The enfant terrible of Egyptian cinema believes you just need to listen
photo: Nur Subeih
She arrives punctually, smiling, wearing a turquoise jacket with a small brooch, a wooden owl with crystal eyes. "This was a present from Safsoufa," she says. Seif, 19, is her favourite nephew. And the owl, symbol of wisdom, is Asma's favourite creature.
"It is often depicted besides Athene in the visual arts," she explains. The statement the Palestinian scarf makes, though, needs no explanation and at the first opportunity Asma, who has a reputation for being outspoken, begins a tirade against the "impotence" of Arab regimes. "All they're good for is gambling, getting drunk and drooling over women."
Asma El-Bakri was born in the Sakakini Palace in Al-Zaher, Cairo. Her mother, Henrietta Sakakini, was the daughter of Habib El-Sakakini Pasha, a businessman of Leventine descent whose family emigrated to Egypt at the beginning of the 19th century. Asma's father, Mohamed Seifeddin El-Bakri, was a pilot who retired early and lived off his assets. Asma's father belonged to the El-Bakri family, founders of the Sufi order, the centre of which was Saraya El-Bakri in Al-Khurunfush, Cairo, though he was not a practicing Sufi, unlike his cousins Tewfiq El-Bakri and Sheikh Ahmed El-Bakri. The family possessed a huge library into which Asma would sneak as a child, though her actual memories of the palace are few. Her parents soon moved to Alexandria and she and her brother Hossam were placed in boarding schools. Hossam has lived in Belgium since 1972 and Henrietta, with whom Asma says there was always a "generational struggle", died a year and a half ago.
Flashback to 1968, when Asma was in student demonstrations against the occupation of Sinai. Fast forward to 21 December 2002, when she joined demonstrators in front of the Qatari Embassy in Cairo to protest against the imminent invasion of Iraq. All her life she has been outspoken, though she has never been a member of any party. Political parties, she says, either serve the regime or are vehicles for personal gain.
Asma graduated from the French department of Alexandria University in 1970. A painful early love story ended following the death of her lover, an officer, in 1974. A year later she travelled, alone and by motorbike, from Paris to Athens in 50 days. She stopped in Italy and Yugoslavia to marvel at the fabulous monuments, then from Athens took a boat back to Alexandria. Now Asma does not put much weight on relationships: "I'm focusing on my work. Men are annoying. A man requires a huge amount of time and energy."
Brought up in a family of bibliophiles, reading was the only leisure activity allowed. Until now she cannot fall asleep before reading a little. "It's my only addiction," she says. Films were out of the question, though Asma was never one to take advice. As a child she would sneak out with her brother Hossam to see movies. One early film she remembers leaving an impact on her was I Want to Live, with Susan Hayward. She also enjoyed adventure films like Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. And she remembers quite distinctly how in 1956 the army entered her school, Notre Dame Du Sion in Alexandria, wanting to place anti-aircraft canons on the roofs. The school directress refused, though the army film crew was allowed to film.
When did Asma El-Bakri discover her love for cinema?
"Since I was being breast fed," she says. "My mother tells me I was a greedy child. I'd empty both breasts then cry for the bottle." It is an odd reply, perhaps an allusion to Jean-Louis Baurdry's Freudian thesis that the instinct that has the child's eye gazing at the mother's breast while feeding is the same one operating when an audience gazes at the cinema screen. In writing on cinema, especially on filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Baudry links the voyeurism of the spectator to this infantile oral phase. And Asma's favourite director is none other than Hitchcock. She would repeatedly watch Psycho, with its Oedipal protagonist Norman Bates; Rope, with its Dostoyevskian theme; and Dial M for Murder with its triangle of intrigue and betrayal. And it is surely no coincidence that Gohar, the philosophy professor protagonist of Albert Cosseri's Mendiants et Orgueuilleux (Beggars and Noblemen), the film adaptation of which was Asma's debut, commits a gratuitous murder paralleling that in Rope.
Asma is fond of the character of Gohar and of his author. Gohar abandons academia because he knows that under the banner of education lies are perpetuated. Rather than teach apocryphal history and geography he spends his time among paupers and beggars. Cosseri himself has lived in the same room in the Hôtel Louisianne, Rue De Siene, in Paris since 1947. He wears the same suits and frequents the same places. "The same idea runs through all Cosseri's work: freedom and peace of mind can never be attained as long as there is love of money," says Asma. "Cosseri and his writings hold onto the same principle: 'I have nothing. I want nothing. So I'm free.'"
Asma has just finished filming her third feature, again based on a Cosseri novel. La Violence et La Dérision (Violence and Derision) revolves around attempts to dethrone the tyrannical ruler of a Mediterranean city. Two factions compete in achieving this end: one seeks direct confrontation, the other preferring mockery and caricature. It is the strategy of the latter that eventually proves successful.
"Violence and assassination turn the tyrant dictator into a martyr. I believe in this a hundred per cent. What the film caricatures is more universal than the political status quo in any given state. It is about the fight for freedom anytime, anywhere. That's a quality I admire in Cosseri's writings," says Asma.
"Violence is a weapon for the weak. The US is committing crimes against humanity just like the regimes it condemns. The tyrant in the film is a symbol for the US and all the hypocritical Arab regimes that comply with it."
