Essay from Jaylan Salah


Ibn Halal: A Man with a Vision

Interviewing Ibrahim Fakhr, the modern Egyptian TV “street” director

Ibrahim Fakhr

Last Ramadan, the drama season in Egypt was steaming with interesting series and post-modernist comedies. One that particularly caught my attention was Rasayel – Messages in which an Upper Middle Class woman’s car crashes into a mysterious rich young man’s car, they both go into a coma where she later awakens with psychic powers, temporarily connected to the man’s dark past.

Spectacular shots, stable camera movements, and adept direction of the actors onscreen, all these elements drew me to find out how director Ibrahim Fakhr’s career led him to this particular success.

Informative, highly technical with a lot to tell about his actors and directing style, Ibrahim Fakhr knows what he wants, adding a unique input to every series that he directs. Picking mostly controversial topics in his directorial projects, Fakhr has never been ashamed of rooting for the underdog. His stories made heroes out of thugs and those who lived on the margins of the society. His most successful series to date Ibn Halal – Goodfella, starred Egypt’s most controversial movie star Mohamed Ramadan as the titular character, the goodfella Hebesha, whose Scorsese-like story of a good guy gone rogue spanned icky topics such as political corruption, sexual obsession and police brutality in the Mubarak era.

“Most directors started their career plans as actors, I did not plan anything. I simply wanted to be part of the glamor but deep down I wished I could be a theater actor. It was difficult submitting to the actor life, though. I am an authoritative person, a leader by nature and hated taking orders from directors. I am a Pisces so you can imagine how hard it is to try and tame that particular personality type.

While acting, I hated remaining mise-en-scene bound; the worst discovery was that as an actor, I did not have the liberty according to how I envisioned the scene, but according to the director.”

Fakhr started his career early from his schooldays, when he directed plays for the school theater and the university theater such as Hercules and the Augean Stables by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Qaraqosh the Jester by Egyptian playwright Al-Sayed Hafez. Then he got his first job –while studying accounting in college– as assistant director with veteran TV director Mrs. Inaam Mohamed Ali, working together on one of her epic TV series, Qasim Amin in 2002; a semi-autobiography of the Islamic Modernist and jurist’s eventful life as the first feminist leader and among the most notable thinkers in the Arab world. Mrs. Ali’s resume included a myriad of similar projects. Being one of the few female directors in the Arab world, Mrs. Ali has always taken over major directorial projects; an epic, emotionally-charged War movie The Road to Eilat, a semi-autobiographical TV series chronicling the life of the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum which gained wide critical acclaim and took the Egyptian streets by storm. TV platform was a different place back in the early 2000s than it is now in 2019; with modest dramas conquering, mostly addressing conservative familial and middle-class age groups.

Mrs. Ali has not been given due proper credit yet. Throughout her career, she has made a major impact on the Arab drama, backing up projects with female-centric storylines, supporting female progress and feminism through multiple works such as Qessat El Ams – The Story from Yesterday which starred one of Egypt’s top leading ladies back then Elham Shahin in the role of a woman who ends her marriage to the man she loves because she discovers his polygamy, despite loving him. The series polarized audiences for perfectly portraying a regular Egyptian family and how destructive polygamy is to a woman’s self-confidence and the wellbeing of the average Egyptian family.

“In Mrs. Inaam’s school, I learned to excessively prepare, and pay too much attention to even the smallest detail. Shooting Qasim Amin took a year and 8 months, the overall experience was mesmerizing, she is a very talented director. She would order me to go to Al-Ahram Newspaper Archive for research and then we would start auditioning actors based on how they resembled their historic counterparts. I was assigned various books to read and research before shooting. Through her, I fell in love with the process. I found it an immersive stage where you start from scratch until imagination turns into reality. I saw the fourth wall broken when I became part of the set and witnessed the power of creating a work of art from nothingness.”

Ibrahim Fakhr with Amr Mcgyver, the famous Egyptian stunt driver, while directing the car accident scene in Rasayel TV series

For 10 years Fakhr worked on 3 TV series only; including a third assistant job (accessories assistant director) responsible for every item of accessories in the historical series Ibn Al-Haitham about the famed mathematician. Until his big break came as assistant director for veteran TV director Sherine Adel working together on Share’ Abdel Aziz – Abdelaziz Street which chronicled the life of one of the famed street inhabitants especially Eyad, the protagonist, played by audience favorite back then; Amr Saad. Abdelaziz Street is one of the most culturally significant streets in Cairo, not for the historical poignancy but more of its modern relatability to most Cairo residents; it’s your go-to when it comes to hardware, appliances, mobile spare parts and accessories. The series made the street even more iconic than it actually was and the experience for Fakhr, was also life-altering;

“This was the first time I worked in a set where the director used cinema-style in directing; using the one-camera technique instead of multiple, separate cameras which defined the traditional TV direction style. This was my first job as 1st assistant director,”

Interviewing Fakhr gave me the privilege of getting introduced to multiple terms that were otherwise unfamiliar to the non-experienced ear. He outlined the difference between first, second and third assistant director.

The third assistant director is called the accessories assistant director. His job demands a highly responsible and detail-oriented individual. He has to keep track of every item used by actors.

The third assistant director is responsible for every item from the moment it leaves the production line until it reaches the set. His responsibility also lies in keeping the Raccord – or match cut as they call it in English- which is how actors’ clothes, accessories, posture and elements in the setting should match if the same scene was shot multiple times.

The second assistant director is responsible for clothes. As for the first assistant director, his responsibility lies in being the director’s eye in the location; so while the director stays in the control room, the first assistant director handles decoupage –assembling the set of images/shots together to convey the story’s narrative, in simpler words the editing of the series- actor movements, scenes, shots manages cinematographers, follows up with the actors and reports to the director back in his lair. This is in addition to the continuity boy (script movement as they call it) who would be responsible for making sure that decoupage has been executed according to the script and the rules outlain by the director such as character movement from every single angle.

“My first time as a first assistant director gave me the opportunity to try my hand at directing. It was an amazing feeling. I was widely praised despite the tight shooting timeframe in Ramadan. I excelled because my experience with Mrs. Inaam taught me a great deal about montage, editing, learning how to edit and mix scenes so it was easy for me to put what I learned down to practice.

I play the flute professionally, so I had trained my ear to detect how each music piece fits a certain shot. I would give professional music and sound design recommendations.”

It was not long before Saad, the main protagonist and a mega movie star noticed Fakhr’s attentiveness to detail,

“I remember him telling me that I was helluva craftsman. He wanted me to direct his upcoming TV project Khorm Ebra – Hole of a Needle. It was my first opportunity to see that my vision becomes a reality. Amr was keen that I would be responsible for it due to multiple reasons; he was impressed with the results of the first two episodes –which we shot as a test- he knew that I was passionate about the story and fully understood it, and I had good communication with the scriptwriter. But my creativity was still under test.

Ibrahim Fakhr directing a scene from his 2018 masterpiece Rasayel

It was my debut directorial project and also Hassan Dahashan’s –the scriptwriter- first project. We lined an impressive cast with estimated 1300 scenes to be shot. This is almost as big as a movie. I wanted the directing style to be fast-paced, short scenes, with three or four plot twists occurring.”

Saad’s character Saeed El Brens was portrayed as a young man passionate about the New era of Egyptian music; the mahraganat –literal translation of the word is festivals- music genre which combines autotuned vocals with synthetic beats, which both support lyrics explicitly recounting the life on the streets of the narrow, thickly populated area slums.

