Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2012
Issue No. 1079
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Between Asmaa and Tahrir 2011

Sarah Mourad talks to the young director Amr Salama about his films of 2011

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Amr Salama is an Egyptian film-maker and blogger who, like so many inspirational figures of the January Revolution, is in his late 20s. Even though he has not studied cinema or filmmaking academically -- he is a graduate of the faculty of commerce (English section) at Cairo University -- he has always had a strong passion for the subject. In 2007 he wrote and directed his first feature film, On A Day Like Today. He has also directed several TV advertisements, awareness campaigns, music videos, documentary films, short films and a TV series. This summer he published his first book, A Kiosk Guy: A Journey in Search of the Handlebars, which became an instant best seller. Salama has also written for several newspapers and magazines.

His feature film Asmaa and documentary film Tahrir 2011 (The Good, The Bad, and The Politician) opened in Egyptian cinemas on 7 December. While both films were directed by Salama, he directed Tahrir 2011 in collaboration with two other directors: Ayten Amin and Tamer Ezzat.

Salama says Tahrir 2011 was initially the idea of the film's producer, Mohamed Hefzi. Hefzi was looking for a way to document the revolution and events related to it in January and February 2011, but he was finding it impossible to film at the time since everyone who was in the action was too busy with everything that was going on. Afterwards, when things had calmed down somewhat, Salama came together with directors Ayten Amin and Tamer Ezzat, with Hefzi as producer, to plan a documentary feature showing the revolution from three different perspectives -- the good (the revolutionary protesters), the bad (the police) and the politician (the dictator).

"I chose to direct the part about the politician, since I had this idea in mind even before the time of the revolution, and I had written a few blog posts about my anger at Mubarak and his regime. I just needed to add the part on the fall of the dictator, which of course happened during the revolution," Salama says.

"It wasn't only my own point of view as much as it was based on testimonies and opinions of people who had been part of and had lived through the situation."

Another of the film's producers Ahmed Abdallah, had pitched a tent in Tahrir Square, and this proved very helpful in gathering material during the 18 days of the uprising. In this tent, known as the Media Centre, activists gathered and collated footage shot by various people during the revolution, as well as other material. "This material was the contribution of various people for the sake of documenting events. We used much of it in our film," Salama says.

Each director is given 30 minutes for his section in the 90-minute documentary. It has been hailed as the first true documentary film to be screened in Egyptian cinemas in decades.

The feature film, Asmaa, is the story of a woman, an HIV/AIDS patient, who decides to go public on a TV show. Facing up to society, she exposes her illness and demands proper treatment.

"The film is based on a true story. I chose this story specifically because I admired this woman's courage, since she broke her silence and overcame her fear to stand in the face of society and demand her rights," Salama says.

The story, he says, is full of affection and beautiful interpretations of love, sacrifice, and courage. "All that made me want to make a film about that character in particular," he says.

Some years ago Salama was asked to make a documentary film about HIV/AIDS for the United Nations, and in the course of filming he met AIDS carriers and heard their stories. He toyed then with the idea of making a film about one of the patients.

"I initially, thought it would be too unpalatable to write a film about an AIDS carrier, and I assumed people would not be interested in seeing such a film. But when I actually listened to the stories, I was so amazed that I thought that, on the contrary, they might grab people's attention," Salama says.

He explained that this was not a film specifically about AIDS, or a film that explained the circumstances of an AIDS patient, as much as it was a film about various issues and meanings portrayed through that AIDS patient. "It is a story of love, courage and breaking the barrier of the fear of society and fear within. I believe that it is something we need, an experience we need to go through."

Both films have been screened in various festivals across the world, and Tahrir 2011 was screened three times as part of the Panorama of European Film event in Egypt last month.

Asmaa won the awards for Best Arab Director and Best Actor (Maged El-Kedwani) at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, while Tahrir 2011 has been screened at various festivals, winning the CICT-UNESCO Enrico Fulchignoni Award at the 68th Venice Film Festival, Best Documentary Film at the Oslo Film Festival, and Best Arab Producer (Documentary) at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

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