Essay from Jaylan Salah

The Taste of Artistic Compassion:

Interviewing Egyptian film director Dina Abdelsalam

Director Dina Abdelsalam

It was the end of an abusive friendship.

My abusive relationships share a common theme of ending during summer. To celebrate, my Mom invited me to attend a movie screening at the prestigious Atelier of Alexandria; one of the major hubs for nurturing contemporary culture in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city. Before watching the feature narrative titled Mesteka and Rehan, I looked up more details on Google and found out –to my delight- that the director was a female and this was her third film. Dina Abd Elsalam had more titles attached to her name. A short film titled Rest in Peace, a documentary titled Girls of a Feather, and two published books, one which I have read earlier A Text without Heroes.

Mesteka and Rehan are the two titular protagonists. Mr. Rehan, an elderly Christian man, befriends his elderly Muslim neighbor Mrs. Mesteka and they bond over food, shared memories of the past, and the will to survive despite a constrained life. Audiences laughed throughout the film, where simplicity and dedication to telling tales of normal people overthrew the need to showoff directorial prowess. The experience delighted and fascinated me. I was furthermore intrigued by the female director’s choice of her topics, plots, and subjects.

There aren’t that many Egyptian female directors, especially in the post-millennial world after the glow of controversial director Inas Eldeghedi died out with her last flop “The Princess Fanatic” which featured an impossible, fantasy love story between the late Princess Diana and an Egyptian stoner!

Yes, there are Kamla Abu Zekri, Ayten Amin, Hala Khalil, and Mariam Abo Ouf, but still, the female directorial experience has a long way to go as compared to the ever-evolving relationship between the artistic and the mainstream experience of their male peers.

Dina Abd Elsalam is an award-winning director. She won awards –both nationally and internationally- from prestigious film festivals and associations such as the Egyptian National Film Festival, the Ismailia International Film Festival, Rencontres de L’image Film Festival (French Institute-Egypt), the Alexandria International Film Festival, Shnit Worldwide Short Film Festival and L-Dub Film Festival.

I sought Dr. Abd Elsalam – who holds a Ph.D. in Critical Theory and currently works as an associate professor at the English Department at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University- on social media and our interview started with the inevitable question:

How can a successful university professor be a prolific director, an auteur with a distinct style, cinematic language, and persistent tone?

“I graduated in 1998 and started my career as a TA in 1999. After I got my Ph.D. in 2010, I pursued further studies and was promoted to an associate professor. I have been teaching for 21 years. It has been a long academic journey. Academia is nurturing and fulfilling of course, but the need to engage in creativity has been lurking underneath for years and I knew it would surface one day. I still teach at the university, in addition to directing films and writing. As for writing, I wrote a novel [which you read] and lately managed to publish a short story collection titled Recycling, in addition to publishing articles on varied cultural themes every now and then. I also write or co-write the scripts of my movies. Lately, I have collaborated with Ashraf Mahdy on a number of scripts; the idea is usually mine, then we develop the script together. That was the case with Mesteka and Rehan as well as my latest movie Wesh El Afas – Cream of the Crop.”

Behind the scene photo from Abdelsalam’s film Wesh El Afas – Cream of the Crop

It’s obvious that Abd Elsalam’s films belong to the auteur cinema; she has the original idea, writes the script, and directs. She has a distinct style, tone, choice of topics and camera work, I wondered who had an influence on her as an artist,

“My films belong to what is known as auteur cinema, in which case the director is also the writer of the film, has the main vision of the work and is in full control of the script either by writing it or taking an active part in the scriptwriting process.

I have always known about Abbas Kiarostami [the great Iranian director] and have watched “The Taste of Cherry” early on in my life. When I started my directing career in 2010, I had not watched the full corpus of Kiarostami’s films. Three years ago, I watched them all and was struck by the affinity I had with his movies. This guy did everything I’d love to do with my art. His low-budget films profess a great deal of authenticity, sincerity, and truth. I instantly felt we shared the same vocation. Despite the lack of funding and resources, I strive to document authentic, real moments of life without forced directorial intervention. My target is to capture humane, precious moments as they unfold without unnecessary artistic preparation and intervention.”

Abd Elsalam–to my joyful surprise- retains the curiosity of a young teaching assistant stepping into her career with wide eyes and an openness that is usually reserved for younger artists. I had to ask her how she was able to juggle a demanding, well-respected career such as a univesity professor in the Egyptian society with the liberated, evolving artistic ventures of an auteur; to be specific an independent film director,

“To be able to answer this question I have to go back in time. But let me start with an analysis of how people perceive me as a unviersity professor.

Many people think that the prestigious position of a university professor is more than enough and I have often encountered many people wondering why I ever need to make movies or write. But my answer is simple. Academia would have consumed me totally had I not given way to my passion for creativity. Early in my childhood, I discovered that I had an artistic side in me. I used to play the piano and I still remember my Italian teacher, Ms. Pappo, very vividly. She was around 80 and I was a teenager but we hung out as friends, and not just as mentor and pupil. She taught me a lot about art and life. I also used to draw, sew, act in front of the mirror and read avidly whatever I could lay my hands on.

Graduating from high school is the defining moment for any Egyptian, since it’s at this point that one has to make up one’s mind about the career one wants to pursue. Unfortuanely most Egyptians let their grades decide for them, and most of them are pushed by their parents to join the so-called “top-ranking” faculties, namely Medicine and Engineering. When the time came, my grades were very high. I could have easily joined the Faculty of Medicine. The pressure was even greater because my father is a physician and he has a clinic. Everybody was pushing me towards taking this road, except my parents, who were amazingly understanding. My journey would have been completely different had I chosen to study Medicine and practice with my Dad. But I didn’t find it in myself to become a doctor. I dreamt of applying to the High Cinema Institute. But back then it was in Cairo –which was a major hindrance- as at that point, it would have been very difficult for me to leave Alexandria and settle in Cairo all by myself. I was a young, sheltered, family-oriented girl, like most girls my age. The closest thing to nourish my thirsty artistic self was to join the English department at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University where I would be able to read a lot of novels and study drama. I was already passionate about English literature and there is no denying that the cinema and literature are inter-connected in so many ways. I never regretted joining the English department. It helped formulate my ideas, gave me substance and a solid literary background which enhanced my writing abilities. It also enabled me to develop a fine taste and appreciation of good art. We also did philosophy and civilization which broadened my knowledge and opened up my senses to the world.

But I never for once forgot about my old dream. My passion for cinema came back in my early thirties, which I think is a very rich age for people in Egypt, for this is when they start to bloom and know exactly what they want to do with their lives. It was then that I pursued my artistic drive and fulfilled my urge to make movies. I made my very first film in 2010 This is not a Pipe which I consider a graduation project more than an actual film. In making it, I was trying to find out what it was like to make a film. It was not until my second film Rest in Peace that I started to find my feet, and to formulate my own artistic voice and language.”

