Mafrouza: welcome to a world
A five-part documentary on the lives of the residents of a popular district of Alexandria, Mafrouza is being given an enthusiastic welcome by international audiences, writes David Tresilian in Paris
When French filmmaker Emmanuelle Demoris visited the popular Alexandria district of Mafrouza for the first time a decade or so ago, at the time a densely packed residential area near the city's docks, her intention was to continue a documentary project that had by then taken her half way round the Mediterranean, exploring the ways in which contemporary communities related to the past and to the subterranean presence of the dead.
Her research had already taken her to sites in Libya and Algeria, and, arriving in Alexandria in 1999, she naturally gravitated towards Mafrouza. Called the "rock," or gebel, by its 10,000 or so inhabitants, the district had been built on the remains of a Graeco-Roman cemetery, itself carved out of the underlying rock. According to the notes produced to accompany Demoris's recently released film on the area, also entitled Mafrouza, most of district's residents, many originally from Upper Egypt, had moved in during the 1970s when growing population pressures and rising rents had priced them out of other parts of the city. Most of the men worked in the neighbouring port facilities, or as carpenters, mechanics, taxi drivers and artisans in the city itself. The women worked either in the nearby cotton factory or at home, though the informal character of the housing, wired up with electricity but lacking running water or mains drainage, meant additional work for all in collecting water from the district's standpipes. A system of narrow lanes threaded through the area, its plan known best to those who lived there, with a snooker hall and mosque making up the district's public amenities. Everyone who lived in Mafrouza knew each other, or so it seemed, with the district having a distinct and fiercely guarded identity, setting it off from the surrounding areas of formal low-income housing.
Demoris began living in Mafrouza and getting to know its inhabitants, and, as she did so she found her interests changing. "From my earliest meetings with the residents onwards, I had been amazed by their freedom of speech and of thought," she writes. "We used to talk about archaeology and philosophy, as well as about more personal matters. We also laughed a lot. In the end, I decided to let go of the dead in favour of the living: I wanted to make a film about Mafrouza to show others something of the freedom and vitality I had found there and to try to understand it better myself."The film was released in June this year, and it has since been attracting the enthusiastic notice of French and international audiences. However, Mafrouza is not an ordinary documentary film, partly because of its length -- over 12 hours in five separate sections -- and partly because it does away with a regular off-camera narrator, ready to jump in to explain events or guide audience reactions. "I didn't want to prejudge the form of the film," Demoris says. "I wanted to take the time to decide on the form as a result of what I found out while filming.
"I didn't want to decide how the material was to be interpreted in advance," wanting "neither a format nor a message" to stand between it and the audience. The result is a film -- or films, since each section can be watched outside the narrative frame of the whole -- that has been made as much with, or by, the residents of Mafrouza as it has about them. "It took me some time to get to know people in Mafrouza," Demoris adds, "and I explained to them that I wanted to film them as individuals, as they were in themselves."
"They told me that in that case the film should not be a 'documentary' film, but instead that it should be a 'normal' film, with stories. The conversation went on for months, and it is present in the finished film in the situations and the themes that are touched upon, among them love, freedom and the passage of time. [This method] opened up a space of possibility, in which the film could be thought about and made with the people of Mafrouza and not about them."
Demoris's prefatory material explains much of what audiences see when they settle down in front of the various parts of Mafrouza. The focus is on a set of perhaps half a dozen main characters, followed through the five films, whose inter-related lives begin to stand in for the district as a whole. Sometimes the camera simply follows these characters as they go about their daily business, with Om Bassiouni, a middle-aged family woman, patiently building an outdoor oven in Mafrouza 1, for example, reprised in Mafrouza 2, and Abu Hosni, his house perched precariously atop the area's rising water table, shown repeatedly bailing out water from his flooded home, only getting close to the root of the problem in Mafrouza 3.