“This is where the idea came for Amr to sing a mahragan. His brother [Ahmed Saad] is already an established singer of sha’abi music so he supported Amr and thus Bye, Bye Dough – Ma’a el salama ya floos was born as a political commentary mahragan. We featured some of the stars of mahraganat such as Gandhi, 50, and Sadat.”

What I liked about the song was that it was integral to the plot and the theme of the series. It was not some casual music number inserted to draw in fans of the –back then- growing genre.

“In this series, everything I was passionate about came true. I researched the YouTube persona Zalata and wrote a role specifically for him to play, there were also notable roles for the Lebanese megastar Nadine Rassi and a guest actor from Georgia; Mr. Leo, well-renowned in his home country. We paid him $1500 a day, which was his charge, since foreign actors require different payment strategies than ours [in Egypt]. His professionalism was a sight for the sore eyes as he worked with us 11 days, 4 hours of shooting.”

Despite all the elements of success, Hole of a Needle was a sleeper hit. It did not boom in Ramadan because a single network owned the exclusive rights to air it, which in turn decreased the number of viewers,”

After Hole of a Needle, Fakhr decided to focus on his passion project; the one he prepared specifically for Mohamed Ramadan; a low budget series titled Ibn Halal – Goodfella.

The series that establishes Mohamed Ramadan’s start persona “Ibn Halal”

Ibn Halal was a political drama as far as political dramas could blend action, emotionally charged storylines and a horrifying tale of power abuse and sexual obsession.

“The project was titled El sekaa el e’wga – The Dark Side. It was different back then, people did not believe in Ramadan’s capabilities as an actor, as well as a bankable TV star. He was not that famous in 2014. I wanted to take him out of his comfort zone and give him a different kind of heroism than he was used to,”

Ramadan has only been playing thugs and rogues who go astray with no motif or a well-defined character arc or development. In Ibn Halal he was treading unfamiliar territory, one that does not comply with his brand persona; or the image that he supposedly was beginning to build as a star.

“Throughout the reading sessions, Ramadan hated the first version of the script. He did not want to portray an imbecilic character, but more of a naïve hero. His experimentation had its limits, and I attribute that to his star image which he was afraid would be shaken if he completely shed off the skin of the gangster/strong guy subject to injustice. He did not have a history so he could not gamble a future with a possible wide target audience of TV viewers.”

Not only has Fakhr been always rooting for the underdogs in his works, he was rooting for himself. He took the stairway to popularity and respect as a director one at a time, preferring to stick to the characters he believed in most and the stories he was passionate about.

“My dream cast [in Ibn Halal] included Ahmed Hatem, Ahmed Fouad Selim, Hamza Eleili –of theater fame, playing a character onstage similar to Messakar who appeared in Ibn Halal. It was not originally in the script but I added it to showcase a different side of the main protagonist Hebesha.”

Despite the major success that Ibn Halal met, the environment was not that friendly for a TV series starring Mohamed Ramadan back in 2014.

Ibrahim Fakhr directing a key scene

“The production company was unsure of how audiences would receive it. The series was bloody, violent and daring. But I could not stray from what my fans expected of me. I did not want to lose my target audience so we were pressured by production to reduce the budget. It was a bit of a frustrating matter to me, Ibn Halal was their least costing series, yet it was sold to three major TV networks; MBC, Al-Nahar and Al-Hayat.”

Fakhr helped create the modern image and star persona of Mohamed Ramadan. The script was very well-written, every side character had a dramatic significance and a character arc, and the director polished every side character to fit a grander scheme that serves –ultimately, as is the case with most Egyptian films and series of the day- the star of the show. The main storyline is usually focused on the main protagonist, the star for whom the bell tolls and the money talks.

“Unfortunately feedback was only directed at the star [Ramadan], critics either praised his performance, ignoring the series as a whole, or slammed him. The idea of a series based on a true story drew criticism, and critics attributed the success only to the original source that it draws inspiration from. This is a problem that I believe persists in the Egyptian TV and movie platform. Either we glorify a star or we push them down to the gutter. I received most of the negative criticism.”

I was particularly surprised with the criticism directed at the series for using a real-life tragedy to build a work of art. Since when was this a drawback? Fakhr was just as incredulous,

The Assassination of John F. Kennedy and Titanic were both major successes based on true stories, this does not mean they are anything short of great works of art.”

Back to Rasayel, Fakhr talked me through how he handled the script from the time he met writer Mohamed Solaiman Abdelmalek until it landed in the diva Mai Ezz Eldin’s lap.

Ibrahim Fakhr in Georgia while shooting Khorm Ebra

“I met Mohamed Solaiman Abdelmalek and he told me about his vision for the script. It was not that well-structured, then. But I became so passionate about it and delivered it myself to Mai who is a close friend of mine. She was pretty skeptical about taking up a role that would deviate from her regular target audience,”

Talking to Fakhr, it seems that he knows how to make a star shine, without shedding off the image that enhances their star power. With Mohamed Ramadan, he established the image of the good guy gone rogue without losing the Robin Hood-like justice. With Ahmed Hatem, he helped in creating the modern bad boy who escaped to the dark side. With Mai Ezz Eldin, her career path was handled by Fakhr from A2Z.

“When I met Mai, her most famous TV series to date was Girls Having Fun – Dala’ el banat where she played a low-class, vulgar girl. I guided her on how to target different social classes through her art, and from then a successful and fruitful work partnership was born. With The Case of Eshk – Halet E’shk, she found a way to attract middle-class TV viewers, playing an Upper Middle Class girl suffering from multiple personality disorder which resulted from a childhood trauma that she could not remember. Starting from this stage, her star status as a fashion icon was beginning to be implemented. The following year, Mai wanted to explore a love story, so I suggested Wa’ad which was in reality based my own past teenage love story, with a foreign woman whom I met on the Internet.

For a year and a half we chatted online, then she visited Egypt and we spent amazing time together. I thought we would eventually get married, then she uncovered the sad truth; she would never be able to live with me in Egypt.

The story ended and I used it for inspiration in making Wa’ad. I drew some details from my own experience; how I collected her fallen hair from the pillow after she left. The longing that the character Youssef – played by Ahmed El Saa’dany who starred alongside Mai- had for Wa’ad, and the details of the scene where she leaves him for the first time and he listens to I’m ready for Love. These are all inspired by my real-life experience. The realistic ending surmises my point of view on how that particular love story should have a conclusion.

Mai Ezz Eldin in Wa’ad, Fakhr’s most personal project to date

I believe that even remembering the pain of love creates beautiful memories. I walked the series with Mai step by step, starting from a storyboard and until the actual shooting. It was a tiring shoot. Too many locations, and in every location there would be more than one scene to be shot. But I loved this series, and I knew that it had to be done right or not done at all.”

Wa’ad introduced Ezz Eldin to a different target audience all-together, the A+ class TV fans. Through Rasayel, she could attract the attention of a class that she had not even tried to tackle; the intellectuals.

