Romanticizing Decaying Cities and Embracing the Other
Conversations with Egyptian Director/Auteur Amir Ramses
When I think of a film director, the stereotype always comes to mind, a neurotic heavy smoker, who speaks incessantly, is socially awkward, and has a fascination with beautiful muses.
Take all that and throw it aside, and witness Egyptian director and auteur Amir Ramses. Ramses studied filmmaking at the Higher Institute of Cinema and worked as assistant director for 5 years with the legendary director Youssef Chahine. He directed multiple short films, documentaries, and features; wrote one novel Song of Songs published in 2010.
Mind you, physically he’s a mix of Woody Allen and Youssef Chahine, but when it comes to his personality, Ramses is the extreme opposite. No stuttering or neurosis, Ramses carefully picks his words, dodges unwanted questions, and navigates his way through the interrogative interview like a pro. His directing style is heavily influenced by what the former two had on him,
“Personality-wise, I am a very demanding director with an attention to detail that sometimes comes as bossy. I see things in a certain way and expect everybody on a film set to see them that way.”
His infatuation with Allen’s dark humor, hopeless romantic males falling for stunning girls in the Big City is obvious, but his string of complex relationships and his interest in the humane side of people and relationships are owed to his work as an assistant director to Chahine who might have given him a deeper outlook on what was at the core of the modern world of relationships in Egypt,
“When it comes to sense of humor, I love sitcoms especially older ones. But I believe that my sense of humor is closer to Woody Allen than any other artist. For example, I love Seinfeld but I find the show’s sense of humor cruel on its characters. My preferred sense of humor is much more empathetic and kinder toward its characters. Woody Allen is the one who comes to mind when describing this trope, even when he makes fun of his characters at the end of the day, he loves them so much. I use the sense of humor in my works as a defense mechanism against the stupidity and cruelty of society. I believe that there are things in life that you cannot express openly without getting in trouble unless you use it in a comedy sketch.”
Does he refer to his spectacular feature Cairo Time an enjoyable drama set over a single day and showing a subtle connection between unrelated characters, only connected through a thin red line of how humanity conquers fear, prejudice, and aggression?
“Woody Allen has been the main inspiration for Cairo Time. The scene inside the girl’s [a girl who wants to have sex with her boyfriend but is afraid because of societal sexual restrictions] head is very Allen-esque, completely absurd, and over the top. I used 3 shots only to construct the scene and relied on the bizarreness of the cop character [played by renowned Egyptian comedian Bayoumi Fouad]. In every shot, I left a space for the actors’ body language and movement. It had the longest, establishing shots throughout the whole movie. Another thing that made this scene stand out was the actor’s improvisation. I know a lot of directors don’t like that but I enjoy actors’ improvisation during rehearsals. Fouad was very creative in this [improvisation] and helped to add layers to his character.”
I had to ask Ramses why improvisation scared off some directors to which he replied that it was not a controlled environment.
“You are not just talking about the character but the rhythm and the pace of the scene and how to fit that with the changes that the actors make. Some actors are great with their creativity but their improvisation is uncontrollable within the scene tempo.”
If there was anything that Ramses learned from Chahine, that would be how the Other might not be that scary if only people learned how to listen and communicate. In one of the interconnected stories in Cairo Time, the character of Layla -played by legendary Egyptian actress Mervat Amin, known for her stellar beauty and sex appeal in the 70s- opts for a conservative lifestyle, denouncing her art and her past accomplishments as an actress. This is no strange to what happened in the entertainment industry in the early 90s when a group of actresses wore the Islamic head covering (hijab) and announced they were born again, away from their superstardom which was lustful and sinful. Layla in Cairo Time represents this kind of thinking, and in her quest for redemption, she hears a fatwa -a nonbinding legal opinion on a point of Islamic law- that states how women who get married on the screen are married in real life, thus should seek divorce whether they intend to get married again. And that’s what Layla does, she seeks divorce from one of her frequent past costars, Sameh -played by another legendary Egyptian star and TV personality, Samir Sabry- and that’s when tensions spark,
“Without expressing that in a comedy, that particular subject matter could have earned me an accusation of Blasphemy. Instead of criticizing this fatwa -which took place in real life- contextualizing it in a comedy made it more approachable and acceptable by the audiences, who found it the source of ridicule rather than grim seriousness.”
