A world of puppets
After spending 25 years in Russia, filmmaker Ashraf Abdel-Baqi has returned to Egypt to help direct a new show for children's television, Araais Moksha (Moksha Puppets), to be screened during Ramadan. Rashda Ragab went to meet him
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From top: Abde;-Baki with his team in rehersalals of Monkeyiy's Kingdom; Abdel-Baki in Moshka Puppets
Like Pinocchio, the Moksha Puppets turn into humans, but not to enjoy life as the famous puppet hero did; rather to escape the oppression of the theatre owner and win freedom.
Actors Farouk Floukas, Ahmed Nabil, Faiza Kamal, Ali Hassanein and Samir Hosni share the puppet's dilemma, since the production is still waiting to get off the ground. Written by Hamdi Attiya and directed by Yehia Zakaria, the puppet series has Ashraf Abdel-Baqi as its assistant director and also playing the role of Said Kanish, a superficial artist.
Abdel-Baqi, who came home to Egypt last year after living in Russia for a quarter of a century, is no stranger to the puppet world. His late mother Naglaa Raafat designed and directed 20 puppet theatre plays, of which Abu Ali, Al-Shater Hassan, Cinderella, and Dabdoub Al-Kaslan are the most famous. His father is the poet Samir Abdel-Baqi who has written several plays and stories for children.
"My mother had worked with famous puppet director Salah El-Saqqa," Abdel-Baqi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "When she took me to the puppet theatre as a child I used to play with El-Saqqa. Puppets were everywhere at home. They were treated like human beings. I used to see my mother making them from A to Z."
Abdel-Baqi has not been idle while he waits for production to start. When he was nine, he played the role of Zaghloul, the only human in the puppet play Mamlaket Al-Qoroud, (Kingdom of Monkeys), which was written by his father. Now, more than 30 years later, he is directing the same play for the Children's Cultural Centre in Garden City.
"I chose to remake this play because of its actuality," he says. "The piece is all about leaders betraying their people to the enemy for personal profit."
Every day the monkey king sends two monkeys to be eaten by the lion, which in return lets him keep his throne. The monkeys discover the truth and learn that by sticking together they can win their way to freedom. "As a child I suffered with the way some children's TV presenters treated their young audience like idiots. I want to talk to children as grown-ups, especially since children today can get to know everything through the Internet."
Children's art the world over costs more than other productions, Abdel-Baqi says. He recalls that the budget for Pinocchio, one of the four children's movies he worked on in Russia, was $1 million. "In the West they believe such works are an investment in young minds, so they try to introduce the best for them regardless of cost," he says. "In Egypt, actors, writers and editors of children's works only earn half what their counterparts in other productions get. Children's writers don't produce their best, either because they aren't well-paid or are afraid their ideas might be rejected by the censors."
Kingdom of Monkeys is supposed to launch this month, but so far it still has no budget. Abdel-Baqi is using 50 puppets designed for the play 30 years ago by his mother. He says puppets and other production items of the theatre were discarded after the fire at the Beni Sweif theatre two years ago because they were considered a fire risk, and thus there was a shortage of theatre props.
He blames the official lack of enthusiasm on the lack of knowledge about art on the part of civil servants.
"If the director were an artist and not a civil-servant, he would never do that," he says.
Abdel-Baqi is an advocate of war films. "Our children need to know the history," he says. "Unfortunately there are very few Egyptian war feature films." Documentaries of the 1973 War were shot some days after the beginning of the war, so when he wanted to make a documentary about it he had no alternative to the Israeli war shots. Abdel-Baqi was an assistant director to Yuri Niklivich Ozref, the Russian director of war films, and was a jury member of the War Movie Film Festival for five consecutive years. He suggests that the Egyptian army should finance, supervise and take part in war films, and he is ready to work without a fee.
The budget for good films does not have to be huge, he says. "But there is no chance of screening a good Egyptian children's film in the cinema. In Russia and elsewhere short features, children's films and documentaries are screened in cinemas before long features. There are also cinemas for children. This is the only way to distribute children's films. Otherwise their filmmakers and writers might as well stop working, since they earn neither fame nor money."
Until it is possible to fulfil the dreams of an ambitious filmmaker, Abdel-Baqi is busy with theatre and television projects. For the Children Cultural Centre he is planning to direct his father's play Hassan Qarn Al - Fool, (Hassan, the Bean Pod). The play stresses the importance of using the mind, love and cooperation through the story of three boys who try to fulfil their dreams. For television he suggested a children sit-com adapted from his father's Twenty-five Children's Stories. The series focuses on the importance of reading through a child listening to his grandfather's stories.
The next plan is to form a company of puppeteers and train them to give shows in schools and resorts. He has a lot of his mother's puppets, and he can make cheap décor out of paper. "I'll train them the way I was trained. Not how to play with the puppet but how to act its role and give it the feeling. These are the rules of the Russian school which are different from other puppet schools," he says.