“The script for Rasayel had to be modified to match my directing style. I wanted to make it closer to people. Apart from the intellectuals, I wanted to broaden the target audience circle to include teenagers, housewives and mothers. I added some action sequences to draw the attention of teens. To include the average female viewer, script modifications had to be made in order to match my directing style and vision. Mohamed [Solaiman Abdelmalek] and I worked on the script, in order to make the characters more religious. I requested that Hala’s –the main protagonist- father get a background as an Arabic language teacher. I also wanted her sister to be less educated than her in order for a broader section of the public to sympathize with her. The script in its original format was too elite for the average Egyptian audience, which firmly believe in two things: religion and heritage. So I tried to tie the general theme of the series to Joseph –the prophet in the Islamic scripture- and his dream interpretation skills. I also made sure that every side character had a resala – message rather than simply Hala and Sameh. Mai was more interested in the commercial side of the series, while I was trying to find the link between Mohamed [Solaiman’s] script and her star image. Throughout the series, I used dynamic shots excessively, which Mohamed loved while Mai hated.”

Ibrahim Fakhr with his longtime collaborator actress Mai Ezz Eldin

Fakhr has a deep understanding of the average Egyptian TV viewer. He knows how to target specific audience groups and demographics according to their needs and tastes. He remembers every small detail and pays careful attention to every shot.

“In my work, every shot should have a significance in the grander picture. You also have to be specific with the type of shot and the camera angle, a long shot cannot be a close-up. In Rasayel most of Hala’s solo shots had to be top ones –the Eye of God shot- so that it resonates with the sufism of her character. In Ibn Halal I always shot Ahmed [Hatem] –who played the titular villain- from a low angle to make him imposing and scary, every time he appeared onscreen the audience would feel a little off, like something was not right. The iconic object of his obsession, Yosr, played in the series by one of the hottest actresses at the time Sarah Salama, had to wear extravagant makeup and clothing to appear sexier than her already beautiful fellow actresses. But one problem faced me; I am conservative and I did not want to sexualize the actress, but the character herself. So I made her iconic through showing her from a wide angle. She looked tiny in the shot so that the focus was not on her body; but viewers could also see that she’s dressed in a sexy way. The scene would remain in wide-angle for 10 seconds, then I would cut to a close-up on her innocent face.”

On directing actors, Fakhr gave a hint from one of his favorite scenes in Ibn Halal,

“What has always helped me as a director is that I have been an actor before, only abandoning it because I seek truth of movement, and only through directing do I achieve that. When I shoot the scene, I try to see it from the actor’s perspective as well as the director’s. I seek great composition while maintaining a dynamic scene, with people constantly moving like it happens in real life, as opposed to how most scenes are shot within the medium of television.

In the scene where Hebesha kills his sister to avenge for his honor, Mohamed [Ramadan] was anxious as he did not know how to work it out through movement. So I guided him through the scene; he would place his sister’s corpse on the bed then he would try to sit down, stand up then move back and forth. His movement mirrors his internal monologue;

How can I sit down? Where do I sit down?”

This year, Ibrahim Fakhr did not stop with the controversies. His collaboration with Mohamed Ramadan resulted in Zelzal – Earthquake a drama about his favorite social class, those living on the margins of society, the clash between neighboring social circles and doomed love stories.

Ibrahim Fakhr with Khorm Ebra crew

What does he have to say about the series?

“I was offered the chance to direct Zelzal this [Ramadan] season. I was not a huge fan of the script, since it was too mushy for Mohamed Ramadan’s persona. People are used to seeing Mohamed’s character with melodrama, fighting and wreaking chaos. This was more of a drama for the middle-class families gathering around the TV, in other words, not suitable for Ramadan’s target audience. Since the production company insisted on using this script for Mohamed, I decided to play it with my own rules. I took the risk and added spices to the script so that people become more interested. I asked myself;

If not for the action and thrill factor, how do we get people more interested in Mohamed Ramadan?

So I decided to use two elements; nostalgia and agricultural laborers. Nostalgia was an integral factor for Generation Y of 1990s fame, and it was not explored before, which is why I tried to adapt my own voice as a 90s kid and even gave the titular character in Zelzal the same birthday as mine. This gave the character a personal aspect through which I could reflect on my own childhood and teenagehood. I inserted all the details from the nineties; the Walkman, cassette tapes, the creative advertising, the 90s crew cut (kaborya), etc.

In terms of the agricultural laborers, I added certain details from their lives which most people are not aware of such as how laborers go back and forth from their hometown to Cairo and where they usually meet in their pastime. I used interactions between characters to create different dynamics from what people are used to in Cairo such as how the village schoolteacher has a close relationship with the whole family of the student and how that affects inter-character relationships. I come from an agricultural laborer family, from Shibin Al-Qanater city in Qalyubia Governorate. So I knew exactly what I was talking about; what I was researching.”

I was so taken by Fakhr’s vision and attention to detail, that I wondered what he might envision for a more successful future;

“Cinema is my ultimate goal and dream. I wish I could make a successful film career similar to my TV career. All my life I have envisioned the premiere of my debut film, to watch people’s reactions to my film; how they laugh and cry and interact with the actors on the big screen. I try to capture the feeling with the pilot episodes of every series that I direct. I invite my friends over for a private screening of the pilot and watch their reactions. Finally I have the chance to reciprocate that feeling on the big screen.

Actually I am currently offered the opportunity to direct an important action film, with an amazing cast which has been my dream, with a release date –hopefully- by Eid Al-Adha in August.”

A dreamer, a tactical professional and a rebel of sorts, watch out for Ibrahim Fakhr, who –despite what anyone might think of his art- never fails to dazzle, surprise and provoke.

Jaylan Salah’s tribute to the late poet Kevin Killian

Poetry No Longer Kitsch – In Memory of Kevin Killian

(Tony Greene Era & the Impossible Princess

By Jaylan Salah

Poet Kevin Killian (photo by Daniel Nicoletta)


It’s not unusual these days to have a public celebration of a poet’s –or writer’s- death.

In the age of social media, everything becomes a headline, an outline for a bigger reality. So when Kevin Killian died, and multiple American friends mourned him, I did not expect to feel. I did not expect the thought to eat me from inside. Another dead poet? What should we do so that his troubles and years spent in contemplation and feelings of not belonging should be put to rest?

As a poet myself, I struggle with demons of my own. All the frustrations, mixed emotions, and impulses that define me in defiance of patriarchy, bigotry, and judgment are merely tools through I which I fight what I hate the most. That’s where Killian’s poetry came in handy.

A friend of mine shared this excerpt from Killian’s poetry which made all the difference;

To become obscure
among human beings,

but clearer
in all relations,

I thought to myself, “Weren’t those lines also applicable to me?”

Kevin Killian and The New Narrative

Kevin Killian was born in 1952 on Long Island. He was a member of the 1970s New Narrative movement which –as described in an article in The Paris Review- is a form of poetry and fiction that places the writer as the center of the writing; a form of writing about the writer themselves. Killian included himself in the narrative, he became part of what he wrote.

His death did not come as a shock, but rather a mean to compare the effect and the legacy that his poetry left on readers worldwide. It was my pleasure as a 30 something Egyptian poet to examine his poetry and ultimately, his poetic and human self.

Tony Greene Era and the Mystery of Peeling Oneself for Art

In his poetry collection Tony Greene Era (Wonder, 2017), Killian examines the intimate moments of a casual blowjob that paved the way for a more intimate, nostalgic moment:

…though I put my card into

the breast pocket of your soft white shirt, I know sometimes

I send my shirts to the laundry but miss those pockets

entirely …”

Killian uses the opportunity to freeze a moment and expand it, shirts pile up into the laundry and the card that was forgotten in the breast pocket transforms into crumpled paper, lost as probably the vague, impersonal erotic moment that it represented.