It has not been an easy road. A lot of Egyptian middle-class families discourage their kids from going down the “true artist” bumpy road, whether because of societal and religious restrictions or because of the lack of financial stability and societal security which this road incurs. Abd Elsalam faced that sort of astonishment and incredulous reactions when her acquaintances and friends learned that she did not make money out of her movies, and actually had to pay from her own pockets to finance them,

“People don’t understand that I have something inside me that craves creating these stories and characters and delivering them in film form. They think my head is in the clouds. People weigh everything in terms of financial gains. The fact that critics wrote about my films and that I won awards doesn’t count for them.

Sometimes I do ask myself why am I doing this? I have an established career. I could have easily resorted to writing instead of making movies, since it is much easier. Of course writing is demanding; you think a lot; you put a lot of your feelings into what you are doing; you are preoccupied with your work day and night. But making a film is a completely different story. You handle the film throughout all three stages – pre-production, production, and postproduction. What makes it worse is that as an indie filmmaker, you are the writer, director, producer, editor, and sound mixer if need be. You also have to look for a harmonious team, pull all the threads together, pay a lot of money and rent equipment and hire technicians.

I sometimes say to myself during moments of extreme exhaustion: why not end it all? I could vent my artistic urge through writing books. It would be much easier. These moments of doubt usually attack me after I wrap up every film of mine (because it is at this that I’m at the peak of exhaustion), then I find myself moving on to a new film project. The calling is too big to be curbed, I guess.”

Still from Abdelsalam’s film Mesteka and Rehan

Abd Elsalam loves to reflect on issues while answering her questions. I find it a common trait while interviewing multiple women, how detail-oriented they are when it comes to talking about anything in their lives from toxic masculinity in the workplace to feminine expression. This is no surprise. To find your voice in a world dominated by men who are constantly trying to silence you is a long, bumpy road. I asked Abd Elsalam when it was that she found recognition for her directing style,

“I guess that happened with my second film Girls of a Feather as that’s when I started hearing the comment “Is this a film by Dina Abd Elsalam? It has her spirit and signature”. People started recognizing my voice. Of course having a distinctive voice is a wonderful thing, but for me, it’s never final. To do the same thing over and over again, means one has stopped trying, and this signals the beginning of the end. I keep working on myself; finding my style [or voice] is a continuous process of self-development at each step of filmmaking. Scriptwriting, rehearsing with my actors, retailoring the scenes according to the characters I have, and editing are all part of my self-evolving artistic journey. I am not one-track minded. I am always open to innovation and the creativity around me, be it in the actors’, the locations, the DOP’s eyes, or the music composer’s ears. I keep talking to my creative collaborators until they become active participants in the filmmaking process.”

Girls of a Feather tells the story of how a group of elderly ladies usually go on trips together. The film starts as they head towards the fishermen’s village at Elmax in Alexandria to spend the day and eat fish, but more importantly, their love, sisterhood, and solidarity shine as the place gradually becomes more beautiful and radiant. The film was shot with small, handheld cameras in the presence of minimal cinematic equipment. One might ask if Abd Elsalam’s documentary shows the reality of Egypt’s aging female population,

“Yes my films belong to what is broadly known as realism, but I personally belive there is no such a thing as a realistic film, rather it’s the artist’s point of view of life. If we ask someone to make a movie about a group of old women, they might choose to film them in a care home, not on a trip as I did. It’s all about one’s angle of vision. Art is not a reflection of reality, rather it’s the point of view of the artist concerning certain issues.

Some people might view my documentary Girls of a Feather as unrealistic. Elderly women do not have fun with all the health complications they suffer from. They spend most of their time in bed needing daily care and monitoring. This could be true. But I chose to focus on the positive side in those women’s lives and their survival techniques. To my mind, this minor population has the ability to enjoy the simplest of things in life, which is becoming increasingly difficult in our modern material-driven world.”

I asked Abd Elsalam for the inspiration behind Girls of a Feather which you can easily watch here:

“One of my aunts used to go on similar trips as the women in the documentary. She visited places in Egypt which I have never been to before. Never had she been an outdoors person. And suddenly in her sixities, she abandoned her sheltered life and started embracing the world afresh. After long years of caring for her children, she finally had time for herself. It was this sociological change in the lives of home-oriented women that I wanted to focus on in my documentary. In the past, similar trips would have been unheard of. This new societal change was something I wanted to document in my film.

For this particular film, I had to befriend these women. I got introduced to them through one of the actresses whom I collaborated with in a previous film. I am still in contact with them to this day. Luckily, and partly due to my skill with the elderly, they liked and trusted me. The two cameramen who were with me then –Ashraf Mahdy and Abdallah Dawestashy- also befriended the ladies to break the ice and make them forget the presence of cameras during the shooting process, which might have made them self-conscious or uncomfortable [which was] the last thing I wanted in this movie.”

One of the things I enjoyed about Abd Elsalam’s cinema is how she views the small, confined lives of sheltered women through a positive lens. She does not condemn them but accepts their existence without passing judgement about how they choose to live their lives,

“In Girls of a Feather we see the old women suffering from signs of senility, and walking with difficulty. But still, I love their solidarity, their survival techniques, their stamina, and strength. They were also very funny which impressed me. I admire their desire to go on and how they manage to bring joy to their lives through the simplest of things such as going on trips to ordinary non-extravagant hotels, or cafes or non-fancy hangout venues. Their meal was a simple, cheap fish meal too; and yet they were so happy enjoying it together. Their satisfaction with their simple lives is definitely one of their survival techniques. This film is a celebration of their ability to enjoy life against all odds, their solidarity, their sisterhood, and their resilience. ”

Stll shot from Girls of a Feather

Still from Abdelsalam’s film Girls of a Feather

There are two kinds of directors; those who allow actors’ input and others who resist it. Abd Elsalam belongs to the latter,

“Some scenes require changes in the script since as we’re shooting, actors sometimes come up with different ways of telling their lines. There are elements in the location that might inspire the actors or me to change the script accordingly. I always encourage actors to be completely immersed in the story and start acting the character in the way they like. That’s why I always receive the compliment that acting in my films is spontaneous. It is spontaneous since I give my actors that scope of freedom.”

Sound is a very recognizable element of the narrative in Abd Elsalam’s films. I asked her how she was able to capture that unique sound to reinforce the mood,

“I believe that cinema is a combination of sound and image, that’s what distinguishes it from silent cinema. Sound is not merely the musical score but every vibrating sound in the surroundings contributes to the atmosphere of the film. It also brings home the feeling that I want to evoke in the viewer. In Rest in Peace, you can hear a recording of the Qur’an to set the mood. When the women turn it off, the mood of the film shifts dramatically. The soundtrack of the film is also of great importance because it has to retain and further the overall spirit of the film. In Girls of a Feather, several sounds were inserted, though they did not originally exist in the actual film environment.”