However, more often than simply following the lives of the characters the camera also takes part in events, the characters addressing it, arguing with it, abusing it or playing up to it. The intentions of the filmmaker, sitting out of sight behind the camera lens, but sometimes directly addressed by the characters, are raised, and the characters discuss how the resulting film will be used and what effects it may have on its foreign audiences."She'll cause a scandal abroad with her film," Om Bassiouni is told by neighbours in Mafrouza 1 (and 2), "she" being Demoris. "She's going to make fun of us and show us in our poverty abroad." Om Bassiouni, used to poverty and not much caring what people think, says that she doesn't care if she does cause a scandal. "Let her make a scandal. The whole country's already a scandal. In any case, God will protect us from scandals," she spiritedly says.Rather like her neighbour with his perpetually sinking house, Om Bassiouni seems unconcerned by the camera's presence, though she sometimes discusses what Demoris is filming and why. Other characters adopt a different strategy, explaining themselves to the camera and so to the audience imagined to lie behind it, sometimes also attempting to seduce, impress, or grandstand to the viewer. In a piece included in the notes to the film by critic Jean Narboni, editor of the French review Cahiers du cinema during its most distinguished phase, this element in the film is part of its necessary theatricality. A film has to be able to tell a story, or stories, since without these there is no interest, "above all when a camera is present."Narboni's view of the film is rather like that of the characters themselves: it is not quite a documentary, certainly not a documentary with a single message, and not quite a mass of unshaped raw material either. It is not like reality television, being magnificently shaped and edited, and it is not like fly-on-the-wall documentary, since the camera is always very much seen to be present.
Mafrouza, Narboni writes, does not present characters who are representatives of any particular group, community, or nation. Instead, they represent themselves. "There is the feeling that the filmmaker has not made a film about a shanty town, a community, or a milieu. Instead, she has created a world.""The nature of the relationship between the filmmaker, the camera and the people she is filming also changes, [and]... the filmmaker's position is neither that of an auteur, exaggeratedly pointed to, nor that of a clinical observer or voyeur. Neither a spy in their midst nor an overly familiar friend, the camera moves through the world of the characters like an adopted brother. This is exactly what I felt when I watched Mafrouza : Demoris becomes a sort of adopted sister" to the characters and one having her own role to play in a common adventure. There is much else that could be said about Mafrouza, a film which seems sure to attract specialist audiences and film-study buffs, as well as regular cinema-goers. On a recent viewing of all five parts of Mafrouza, screened in Paris off the boulevard St Michel, Emmanuelle Demoris arrived in person after screenings of Mafrouza 1, 2 and 3, staying until well after midnight to answer questions on the film from an enthusiastic French audience.
The first version of Mafrouza, she said, had clocked in at 25 hours, being reshaped and edited down to 12 after much dedicated recutting. Giving the film a narrative arc, while retaining its local texture and the shape of each component part, had been a notable challenge. This trade- off between shape and texture had been particularly important, not only because of the film's length, and the need to lock in the viewer's attention, but also because of the overall cinematic experience the film had to offer.It was something like this experience, Demoris says in her notes, that she personally took away from Mafrouza and wanted to recreate in the film. According to Narboni, it is also this experience that gives the film its "monumental" character. "People in Mafrouza often used to say 'lissa schwayya,' by which they meant 'not yet,' or 'in a little while'. This had nothing to do with off-handedness or nonchalance, but instead had everything to do with a refusal to be pulled out of the present moment, as if because of the pleasure of simply being there and being a part of the here and now."
"The idea behind the film is to allow audiences to share something of this experience of time and temporality, since it is this that seems to lie at the root of the people of Mafrouza's 'availability' to experience and their happiness," Demoris writes. The film itself has been enthusiastically welcomed by the critics, the French newspaper Le Monde's film critic writing when the film opened in Paris in June that Mafrouza was "a world of a film, a monster of a film, a shock of a film, such as one has rarely if ever seen." However, things have been rather more uncertain for the film's characters, in real life relocated from Mafrouza to a public housing estate on the outskirts of Alexandria in 2007, where their lives may not necessarily have improved. According to Demoris, speaking in Paris after the screening of Mafrouza 3, while Adel and Ghada had a larger apartment on the new estate, Hassan, a remarkable screen presence and singer, had spent many months in prison (though now released) and Mohamed Khattab had been unable to restart his grocery store, previously an anchor for the Mafrouza community.Being further from the Alexandria docks, people had to travel further to work, Demoris said, with predictable impacts on family life. Since Egypt's 25 January Revolution, however, the name of the new estate had been changed from Mubarak City, its former name, to Mafrouza in recognition of its inhabitants' original district.