Elements of the American culture and history could be found in Killian’s poetry; the abandoned city of Croatoan, the hot actor back then Mel Gibson, Matt Damon, Obamacare, Mad Men’s titular character Don Draper, in addition to a list of American cities with details defining each one of them separately.

As a queer poet, Killian bravely treads the forbidden ground of female anatomy. He does not fear the forbidden grounds of menstruation;

in the 80s, Chris asked me and Dodie, for a young poet what is the

easiest way to get into Sulfur?

And she said, write about the menstrual cycle,

And he did, and he sent it in, and the editor snapped it up.

Then he ends the verse describing his friend Chris as the “golden boy of the dark red blood cave”.

Wow! Only a poet like Killian can pull this off!

Killian penetrates the deeper layers of the language, using the human body as a tool to explore further linguistic territories, and proving prowess;

Underneath the dermis and the epidermis a wide, flat, interstitial

space takes the shape of a mask,

In a critique of the American society, Killian does not spare his words.

The Soft American

His own back broken he needed to have sex six times a day to relieve it.

Killian toys with language. He curries favors, describes the perhaps and mishaps feelings, crushes walnuts with his nuts, and orders the “poetic movement” to remove the gag, which he refers to as the constrictive bib.

Tear off the bib, Pip, spit up the pap, Pop, shut down the radar, fuck

Pop and Mom.

So which “constrictive bib” is he referring to exactly? The language, the false impression of having to like the poet behind the poem? Societal and personal censorship?

In “He was a Writer”, Killian beautifully states the impossible relationship between a bookstore clerk living a tidy, orderly life and a writer whose main passion is his penis!

Impossible Princess and the Art of Eroticizing the Reader

In his 2009 short story collection Impossible Princess, Killian’s main playground is the narrative style and voice. His stream of consciousness collides with an unreliable narrator; changing coyly from first to third person, defying the very thing that Killian must have –like us modern writers who aspire to belong to the New Narrative- hated the most; sticking to one tense, one gender, one narrative style.

Impossible Princess is everything Killian boasted about his image; sexual, depraved, insane and intimate. You stare into the face of promiscuity with “Cat People”. In “Spurt”, the air was thick and hot like soup, beauty of the language juxtaposes the transition from first to second person, unravelling and revealing his intentions to misdirect us into a tale where we do not have our footing. Who is Kevin talking to?

You can’t swallow fast enough. Your kisses get sloppy, your vision too. All of a sudden there’s a little click in your head, and the first person turns into the second person. That’s you—Kevin. Have another drink.

In an interview with “The Creative Independent”, Killian mentioned how grateful he was for people who wrote about his book, especially those who liked it. It filled me with grief that I did not get the chance to write about him when he was alive; and then would have made a new friend. But my solace lies in the hope that what I write transcends beyond time and generation, reaching many possible “future friends” whose common interest is Kevin Killian’s poetry.

More about Kevin Killian here. 

Author Jaylan Salah

Essay from Jaylan Salah Salman on the film Blade Runner

In the Eyes of the Outsider

Los Angeles Blues: Blade Runner

As far as loneliness, I feel Los Angeles and its layout, having to drive everywhere – it is a lonely place. It’s an isolated city in that respect because you’re driving to places alone listening to the radio. – Jason Schwartzman

There’s something peculiarly magical about LA in the eyes of those who have never been to the States, and who only know about it from behind screens, lusty voyeurs of the big city, watching in awe as the filthy rich housewives of Beverly Hills endlessly bicker about mindless chatter, or the gangs stroll around in glamourous cars, pimps and hoes in the backseats of limos. In my eyes, however, I never loved LA. I felt it was a cold, fake city, a manufactured replica of what fine art should be. Films like “Nocturnal Animals” heightened the feeling. Films like Michael Mann’s “Heat” implemented the thought in my head, this is not a city for the mediocre, it is neither merciful nor generous, it does not have the comforting silent-killer type of the South or the elegance and cultural significance of New York, even with the latter’s higher crime rate.

It wasn’t until I watched Ridley Scott’s neo-noir masterpiece “Blade Runner” that I realized, I know exactly how Los Angeles looks. I can envision walking in this city feeling more alienated than my writer-self usually experiences. This city is cold, heartless, replicants are scattered all over it but they do not show their replicant-side. Au contraire, they mimic the normalcy that they desperately tried to escape by inhabiting the city in the first place, and they carry themselves around with an air of confidence that both scares and intrigues.

Los Angeles is the source of the light for the moth; a city as vast and dreamy as one could imagine. Sinful and lustful without basing its core and aesthetics purely on lust; it promises angels when it fact, a demon lurks in every corner, whether a failed job, a failed love story, a robbery gone too far, or a grisly crime masquerading as homicide.

For Scott’s 1982 “Blade Runner” I was definitely not a target audience, Sci-fi being the least interesting genre on my PH scale. It was a bet with a fellow cinephile that the one who watches the most respected films on critics’ lists will get an Ace or something that landed “Blade Runner” in my lap. I was not immediately taken, until Vangelis’s music score “Blade Runner Blues” played, with a slow-mo scene showing a woman in her undies killed at the hands of the main male protagonist. The scene, unnerving and sexist as it was, created a séance in which one would disappear. Blues music being a part of the bargain, I fell in love with the movie, later collecting a few of my favorite shots; Rachael staring into the camera while asking Deckard if he ever retired a human before, J.F. Sebastian and his creepy yet intimate collection of toys, Roy’s monologue at the end. Strangely enough, every character seemed like a symbol of what the modern LA would look like as opposed to the cyberpunk, futuristic, retrofit exteriors with matte paintings and miniature work.

In Ridley Scott’s 2019 Los Angeles, people were doomed. Being stuck in this futuristic city, whether on top in the isolated skyscrapers, or being forced to walk down the underbelly of the city, you had no choice but to exist as you are. There would be no air of familiarity or actual contact, even when it happens, Deckard –the main protagonist- forces himself on Rachael, making it seem as if almost nothing real comes out of the city drenched in rain and decay; high-tech style.

Los Angeles scared me. I knew from the moment I saw the replicant’s –Zhora- barely clothed, teary-eyed corpse that this city had no mercy for women, or for underdogs. After all, Roy died, the hero saved the day and forced himself on the only woman who was not killed at the end of the day, probably because she was obedient enough to deserve sparing her life. Los Angeles always looked sunny in the films that glorified the City of Lights, and in films like “Heat”; Los Angeles is a city where people become reciprocal versions of each other. There is a Yin to the Yang, a cop to the rogue, and both get along easier than with their respective clans, In “500 Days of Summer” Love is lost and never found on the sidewalks of the city. Nothing about LA offers promise, if somewhat false and rhetoric. “Blade Runner” is no exception to a series of films that only manage to make the city less approachable, less dreamy-like, more like fantastic versions of an actual city that does not smell hostile and too grand for the newcomers’ ambition.

In multiple ways, “Blade Runner” seems like the ultimate escape for the avenger in every viewer; dark, poetic, grim and desperately pleasing, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth even if it uses an iconic macho American hero –such as Harrison Ford- to create a regular tale that squashes the underdogs and celebrate the All-American hero. Ford (or Rick Deckard) is aided by a city that has no sympathy for losers and only celebrates success, even if on the expense of its architectural thrive.