Ramses’s Cairo Time was his tribute to two things; the city, and the golden era of Egyptian cinema, through a set of characters that he carefully sketched. Despite all being of a certain age, Ramses was not interested in tackling a non-conventional age group for a movie audience that has been used -especially since the 2000s era- to watching only youthful faces leading films on the big screen,
“I was more interested in the meanness of the city and how that affected my characters. They have all been people betrayed by an old glory, thwarted off to islands rather than taking the front of the city in which they grew up, all because of their age. Whether Layla who gave up her acting career and that made her angry at her past or Sameh whose past caught up to him after he lost his movie star glamour and became a forgotten so-called legendary actor, living in total denial of that fact. As for Yehia, his memory betrayed him and that led to his feeling of isolation in the city. I’ve had this obsession with the power and withdrawal of memory, the ability to retain our stories or feelings after the memories are gone, and reflected that through the character of Yehia. The same goes for all the young characters. I believe they were all victims of how cruel the city is and what it does to our souls. The young man is obsessed with stories about himself and how they give him greater pleasure than his real life. The boy and girl want to have sex but society is suppressing their desires by forcing a moral and emotional compass for them to live through. Their stories reflected what I call the societal castration of our ability to love.”
Multiple themes could be traced in Cairo Time among them was amnesia and our relationship with whoever we deem “different” from us. One of the master scenes in the film was when Yehia -whose memory was decaying throughout the film- pretended to forget his daughter to set her free from his collapsing world,
“In this scene, I was intent on framing actors’ eyes. Eye contact or the lack of it was my focus point while shooting it. Dorra’s [the daughter] eyes following her father all the time. Yehia talking and avoiding eye contact with his daughter at all costs. I shot it in extreme close-ups and depended on a very sensitive scale from both actors, when to look and when to steal a glance. The scene that preceded it was all long shots, but this one was a group of extreme close-ups brought together to form an emotionally charged scene. The framing was very tight. Although the place was spacious, I wanted to block the way for both characters to give the feeling of entrapment. The main take from this scene was not the dialogue but how their eyes stared, looked away, and glanced.”
The character Yehia in Cairo Time is named after one of his mentor’s Chahine’s iconic alter ego Yehia Shokry Mourad, an alias that Chahine used in multiple films to represent a fictional version of himself. In his film Ramses pays homage to the master Chahine through the portrayal of Yehia using the same name, the character was even played by late actor Nour El Sherif who portrayed Yehia Shokry Mourad in one of the original Chahine movies, An Egyptian Tale,
“My favorite Chahine directorial phase was the pre-Emigrant era starting from Cairo Station and so forth, specifically the films that have a running theme of accepting the Other, our ability to understand the difference, and how we relate to others different from us. The Other might not have the same desires, moral codes, cultural backgrounds, or interests but we still have to accept them as we would like to be accepted. This was a recurring theme in Chahine’s films and one of my artistic obsessions as well, even in literature books that discussed these themes were my favorites. I believe that my documentary Jews of Egypt has been made through the same lens of understanding the other.”
Jews of Egypt is a big story. It was one of the most well-received Egyptian documentaries in the past decade, opening the door for multiple ripoffs and works of art that tackle the same topic -but mostly from a less in-depth lens. Ramses followed his subjects all over the world, chasing the remaining Egyptian Jews and attending their ceremonies, investing himself in their lives to give us a lengthy documentary divided into two parts: one follows Egyptian Jews in the first half of the twentieth century until their second grand exodus after the tripartite attack of 1956 and the other Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey examines the lives of the last remaining members of the Egyptian-Jewish communities. But that’s not all that Ramses learned from the Egyptian francophone auteur,
“It’s hard to pin what I learned from Chahine, but mainly the ability to enjoy what you are doing, regardless of the results. Before working as an assistant director with Joe, making short movies and such, I used to care about the end product, and what people might think of them. After working with Chahine, I learned how he “made” films for the sake of the process, not what the results will be. Chahine also, like me, adores his actors. Even the ones making minor roles are seen through a lens of love and compassion. He cocooned his actors with protection that almost seems sacred on set, which bothered as on a technical level -how we catered to actors’ moods and whims as per Chahine’s orders. His movie sets were never a source of nuisance or stress. Yes, sometimes he lost it and got angry but even then, he knew when and how to do it.”