As a feminist Egyptian writer interviewing a female director who graduated in the Faculty of Arts – English department –which is home to modern Egyptian feminism both intellectually and theoretically- I had to ask Dr. Abd Elsalam whether she considers her artistic expression feminist,

“This is a very difficult question to answer. Typically a feminist is someone who defends and stands up for the rights of women, criticizing the status quo, sending a very strong message about the bad conditions of women which is not what I do. I expose the lives of these women, putting them under the limelight and giving them the chance to express themselves without passing judgment on how they choose to live their lives. These women have the same traditional mindset as the majority of Egyptian women. The film doesn’t urge them to change their lives.

But then again my films document societal changes. My grandmother, for example, hardly ever left home; she spent all her life rearing her kids, sewing, cooking, and drinking coffee with her female neighbours. Going on trips on her own was unthinkable at her time. Now things are different due to the increase in tour companies which target this population. These homemakers are no longer home-bound. They have all joined the workforce in the 60s and are now on pension. They have monetary independence and empowerment.”

Behind the scene photo from Abdelsalam’s film Mesteka and Rehan

One of the scenes which piqued my interest was in Mesteka and Rehan when Mr. Rehan chose to ignore his alarming medical records during his phone call with his distant son. It showed how nonchalant he was about his mortality even though a simple detail showed that it could be sooner than viewers would have expected,

“This is a very smart thing of you to notice. His X-ray result was bad. But he did not mention this to his son. He even asked Mrs. Mesteka to promise to take care of his cat after he passes away. He is at peace with his illness without breaking down or sobbing in a corner. He will go on with his life and enjoy whatever little slice of whatever is given to him. He has this capacity to love and care for those who are around him such as his neighbors and his lazy cat Za’atar, even though he knows he is going to die soon.”

By inspecting Abd Elsalam’s career –until her recent film Cream of the Crop– all her main protagonists come from the elderly population. She is fascinated by telling stories about middle-class aging men and women as they try to navigate modernity, multiple health ailments, and regrets,

“It’s something that I grew up with. Ever since I was a kid, I used to befriend old women. I was so different from girls my age back then. I believe that old people are more willing to open up about their past lives without inhibitions or restrictions. Generally speaking, a person in their 70s or 80s, would look back with maturity to appreciate the good moments and overlook the quarrels and tension. They are more at peace with their past and more tolerant towards their mistakes and those of others. They are willing to freely look back at their past without shame. Moreover, old people are always full of stories and I love the fact that the older you get, the more childish you become. There are tons of contradictions in the elderly; they’are old and wise, but they lose their temper quickly and are difficult to handle. They offer advice and support, but they constantly need our help. Modern technology is a mystery to many of them; handling an ATM, for example, is an arduous venture to most of them.”

As one of the pioneer female independent directors in Egypt, I asked Abd Elsalam to give me an overview of what it is like to direct independent films nowadays,

“I have to be honest, this road’s no picnic. One thing is that I am implicated in all stages of making a film such as location hunting, sending the call for casting, setting appointments, setting the budget, editing, sound mixing, and contacting all the crew members all the time. I don’t have the luxury of hiring assistants to manage this complicated system for me. But again this is the nature of most indie films. The director has to be involved in every single detail of the process.

Another thing is that in the indie scene, most people do not make films for a living. It’s either they have another job to support them financially, or they depend on funds all the time to make their films and earn a living, which is very confining and restricting in so many ways.

Though at times you could get help from fellow indie filmmakers, but I was also let down several times by people from the indie scene and my illusions about solidarity and standing by each other’s side have been dispelled. I am not denouncing any fellow indie filmmaker by any means. I just became more down to earth over the years, that’s all. The indie scene is no different from any other walk of life: there’s no black or white, just the grey area in between.”

I always thought being a female director in a male-dominated field such as filmmaking requires personal and social skills beyond the average female leadership trope that women often come across in modern workplaces. Abd Elsalam had a different opinion altogether,

“When it comes to directing, I don’t think that the way I direct my movies is about bossing people around and throwing orders. My presence onset is usually quiet. I like to make my actors feel at home and befriend them so that they show me the best they’ve got. The atmosphere is usually friendly and lacks the loud, cringey, authoritative voice. I believe that a taut mood in the location does more harm than good. In my film Rest in Peace people asked me whether these actors were acting or did I capture a genuine moment of two women chit-chatting? I believe the mood of the set allowed the actors to be themselves and to be creative. As a director, there are moments when I need to be domineering, and put every individual back on track to get things going, but these are usually rare on my set. Every member of my cast and crew is creative in his/her own way, and had it not been for them, I would have never been able to make my films”.

Abd Elsalam’s words fascinated me. I had to see for myself how art was born, polished and the catacombs were drafted to finalize a product that people would understand and associate with the mind behind creating it. I had the pleasure of visiting the set of Abd Elsalam’s new film Cream of the Crop and watched the magic unfold. It was my second visit to a movie set –the first being on the set of Egyptian medical drama LahazatHarega – Critical Moments-and the experience was so overwhelming that I decided to write about it in detail. Stay tuned for the next essay where Dr. Abd Elsalam answers questions about directing actors, how writing books differs from scripts, and where she sees her movie after the coronavirus pandemic –hopefully- subsides.

Stay safe!

The Writer’s Fear of Extinction: Conversations with Egyptian Satirist and Scriptwriter Haitham Dabbour (by Jaylan Salah)

In 2017, I went to the cinema to watch an Egyptian movie titled Photocopy which stars two middle-aged actors playing the roles of an elderly couple, finding love and a way of remembrance in the old streets of Cairo.

The film was beautifully written, acted and directed. It strayed off from the inadequacies in which the nostalgia movement was embedded; it was neither romantic nor sentimental but a character study of a decently educated man who grew up alone in lower-middle-class Cairo and was afraid of extinction.

Mahmoud “Photocopy” as his neighbors call him is a 60-year-old man who owns an ancient photocopier machine, providing services such as typewriting and stenography for the neighborhood. His daily life is intercepted by a young man who asks for his typewriting skills regarding scientific research that he is preparing about the extinction of dinosaurs. This strikes a chord with Mahmoud who begins questioning his identity and the basis of his own existence especially since his feelings for his cancer survivor neighbor, the beautiful aging Safiya, begin taking a different toll.

I read an article somewhere about how writing is about to become an extinct profession since printing paper is almost going to become scarce in the future and printing will not be as abundant as it is today. And I thought to myself; if writing became extinct, what would that make me?

Since extinction was a major theme in the plot of Photocopy, I looked around until I found Haitham Dabbour’s –the scriptwriter- contacts and what began as an interview regarding Photocopy turned into a conversation with a fine intellectual about fatherhood, extinction and the art of the written word.

“I am excited about this interview because it is not a classical, monotonous one, but more of a conversation. I prefer [reading] this type of essays because it makes me get inside the head of the person being interviewed and thus he or she appear closer than they really are,”

Dabbour started the conversations with a warm welcome, expressing his enthusiasm. This was the first gate through which I entered his world. Dabbour was a fan of analysis, character studies and peeling layers off people. This was evident in his short story collection Vivid imagination – Eshy Khayal as well as his two feature films Photocopy and Gunshot – Eyar Nary.