The array of characters in the “Blade Runner” verse, highlight the cycle of alienation in which subversive people who live in Los Angeles constantly move. Freaks, those haunted by past crimes, those who hide secrets or carry them around, those who prey on the meek and the marginal only to hide their own vulnerability, on the other hand, the rich and the famous are facing the same sense of isolation up in their skyscrapers, only for inter and intra cultural clashes to become as vivid and ephemeral presence in the way replicant vs. replicant hunter collide on the rainy, foggy streets where the overpopulated slums are crowded with people who are always on the move.

Blade Runner – The Sexism

In a city like Los Angeles, you probably would not imagine that sexism exists. Women are at their best, manicured, botox-ed, injectable filler-spewn lips aside. You watch reality shows; “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills”, “Vander Pump Rules”, to name a few and you realize, these women are becoming rich, pampered versions of who they ought to be. They are being judged by sexism as badly as a woman in an African or Arab country, who would be judged based on her clothing, as much as they would be judged by who aged faster, whose lips are more luscious.

It’s not just that the idea of a Love Theme, saxophone music played smoothly over a woman forced to accept a man’s sexual advances, but the idea that notions of beauty, sexuality, aging, womanhood and liberation are messed up in the city of angels only throw a shade to its power over people confined to it. Women are all sultry and beautiful, awaiting the interaction with men probably not ready enough to satisfy them.

Blade Runner – The Diversity

Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the world. But in “Blade Runner” still it is unsold as that. In my mind, the diversity which Los Angeles possesses is merely a background through which the white, privileged, plastic-surgery obsessed, fake art scene goers thrive. The underlying populated slums work only as fuel for the survival of the upper class. Two vivid examples include two of the central female characters; who happen to be replicants. Strangely –rather unsurprisingly- every significant female character in this movie happens to be a replicant; Pris the pleasure model and Zhora the exotic dancer are the most notable examples since they rebel to the cause of their manufacture and thus get punished for it. Both are killed at the hands of the alpha male protagonist Deckard. The only female replicant whose life is spared is Rachael, who submits to Deckard’s nonconsensual sexual advances.

Submission is the key to survival in Los Angeles, replicants who go astray are “retired”, in other words they are killed for daring to ask for equality, or to think of a different future where they are not treated as creatures designed to live the life they are told they were born to walk, and a role they were born to fulfill. Their price for being alive. In a city where you dare to dream whatever you please, “Blade Runner” shows you the grim truth, you are nothing but what you are told you are, even in the city of lights.

Blade Runner – The City

Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic – Norman Mailer

In the city of angels, life and death could be an expose of what lies beneath the road to stardom. Marilyn Monroe once described it as a freeing place, a city where you can be anybody you want. But the structure of the city is not even that inviting for a brave new world. It’s either condos and pool parties or scrapes of art scenes and Oakwood. These dreamers flock to the city in pilgrimage of becoming the next diva or Hollywood sensation. They dream of getting rich fast or shedding off their old, loser skin. Only to be mostly crushed by the gigantic city that has seen, swallowed, gurgled and regurgitated thousands of similar aspiring creatures. In “Blade Runner”, the idea of a city that can collectively rejoice in the company of everyone does not sound like a reality, but more of a requiem of a dream someone else has dared to imagine. High-tech architecture, neon signs, and a social hierarchy that divides people racially and –dare I say- gender and sexual-orientation-wise, only enhance the fact that a city of lights only casts the polarizing beams on those who deserve it. The underdogs who dare to dream are punished mercilessly, or forced to flee with their dominant partners who happen to be White, male, and part of the elite.

At the end, “Blade Runner” is an unflinching as the city he is selling. It perfectly portrays how the glamour of the city hides an underbelly of people barely existing who will all be lost like “tears in rain”. The shock that LA has always given me is how insignificant the individual struggle is if not lived under the spotlight. How many residents of the apartment complex will go back to where they came from; their dreams crushed, their brief encounters with the city lost forever, not worthy of a mention, an Oscar nod or a Hollywood star on the Walk of Fame? Los Angeles is indeed the city of dreams, it treats people who pass by with an Eye of God perspective, only those who dare to wander are lost. But that’s not even a certainty.

Author Jaylan Salah

Essay from Jaylan Salah

Dean Ackles vs. Jensen Winchester

The hunt for the sexual side of conservative men

Jensen Ackles

Jensen Ackles

There are a few times when the female gaze has been taken into consideration when building up a male character onscreen, the articulation of a male character, assuming the sexualization is part of the package, manifesting this eyecandy of a man whose target audience are the hungry women sitting behind their screens, lusting after him and wishing the fourth wall would break so that they could put their hands on him.

Examples are –sadly- scarce across film and TV history, but none has been as enigmatic and gender-defying as Jensen Ackles, one of the two main protagonists in the CW long-running sci fi/horror series “Supernatural”.

Ever since Ackles graced TV screens in 2002 as the transgenic Alec in the ill-fated (and actually really good) series “Dark Angel”, women have swooned over every single scene in which he appeared. A natural scene stealer and surprisingly talented young actor, Ackles stole scenes from Jessica Alba and Michael Weatherly. Back then, after the cancellation of the show, it was obvious for any person with a brain over his neck, an actor like Ackles deserved a show of his own, when the TV lanscape back then had the likes of Chad Michael Murray, Tom Welling, and the older, grungier Jon Hamm, Michael C. Hall, David Duchovny and Julian McMahon.

In her essay “Breaking Down the Schtick: Jensen Ackles, Physical Comedy, Objectification, Consent, and Other Supernatural Topics Inspired By Three Seconds of Footage” Sheila O Malley describes how Supernatural creators and visual artists play the two leads’ hotness factor to the benefit of the female audiences, unlike most TV series –at least back then;

Much of the series is done in extreme closeup which tips right over into objectification. That’s part of the subversive quality of what is going on in the show, and part of the reason why the fan base can be so extreme. The makers of the show know what they are doing, and know that the inherent appeal of these two guys is enormous (by themselves, and together), and so they play up that factor consciously. They present these two guys to us in an almost mythic fashion, lingering on and loving their faces. They are objectified in a way usually reserved for female stars.

When I first watched “Supernatural”, the second season was approaching an end. The first episode that introduced me to the show was “What is and What Should Never Be” which uses Dean Winchester –the character played by Ackles- as a vessel for showing an alternate universe template in which the two ghost huntin’, ass bustin’ brothers could try normalcy and domesticity for the first time in their lives. While the premise could be seen as a trope, something that most genre TV series seek in order to create the nominal mix of mythology vs. light/out of the box episodes, the way Ackles handled the material given to him, was phenomenal to say the least. He embodied Dean Winchester, flirting both with onscreen characters and the camera. He was aware of the hungry voyeurs eyeing his every move and yet he played it subtly without a hint of theatrically orchestrating the performance. Over the course of 15 years, Ackles has played dozens of versions of himself; Demon!self, Angel!self, parodied!self, Mafia!self, Western!self, domesticated!self, to name a few.

As a wannabe geek, I am familiar with how TV abuses its templates, even in Supernatural. But even with the creativity spark skyrocketing as far as the show evolved, nothing would prepare you to Ackles’s portrayal of any version of himself; or in that case, of Dean Winchester.

