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2 - 8 November 2000
Issue No. 506
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Samir Bahzan
Front Page

Samir Bahzan:

Deconstructing severity

Discourse on the camera, and its bearer

Profile byYoussef Rakha

Samir Bahzan burst in on my scene in action, literally. Glued to his camera, filming a theatrical performance I was affiliated with (which took place in a tent outside the Hanager Theatre), the newcomer appeared in spurts, as it were. On one occasion, I saw him admonish a young technician with what seemed like cruelty but was in fact the severity of an elder technician (as Bahzan, in some modes, seems to believe himself to be). Any attempt to allude to the cameraman-stranger's cruelty (meant to find out whether he was really cruel) was dismissed by my colleagues as ridiculously unfair nonsense -- with baffling impunity. I grew to doubt my personal first impression, but the stranger never showed up again. Years later, a Weekly colleague introduced us during the filming of Youssri Nassralla's Al-Madina: I said we had met before but that it felt like the first time; he said it was only natural we should both forget. I was overwhelmed by hospitality and warmth when I visited him at home in Hadayeq Al-Qubba. What was surprisingly overwhelming was the ease with which the conversation progressed. Bahzan's wife claims that he doesn't usually talk at all, flattering data considering the range and substance of all that he talked about that day.

No-nonsense is one way of describing the veteran director of photography. The attitude is particularly admirable in light of the unrelenting transformations still coursing through the Egyptian film industry, some of which may have deprived (and continue to deprive) Bahzan of opportunities for work. This he accepts with the utmost nonchalance, evidenced by the weight that a single, simple statement acquires in his voice: "I'm sure all jobs are seen that way and anyone will tell you their job is difficult. Our job really is difficult, though." To the observer it might be slightly unnerving at first: no superlatives, not a single unsolicited insinuation. Every word and gesture has a specific (usually essential) function. Yet no matter how hard one tries to be intellectually and emotionally discriminating, any statement might turn out to be ultimately superfluous. This is why Bahzan concentrates on the bare basics of a given conversation. When he doesn't want to dwell on some topic, he just refuses to, though he might still mention a (telling) thing or two. On his growing-up years in Mansoura: "It's not my favourite period. One is always trying to forget the times when there were many problems, and one does forget them." Then: "I am not going to talk about it."

A four-year-old breadwinner responsible for five sisters: Bahzan's childhood, he says, ached under a sense of obligation that grew up with him as he grew. "I was born in Cairo, but before he died my father was called to duty by relations, and I ended up going to nursery school in Mansoura." He did not come back until the end of secondary school. His university years, judging by willingness to discuss, were equally troubled; the time it took him to graduate (out of context) might seem inordinate. And even his apprenticeship, which began relatively late, involved years of directionless doubt. A reject engineering student and graduate of the Faculty of Applied Arts rather than the Cinema Institute (hence a young man with academic, rather than professional, connections), Bahzan considers penetrating the milieu his first major breakthrough. Following his graduation in 1973 he entered the milieu with Al-Rossassa La Tazal fi Gaybi (There Is Still a Bullet in My Pocket), under director of photography Ibrahim Saleh. But the job of assistant cameraman involved no creativity and, less than three years later, Bahzan was decidedly impatient. At this point he already had his own family and no other source of income. But he quit. "I thought I could always do other things, it didn't matter what."

The way he conceptualises his career is interesting. There is (in ascending order of significance) the "other stuff" in which he engaged when he was not doing cinema, and which he generally fails to specify on demand; there is "documentary work" (in which "the reaction is instantaneous, almost like working on news"); and there are films. "Of course when I enter into a movie I will have read the script and encountered some degree of harmony with the filmmaker's vision. But from that point on, my concern is my own work on the picture itself and what the film looks like, not the story or the intellectual side of things." His career in documentary film is fondly remembered, but the choice to do these films nonetheless sounds suspiciously like a last resort: "At least I was in full control as both cameraman and director of photography" (a dual role Bahzan was to assume more often than not since the beginning of his career as director of photography, the economically explicable fate of most Egyptian directors of photography), "not merely a mechanical part of somebody else's creativity. And the results would be mine to keep." Outside filmmaker Shadi Abdel-Salam's Experimental Film Unit, he mentions directors as wide-ranging as Mohamed El-Qalyoubi (now head of the National Centre for Cinema) and the young filmmaker Hala Galal. From 1996 to 1979 (when his wife, following the birth of his daughter and the expenses it was expected to generate, influenced his decision to accept a job as assistant cameraman again), he kept firmly out of the movie-making business. By this stage he was no longer a young man.

Samir Bahzan
And regardless of ambition to climb up to the rank of director of photography (for which experience as a cameraman is required), he had been itching to handle a camera himself, and he felt he had itched sufficiently long and hard. Subsequently, for five years, he worked with Ramses Marzouq, perhaps Egypt's most widely respected director of photography (starting with Mohamed Saleh's Ya Tali' Al-Nakhl, or You, Climbing Up the Palm Tree). Following further departures, he returned more recently to the screen as an award-winning director of photography, collaborating with, among others, Dawoud Abdel-Sayed, Youssri Nasralla, Zaki Fatin -- the best and most remarkable of a new generation of (unflinchingly serious) filmmakers. Bahzan is an unwilling artist: "The only reason I chose this career is that my marks weren't high enough for engineering, what I was originally aiming for as a secondary student." And while his (Wittgenstinian) verbal austerity might prove intractable, the expressive capacities of controlled seeing (an attribute of his job) are something he has learned to bank on. A revealing episode: "During my first experience with Dr Ramses, there was this convoluted shot --" Bahzan explains the physical circumstances with a strikingly fresh memory -- "and after repeating it once, he asked me to repeat it again, so I had to ask why. And I realised that, from his standpoint, the movement of the camera seemed unnatural, so I explained to him how it actually worked at my end. I repeated it yet again, but I felt he was unconvinced -- until he actually saw it on the screen. After that he trusted me so implicitly that when everything was ready he would leave."