(A scene from Haitham Dabbour’s second feature Gunshot)

“I am also impressed that you read the books of the writer whom you interview, which rarely happens these days. People who read are rare these days, not just in Egypt but worldwide. Reading and comparing literary and film adaptations, researching your interview subject and discovering my satirist bibliography, all these are factors that excite me about this interview.”

I asked Dabbour about his favorite genre or writing format, and to that he replied,

“I love experimentation and I write different literally and artistic forms. I wrote satirist books that became bestsellers and were sold everywhere. I wrote poetry and won the Ahmed Fouad Negm Prize for colloquial poetry. I published two short story collections; one of them included a story which was adapted into a short film titled Single – Fardy starring Khaled El Nabawy –Egyptian actor of International fame- and the other collection Vivid Imagination contained the short story from which my feature film Photocopy was adapted. After a while, the challenge comes down to; do I write something that I guarantee will become a bestseller or do I write something that would appeal to people? The easiest thing in the world is drifting into the idea of creating bestsellers and thus making more and more of them. However, I am certain that you write because you have something to say not because people force you or semi-manipulate you into writing it.”

Dabbour is a very precise and calculated personality, but his answers are lengthy and rich, like a bowl of creamy soup. Yes, all the ingredients are made en pointe, but it takes a while to absorb the taste and finish the bowl;

“My writings blend elements of magical realism into the narrative. Take for example Vivid Imagination, all stories blend elements of strict realism while breaking the logical limits of living. Imagination gives reality a magical element. My background as a non-fiction essay writer and investigative journalist is prominent through my first short story collection Horseback – Dahr El Khayl which handles reality through a different aspect in addition to adopting a condensed writing technique which describes daily routines from regular lives.”

Talking to Dabbour fascinated me and presented a great opportunity to get inside someone’s head rather than simply laying out carefully prepared answers. Photocopy deviated from the mainstream scene in the Egyptian filmmaking platform nowadays, so I had to learn how the creative process became a reality rather than an ambitious project;

“For 5 years I had been searching for a producer. During that time I wrote scripts for some of Egypt’s most successful comedic and satirical news programs such as The 25th Hour News program –where Akram Hosny presented the iconic comic character of Sayed Aby Hafiza– and the Arabic version of SNL. Even now, I do not consider starting my film career with a commercial, light comedy movie insulting. However, I made Photocopy because I knew I had a story to tell. I also wanted to break the mold into which I was cornered [comedy and satirical writing]. That’s why I knew that the road would be long to make this movie, whether to convince a producer to back it up or a director to put his name on it. My bet while writing the script for Photocopy was on creating a film that would stand the test of time, same goes for Gunshot –I have two feature films now to my credits- and the result was satisfying. I bet on the winning horse by creating these two films.”

Official movie poster for Photocopy

Before questioning Dabbour about Photocopy I read the lengthy, short story from his collection Vivid Imagination from which the film was adapted,

“The story and the film adaptation are both different from each other. It’s easy to create an existential theme or mood on paper, but to translate that to the screen; it would require visual and emotional elements. That explains the genre in which we decided to adapt the film into; a sweet, slice-of-life drama which is a rare genre that builds up its characters through combining slices of their daily lives into scenes. The idea of the hero’s journey from the perspective of a regular guy, and yet you [the audience] are interested in following his journey. This rarely happens in Egyptian cinema. We were excited about adapting that concept and were certain that people would be interested in watching it whether on the big screen or through the television premiere. I wanted to create a film that does not go “extinct”. One that stands the test of time. There are films that are consumed only once, and that was what I was trying to avoid. Until now, a year and a half later, people are still talking about Photocopy. There are memes on social media, we are still receiving awards for it. While writing the script, I separated myself from the fact that I wrote the original story. I looked deeper into the characters to discover things that I did not envision originally while writing the story. I worked especially harder on developing Ashgan’s character –which became Safeya in the movie, and this developed the love story between the two protagonists while reflecting the ominous sense of extinction that plagued Mahmoud’s thoughts. It was difficult for me as a young person to sense how an older man would be scared of vanishing from the face of the Earth; the idea of survival beyond death was Mahmoud’s main conflict and what I focused on while writing the script.”

In Photocopy, the protagonist Mahmoud practiced an ancient profession, one that became extinct these days after the era of digital publishing. He was a sub-editor in the News Gathering and Dissemination department in a newspaper agency that recently became digitized. I wondered how Haitham was introduced to such a unique character aspect, and whether he knew people like Mahmoud and thus became inspired to write about their lives;

“I spent years of my life as a non-fiction essay writer and investigative journalist. So I was surrounded by people who worked in the News Gathering department such as Mahmoud. I met different people on different levels and this created a vault inside me filled with interactions and characters that I could go back to whenever I needed inspiration.”

Dabbour is infatuated with details up to the smallest thread, including phonetics, referencing one of the greatest examples in Egyptian art history; Umm Kalthum, who paid attention to the musical sound of words while picking her song lyrics, altering verses in poems so that they would have an easier, auditory appealing sound;

“Safiya is an easier name to pronounce than Ashgan which was the original character name in the book. Pronouncing Safiya would create a nuanced, soft feel for the female protagonist. The combination of the s and f sounds are phonetically superior to the sh sound. I am also a poet so understanding the rhythm and flow of the words are of high importance in my writings.”

It is always refreshing to find a director enthusiastic about a movie that strays from mainstream Egyptian cinema nowadays, which is the reason behind questioning Dabbour about Tamer Ashry, the director of Photocopy,

“I worked with Tamer Ashry before on documentaries. After Photocopy we worked together on a short titled Eyebrows which won the gold star award in El Gouna Film Festival – 2018 as part of the short film competition. We were accustomed to nominating actors for the assigned roles together. This is one of my favorite aspects of working with Tamer, we discuss everything, although the final decision is usually left to the director.”

Big names in the Egyptian film industry were attached to Photocopy. Veteran actor and chameleon Mahmoud Hemeda –who previously played the role of Yehia Shokry Mourad in Youssef Chahine’s semi-autobiographical film Alexandria-New York– played the protagonist, and sultry actress Sherien Reda played the role of Safiya, shedding off her sex icon image and playing a cancer survivor in her 70s who holds onto the simplest pleasures of life. Their romance was bittersweet and their chemistry was magnanimous. I had to ask Dabbour about his choosing actors for the main roles;

“We sent the script to Mr. Mahmoud Hemeda and he replied within 48 hours setting a meeting with us to understand what we have in mind. This was our debut feature –Tamer and I- so he wanted to discuss it further with us. I have to be honest with you, Safiya’s role was hard to cast. Actresses usually avoid these character types; an aging, sick woman, who looked her sickness. The producer Safiy Eldin Mahmoud was the one who suggested Sherien and Tamer [Ashry] saw impressive acting capabilities in her. So we bet on her.”

Music is an integral part of Dabbour’s films, in his two features the role of the soundtrack was more than a complementary element to the key plot and narrative elements,

“My interest in music is part of my interest in the mood of the character. My character profiles always include what the character likes to listen to frequently, what they hum on a regular basis. It is part of the character structuring process, even if it is not part of the script, you have to think of what the character would listen to in their spare time, also how does he or she get angry, how does he or she get into a fight.”

