Tahrir Square, one day during the Arab Spring. A young demonstrator falls for a camel shepherd who’s under the influence of Hosni Mubarak’s militias. Two people standing on opposite side of the biggest conflict Egypt has seen in nearly half a century are brought together against all expectations.
Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah wrote and directed “After the Battle” (“Baad El Mawkeaa”) which will be competing for the Palme D’Or, the festival’s highest honor. We spoke with him yesterday about his new film, an Egyptian revolution that was abruptly put on hold and his coming to the Cannes Festival for the fourth time.
Did you shoot your new film entirely in Egypt?
Yes, we shot it mostly in Zamalek (an upper-class neighborhood in Cairo), Tahrir Square, and in a village near the pyramids called Nazlet El Samman.
What was the Egyptian state’s involvement, financing-wise?
There was no financing from the state, this was entirely a privately-funded project.
Who participated, then?
“After the Battle” is an Egyptian-French co-production, in conjunction with France Televisions, France 3 and Siècle productions [France], which is owned by Georges-Marc Benamou. Seventy percent of the financing was done by an Egyptian production company called New Century. We also got a little financing from S.A.N.A.D, which is the Abu Dhabi Film Festival’s funding arm.
I understand you developed the screenplay as the shooting went on?
Yes. Actually, we had almost no screenplay. Censorship in Egypt is difficult to get around, and without it you can’t get permits, especially during a momentous year like last year, when filming was done. But the state’s permit office agreed to my just submitting a synopsis before deliving the filming authorization.
I thought that in fact the government would have asked for a very detailed screenplay, with multiple revisions requests, like they do for some Iranian filmmakers. You have a good inside-man in the Egyptian government?
(Laughs) No, not at all. I have been working in cinema for more than twenty years, so I’ve been able to impose my demands on the government. At least until now.
What type of gear did you use? How many were on your crew?
We shot with Arriflex’s Alexa camera. I had a crew of seventy.
Do you operate the camera?
No, I just give framing instructions to my D.P., we rehearse the sequence and then I give the go ahead.
How long did principal photography last?
46 days, with the overall project lasting seven months. I’ve been spending a few days in Paris to review the final copies before bringing them to Cannes.
What’s the running time of “After the Battle”?
Two hours and two minutes.
Is this final?
I’ve heard you say that the revolution has been hijacked from the people. What did you mean by that?
Usually a revolution is supposed to culminate in a new constitution, one that in this case was going to limit the powers of the new president. Since 1973, that position has held formidable power (executive, legislative, defense, etc. were all under Mubarak’s purview), there’s been no separation of powers—until now. The army was able to circumvent this state of things by proposing amendments to the constitution, albeit odd and superficial ones. It basically boiled down to “vote for Islamic rule.” There wasn’t any willingness to turn the revolution’s manifesto into law.
Does the Arab Spring exist as its own character in “After the Battle” or do you focus entirely on the two people and the fragile sentiment which arises between them?
The revolution is important in the movie, but what’s especially emphasized is how the post-revolutionary period has affected all citizens, from different classes, even. The main narrative is about a man, who’s married, who meets a woman and also seeks to gain his dignity back.
They’re brought together by revolution—they would’ve never met otherwise, being from different social origins. That’s the theme keeping it all together?
Yes, there is a lot of that.
Are you coming to Cannes as an activist, too?
I am presenting myself as a filmmaker showing his movie. When you take positions, however, you shouldn’t have to hide them; these positions have their place in my film.
You were in Cannes last year for “18 days.” How many times is that on the Croisette? What do you look forward to the most this time?
Yes. In 2004 I brought “Bab el Shams” to Cannes [it starred Hiam Abbas]. I showed my first film there in the Directors’ Fortnight program, the year was 1988.
What I look forward to? Egyptian cinema is barely surviving, what with the Arab market becoming complicated and revolutions and economic crises bearing down on the Middle East. And those are countries in which the censorship is harsh. My movie was made under difficult circumstances, thanks to producers who believed in the project. The mere fact of having successfully done the film, freely, and without having to comply with censorship, will give extraordinary impetus to other filmmakers from Egypt and the region, I hope, giving their work a local as well as a global audience.
Screen Comment’s Ali Naderzad will be tweeting live from the Cannes Festival starting May 15th. Follow him here @ScreenComment