I fell in love with the show as soon as I saw Ackles smoothly weave a series of emotions reserved to women. Sadness, agony, kindness, flirtatious coyness, and vulgar assertion all took a whole new level of mastery in this man’s hands. The greatest thing about how he portrayed Dean is the way a guy’s guy like Ackles; who started with the plausible 90s dreamboy quality of Leonardo DiCaprio’s fame and ended with the rough-edged, conservative, Southern upbringing boys will be boys blend- is how he manipulated audience into accepting subtlety as part of the sexual grandeur associated with the playboy archetype, which in turn would make the dough from which a whole new level of sexuality was born.

I think what drew us to Ackles –as a generation of horny TV fans, stuck in the blissful nostalgia of dreamy 90s boys and brainless American action heroes, yet unable to ignore the hyphenated, diverse hotties of the 2010s such as Idris Elba, Jason Momoa, Chris Hemsworth and Michael B. Jordan- was that there was nothing super macho, super testosterone-ish about him. When you watch the likes of Jason Momoa, Henry Cavill and the Hemsworth brothers, their sexiness and nudity restrictions are on par with a larger than life image: the big, naked guy. Even leading men like Bradley Cooper, Idris Alba and Ryan Gosling have all been in film, and the big screen treats sexuality differently, with little to leave to imagination and full frontal one item of clothing away from the rating system. With Ackles, there’s no doubting his conservativeness. He plays a promiscuous character very convincingly while keeping his clothes on most of the time. You have no doubt Dean Winchester is as playful, womanizing asshole on par with Don Draper, Hank Moody and Christian Troy yet do not get a full glimpse of that overtly sexual male power. He’s the TV version of Chris Evans, but he can really act!

Female fans flooded the Internet creating a powerful fandom like no other. In this gender-safe, sexual-safe zone where female fans could freely express their darkest sexual desires and fantasies, women’s requests for Dean Winchester strayed from the bizarre to downright creepy. Fans demanded that Dean be bound, tortured, abused emotionally, they even went as far as demand that Dean be raped, physically abused, be transformed into a woman, turn into an animal; whatever strangeness out of the sexual and perverse mind fans of Supernatural imagined it, using their favorite leads as stars of the morbid and the arousing; especially the every affluent Ackles, whose chameleon-like heteronormative sexuality bends the fine line between the masculine and the feminine, with beauty too ephemeral to be attached to a penis, and a deep voice, gruff tone too testosterone-ish to be associated with a vagina. His refusal to be nude –as well as his coyness in not commenting about it- gave the allure of the rare glimpses of his topless form a pleasure for the female –and queer male- voyeur.

Women would anticipate the episode just to take a glimpse of Ackles as the white collar, Sales & Marketing Director of a mega firm, they would drool after Dean the cowboy, Dean the film noir lead, Dean the angel and Demon Dean. In their own way, Supernatural female fans dressed up Ackles like their version of Barbie’s Ken, and it worked! Creators listened to what these horny women requested and handed them Ackles on a gold plate, adorned with garnish.

There was nothing about Ackles, however, that screamed traditional sexy man on the block. He was humble, modest and very Southern, a thick accent obvious every time he opened his mouth, a shyness that kept retreating to the back of the camera whenever he was on stage as part of a fan convention or a fundraiser. Ackles was no modern day activist à la the rest of the celebrities around the globe, he did not publicly express his political views, he did not get involved in controversies, he did not address pressing issues such as gender and sexuality, he firmly resisted molding his character’s elusive sexuality as homosexual, preferring to play it safe –and also in accordance with his conservative views of sex and sexuality- and stick to the playboy persona.

Ackles’s sexuality is part of his identity both as an actor and as a persona in branding himself and subconsciously the show to which he owes his success. Ackles marketed his character as a tormented hero, an atheist who lives the day and practices carpe diem rather than institutionalized religion. While Ackles is a family man, one who carefully and tactfully plans his future and that of his children. He still lives in his hometown Texas and opened a bar that drives its success from his own show.

In a way, Jensen Ackles started his fandom relationship rather awkwardly, relying on his conservative background. Despite firmly resisting the queer gaze that targets his character Dean Winchester, Ackles succeeded in becoming the newest heartthrob in the queer community, attracting gays, lesbians and those who have no defined gender preference, in a way he intimated them; he was not like the LGBTIQ supporters in celebrityverse whose openness about the issues that the gay community faced were part of their brand personas, a means of assuring their fans that they are on their side and of showing the good side of being a celebrity in the modern world. Ackles, however, resorted to his old soul quality of not acting all modern-day activist gone acting. He may not be Lady Gaga, but the majority of his fanbase is queer, gay, lesbian and transsexual. Fan encounters of Ackles supporting his fans individually or one-on-one, encouraging them and supporting their choices leaves more than meets the eye to his persona as well as his sexual power. This is not merely a TV superstar but more of a power figure in the TV industry, which should –hopefully so- be reincarnated in edgier, more diverse works of art.

Jaylan Salah is an Egyptian poet, translator, two-time national literary award winner, animal lover, feminist, film critic, and philanthropist. Jaylan’s first story collection “Thus Spoke La Loba,” published in 2016, explores sexuality, gender, and issues of identity. Her first poetry book “Workstation Blues” will be published with PoetsIN, a publishing house with the purpose of destigmatizing mental illness and supporting international artists.

Author Jaylan Salah


















Jaylan Salah is an Egyptian poet, translator, two-time national literary award winner, animal lover, feminist, film critic, and philanthropist. Jaylan’s first story collection “Thus Spoke La Loba,” published in 2016, explores sexuality, gender, and issues of identity. Her first poetry book “Workstation Blues” will be published with PoetsIN, a publishing house with the purpose of destigmatizing mental illness and supporting international artists.

Essay from Jaylan Salah

Conversations with the Artist on Edge

My Interview with Egyptian director Hisham Abdelkhalek

Hisham Abdelkhalek during directing A Footnote in Ballet History?

Hisham Abdelkhalek during directing A Footnote in Ballet History?

Neurotic, alert with childlike wonder, Hisham Abdelkhalek is an Egyptian director, adventurer whose love for his home country juxtaposes with his creative spark. Abdelkhalek directed and produced French movies backed up by French production companies to represent Egypt. His Instagram shows his nostalgia for a cosmopolitan Egypt and the traditional Egyptian cuisine.

“My artistic influence is mainly Youssef Chahine whom I consider one of the greatest thinkers of our time. He was heavily involved in portraying the real Egypt and that is why he succeeded worldwide. However, I personally do not like to disclose my artistic influences because I love to prove myself as a director apart from whoever affected me.”

Like any other Egyptian dreamer, Abdelkhalek’s career span a decade of filmmaking, art direction for musicals, and short films as experimental as they are poetic. Although he flexes his artistic muscle between mysticism and reality, his documentary “A Footnote in Ballet History?” –which I had the honor of watching and moderating the postscreening Q&A- is not simply a sentimental reminiscence at a cosmopolitan Egypt but more of an homage to great women who have not received their deserved recognition in history.

