Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 July 2003
Issue No. 647
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Reaching reality

Filmmaker Hani Khalifa speaks to Sherif Iskander Nakhla about his debut, which gleaned LE4,300,000 in the first two weeks of its release

My friend Tamer Habib and I were each working on different projects when I first saw the script of Sahar Al-Layali (Sleepless Nights). Casually, he asked me to read it and see if I wanted to direct it, which I was more than happy to do as soon as I was done reading. It really touched me, and I thought it was very believable. I felt the characters, though in no way similar to me, were familiar and recognisable. Once you know the human side of any person, you discover his or her beauty. It doesn't matter which social class they belong to or what they do for a living. The important thing is to put your finger on the humanity hidden within the character, and Tamer is very good at revealing the qualities that make it evident.

First we presented the script to Hussein El-Qalla, who asked us whom we had in mind for the cast. When we told him he said that it would be great if we could get 80 per cent of the cast list. Thankfully we were able to cast everyone we wanted and so proceeded to the next phase.

Because they are such celebrities, it took over a year to come up with a shooting schedule that could accommodate them all. Often an actor would be busy shooting another film, or someone would turn out to be pregnant, you know. Before shooting, the crew was practically hostile because the film was non- commercial and nobody thought it would succeed. If it weren't for the support of my cast, the film couldn't possibly have happened. In the end I chose to release it in the summer season -- that way successful screenings would not be restricted to weekends, and because I knew there would be significantly more competition in the summer.

It was a pleasure working with the actors. I was already friends with Hanan Turk, Fathi Abdel-Wahab and Ahmed Helmi. But all the others were equally motivated and deeply excited about the project. It is not so common for actors to find a script with believable, well-rounded characters and I think that was its main attraction. There was a great deal of respect among us: actors are motivated when they are given specific directions by the director. They know they are in safe hands so they have confidence and they look more natural on the screen. Even the crew learned to discipline themselves eventually: they always made sure the lights were set up and everything was done before the rehearsals began. Afterwards they would sit down to watch the scenes as they were shot and applaud a good scene or an actor's powerful reaction -- an atmosphere that is seldom seen in the Egyptian film industry these days.

I am very interested in the small things of life that happen every day, details that people don't tend to notice any longer. Things that might seem ordinary but are not. I tried to express as much of this interest as possible in Sahar Al-Layali, including many such details to make viewers feel they were being offered a slice of reality but without consciously noticing it. In order to achieve this, I focussed on the reality of the moments as opposed to artistic considerations like composition. I didn't want the composition to upstage the action or the characters -- rather, I wanted the audience to forget that they were following a story in the form of camera images.

My principal aim in this film was to affect the viewers, to touch them. I never anticipated any particular response; I care about that far less than I do about affecting the individual viewer. My aim was not to make a film that people would simply like. I wanted to reach them on a different level. And to make the story, not any one character, the protagonist.

My greatest struggle during the making of this film was dealing with my own doubts and depression. Especially after the shooting phases, it seemed to be getting worse every day. Would it ever be released? The motivation of the producer seemed to be decreasing exponentially; I felt as if the connection between society and myself was being severed. The only thing I can see myself doing is directing, and if I lose sight of this I have no idea what I'm going to do. I even considered going into therapy but I didn't. There eventually emerges a solution to every problem. And after an eight-months delay, the film was released. It was not until the official opening that I really began to feel better, because I saw that the audience was moved. At private screenings everyone says that the movie is great regardless of what they really think, so I never take them very seriously.

Right now I'm a little disappointed in some of the criticisms directed at the film, especially in relation to its ending. People say that the film shouldn't have had a happy ending, that a realistic film like this one should have had a realistic ending. When I directed the film, I had no intention of giving it a happy ending, and in fact it doesn't really have one. The fact that most of the couples return to each other doesn't necessarily mean that their problems are solved. It is simply a step in the direction of a solution that may or may not work. I don't feel that it is my job as a director to force my opinion or vision on the audience, what I aim to do is to simply tell a story and make the viewers think about and question what they have seen, so that they are part of the story, not the spectators of something fantastical.

Now, a few weeks after the film's release, I feel rather optimistic about the film and I have hopes for the future. In Egypt we are lucky to have such a large market for Egyptian films, and we have relatively large audiences as well. Even Europe doesn't have this kind of advantage; American films have dominated European cinema. This is the time to incorporate new genres into the industry, the way there used to be genres in the past, and not submit to the tyranny of the box office, in which the only goal is profit. I plan to spend some time by myself, quietly, in the near future, and to work on some ideas for my next project. An idea that is completely different to Sahar Al-Layali but similar in the sense that it would have the aim of affecting the viewers' emotions and making them think.

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