Camera workmanship is all about (nerve-racking) precision -- the right lighting (a job reserved for the director of photography), the right movement in the right space (theoretically the cameraman's exclusive arena), the ability to understand technology and equipment the better to utilise them. Laxity is unthinkable (since it costs money and time), the work is physically demanding, the hours inhuman. Though he expands on the difficulty of being cameraman and director of photography at the same time, Bahzan does not play down the (only too palpable) incidence of error: "People will identify an error, and the director of photography responsible will claim it was intentional (even though it wasn't), meant to enhance this or that emotion, underline this or that idea. But it is an error, and if you are really in the business [of camera workmanship] you can tell. How can you deny it? If you're clever at talking, maybe. I am not clever at talking." In Dawoud Abdel-Sayed's Ard Al-Ahlam (Land of Dreams), it was once noted, silver-screen diva Faten Hamama looks younger in some scenes, older in others. Now since the film takes place in the course of 24 hours, explains Bahzan, if this is indeed true, it can only be a mistake of his; there is no need to explain it any other way. Crucially, for Bahzan, workmanship is also about adaptability.

"When we first entered into discussions about the film," Bahzan says of Al-Madina, a pioneering triumph shot originally with a digital camcorder intended for amateurs, "nobody had decided whether it would be filmed on 35mm tape or on video. When I asked Youssri why we were going to use video, he explained that it was an inexperienced cast and that 35mm tape would not allow us to experiment and perfect things sufficiently. I don't know whether that was the sole reason, but he wanted the freedom to repeat as many times as he wanted to. He thought that a camera like this would provide him with the facility of letting the actor say and do as much as he wanted to, and edit out all that he didn't like. And it was a question of getting the best that is possible, not the best that is available. So we began to explore the new equipment, looking at samples filmed using different cameras and later copied onto 35mm tape, and discovering the limitations of the camera at hand. My issue was whether we were aiming for a picture that would look good on 35mm tape. I felt that, if we weren't simply looking for our own picture, relative to the camera we're using, I didn't want to do the film. Youssri reassured me that we were simply looking for an appropriate aesthetic framework for our film, not for what might look good on 35mm. It was a question of studying the camera's capabilities and how to use them for the film we were doing. What difference does it ultimately make for the viewer?" Bahzan refuses to regard the innovation as a feat: "Very simply, it is a question of knowing how to use your equipment, whatever it might be."

Bahzan is a beloved family man. His approach to life reflects an unassuming detachment and masks a remarkable volatility of temperament (the severity, aside from being an unavoidable discipline of the milieu, conditions and tempers a deep-set irritability) -- all of this feeds back into the plodding gait of an Egyptian breadwinner, an undisplayed mark of pride. There is something curiously sedate about his understanding of life. Wisdom? "That is a very difficult question, but if one learned anything from this job, aside from actual practical experience, it is responsibility. If you mess things up just once, that can be the fatal blow. One's sense of the responsibility in question is heightened." Modesty? "I get tired of thinking about it. I don't see it as false modesty or even humility, but when I see other people's work, I like their images better. I look at my own work and I don't like it. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that one's own mistakes are more visible to one." Pride? "The offers I received to become a director of photography at first were never satisfying, which is why I never accepted them and concluded five years with Dr Ramses by doing other things." Whatever it might be, it is a non-verbal quality, something akin to what lies behind the austere logicality of his responses. "You do what you know how to do, as well as you can," he insists.

What about the milieu, though? The conditions of cinema now? "The difference between our milieu and any other milieu is that we have louder voices. Whatever we do we don't keep quiet about, for many of us by virtue of the limelight, of course. But that's the only difference, there is nothing else that really stands out... I don't know, there are many reasons for what is called a crisis, not one reason. But I have a point of view that I'm going to tell you about. Before the new cinemas were built, people complained about the lack of movie theatres, attributed the depression to that. Then the businessmen came in and built all these theatres. Yet the average ticket at these new theatres costs something like LE25. Can you tell me how many times a month a family of four can possibly afford to go to the cinema? I think this is the problem: raising family income levels. That is one thing that is over and above all the artistic and technical debates, all the crises." And prizes? "Al-Madina was considered experimental, excluded because it was filmed on the wrong tape, even though members of the jury actually were asking us whether it was this film that was shot with digital equipment -- imagine! What you see going on around you -- the reasoning behind awards, the way people fight for them, disputing the verdicts of juries -- all that makes a prize feel worthless when you receive it. Much of the process is arbitrary, and participation alone should make one happy." Bahzan winds down to a quiet, movingly sentient expression of distress: "But the concerned parties often deal with these questions in a very uncivilised way."

Considering the unexpectedly variable course of an ongoing encounter -- my first impression was one of cruelty, after all -- I left the flat that afternoon with a rare sense of fulfillment. How will Samir Bahzan next burst in on my scene?

photos:Randa Shaath

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