Abdelkhalek is no fan of small projects. His resume includes a variety of grand projects including the artistic direction of Opera “Aida” in Doha, Qatar and under the pyramids of Giza, Egypt in 2002 as well as the Egyptian Permanent Mission to the UN Gala Event on October 13, 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Akhenaten performance during the UN Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Concert

Akhenaten performance during the UN Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Concert

Akhenaten will be the first pharaonic musical to open at Broadway. It will feature 23 songs with an expected budget of 16 million dollars. This spectacle of songs and ancient pharaonic theological themes showcases performances by major Broadway stars such as Christina DeCicco, William Michals, Ted Keegan, Seph Stanek and Timothy McDevitt. The musical also will include a chilling performance of “O’ my Son” by Broadway favorite N’Kenge.

I have had the pleasure of sitting down with Abdelkhalek in 2016 during the 38th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). He was buzzing with excitement and energy, expressing his opinions openly about the bureaucracy that filmmakers typically face as well as the problems that he personally faced during directing Opera Aida in Egypt in 2002, stating the hierarchy of the Mubarak regime back then as factors behind his decision to travel to Paris where he cofounded his production company So Freakantastik with his friend Olivier Delesse.

“Working during the Mubarak regime I witnessed all forms of corruption on all managerial levels. After “Aida” I decided to leave for good. In Europe I opened a film production company and started making movies. I returned due to a partnership with media and production mogul Isaad Younis’s company Al Arabia Cinema Production and Distribution to distribute Egyptian films in Europe. I have always been keen on spreading films by the great Egyptian directors such as Dawood Abdelsayed and Mohamed Rady all over Europe. I became involved in social and political activism during the Egyptian revolution of 2011 until the Muslim Brotherhood took power where I joined mass protests against the Islamist rule. Right after Islamist president Mohamed Morsy was overthrown, I traveled back to Europe to make art.”

Abdelkhalek is your typical artist on edge. During our meeting he smoked one cigarette after the other, recounting tales from his artistic journey with bitterness, without falling into the pit of despair. When it was time to talk about one of his masterpieces “A Footnote in Ballet History?” his eyes glistened with memories as he spoke of how his project saw the light,

“I was directing Akhenaten The Musical for Broadway in 2013, co-written with Hesham Nazih and Mohamed Metwally, when Ashraf Sewailam the renowned opera singer introduced me to former legendary Egyptian prime ballerina Magda Saleh. Later, while attending a formal dinner after the UN Gala dinner in Egypt’s UN ambassador’s -at the time- house, I met Magda Saleh for the second time as well as her husband. That was when I was smitten by her personality. I wanted to make a film about her since I was already aware of her inspiring history and her career as one of Egypt’s dancers who danced the legendary role of Giselle with the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia.

The idea expanded into archiving the journey of Egypt’s Bolshoi 5; Saleh, Diane Hakak, Aleya Abdel Razek, Wadoud Faizy and Nadia Habib. The film was jointly produced between So Freakantastik and Saudi, American and French collaborators, as well as through crowdfunding which I believe is one of the modern gifts technology presented to aspiring filmmakers. Through crowdfunding, filmmakers and artists could get access to resources they otherwise would not be able to, funding-wise. “A Footnote in Ballet History?” was produced on a budget of more than 100,000 dollars, with $14,000 raised strictly from Indiegogo.”

Legendary Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh during the shooting of “A Footnote in Ballet History?”

Legendary Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh during the shooting of “A Footnote in Ballet History?”

Legendary Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh during the shooting of “A Footnote in Ballet History?”

“A Footnote in Ballet History?” did not simply tell an enchanting tale of the 5 ballerinas as they sealed a footprint in Egyptian history through intense training and a life-changing transition to Moscow for formal ballet training at the Bolshoi Ballet company. It also gives due credit to the late Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasha who -right after the 1952 Egyptian revolution- inaugurated the Academy of Arts and the Higher Institute of Ballet in 1959, envisioning it to be a professional artist factory where young men and women are formally educated and trained with global standards of artistry.

“I did not simply want to tell the tale of five butterflies who danced their way to the top, but more of an important period in my country. How Egypt transitioned from the Russian camp to the American camp during the era of late president Anwar El Sadat, how enriching was 1960s Egypt, and how well-educated most people were through reading fan letters sent to Saleh in three languages from all over Egypt.”

Abdelkhalek told me that while editing his film, he had a peculiar feeling of unjustly dismissing the cornerstones of Egypt’s culture.

“It devastates me to notice how the West treats our monuments and heritage with due respect more than we do to ourselves. When the Temple of Dendur was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, cultural significance was foreseen during the preparation for receiving the temple, including the design as a mythological, religious and symbolic concept. For your information, the Temple of Dendur was where UN Gala Event was held.”

Our interview grew into a longer tale of texting and communicating. I was more than glad to extend it until he reached his culmination through the creation process of his feature debut “Jesus and the Others” starting 2019.

O my son at Egyptian UN Gala night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Jesus and the Others” recounts the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt from a Coptic Orthodox point of view. It is the tale of how the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Mary’s cousin, Salome, as well as a young Jesus escaped from King Herod into Egypt. The script –by late scriptwriter and novelist Fayez Ghaly- has been rejected on basis of refusal to screen it due to portraying Jesus Christ from a Coptic POV rather than from the POV of the Muslim majority;

“I did not search for the script. It has been present ever since a long time and –like a regular reader- I followed the long struggle to produce the film as well as the copyright and the censorship battles to prevent the making of the film. I was not involved at all in the beginning. Until the screening of my film “A Footnote in Ballet History?” during the 38th edition of CIFF, when Fadi Ghaly –Fawzy Ghaly’s son- offered me the script to read and direct. I was elated that he expressed his vehement insistence that I direct the film.

For a whole year, I left the script in my drawer, afraid that once I started reading it I would be attached to it and immediately seek directing it. I picked this project because it fits the grander scheme of my artistic vision; presenting Egypt to the World. Jesus does not belong to a certain religious group but he is more of a universal icon.”

Abdelkhalek states that the film cannot be produced via an Arabic production company nor shot in Egypt to avoid conflict with the Censorship office or battles on religious basis. However, he insists on using an all-Muslim cast of Arab actors –with the exception of food vlogger and actor Mourad Makram- to emphasize the state of compassion and coexistence between Egypt’s two complements; Copts and Muslims. He intentionally plans a dream cast with actors from all over the world with big names from Hollywood and Europe.

“We opened a fair casting call for three months and I was surprised to find big names from Egypt auditioning. Currently we are lining up our main cast whether Egyptian, Arab, or A-list actors from Hollywood and Europe. Our film crew includes big names in the filmmaking industry globally, such as famed Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata with names such as La Vie en Rose and Paris, Je t’aime to his name or Jean-Luc Van Damme as co-producer, as well as one of the most talented set designers in America. Our high-profile cast and budget are related to the nature of the film as a foreign production and not an Egyptian production. Shooting will take place between Puglia in Italy due to the ancient nature of the city similar to Jerusalem, Betlehem at the time, as well as in Ouarzazate, Morocco which is the world’s largest studio.”

Abdelkhalek is highly opinionated. He believes that cinema cannot be graded on the basis of art vs. commercialism. Great films receive both critical acclaim and box office success. This is what he is aiming at while directing and producing “Jesus and the Others.”

“There’s no such thing as an artist with a mission or a message that he wants to transmit to the world. We produce entertainment. We want people to be entertained. It’s up to audiences whether they like what they see or they don’t. People don’t ask about the message or the aim of art in the Western world. We, as Arabs, are more concerned with what’s the hidden message or the main theme that a director targets in a film. I personally do not have any message that I want to transmit through my art. However, what I seek is to show the actual image of Egypt culturally and socially to the Western world.”

