It took the Ministry of Culture 30 years to start producing films again, writes Nevine El-Aref
. Will the effort be worth it?
It starts in 1948. Hassan, a young Cairene, travels to Port Said where he has a new job. At the port, strains of classical music fill the air as an extravagant party takes place on board one of the ships moored there. By sheer coincidence, Hassan attends that party and, while drinking and dancing, mingling carefree with the crowd, meets the love of his life -- a young, beautiful and elegant lady with whom he spends a single day. It is the encounter that will shape his life, recurring once in Alexandria in 1973, when Hassan is in his fifties, and again in Cairo in 2001, when he is 80 years old. This, in a nutshell, is the storyline of The Passenger ("Al-Musafir") -- the first film to be produced by the Ministry of Culture in 30 years, directed by the young filmmaker Ahmed Maher. It is a story in which the protagonist, though active and engaged, is forever wrapped in a melancholy loneliness -- and a visually compelling feat...
Port Said in 1948 is impressively reproduced, what with the old-fashioned boats, the docks and the control room, the cafeteria and the sailors. All came to life last month at the Tarek Nour Studio, 6 October City, while Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, director of Cultural Development Fund Aymen Abdel-Moneim, and president of the Egyptian Film Centre Ali Abu Shadi, together with hundreds of foreign as well as Egyptian TV anchors, journalists and photographers, watched in awe. Hosni announced that shooting would start while he admired the ship designed by Onsi Abu Seif, describing the LE9 million project as a dream come true. "It's a real turning point for Egyptian film production," he said. "It just may herald a return to the golden age of cinema." Indeed, he added, already the film industry has been progressing in leaps and bounds with more and more state-of-the-art equipment being used and talented artists emerging on the scene: "In producing The Passenger, the ministry is adding to its many achievements." The project had been postponed until all the elements required for an adequate production had fallen into place. "But it is a highly favoured venture of the ministry's, and it has all the makings of success, among which is the friendly spirit in which everyone involved is participating."
Why risk using a young director, however, without a single full-length feature to his name? In response to this question, posed by many a journalist, Hosni recounted the story behind The Passenger from the start. It was while the ministry was searching for a powerful script free of commercial trappings that Abu Shadi proposed The Passenger, which Hosni, reading in person, immediately approved; still, he drew up a committee of critics, including Samir Farid, who agreed with him. Maher was a good choice not only because he was talented and efficient but, more importantly, because he had had experience with the ministry. Shortly after graduating from the Higher Institute for Cinema, he received a 1993 Rome Festival award for his graduation project -- the nine- minute Rahil Ala Waraq (Departure on Paper) -- which in turn enabled him to obtain a three-year residency at the Egyptian Arts Academy in Rome where he wrote and directed the 30-minute-long Akher Al-Nahar (Dusk) in the same year. Five years later he came back with the Nile TV production Alamat Ebril (April Signs), while in 2001, three weeks after 9/11, he made an Italian-Egyptian documentary about the event named Beit Al-Akhar (The Other's Home) -- the first in the Arab world.
Maher wrote the script of The Passenger with an emphasis on three years that proved life-changing not only for Hassan but for the course of history: the years, respectively, of the Nakba, the 6 October War and the 9/11 attacks. At first sight it appeared as though this would be another documentary or docudrama, but Maher has since denied any such claim: " The Passenger is the story of a person who always thinks of his roots, asking how it all started, without the least concern with the political events that occurred simultaneously with his life." Maher told Al-Ahram Weekly that Hassan is the subject of the film, the years in which he is seen being little more than occasions to recall the mood, the spirit and the features of people and things in his life and that of Egypt -- its characters and streets, its architecture and merchandise -- and to register the change that occurred in over 70 years. "It's also a question of evoking Egyptian cinema during its golden age, which I do by incorporating dialogue and décor characteristic of it." The casting progressed in a similar spirit, with Khaled El-Nabawi as Hassan in his youth and Omar Sharif in his old age -- Sharif's first appearance on the Egyptian silver screen in 14 years. As for the Lebanese actress Serene Abdel-Nour as the female lead, she looks sufficiently European to play a foreigner, and she is a suitably fresh face, which is needed. As well as reportedly no less than 60 high-profile guests of honour -- including Hussein Fahmi -- the film features Amr Waked, Youssef Dawoud, Raghda and Basma. Nor is the crew any less impressive, with composer Fathi Salama, costume designer Dina Nadim, editor Tamer Ezzat and Italian cinematographer Marco Onorato -- a choice Maher justified quite simply in response to a question about why it was necessary to work with an Italian when Egypt boasts several extremely competent cinematographers who would have appreciated the opportunity.
In Maher's view, Onorato is the perfect director of photography for this job; working with a foreigner, far from depriving Egyptians of an opportunity, actually fosters exchange, enriching the local scene. "Art," he said, "is art -- nothing to do with nationality." For his part producer Hisham Soliman -- who has worked with, among others, Youssef Chahine -- told the Weekly the greatest challenge was recreating times past. Ironically this proved rather more straightforward in 1948 and 1973, for which extensive cinematic archives could be drawn on. Since 2001, however, though things have changed significantly, there is no record of how they used to look. "But it's a challenge we must live up to," he continued. "We managed to recreate Port Said within the studio, so we should be able to work around the obstacles in Alexandria and Cairo..."