A day after the traumatic experience of Atonement finally started to wear off, I fell into the clutches of another incredibly moving cinematic experience no less gripping than the sweeping Oscar contender.
This time though, the source was quite unlikely.
Last week, I received a phone call from Ibrahim El Batout inviting me to attend a special screening of his long-awaited second feature Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun). El Batout is the Egyptian independent filmmaker whose first full-length feature Ithaki caused a stir in the independent film scene three years ago.
In the tiny conference room of independent film production company Film House Egypt, I sat with five other journalists to watch what turned out to be one of the best Egyptian films in a decade.
Shams opens with El Batout s camera fixed on a cab, roaming aimlessly in the streets of Cairo. As daylight vanishes to give way to the sorrowful darkness of the capital, a singer named Mariam hops in the cab.
She sees a photo of a little girl carefully placed beside the driver. She tells him that the girl is pretty. With a sorrowful smile, he tells her that she s his daughter, Shams, and begins to tell her story.
Inspired by her story, Mariam decides to sing a melancholy Iraqi tune in the small cultural center she s performing in. Her song resonates deeply for another Mariam who hears her.
As the latter Mariam recalls her harrowing experience of working as a physician in Iraq, a narrator explains that the young doctor was conducting research in 2003 that investigated the relationship between the increase of uranium rays and cancer.
Shortly afterwards, El Batout returns back to Cairo and begins to slowly introduce his main characters.
Shams, the unofficial protagonist of the multi-character film and resident of Ein Shams, is an 11-year-old life-embracing dreamer whose only wish in her young life is to visit downtown.
Her vision of the capital s center bears no resemblance to reality. Shams downtown is chiefly inspired by the fantastic illustrations of her English book.
Ramadan, Shams father, is the personal chauffeur of businessman Selim Bey besides his job as a taxi driver.
Selim is a multimillionaire facing bankruptcy. Hany, his nephew and personal accountant, is a parliamentary candidate for the Ein Shams district.
On the other hand, Ramadan s nephew Omar is a semi-unemployed young man who provides his neighborhood with illegal satellite and aspires to immigrate to Italy.
Another secondary character is Shams spinster teacher, who tries to dissuade her from adhering to her dreams and rejects the unrealistic mindset that dominates her writing compositions.
El Batout weaves loose threads and storylines gradually into a coherent modern Egyptian story of loss, poverty, desperation, and hope.
Not since the heyday of Egyptian cinema vérité of the 80s has a film succeeded in capturing the unpolished, grim reality of Egypt with such a terrifying degree of authenticity.
Every location in the film appears exactly the way it is in reality: narrow alleyways, drab flats, and masses co-existing in a diminutive amount of space. This is Egypt like it was never portrayed before; a modern hell with no savior or prospects.
Nearly every character in the film is looking for something to lift them from the misery they re entrenched in. Their dreams are simple, yet difficult to attain.
Unlike the current horde of the so-called reality pictures like Hein Maysara and Heya Fawda? , El Batout presents these realities with a whisper rather than a scream.
He touches upon several issues, including corruption of the apathetic political elite, overwhelming tyranny of the political and social system, and death of innocence. Each aspect of El Batout s story is treated with a subtle, delicate, yet powerful manner. None of the sensational melodrama of Maysara or Fawda is found in Ein Shams, and perhaps that s why it s much more effective and devastating.
The film is relayed in layers, as each idea takes its time to develop until reaching the final heartbreaking conclusion. El Batout takes his viewers to unforeseen territories via unexpected directions.
The structure of both Ein Shams and Ithaki resemble the disjointed narrative and multi-character stories of Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu ( Babel, Amores perros ), an influence El Batout doesn t deny. Yet the way El Batout conjures his story remains distinctively his own.
I believe that life is a series of unfinished stories, El Batout commented. I have been living a life of an unfinished story.
The humanity and small doses of unadulterated joy he infuses his film with is poetic. Nothing in life comes separately, he added. Pain comes with joy, and joy comes with pain. That automatically produces poetry.
There s one particular sentence, regarding those having encountered traumatic experiences, El Batout uttered five years ago during an interview with Ahram Weekly that resounded strongly in my head while watching the film.