Among his many recurring themes, Youssef Chahine’s infatuation for my hometown, Alexandria, was undeniably omnipresent. I asked Ramses whether this was also a prominent motif in his films,
“I believe that Alexandria is omnipresent in my films as well. Cairo Time starts in Alexandria; I consciously chose to make the main protagonist Yehia Shokry Mourad from Alexandria. In my first feature The Edge of the World, the main plot takes place in Alexandria, and people enjoyed how I shot the movie there. What I love about Alexandria the city no longer exists in our present but has become a part of our past of how we perceive the city. If I were to make a movie about Alexandria, I’d make certain creative choices that would be impossible to achieve visually with the current resources. It would be a fantasy film and need big budgets in terms of graphics and production design to tell the tale that I love. I’m not sure whether this modern version of Alexandria would be plausible to use as the background for the tale I have in mind to honor the city of my dreams.”
Ramses is very tactical. He carefully works the question in his mouth like a rolled cigarette and lets out few, careful puffs. He doesn’t use his words in vain, always concentrating on making himself as clearly understood as possible. Although most of his films were female-centric, definitely passing the Bechdel test, and filled with genuine female narratives, Ramses doesn’t see himself as a feminist director nor does he express a certain yearning to work with a particular actor, unlike many auteurs back in the time such as Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah, he doesn’t have a muse of sorts,
“I don’t like labels. I don’t see myself as a feminist director, I never put gender as a conscious artistic decision. I believe that the human is oppressed in the society regardless of their gender. I only tell stories that interest me without putting in mind that I want to glorify a certain gender or let it win at the end of the tale. In this corner of the world, women could be more oppressed than men, but at the end of the day, men are also oppressed. I’m more interested in people, although I won’t deny that women are prominent beings in my obsessions, infatuations, and even nightmares. But I’m mainly interested in the story rather than picking a gendered story specifically to tell.
“There is no particular actor with whom I prefer to work with. I believe that every director needs to work with a variety of actors throughout his directorial career. Sometimes even in the same project. Some mental actors approach a character through their analysis and mindsets, others are pure emotions. How you orchestrate that is the core of a director’s work. I hate the term “leading actors”. It’s a communication process that I immensely enjoy. I adapt to communicating with both kinds of actors as I believe this is a director’s job.”
Ramses’s latest film “Curfew” also takes place in one night during the period of a state-imposed curfew in Egypt in 2013; starring legendary 90s sex bomb Elham Shaheen as a mother trying to reconcile with her daughter -played by top-billed actress Amina Khalil- while hiding a dark secret of her own. The film was bold in condemning a taboo subject in Egyptian society; pedophilia and incest. While recording this interview, Ms. Khalil was still a star on the rise, now she has become one of the most revered actresses of her generation, tackling different subjects in her art such as ADHD and female liberation from familial confinement, I had to ask Ramses on the process of creating Curfew, how he viewed Khalil and Shaheen as actresses,
“Curfew was a challenge for me to shoot because it depends on two women trapped in a single place. I tried to make the presence and the environment dominant throughout the movie to encapsulate the audience’s feelings of entrapment, but in the frame, we follow the actresses around. I used wide lenses and the camera was handheld, following the two actresses around as if it was part of their skins. I wanted their features to look realistic and not beautified. The actresses were not posing in any scene. The technique has been harnessed to give the actress the space to not disconnect from their stream of feelings. At the end of the day, Curfew is an acting game more than anything else. Sometimes when you are directing a movie, you might think of something that would look pretty but on the ground, it wouldn’t be suitable for what you have in mind. Curfew is not about breathtaking frames, but the claustrophobia that these two women live together. This was what I aimed at visually. Lighting was another important element and I made sure to have areas of darkness in every frame. Doors and windows were their “acting out” moments.