In Photocopy, one of the key defining traits of Mrs. Safiya was her infatuation with one of Farid El Atrash’s –the late legendary Lebanese singer and music composer from the golden era of Egyptian cinema- songs; which was technically a cover that he made for a song originally by another Egyptian female singer. I had to inquire about Dabbour’s use of this particular singer,

“I believe that Farid [El Atrash] is an extremely underrated artist. He did not receive the media exposure that he deserves with the new generation. I found it an opportunity to remove the caked dust off his magnificent musical pieces. It pleases me immensely when younger people mention how they researched the cover of “The key to my Heart” by Farid El Atrash which we used in the film. If you search on Twitter using the verse which is not in the original song and only in Farid’s cover, you will find that multiple people are tweeting about it. Actually, this song deserves all this hype. I personally love it.”

(Official Poster for Gunshot – directed by Karim Elshenawy)

Dabbour’s second feature was the exact opposite; a neo-noir set in the post-2011 chaotic Egypt, adopting a multi-narrative tone and yet retaining some of his key style determinates such as;

Gunshot was made with the intention to stand the test of time. It fared much better than Photocopy at the box office, and I am sure it will even gain a bigger following after premiering on satellite TV channels, and people would connect to it although it is the complete antithesis to Photocopy. Gunshot is a neo-noir crime drama; a dark movie that poses questions deeper than your average thriller.”

By the time I interviewed Dabbour, the attack on his film Gunshot has been tremendous. Multiple people accuse it of being “anti-25th January revolution” although it cleverly provokes viewers by asking controversial questions regarding all people who participated in the 2011 revolution. In Arab countries, every single person who dies violently or in an accident (whether a Muslim or a Copt Christian) is considered a martyr.

The 25th January 2011 revolution particularly glorified and debauched certain people. A new societal category emerged to include “martyrs” i.e. people who lost their lives during these violent times. The ambiguity of the term in addition to its religious connotation caused a stir between different social tropes in the Egyptian society.

Dabbour’s Gunshot dares to stir stagnant waters by questioning whether every person murdered during an uprising or times of political unrest should be considered a martyr;

 “I wanted all the loud voices to calm down before I talk about Gunshot. On a commercial level, I believe that the film has been successful. It challenges the concept of claiming a monopoly over the truth; thus the accusations that it received. On the contrary, people who claimed to own the truth and accused the film of betraying the January [25th] revolution represented what the movie’s protagonist went through. We [filmmakers] expected that and even joked about it while shooting. I recommend Egyptian veteran film critic Mahmoud Abdelshakour’s essay about the film, which not only praises it –as one of the best Egyptian films in 2018– but deeply unfolds the multilayered narrative. Unfortunately, many critics took the film down an unnecessary route of political correctness rather than decipher its morally ambiguous tone. The aim was to discourage people from watching the movie in theaters. Thankfully, this didn’t happen. The film grossed 8 million EGP in a dead season – mid-October. I am betting on broader exposure for Gunshot when it screens on TVs and in other film festivals. The same happened with Photocopy. It was not an instantaneous success but it grew on people by time. This is what I am aiming for. Audiences rarely remember how an old black and white film fared at the box office. The key to success of a film is longevity beyond the release date.”

Dabbour’s POV is en pointe but hard to maintain. Most of the Egyptian filmmakers of the late 2010s eye the box office numbers rather than the period through which a film stands the test of time. He brought examples of two films from the golden era of Egyptian cinema; Angel & Demon – 1960 and Zizi’s Family – 1963; both were not box office successes but they are still all-time favorites in the hearts of many Egyptians. To make the image clear for a Western viewer, think of how It’s a Wonderful Life – 1946 is still enjoyable to this date; generations apart.

“If you watch Gunshot today, it will differ from when you watched it a year ago. I am almost certain that one year later you will see it in a different light. It’s a multifaceted work of art and that’s how we intended to make it.”

I was particularly intrigued by the attention to detail which Dabbour used to craft the forensic pathologist’s character. An alcoholic that slips alcohol to his daily water intake under the noses of his supervisors, Dr. Yassin is fascinated by the dead, to the extent of stalking their posthumous Facebook profiles and sending them friend requests. I had to know where Dabbour found the inspiration for such a fleshy character,

“I have always been fascinated by forensic medicine through my line of work as a journalist. It is a dark, suppressing world that has rich visual, auditory and olfactory elements. It oozes with formaldehyde. I tried to reflect on the current status of the society where people make friends online and IRL. Dr. Yassin is no different from anybody else. He just hates the living. So he tries making new friends with the dead whether IRL with the corpses while performing a post mortem or by stalking their posthumous profiles on Facebook. The dead are his comfort zone and his edge as a forensic pathologist to investigate the causes of death.”

The trick with Gunshot, in all its neo-noir, post-mortem gloom is how to walk the thin line between the right and the wrong. It asks questions that no film before dared to tackle. Its moral ambiguity and the ending which indicates the defeat of truth in front of the mass belief in a lie are both shocking and bold, considering the subject matter; the 25th January revolution which has been glamorized by a part of the Egyptian public and demonized by the other half,

“People hate confronting themselves, which is why Gunshot hit a nerve with its bravery in asking the difficult question; do ends justify means? If being corrupt for a greater cause is a necessity, does that validate corruptness? Political events are created by people and not angels, which is why every political dilemma is open to multiple interpretation scenarios. Nobody holds the obsolete truth. Look through history you will find a lot of political immoral actions that had to be done to achieve noble causes. The question remains: was that justified? It could have been much easier to treat Gunshot like an investigative thriller without layering it with the morale we had in mind. However, Karim [El Shenawy] the movie director and I wanted to make a neo-noir with all the consequential complexities.”

By examining both his features Gunshot and Photocopy, I wondered how strange it must be to make that dramatic of a transition between genres,

“They are both two entirely different films on both technical and aesthetic levels. The script, dialogue, tone, and scene rhythm vary between both films. This is the key to filmmaking, the adventure of exploring different creative projects. You cannot make a feature film easily these days, so you should make one that you are proud of. A film that would stand the test of time and ten years later someone could go back to and write a fleshy critical essay about it.”

(A scene from Eyebrows – directed by Tamer Ashry)

For Dabbour -whose last name is the Arabic word for wasp btw- creating short films meant a completely different platform than features. When you watch his shorts Single and Eyebrows you could easily discern how careful he is to separate different platforms from one another; he writes carefully with the limitations and defining features of the medium in mind, and fully understands how to uniquely identify each medium through the elements which he uses uniquely for each project.

Single –which was originally a short story from my collection Horseback– is the story of a man whose personal space gets smaller and smaller. His sense of freedom shrinks through the intrusion of people around him. The protagonist is a Coptic man who is unable to publicly express his unease at the Islamic duaa that his neighbors installed in the elevator, and which invades his personal space on a daily basis. This represented my first collaboration with Karim [El Shenawy] the director, the megastar Khaled El Nabawy, as well as veteran Egyptian actors Sayed Ragab and Khaled Bahgat.”