People who go through such experiences somehow recognize each other when they meet. Perhaps the underlying concept of Ein Shams lies within these words.
All main characters in the film are attempting to cope with a pointless, destitute life. They continue to live such a life because they don t have an alternative. El Batout ultimately suggests there are basically two options for those who are disgruntled: succumb to the dishonesty of the system or leave the country.
The merciless capital offers no love or hope. The only strength and solace the characters find is in themselves and a few others. Downtown is a symbol for an illusionary fantasy both Shams and other Cairenes achingly long for because, simply, dreaming is the one thing they can afford, the sole source of deliverance they continue to believe in.
El Batout said that theme struck him when he returned from Iraq in 2003 and believed that the destiny of his home country might not be worlds apart from Iraq. One difference though is that all the damage and destruction here has been perpetrated by both the government and the indifference of its repressed people.
The bittersweet hopefulness offered in the last heartbreaking act is both ironic and comforting. Few Egyptian films have succeeded in combing magical realism with so many contrasting emotions and raucous criticism.
Yet the biggest irony of Ein Shams doesn t lie in its content, but the fact that the same bureaucratic system El Batout is criticizing is now obstructing his film from release.
A shroud of controversy has surrounded Ein Shams ever since El Batout was attacked at the press conference of the Cairo International Film Festival last November for traveling to Israel to shoot Nadia Kamel’s highly lauded documentary feature Salata Baladi (Oriental Salad). Some pundits called for Ein Shams, which was scheduled to participate in the digital film competition, to be barred from the festival.
A few months before the Cairo Film Festival, revered Egyptian critic Samir Faird saw Ein Shams and presented it to Moroccan film professionals who greatly admired the film. Shortly afterwards, El Batout received a grant from the Moroccan Culture Center covering 80 percent of the cost to blow up his digitally-shot film to 35 mm in order to screen the film in regular film theaters anywhere in the world.
The film, eventually, couldn t meet the entry deadlines of the Cairo Film Festival. The festival mess though was a drop in the bucket compared to what was to come.
Ein Shams was shot on location in the undeveloped housing of the Ein Shams district on a shoe-string budget with no professional actors. Neither El Batout, nor the members of his cast are enlisted in the Actors Union and, because of its independent nature, the film s preliminary script wasn t submitted to the Egyptian censorship.
“None of the actors were given a solid script during shooting, producer Sherif Mandour said. “None of them had any idea how the film would end up.
“This is not a new method, El B
atout added. Indeed, Italian neo-realism pioneers and French New Wave directors never worked with a fixed screenplay for their classics.
Since El Batout wasn’t able to obtain the consent of government censors, the 35 mm version of the film wasn’t allowed to enter the country and still remains in Morocco. The 44-year-old filmmaker has submitted a loose draft of his script to the censorship head Ali Abou Shadi. The governmental body hasn’t reached a verdict yet.
Even if the censors passed the film, El Batout and Mandour won’t be able to obtain the approval of the Actor’s Union unless they a pay a fine that could reach LE 250,000 for breaking the rules of the union, which apply to all filmmakers, by working without a license.
“I’m a member of the Union myself, Mandour said. “And I understand and respect their rules. If a license is not required to release films in theaters, anyone who has the facilities would go direct a film. The quality of films would go down drastically. There must some exceptions though. I honestly can’t afford to pay that sum of money.
The stagnant rules of both censorship bodies and the Union are part of a system that thwarts independent films from having a proper theatrical release.
“Cinema in Egypt is done via one fixed method, El Batout said. “They can’t even conceive there’s any other possible way to make movies. That must be changed.
The biggest irony of all though is that “Ein Shams has been selected to be screened in the Cannes film festival next May, which means that there’s a strong possibility that the film will have a theatrical release in Europe and elsewhere, but not in Egypt.
Chances are you’ll never get the chance to watch Ein Shams on the big screen. The only way the 35 mm version of the film can reach your local theaters is through public pressure.
Bombard the censorship and the unions with your phone calls. Write about it in your personal blog or local publications. Send petitions and e-mails to the ministry of culture. “Ein Shams is a true masterpiece from one the finest, most gifted filmmaker of our time. The struggle for “Ein Shams ‘s release has just begun, and it’s definitely worth fighting for.