the film, as several scenes are a depiction of his own experience. There are other characters that we met while filming and we could give them the space to tell their own stories in the film as well. Consequently, the script was developed and many scenes were edited to suit the newly added shots where those characters tell their own stories.
How do you think the public will react to the film?
I have worked as a film editor in commercial films for almost 10 years and the biggest lesson that I have learned was that I shouldn't fear the reaction of the audience, not because they're taken lightly, but we should make films that respect their mentality as they should enjoy a film that doesn't underestimate their intelligence. In the past few years, filmmaking has witnessed many changes and the number of the moviegoers who are more open to watch new film genres has been increasing. I trust the people and I will make the film that I believe in and I will learn from their reaction.
Interview with Asser Yassin
That person you see in ragged clothes on the pavement, or the child who roams the streets aimlessly without a destination you know nothing about those people; where did they come from? Where will they go? The protagonist in this film is that marginalized person who can see you, but you fail to realize his existence. A stray who doesn't know his fate; whether he's killed in a demonstration or in a car accident, whether he could survive it or not, you won't notice his existence.-Actor, Asser Yassin
Asser Yassin has participated in several films where he could draw the attention of film critics for his extraordinary ability to pick different and remarkable roles. In 2006, he started his career with a role in Alb Habiba TV series. In 2007, he participated in The Yacoubian Building TV series. In the same year, Asser appeared in Al Gezeera film. In 2008, he presented several films including: Ehna Eta'belna Abl Keda, Ala Ganb Yasta, Al Waad and Director Amr Salama's Zai El Naharda. In 2010, Yassin presented his most remarkable role in Rasa'ael Al Bahr.
How did you get to know about the film?
I knew about the film through director Ahmed Abdallah, and we have always wanted to work together but we never found something appealing for both of us. I worked with Abdallah only in a few awareness campaign videos including "No to military trials for civilians" and another during the presidential elections. Following his feature film Microphone, we got together and he told me about Rags and Tatters and that he wants me to play the leading role. He shared with me the film's story that I really liked, then we had to assign the crew of the film. We chose to collaborate with producer Mohamed Hefzy, but it was a little bit risky for him at that time due to the political unrest that's been taking place. Therefore I suggested co-producing the film because I was really excited about it. The crew was also excited about the story of the film including executive producer Hani Saqr and director of photography Tarek Hefni. Also scriptwriter Omar Shama has joined us as a financier. Following this, we, Omar Shama, Tarek Hefni and myself, founded Mashrou'a, a production house that aims to support independent films. The main objectives behind the film were to introduce a new idea: this doesn't mean that there wouldn't be payments; however it would be in few amounts of money. At the end, I personally think that we have made a very remarkable piece of work, and I'm proud to be part of it.
Although the film's idea is unusual, what was the most appealing element about it for you?
The film's story builds up with a minimal dialogue and this is a big challenge for any actor. It doesn't include the verbal means of communication through which you convey your feelings to the audience. The whole film is based on your physical performance, facial expressions and your inner emotions. The film is quite odd and I believe as an actor I should play different kinds of roles. Furthermore, the challenging conditions back at that time, for instance the political, social and economic unrest in the country has made it more challenging for me to play such a role. However, we could successfully get over those challenges and the film is completed. I still remember a year ago when we were wondering if we could complete such a piece of work in the middle of such challenging conditions, but now we have already completed the film.
What are the challenges that you have faced during filming?
The film unfolds a true realistic story about garbage collectors, this is why shooting took place on location in Ezbet Al Zabbaleen instead of a studio. Also, we wanted to correlate between the film and the sectarian strife that took place in the settlements between Muslims and Christians. I wasn't feeling that I was acting in a film as much as I was introducing reality; this is why I had to spend a considerable amount of time with the inhabitants of the settlement to know them closely and be able to showcase their daily sufferance. The protagonist in the film is that person you see in ragged clothes on the pavement, or the child who roams the streets aimlessly without a destination, you know nothing about those people; where did they come from? Or where will they go? The protagonist in this film is that alienated person, who can see you, but you don't realize his existence. A stray who doesn't know his fate; whether he's killed in a demonstration or in a car accident, whether he could survive it or not, you won't notice his existence. This was the most appealing element about the film that it tells the story of such people in the light of the absence of security forces everywhere.
How do you think the audience will receive the film?
I thought about the film as a piece of art more than how would the audience react to it. I thought about the message conveyed in the film and how in 10 years I'll be proud to say that I was a part of it. I really want the audience to watch the film to know about the marginalized people in order to know about his life and conditions. The film aims to make you feel the reality of the alienated; it's very perceivable and existential.
The protagonists of the film have strongly touched me. You will never know about them through the authorities, newspapers or any other media outlets. You must look for them. It's interesting that I could showcase the truth of such people through this film.
Have you faced any difficulties during filming?
As long as you're working on something you believe in, then nothing is impossible. I enjoyed working in this film and I really can't remember that I have faced any difficulties. Since the budget was very limited, we had to stay awake for two successive days; however, I didn't feel exhausted.
Why 'Rags and Tatters' as the film's title?
I think the roaming life of the protagonist is the main reason why the film was given such a title. He's seen in the beginning moving about with his family in the cemetery, then he is in search of his beloved; sometimes sleeping at her family's place, and some other times he sleeps at the cemetery. He is a manifestation of a man gone astray looking for a shelter all the time.
Have you ever known about the locations where shooting took place?
In fact, Ezbet El Zabbaleen is a new and surprising place for me. You can see people there leading a very normal life governed by their own rules, and how the sacred places there, such as the church and the mosque, have affected the attitude of the inhabitants and gave a spiritual atmosphere to the settlement.
Although it's a drama, the film has some traits of documentaries. During filming, I was impressed by everything there, which has definitely added to my personal repertoire as an actor.
By time, I started contemplating about the nature of life there; how could the inhabitants of this district reach the place? In the beginning, I was thought I'd feel uncomfortable because of the smell of the garbage, but that didn't take place and it wasn't that bad. These places enclose another type of life where another system and strict precautions are being followed; for instance no one could throw a cigarette anywhere, since this might lead to a big fire burning the whole neighborhood. I also witnessed the harmony prevailing amongst the relationships between the inhabitants, and that a six-year old boy can work just like grownups.
You have worked with a large number of directors, what's the most remarkable trait about Ahmed Abdallah?
Every director has his own experience and personal perspective, but the most remarkable thing about Abdallah is that he reflects his own perspective in the film, which means that his work is very valuable for him. This encouraged me to have the same attitude towards the film and work with the same love and sincerity. In general, I trust Abdallah as a director and I'd collaborate with him in case he sees me I'm the best to play a certain role in any of his films.
What about producer Mohamed Hefzy?
Mohamed Hefzy and I are friends and he's one of the first filmmakers that I've met in the beginning of my career. I have previously collaborated with him in films including Zai El Naharda, Aswar Al Qamar, which was scripted by him, as well as Rags and Tatters. I respect Mohamed Hefzy and his achievements in the past few years. I also respect the types of films that he supports, and I'm looking forward to collaborate with him more often. I wish we have more producers with his insight and mentality that doesn’t seek commercial success only, but also he's very well aware of the nature of his work.