She excuses herself, opens the window and offers us cigarettes. The making of the film followed many trials and tribulations. She sought funding from distributor/producer Mohamed Hassan Ramzi, from the Arabiya Cinema Company, from Sho'aa Film Productions, from the TV film production sectors and from her earlier producers Misr International, Youssef Chahine and Co. They all turned down the project.
"They are free to distribute their budgets the way they choose. Every one is seeking maximum profit and no room is allowed for more challenging productions. Most producers and distributors are in the business because they inherited the trade. They're neither cultivated enough nor professional enough to have a clearly defined production strategy."
If each producer of a commercial film that makes LE30 million, put aside only two million, she suggests, it would make for a different kind of cinema. The films so financed would enhance the image of the production company and will open a market abroad. "Look at the Iranian cinema," she adds.
Asma approached several stars to play in the film without success, which is something of an irony given that the current superstars of Egyptian cinema, Mohamed Heneidi and Ahmed Adam, were given their first break in Mendiants et Orgueuilleux.
With Misr International, there had been serious misunderstandings recently between her and Gabriel Khouri in connection with the local release of her previous film. "I don't want to open that wound again. It is behind us now," Asma remarks dismissively.
In making her latest film Asma has worked outside the mainstream production channels. She was supported by veteran assistant director and executive producer Mohamed "Tarazan" Mustafa. "He was really the saviour of this project," she says. Tarazan -- known as such because of his size -- sat Asma down to calculate what they could afford from their own pockets. They bought a digital video camera, a steadycam and tapes and put together an independent crew, including cameraman Ahmed El-Mursi, casting director Vanya Exerjian, assistant director Hossam Noureddin, actor/director Zaki Abdel-Wahab and actress Aisha El-Kilani. The rest of the cast and crew are all newcomers, mostly from Alexandria where the film was shot in its entirety. And Asma had the good fortune of being welcomed to shoot for days on end in many locations in Alexandria for free: the French Consulate, The Swedish Institute, Jean Chamas Palace, Al-Salamlik Hotel at Montaza and the Jesuit Association headed by Frère Fayez. Asma's favourite pet, Stambouline, picked up one chilly winter from a street in Istanbul, also played a part in the film.
Asma doesn't think that the marginalising of her films, and those of others operating outside the mainstream industry, is politically motivated. "Since the government has not explicitly banned any script or any film, one cannot claim censorship is to blame for the current trend to produce a single brand of comedy," she says. "Yet it is a fact that when the government produces through the state-owned TV they neither achieve commercial nor critical success."
Asma has also directed 18 documentaries on a variety of topics, ranging from the sources of the Nile -- on which novelist Sonallah Ibrahim collaborated, travelling with the crew to Uganda and Sudan as well as writing the commentary -- to the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and Fatimid and Ayyubid Cairo, and taking in en route a Russian princess who fled to Egypt from Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution, the local marble industry, Al-Zaher district and Nile boats. Sonallah Ibrahim, who has "a rare brand of intellectual honesty, and does not change affiliations according to political trends" and Gamal El-Ghitani are two of Asma's favourite Egyptian writers. She also admires director Mohamed Khan who is "a genius when it comes to exterior location shooting and has a sense of the Egyptian street".
Asma is also a diver. In 1994 she discovered that they were dumping concrete on underwater archaeological sites in Alexandria and engineered the scandal that resulted in the end of the vandalism. Other bugbears include negligence in the preservation of monuments, and building on agricultural land. This latter she sees much of from the vantage of her farm in Shabramant.
There she keeps cattle, horses, poultry and pets. She has 300 palm trees and cultivates garwa (a type of local maize), wheat, artichokes and grass. "After all, I have animals to feed," she explains. In her spare time she rides.
She enjoyed Robert Redford's Horse Whisperer which was on local TV the other night. When I mention that it was disappointing compared to Redford's earlier film Ordinary People (1980) she retorts: "I liked how they gave the horse this will to survive in the film. And don't forget that I'm mad about horses myself."
She has reservations about Ordinary People: "Why does the psychiatrist who saves the world [of the film] have to be Jewish?" But so was the founder of psychoanalysis, I point out. She believes that the media everywhere is controlled by Zionists, and has a great deal of respect for Jews like Albert Einstein and Stephen Zwieg, a one- time friend of Theodore Herzl who refused to have anything to do with the Zionist project.
Asma never reads the papers and does not watch TV news channels.
"I'm completely against satellite TV and I'm sick of learning about the mess the US is making of the world, aiding terrorists in Russia to ensure Moscow does not veto Security Council resolutions against Iraq. The world is a one man show run by Bush, who is manipulated by Sharon." Asma owns a TV only to watch operas and movies.
Asma's second feature, Concerto Darb Saada, was attacked critically and failed commercially. Yet it is a film by which she stands.
"The protagonist, Azouz," she explains, "works at the Opera House and is surrounded by beauty though he does not recognise it until he encounters a pretty violinist. She opens his eyes on to a different world. The fourth movement in Beethoven's ninth symphony takes him on a Sufi journey to reach divine love as described by Mohieddin Ibn Arabi. The violinist tells the protagonist that 'music is not what shakes the legs and empties the mind.' The meditation between Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner helps to attain a kind of Sufi ecstasy, which fulfils all one desires."
Asma too believes that we must transcend the material to recognise the common divine essence in all religions. She gets upset when she sees preachers and pilgrims weeping during prayer. "The search for the divine love is the same in all creeds and religions," she insists. "Freedom is not so hard to attain. One just needs to listen."