Jesus and the Others starts shooting in….

Essay from Jaylan Salah

Sharp Objects: Redefining Post-sexual Bliss

By Jaylan Salah

Even 40 years later, Laura Mulvey’s “Male Gaze” theory on the voyeuristic pleasure of cinema is still valid and applicable. In 2018, television audiences and feminist critics alike were treated to one gem of a miniseries titled “Sharp Objects”. Originally a book by Gillian Flynn and recently an HBO mini-series directed by Québécois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, “Sharp Objects” takes an anti-heroine and puts her back in the heart of where all her trauma started; her small hometown Wind Gap in Missouri where women are still viewed as town sluts or doting mothers, men brawl and charge at women in the disguise of false machismo, wealthy tycoons rule the fates of others and demand the welfare of lower class families. In short; Wind Gap is Hell and it is only complicated by our protagonist’s own baggage of family abuse and sexual assault.

Camille Preaker is your next anti-heroine; not the way Angelina Jolie played it in “Salt” or Helen Mirren glamorized it in “Prime Suspect”. Preaker is a mess. Sometimes you wonder how she manages to hold on to dear life with a dozen of problems; alcoholism, casual sex, self-harm and emotional trajectories are examples of personal bullets she tries to curb at every turn. Preaker is not how Sophie Gilbert from “The Atlantic” wants to see female journalists depicted on-screen. She drinks on the job, sleeps with possible sources and barely takes notes. Gilbert describes that as being “far from reality” and compares Preaker to a much more composed female journalist character as seen in a Showtime documentary. In other words, Gilbert plays the same mistake male reviewers have been associating with female characters that simply do not fall into line. She’s unlikeable! She’s unprofessional! She’s a bad feminist influence! It all falls into the “trope” which –despite capturing the inadequacies in the past era of creating female character clichés– placed nonlinear female characters side-by-side in fear that they might be a trope (hint: throwing every quirky female character down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl abyss without proper analysis of the character or even the creative medium from which she emerged).

Camille Preaker is one of the least sexualized female characters on-screen. She is rarely seen without clothes on and when it happens; it is meant as a tool of provocation rather than arousal. What makes it the more compelling is casting a stellar actress such as Amy Adams who has shown her sexual, seductive side successfully in more than one film to portray a non-sexualized character who is completely covered in self-inflicted scars. Preaker is an angry female that would make John Cassavetes’s Mabel Longhetti proud. She displays the same vulgar, unethical alcoholism that the likes of Don Draper in “Mad Men”, Dean Winchester in “Supernatural” and Hank Moody in “Californication” boast as if it is a character trait rather than an addiction that requires immediate intervention.

Preaker is no Veronica Mars or Buffy or Rory Gilmore. She embodies the ultimate feminist fantasy of having an unlikeable woman grace the screen and reach…nothing. Even her crusade against her dominant, abusive mother –played to perfection by Patricia Clarkson– led to nothing but a rather harrowing discovery in which we -as viewers- are left in mid-sentence, unable to expect what might come ahead.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée creates an ominous presence of Camille’s suffering; his angles, his tracking shots of Camille driving through the dead Wind Gap scenery. His gaze unrelentingly shows her at her most vulnerable, non-sexual self, even throughout her most sexually traumatizing memories (i.e. her gang rape). One of the most notable moments of the series involves how Vallée flips the Gaze by paying homage by creating an anti-traditional post-sexual bliss scene.

Post-sexual bliss scenes pose a recurrent theme in movies. It is usually a justification to show a naked -or semi-naked woman without having a key plot moment that involves nudity. Take “Entrapment – 1999” where a sexually undesirable man (69-year-old Sean Connery) is caressing the body of a much younger, sexually appealing woman (30-year-old Catherine Zeta Jones) draped suggestively under the sheets. Male fans’ reviews back then show how the box-office sensational, testosterone-pleaser was an unapologetic, successful malefest. At least that’s what Joe Chamberlain on Google Groups think,

“This may sound a bit sexist, but here goes. As far as I know, the main audience for an action movie is young males. So it seems perfectly reasonable to me to cast a young, very attractive actress in the leading role.”

The scene where a fully clothed Connery caresses the body of an actress young enough to be his granddaughter, throws back a shade on the infamous scene from James Bond’s Goldfinger where a much younger, much sexier Sean Connery is seen caressing the naked, gold-painted body of a typical blond (dead) Bond casual fling. In the now iconic sexist/sexy scene, the dead girl dies after being painted completely in gold, the main protagonist -Bond- simply caresses her strategically placed naked dead body. And audiences are not supposed to mourn or feel bad for the hot girl whom they just met a few minutes ago but to revel in the immaculate beauty of a gold-plated naked female corpse.

In “Sharp Objects” Preaker is fully clothed, while Richard –Camille’s object of affection throughout the series and the Kansas detective who investigates the grim murder cases– is lying seductively naked on the bed. As Preaker caresses his naked body, desire apparent in her voice, viewers are greeted with a naked object who has a voice and a say in what is being done to him. With women, though, the camera treatment begs to differ. In “Goldfinger” that would be impossible since the naked object is a dead girl, while in “Entrapment” Sean Connery caresses the naked body of Ms. Jones who pretends to be asleep. In both cases, the male psyche and subconscious are being lured into the movie theater to see a semi-naked silent female object being fondled by fully functioning male protagonist.

In her refusal to be seen, Camille Preaker strips the gaze off its power to hold an object within its focus. Instead, the focus is on Richard’s naked body, on whom her Gaze lingers with longing lust, and on which the camera lingers as well, allowing audiences to feast on male nudity for as long as the scene lasts.

Author Gillian Flynn with actress Amy Adams at the ATX Film Festival

Any photographer worth their accolades can write essays on the vulnerable nature of the nude object. And now, for the first time in probably a decade of TV shows where sexuality is a key element in the main plot, men become vulnerable and nude while women remain fully clothed, in charge and changing the sexual power curve, at least physically.


Jaylan Salah, Egyptian writer, on Satish and Santosh Babusenan, Indian film directors

Satish and Santosh Babusenan
A Journey through Bodies, Souls and Time

(Satish Babusenan and Santosh Babusenan)

(Satish Babusenan and Santosh Babusenan) 

During the 38th edition of Cairo International Film Festival in 2016, I had the pleasure of watching an unconventional Indian film. Prejudices aside, for me Indian cinema represented Bollywood, which is an overabundance of melodrama, dancing and dreamy looking Indians who –I am sure- had nothing to do with how real life Indians looked like. It came as a surprise for me to discover brother directing duo Satish and Santosh Babusenan’s film “The Narrow Path – Ottayaal Patha” which was a sensual masterpiece, with minimal lighting and a camera that keeps rolling to allow the characters to evolve in front of the audiences’ mesmerized eyes. A meditative look on life, death, desire and familial conflicts; “The Narrow Path” was a testosterone-infused film oozing with the sensationalism that only sensitive artists could capture.

Satish Babusenan and Santosh Babusenan; who are they?

Two Indian dreamers who abandoned the materialistic, commercial, fast-paced world of MTV India where they worked as music video directors and returned to Kerala; their hometown where they explored their artistic ventures through their movies. Since then they have mutually agreed not to promote their works unless a curious 30-year-old feminist critic decided to do that on their behalf.

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