I highly recommend watching “Single” through this YouTube link:

As for Eyebrows –I am personally fascinated by Dabbour’s precise short English translation of the movie titles- this is a totally different story. Eyebrows is a brave short that describes the extremist religious “mindset” through a simple situation. A girl from an extremist Salafi upbringing wearing niqab (face covering) wants to pluck her eyebrows which are considered haram from an extremist Islamist point of view. Throughout the short, she struggles between the desire to be accepted as a woman, and her fear of God through an extremist religious viewpoint, which contradicts a once-liberated friend who became even stricter as a religious newbie.

Official movie poster for Eyebrows

“Both shorts –coincidentally- contain plotlines regarding man’s relationship with religion. Eyebrows differs in the way we tackled the topic at hand; not as outsiders [this has been one of the highlights of the feedback that we received whether in film festivals or juries] to the niqab-wearing community. We used their terminology and adopted their POV to reflect their mental and sociological crises and the contradictory outlook on which they base their religious beliefs so that it always supports the male dominance and leadership of the society to fulfill their role of maintainers and protectors of women. A woman could pluck her eyebrows if her husband approves it but if she is not married, then she is forbidden from doing so. But on what basis? A woman finds herself in a loop. This all reflects the efforts that are being made in objectifying women, by controlling the fine details in their lives, they undergo massive identity, social, and humanitarian crises, which all lead to the unacceptance of their “self”; their feminine identity.”

In many of his films, Dabbour blends themes of absent fathers and patriarchy. The lost “father figure” or the man searching for immortality through having a son could be seen in multiple characters. In Photocopy, the relationship between Osama and Mahmoud could be seen as a rebound relationship for the figures that they both lack in life respectively; a father and a son. In Gunshot, Yassin’s rebellious attitude against his father’s image is a manifestation of the complex concept of the death of the father (as a symbol of patriarchy) and the death of the god in Nietzsche’s philosophy.

I asked him how fatherhood changed him personally, in terms of both artistic and personal values;

“Being a father is a reflective experience of your reckless attitude as a son. Fatherhood makes you reevaluate your life as a son. It resembles writing the same story from the opposing POV. I still have a lot to discover, since I am a father to a 5-year-old son; Zein and my experience has a long way ahead to simmer. I have not only changed as a father, but aging into my thirties changed the dynamics into which I handle my relationships with others. I’m a familial person by nature, but growing old (and becoming a father) made me grow closer to my father and more sympathetic and understanding of his feelings. I tried translating all the details into the paternal relationships which I represented in both my long features.”

At the end of an enriching conversation, Dabbour gave me writing advice, which I am feeling compelled to pass on to future generations of writers,

“Writing does not have a manual. There are no clear steps on which you must tread to be considered a good or a bad writer. Writing is based on individual differences in style and context. However, my personal belief is that daily jobs never hinder creativity. Naguib Mahfouz –one of the greatest Egyptian writers of all times– remained a government employee all his life, Ibrahim Aslan was a 9-5 employee. I used to have a daily, fulltime job as a journalist for 10-12 hours per day and it never stopped me from creativity. The only thing that you need to sustain are 12-15 hours weekly dedicated to writing. Before starting a writing project, try to set a hypothetical deadline which would prevent you from succumbing to feelings of guilt in case you fail to deliver the project in time. Writing is a serious relationship that loses intensity as time drags on. The key is to keep that fire ignited at the start of the project as alive as possible.”

Interview with author Jaylan Salah about her new collection Workstation Blues

Jaylan Salah’s Workstation Blues

“Workstation Blues” is a collection of tales from the cubicle that would resonate with white-collar dreamers worldwide as they struggle to pass the time between meetings, in front of laptop screens, or trying not to lose their minds in the bathrooms. These poems from the dark mind of an Egyptian national, feminist, and workaholic blur the lines between career-driven and passionate, resembling an old folklore song where monsters are replaced by monitors, flame-throwers by LED lights and swords by client comments. 50% of all proceeds from the sale of this book go to PoetsIN, the creative mental health charity. Please visit PoetsIN.com/aboutus for more information.

Here I interview author Jaylan Salah:

What do you find ‘literary’ about office work? How did you find something worthy of literary inspiration in a cubicle?

This was a tough year. I had just started my content writing career and I was abandoning the writer’s boho “journey” to embark on a fulltime job as a content writer. I didn’t connect with any of my colleagues at first. It was a tough job, I worked 9 hours a day (sometimes more), 6 days a week. In between moments of scheduling meetings and submitting tasks, I interacted with an odd group of human beings. The feelings of isolation, depression, and exploration that I went through resulted in a daily writing routine and the culmination was the book at hand.

What might people elsewhere find interesting or surprising about office work in Egypt? (Or is it pretty much the same anywhere?)

Pretty much the same, although the casual flings and flirtation have to be under the radar. We’re a conservative environment. But the back-stabbing, toxic, dehumanizing environment is the same everywhere. This is exactly the reason I had to write this book. I wanted to connect with people who work long hours in the office from countries I’ve never been to and cultures that have no resemblance to my own.

Do you feel that your day-job enhances your creativity?

I believe that work enhances creativity. Not the actual tasks at hand but the daily interaction with people who come from different social, financial and familial backgrounds. Tensions arise, people get emotionally and sexually attracted to each other. Work is the driver of this generation [in Egypt] and I have found my most creative self while working full-time jobs.

How do you balance writing with having to put in time at a day job?

It’s always tough but I have a daily routine post office log out time. I try to reward myself when I stick to it because I’m tired almost forever and I cheat a lot. Some works of art are difficult to grasp whenever you feel like it. Others are immersive and you find yourself almost entirely invested in; even while doing something else.

Why did you choose to write Workstation Blues as short stories rather than as a novel?

A novel is in the works. Stay tuned!

Jaylan Salah’s Workstation Blues is available here.

Essay from Jaylan Salah

The False Promise of Confessions of a Shopaholic

If She could be Saved; then so am I!

Every girl loves to shop.

I mean it, women who deny their urge to shop are denying themselves a cosmic pleasure, a call of the wild, a mesmerizing power beyond their ability to fathom or grasp. It doesn’t have to be shoes or lipstick, it can be a utensil or a house appliance or even a new Coursera specialization. It’s not gender-based assembly nor a categorization based on our vaginal cravings but more of the need to own. In a male-dominant world where women fought for their right to own lands or have their own bank accounts; shopping became their way of building a materialistic empire where things are their own, and not their husbands’ or children’s.

I am a shopaholic, a shopping addict, a shopping-phile, someone with compulsive buying disorder. I mean I revel in the beauty of consumer goods. Kylie Jenner’s newest lip shade. Sign me up please. Is this a pharmacy? Let me flip through all the OTC cough syrups and sore throat lozenges. I hear the names of brands like Prada, Christian Louboutin, Chanel, Dior, and my heart starts pumping blood faster to the rest of the organs.

