Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
Issue No.562
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

One boy and his goat

For children across the country, Ramadan now means two things: lanterns and the endearing little Nubian boy, Bakar. Rania Khallaf talks to the creator of the cartoon series that has enchanted everyone

Mona Abul-Nasr's international repute is growing fast. The cartoon director has won four international prizes and 14 national first prizes for her work; the latest was awarded by the Radio and Television Festival last July for her series, Bakar. This Ramadan is Bakar's fourth year.

A week before Ramadan, and Abul-Nasr's cartoon production company office in Heliopolis is swarming. The director herself is busy rapping out orders to her staff. Nevertheless, she manages to take time out to tell me how she made it to where she is today.

Art, it seems, ran in the family. "My older sister was a painter, a very skilful one," she recalls. Her uncle was an inspector of art at a secondary school. It was he who first influenced Abul-Nasr to express herself visually. He used to come to her home on Fridays to practice new drawing techniques. "I used to watch them from a distance," she tells. "Brilliant colours and funny characters were the first things that attracted me to art. I used to draw nice small characters on the margins of each page of my copy- books."

Abul-Nasr's elder brother indulged her early passion for cartoon figures. He would "take me to the cinema to watch cartoon films that were screened before the usual feature films. I was dazzled by such a magnificent world of colours, strange characters, voices and speed action," she remembers.

School followed, and Abul-Nasr's talent began to garner recognition. Two exhibitions of her drawings were organised and one of her teachers sent a drawing Abul-Nasr had done of a Bedouin wedding to an international drawing competition in India. It won first prize.

The young artist's career then began to flourish. She moved to the new graphics section at the Faculty of Fine Arts. "My first lesson was given to me by my professor and the great cartoonist Ali Muheeb, who taught me that I could do interesting cartoon films with a meagre budget," she said. "What really matters," he told her, "is the content of the message."

During that time, Abul-Nasr distilled her own lessons from her craft. "Expressing speed movement through drawing is not an easy thing to do. You might have eight drawings for one movement, so the eyes can blink separately, or so the head can turn different ways. I thought of it as a challenge," she says.

From left: Bakar in the making (photo: Randa Shaath); woman of many awards: Mona Abul-Nasr

Graduating in 1975 with honours, she was appointed lecturer at the same faculty. Then other fortunes intervened. "In the early eighties, I married and went to Kuwait for five years, lecturing at the Faculty of Education," she recalls. Her time was not wasted, though: "I saw it as a preparatory period. A time to think carefully on how to realise my dreams in the cartoon profession. When I came back to Egypt, I thought I should go on for my doctorate. In 1987, I joined the California Academy for Arts, established by the world's most famous cartoonist: Walt Disney."

"My first cartoon film, The Survival, was the fruit of a year and a half's study at the Academy. It was my lifetime achievement. It was not made for children, rather it had an abstract message for all people, of all ages, and in different places in the world. The film says that people should live in peace."

In 1989, the 10-minute film won the silver plaque prize for the best short cartoon film at the Chicago International Film Festival. The jury said of it: "Abul-Nasr came to the US from a far country. However, she would not allow herself to be shocked or deceived by the advanced techniques she lacks in her country. Instead, she made us an authentic film that carries a message for the whole world."

One place Abul-Nasr wanted to carry that message was her own land, Egypt. When Abul-Nasr began her career, animation in Egypt was little known. "When I came back from the States, I found that Egyptian animated cartoons only featured in ads." And so in 1990, she established the Cairo Cartoon Production Company, with the aim of producing cartoon series for children. "We produced three series in the past 10 years: Kani wi Mani, Sindbad, and finally Bakar," she recounts.

Although it is not profitable, Abul-Nasr insists on processing everything through her own company. "We only receive the financial support of the Radio & Television Union. We work about 20 hours a day in order to meet our deadlines," she says. "I started with only four animators and by the end of the first year the number had jumped to 12. This year I have 115 animators and 12 assistant directors."

Bakar, the little Nubian boy who gets entangled in all sorts of adventures, has been the most successful of her projects. "I discovered that my audience is not limited to children. People of different ages and classes are keen to watch Bakar in Ramadan. It is not just a Tom and Jerry thing; people feel that Bakar reflects their identity," Abul-Nasr explains.

Abul-Nasr attributes Bakar's success to his Egyptian context. "A child from South Egypt, Bakar has been well-received by many people because he lives in our age. Unlike Sindbad, who has exceptional powers to go or fly anywhere he wishes, Bakar is not like a hero. He is a very kind child -- naïve in some cases. An art-lover who loves to draw; an orphan who lives with his mother and cares for animals."

Bakar is also the first Egyptian or Arab cartoon character. Abul-Nasr thinks he helps different peoples understand one another. "With his beloved Nubian accent, Bakar fills the gap between city people and those from the south," she says.

The series has not only been successful in Egypt. It has also been warmly received in other Arab countries, such as United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Tunisia.

Previous episodes have focused on making children aware of their responsibility to others. A recent episode demonstrated sympathy for the handicapped. Habiba, a little blind girl, saves her schoolmates from a great danger. Other social issues have included the importance of eliminating illiteracy and the thorny topic of revenge crimes.

This year the series carries a message of peace. Abul-Nasr describes it as, "A message of love and respect for the Palestinian children who confront the Israeli occupation with rocks in their hands."

As we talk, the great director keeps glancing at her watch. Evidently she prefers work to talk. She even tells me so: "The key to success is to work," she says.

And she has her work cut out for her. "My next plan is a big film production for all ages. The film's title will be Bakar and the Search for King Tut's Heart. It is a mix between the Pharaonic and Mediterranean civilisations, explored through the adventures of Bakar."

This time, Abul-Nasr hopes for substantial financial backing. "The script of the film is being reviewed now by the Hermes Fenoun production company," she confides.

Abul-Nasr's dedication to the Egyptian-Arab cartoon could not be more timely. "You listen to stunning slogans and faithful promises in some Arab countries [to develop the industry], but there is no single powerful organisation that could actually produce cartoons. It is easier for them to import foreign series. This will have a very negative effect on our children. Neither the content nor the characters reflect our cultural reality," she laments. "This can only forge a weak generation, with poor language and an uncertain identity," she says.

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