There’s a spark in Amina [Khalil] and that is her flexibility. She knows how to listen to the director and can come to rehearsals and table reads with her ideas and input. She could in a second take her acting in another direction if you suggest it to her without letting her old thoughts about how a scene is made get in the way. She is not stagnant and her ability to adapt is mesmerizing to me. I saw this in the first rehearsal that we made together. I came out of it [the rehearsal] in awe of Amina. I have never seen an actress able to get rid of their thoughts and intricacies about a character that easily and that was a pleasant surprise for me.
Elham [Shaheen] was a great choice in the role of a mother. She is the only actress I can think of who lets her inner artist triumph above all other considerations. I always compare her to actresses from her generation and even the later ones who are more obsessed with their societal image, maybe social media or the talk shows have caused this to be a major issue but still actresses are always thinking about how their characters would appeal to audiences, whether they would be criticized for playing them, how they would look and what their physical appearance would play into the role. That’s not the case for Elham. She loves the character and plays it as it is. Working with her is smooth. She broke every one of my obsessions and fears regarding the actor’s comfort zone concerning how they look on screen. She has always been bold enough to go wherever the character went, regardless of how that showed her in the real world. She doesn’t put herself as a celebrity on a pedestal and doesn’t care that she looks beautiful on-screen if the role was [like in Curfew] that of a battered, long-imprisoned woman. She doesn’t think of how people would receive the movie because, within its realms, she leaves herself to the experience.”
Death is a recurring theme in most of Ramses’s movies. In Cairo Time, the death of the wife is a catalyst for Yehia’s trip down memory lane. Curfew’s titular murder and the eventual suicide of Yehia Murad -another manifestation of Ramses’s muse Yehia Shokry Mourad as superimposed from his mentor’s original films- meets a tragic ending. Does that ring a bell for Ramses?
“I’m not obsessed with death. Come to think of it, death is absurd apart from aging or the [COVID-19] pandemic. Maroun Bagdadi -famed Lebanese director- died suddenly after an accidental fall down an elevator shaft although he had a lot ahead of him. Theo Angelopoulos -a late influential Greek filmmaker- died in a motorcycle hit and run while shooting his last unfinished film. With that aside, I don’t think I’m a director who has a project but I am a director who enjoys what he does. I prefer to die in the middle of the heat; while doing what I love the most. What horrifies me is the period of having established everything that I had in mind as an artist and living beyond that. I make movies as a way of feeling alive so the point where I would like to die would be any point in my career timeline, regardless of how far I’ve reached it.”
With the Egyptian cinema going through a high-tech phase of creating series of action/superheroes movies, Ramses is one of the few auteurs of our modern times. Just like you would never find his mentor Chahine shooting an action movie a la golden era of cinema style, Ramses is sticking to the same realm of cinematic verses with his focus on dramas and light comedies. I had to ask him whether it was a budgetary choice to remain in the zone he slowly dug a name for himself into or were there other artistic decisions to stir away from the big-budget mania,
“I can’t tell you whether there is a more difficult scene to shoot than the other. Yes, it’s difficult to shoot an explosion or a highly choreographed action scene that would take 5-6 days to execute. At the end of the day, I find what’s difficult is what I can’t control as a director. Action scenes are draining and difficult to execute but controllable. However, controlling an actor’s emotions, savoring their features and their eye contact is more difficult and cannot be compensated if the scene is spoiled.”
Ramses’s Facebook is overflowing with art; his preferred music, his dog, paintings, and movie posters. Among the films that he quotes a lot is the 1998 Lebanese war dramedy “West Beirut”, a film directed by Ziad Doueiri which we both share a keen interest in. As far as his sense of humor goes, Ramses was fully capable of creating a similar film, so I asked him why he hadn’t yet,
“The era of political correctness in which we currently live. Ziad Doueiri himself wouldn’t be able to criticize the war through this lens nowadays. Even his point of view has matured as can be seen in “The Insult” [a film directed by Doueiri in 2017] and yet the liberty of expressing how you see the world as an artist has changed in the time of political correctness.”
Wong-kar Wai, legendary Hong Kong director is another great source of inspiration and obsession for Ramses, and I had to nag him to direct a romance along the way of rich colors, stellar soundtracks, and observant cinematography. His seriousness and tactfulness cracked as he replied playfully -probably for the first time since we started the interview,
“Get me a project like “In the Mood for Love” and I’ll do it in a second.”