Let’s hope it won’t give up on me for the sake of a brand.

I enter a shoe shop and suddenly my boots feel tighter, my stilettos clumsier and all those earrings on the holder stand seem more exciting and strangely different than the ones at home safe and sound in my jewelry box. A perfume shop meant that I stank and was immediately in need of a new bottle, preferably with the accompanying shower gel and bubble bath.

I am a daughter of the consumerist culture of the 1980s-1990s, where American globalization invaded everything. I listened to American music, watched American movies only –unlike my parents who were exposed to Indian, Italian and French cultures- and ate American foods wrapped in cartons or reciprocated through brand franchises opening in my homecountry. I became a slave of the American propaganda machine. It all went well with me and my salary until the Egyptian economic crisis in 2016.

As found in infomineo.com;

On November 3rd, 2016, the Central Bank of Egypt floated the Egyptian pound in an attempt to stabilize the economy which had been set back by a shortage of foreign currency inflows and political instability.

Blah blah blah

By that time, the devaluation prices were already adjusted/adjusting to the price of the black market which was around the same price after the devaluation. So, at the floatation period, prices increased but not by the same value the pound depreciated.

Ahem, whatever you’re saying!

The government also began to restructure its subsidy program. A five-year energy subsidy reform program began in 2014 aiming at stopping energy subsidies by 2019. Electricity prices increased by 25-40% depending on usage in August 2016. In July 2017, Electricity prices increased again by 15-42% for domestic use and by 29-46% for the commercial Sector. Fuel prices increased 2 times since floatation. The government is moving into a cash-based subsidy system, where the less fortunate get their subsidies in cash, rather than subsidizing food commodities and fuel for all.

Dude, calm down!

This step led prices to increase gradually in the months that preceded the devaluation because most businesses priced their products according to the value of dollars they import with, which was mostly obtained through the black market as 90 percent of imported consumer goods were already being paid for at black market currency rates in the months before the devaluation.

For a middle-class consumerist gal like me, all hell broke loose. Brand shops closed their doors in small cities like mine (still present in the capital; Cairo, though), everything became insanely unaffordable. I began to take back every word I said about using imported goods, brands were out of the question. Local merchandise started looking like a not-so-bad idea.

But something in me died. The fact that I could not afford what I craved. The fact that I had to sacrifice quality for short half-life. Local merchandise lacked the luster and galore of branded items. I kept scouting shops for discounts but still, nothing. The fact hit me that I went down in the social status ladder and I either…let my wild side loose and ran to the woods, unrelenting and unapologetic, or I succumb to the reality of the situation. Yes, nobody dies from loving things they can’t afford.

Enter Rebecca Bloomwood.

Like me she is a shopping addict. Like me her finances are oozing with messes and shortcomings. Like me, she finds a cashmere sweater more fulfilling than a man. Like me she is a good writer who is distracted by multiple, materialistic unsated needs. Like her, I need to focus on feelings that have nothing to do with film criticism to write an impressive essay.

I love “Confessions of a Shopaholic”.

I’m a major film buff. My favorite directors are Jarmusch, Varda, Kar-wai, Ozon, Campion and Farhadi. I have my guilty pleasures but they are somewhat thoughtful chick-flicks mostly written by legends such as Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers.

But this…

Confessions of a Shopaholic is admittedly a mess. It’s a shortcut between “Legally Blonde” and “Sex and the City”. It does not understand its tone and it contains multiple scenes where people stare intentionally at each other just to pluck laughs from our decaying wisdom teeth.

Still it’s a lovely mess, while it lacks the glam of Sex and the City, and Isla Fisher is by no means the next Reese Witherspoon, it serves its purpose. There are brands thrown around. There’s a quirky, clumsy female protagonist who beats the evil icy, Hitchcockian blond. The film is empowering in one of its aspects; talent saves. A gal can be saved if she put her focus on talent rather than needs. Miss Blomwood did what I practice on a daily basis; write about my pain, my frustration, how the pain and stability of the routine of an everyday fulltime job positively influenced me.

Then what went wrong?

While a movie like Legally Blonde creates a character that people can look up to and admire, “Confessions of a Shopaholic” throws a blatant character sketch that has no meat to it. There’s nothing beyond what Rebecca offers at the moment. I have read all the Sophie Kinsella novels and would have loved a sequel or two. But even with the multiple situations in which Rebecca could have infused her quirky, clumsy character into, translating that on the big screen would have proved a failure.

Rebecca Blomwood has no power or glamour beyond the name tag she’s wearing. Her clothes have not been recognized as major fashion moments in film. None of her shoes or outfits risk being iconized as one of Carrie Bradshaw’s multiple faux and triumphs in the world of fabric.

So if it is that forgettable, why am I crazily in love with it?

Because it represents a part of me that has not died yet. Like Rebecca I am dreaming of the ultimate time when I feel satisfied after shopping and the urge dies. Because Rebecca is that silly, teenage girl, in awe of an all-American life and the American teenage heartthrobs who appear onscreen and like Fluke whisk a girl off her feet into an enchanted castle of…well, in her case endless shopping frenzies where she might eventually seek that satisfaction she’s blindly after.

At the end of the movie, like every other quirky, Hollywood-polished American tale, Rebecca is saved. She gets back her guy, her BFF, her family backs her up, even her green scarf, and yet, we are left with the big uncertainty; are the winking shopping mannequins saluting her for abandoning the raging waves of the internal sea that would subside soon; a.k.a ripping off the shopping junkie tag, or are they whispering in her ears to lay her tiredness and her huddled messes yearning to breathe free. Was the ending a resolution or an absolution?

For me, it did not create that big of a difference. Loving Rebecca was enough. Her triumph on the big screen was enough for me to be certain that maybe –just maybe I could also be saved from myself. Credit card debt aside!

Cultural and film critic Jaylan Salah, based out of Alexandria, Egypt



Essay from Jaylan Salah

Children of the Long Nights

Of Humans and Hybrids: Drive and Under the Skin

In a way, Drive is a very feminine [and feminist] movie. Feminism is actually more masculine than what masculine is. Feminism is much more interesting.

Nicholas Winding Refn

What does it take to be considered human?

In a film like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the ultimate question of what it takes to be considered human is asked. No answer is provided but according to the film’s ending; to be human is to exist as a citizen of the patriarchal system, understanding what the role expects of the individual; a cis, White, man with a female tagalong who was once an independent hybrid but now a compliant, compassionate ally of the patriarchy.

When I first saw Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive” a masterpiece of a film about a character on the margins of society, a male whose sole purpose in life is to drive the streets of Los Angeles where he could blend with the surroundings, wearing the definition of cool in the form of a jacket with a scorpion imprint and impersonating the Hollywood antihero who rarely speaks his mind; I realized that feminist films do not necessarily have to be about a female main protagonist. Women in this film come into the male-dominated universe not as candy-wrapped fantasies only for the males to wrap/unwrap, but they exist in their own mini-verses through carefully structured bubbles where their storylines continue unmarred by those of the men’s. Whether the quiet, loving mother Irene or the voluptuous Blanche, the latter appearing for a swift moment to shift the intensity of the film but when she’s gone the audience can’t help but remember her for the rest of their life.

