A couple of years ago, a little independent Egyptian film called Ithaki was screened at the Sawy Culture Wheel in front of a curious audience unfamiliar with its director. As the captivating images continued to roll one after another, an eerie silence pervaded the screening venue.
Based on a poem by the Greek Alexandrian poet Cavafy, the 70-minute film revolves around a war cameraman composing a film about 15 different characters.
The plotless film is a combination of documentary footage with recreated scenes set in Cairo. The thin line between fantasy and reality blurs in a series of sad, mystical images accompanied by a haunting score hummed by singer Karima Nite.
Ithaki stood out as an inimitable film of rare beauty created by an artist unafraid to charter new territory without a hint of pretension. The startling fact is that director Ibrahim El Batout believes otherwise. It could ve worked much better if I was less of a snob. I didn t make a film that appeals to everyone, and that was a mistake.
The meticulously constructed images are a major departure for someone who spent the last 16 years working on documentary and feature films for Japanese, American and European television as well as covering 12 wars.
El Batout graduated from the American University in Cairo where he majored in physics and minored in electronics. His first job was a maintenance engineer at the Video Cairo studio, and this is where he fell in love with the camera and learned the principles of the trade.
In 1991, El Batout worked for an independent British company called TV AM for a year. Afterwards, he became a freelance filmmaker, working for TBS Japan, Channel 4 UK, American networks ABC and CBS, the French/German network ARTE and the German TV ZDF, among others.
Through his lens, El Batout captured some of the most significant events of the past 16 years including the Iran-Iraq war, Czhachescow’s Downfall in Romania, the war in Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, the war in Kosovo and America’s invasion of Iraq.
I ve faced many traumatizing incidents. In 1988, I was shot in Ein Shams by Egyptian police who tried to prevent me from shooting their raid on the fundamentalist areas. I was shot again in Bosnia, El Batout said.
It wasn t until 2004 – after receiving the British Roy Peck award for his Mass Graves in Iraq documentary – that he seriously considered quitting.
The competing films were about Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries, which kind of reflected the type of work I d been doing for the past years. I realized that it s all happening again and it’s never going to stop, he said. Plus, they put up the names of all the journalists who died in war and five of them were my friends. I realized that I was moving in a vicious circle.
The one film El Batout feels made a substantial difference is his award-winning 1994 documentary about female circumcision in Ethiopia.
When the film was broadcast on German TV, it brought it nearly $500,000 of donations to combat FGM in Ethiopia. The film was screened to numerous communities there as well. I don t know how large the change was, but I think it did make a change.
For him, Ithaki was a vehicle to escape reality and delve into the world of fantasy and art. With a self-financed budget of LE 40,000 and a cast comprised entirely of his friends, filming Ithaki was a healing, meditative process.
The low budget forced El Batout to make the best use out of limited resources. I think world cinema has moved now to understand that the aesthetic of film doesn t mean having beautifully lit pictures. It s trying now to look real since we re all bombarded by reality through TV everyday.
El Batout undermines the ecstatic reaction that met the film, claiming that critics rave about any film with the slightest degree of artistic merit nowadays as a result of the sorry state of Egyptian films.
El Batout returned briefly to the world of documentaries this year with Al Jazeera produced I m a Refugee from Cairo about Sudanese refugees and their violent hip-hop gangs.
I was very disturbed how racist we Egyptians are, he said.
El Batout was even more enraged by the hypocritical reaction of the press and the public towards Israel s attack on Lebanon last year in comparison to the indifference that met the Sudanese bloodbath that took place in December 2005 in Mohandiseen, Cairo.
No one cared about those human beings who were killed in the middle of Cairo, he said. We re emotionally involved with Lebanon maybe because we watch Haifa Wahby and Nancy Ajram on TV while our neighbor s refugees are killed on our streets.
El Batout argues against those who justified the Sudanese massacre by stressing that Egypt, a country with a high level of poverty, doesn t have the capacity to accommodate citizens of other nations.
We ve been starving for the last 30 years; we ve been entrenched in corruption and oppression for the last 50 years, and all we can do is just place it on another race, he says.
It s a deeply rooted hatred that I see on the streets just because they re black. I stopped thinking about everything that s happening in the country in a logical way because I could go mad, and I really need my sanity.
El Batout s next film, Ein Shams, attempts to rectify the slip-ups the director believes he committed in his first fictional debut.
I personally believe that as an Egyptian filmmaker, I don t have the luxury to come out with a piece of art, he said. I m not interested now in producing a film that s representative of one percent of my society. With the new film, I think I may have succeeded, to a certain extent, in fulfilling my dream of creating a film language with many artistic layers that is understood by everyone.
The story revolves around a 12-year old girl living in the squatters of Ein Shams whose only dream is to visit Downtown. A plotline concerning Iraq is also a part of the story, drawing on what El Batout believes to be similarities between the two societies now.
El Batout insists that his new film was a result of the collaborative efforts of his dedicated crew that gave him all their time for free and really worked hard and believed in the idea. The film s DOP Hesham Farouk, assistant director Mohamed Abdel Fatah, the actors and the rest of the crew are, as El Batout states, the reason why he was able to bring his film to life
Esteemed critic Samir Farid watched the film and helped El Batout enter it into the main competition in the Morocco Festival next December. The Cairo International Film Festival is now considering screening the film in either the main or digital competition.
The first public screening of the film is yet to be determined, but El Batout hopes that the premiere will take place in Ein Shams with the area’s residents for an audience.