Movie poster for Under the Skin

In Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” a creature taking the form of a female human being drives around looking for susceptible male subjects. In the only moment where the creature suffers an identity crisis of what it takes to be “human”, the creature loses its power, submitting to the patriarchal society which it –supposedly- studies, understanding ultimately what it takes to be a woman and a “dark-skinned” being in a world that is predominantly male and White.

Los Angeles – You can be a Criminal or a Movie Star

I was drawn to “Drive” just as I was drawn to “Heat”; two inherently masculine films that surprisingly broke masculinity with the same tactical focus through which they ascertain glorification. Both films show male characters doomed with their burden of the masculine hero/villain. Lines are blurred between good and bad, men are wrapped in their loneliness and seek solace in the relentlessly coveted city.

In a city like Los Angeles, crime is a glorious, sensational lust. Films that both imply and dissect a society wild with the need to be known or seen either decapitates or assembles the tales of those who thrived and survived on fame in the city of angels. In Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Refn’s “Drive” both films with a single word for the title; masculinity is impaled on the same shrine on which the city is worshipped. “Heat” shows an emotionally-charged finale, worthy of “Titanic”, of two men consumed by loneliness in the merciless city where they get to play their respective roles, even if it forsakes a rather successful friendship that was not and could have been, while “Drive” recounts the tale of the Night prince whose false kingdom of machismo, coolness and the ability to roam an entire city free, no-strings-attached is complicated by the fact that the only thing that means something to him is domesticity; a home with a regular-looking woman and a child. How both films deconstruct masculinity as an ominous presence, able to engulf all that comes in its way; and yet something fragile as to crave the simplistic pleasure of a shelter, says a lot about the ability of their male creators (Mann and Refn) to observe the male-centric world from a realistic, humble lens.

In “Drive”, the driver does not have a name, stylistically even resembling Clint Eastwood’s fetishistic Western depiction of manhood in action. But unlike the series of spaghetti Westerns where Eastwood glorifies in the shining armor of toxic masculinity, Refn’s men eat each other, devouring and devoured by their greed and hunger for power. Even the Driver derives strength not from the anonymity which covers him jacket-to-car, but from the false dream of the domesticated American man, who returns home from war to a simple woman and a child; the perfect depiction of the American dream reconstructed.  

Under the Skin – Driving around with a Shell of a Woman

A lot can be associated with Scotland, but to be human is not one of them. To understand the choice of shooting “Under the Skin” there would be to decipher one of the film’s multiple mysteries. Is it about alien invasion? Is it a gender-reversal where Snow White becomes the Huntsman and the Big Bad Wolf is essentially a woman?

Or is “Under the Skin” a gender, sexual and political statement in the face of patriarchy and capitalism? If so, why did the creature break when it tried to examine what it takes to be human? The unnamed creature rebelled against the purpose of driving around in a van, luring male victims into a black abyss where their energy is sucked into a greater alien being.

In “Under the Skin” a trick is played using an icon of modern feminine sexuality such as Scarlett Johansson to play a highly sexual but non-sexualized character. A creature, agender, bound by no form takes the shape and the sexual physicality of a woman to help its camouflage from the land it inhabits. With all the murder and the mayhem, the creature drives around in the van, using the vehicle as a false armor for the fragility of the feminine in patriarchy. Unable to comprehend the icicle thin presence of being a female, the creature abandons the cold, detached driver status to immerse itself in the fragile and flawed world which it tries to take apart one male passerby at a time.

The creature’s predatory attitude is complicated by the fact that when it shelters itself from the emotional mayhem through which gender coexist, it succeeds in being the dominant, alpha presence. Only when it succumbs to exploring what it means to be a female human trapped in a female body, does the creature’s suffering begin. The rape scene at the end, where the creature is both hurt and sexually violated for being a woman, then for being a dark-skinned being, only reveal a glimpse of what it takes to have the upper hand in the human world, and the price to pay when the societal privileged positioning is lost. When the hunter becomes the hunted, the Creatures face demise.

Unnamed Drivers – Masculinity and Femininity from a Lens

In “Under the Skin” and “Drive”; both drivers are unnamed, roaming the roads without much of a purpose for the driving. Unlike “Baby Driver” where the getaway driver uses his position as a purpose to explore his moral compass and his coming-of-age in a criminal, bloody verse where he chooses to escape through constantly listening to music. “Drive” is a film –as Associated Press reporter Christy Lemire states- not about actual driving, the getaway driver is, in fact, a getaway plot twist to trick viewers into believing they are about to watch an action movie, only to discover a layered, character study of male vulnerability in the city of angels. “Under the Skin” uses driving a van as the trap that most men in the real world wield to hunt for their female prey, the faux lure of a sheltered vehicle becoming at times a coffin, or a wheeled metal box to contain the screams and pleas. And yet when the creature decides to rebel against the same power and privilege that it exerts over the human subjects, it becomes human and thus exposed and naked to all things evil that humans act against each other. The Creature is molested and subjected to a horrifying rape attempt because of its disguise as an attractive White female. In the end, The Creature is burned to death because it is revealed as a dark-skinned being, highlighting the fear of the White, cis male of all things dark-skinned and non-conforming to pre-constructed gender and racial politics. A White, lost woman in the dark forest would be raped; a dark-skinned, agender creature might be killed. 

Both “Drive” and “Under the Skin” use their leading stars’ power to deconstruct the Hollywood perfect image of beauty and sexuality;

Johansson’s first nude scene is deprived of any sexual metaphors, with her self-reflection a shoutout to the male gaze behind the screens, as if daring them to observe with her a body that would soon be dissembled, and not for the ritualistic catharsis for the man lurking in the darkness of the movie theater, waiting to be enamored by the violence against the woman onscreen, but more of the haplessness that is shared between the audience which beholds a sexual crime taking place; unable to stop it or actively participate in lifting off the injustice that befalls the woman in question.

Ryan Gosling boasts darkness and mystery in “Drive” that has nothing to do with the glamorous Hollywood male stars; the “silent types”. He is vulnerable. He resorts to violence only when his safe “nest” is in harm’s way. Yet, he doesn’t get the girl or get anything at the end. There are no steamy sex scenes or mind-blowing relationships. The Driver is there to suffer, only interlocking paths with the few items that give his sheltered, meaningless life peace. Gosling plays it down to the base with a nuanced performance and an air of undeniable cool. Yet there is nothing extravagant about him or his character.

Both drivers use driving purposelessly. Driving is not an integral element of the plot, nor a plot twist. The drivers here are trapped within false skins; the cool silk jacket with an embroidered scorpion for The Driver, and the lace stockings, mini-skirt and denim jacket for The Creature. Both are garments for false anonymity, which both protect and break their senses of security and gender power when they are undressed.

Author Jaylan Salah

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