After the success of award-winning documentary feature “El-Banat Dol (Those Girls) in 2006, acclaimed filmmaker Tahani Rached returns this year with “Neighbors, her third documentary made in her native Egypt.
The film had its world premiere last week at Abu Dhabi’s Middle East International Film Festival.
The story of the people who reside or once resided, in the affluent neighborhood of Garden City, “Neighbors is a brilliant homage to the neighborhood’s denizens and its landmark villas and palaces that are now part of Egypt’s rich architectural history.
Working closely with co-director and producer Mona Assaad, the documentary – which took two years of preparation and research and 40 days of shooting – features interviews with numerous residents ranging from the British ambassador to the rooftop dwellers and the parking valets along with a multitude of diverse characters.
Avoiding cheap nostalgia, Rached and Assaad produced a lighthearted, informative and engaging documentation of not only a neighborhood’s history, but of modern Egypt.
The film begins with interviews with Garden City residents but quickly shifts its focus to detail the radical changes brought upon the neighborhood by the establishment of the Four Seasons hotel and the partial blockades set up, most notably, in front of the heavily guarded American Embassy. This siege-like sight was what inspired Rached to make this film.
“‘Those Girls’ had a huge echo in Cairo, Rached said in a question-answer session held after the film’s first screening. “The American ambassador invited me to a party for the neighbors of Garden City, and I asked if we could film.
Since Rached herself is a resident of Garden City, the party proved to be quite inspiring in regards to the discussion of security and efforts by the embassy to beautify the neighborhood. According to Rached, the ever-prevalent view of security barricades and such measures were causing neighborhood residents distress, both logistically and emotionally.
Interviews in the homes of the neighborhood inhabitants, many of whom were visiting their old homes (now government buildings or public institutions), include stories about their connection with the neighborhood, and what significance some of their homes held for other Egyptians – the homes of some interviewees were featured in major Egyptian cinema productions of the 50s and 60s.
“We decided to use some of the cinematic archival material to reference the reality of life in Egypt even though cinema embellishes reality, it reflects what the city was like and how life was, Assaad said.
“It’s a little trick from documentary filmmaking to use fiction as archival material, “said Rached.
“I think that the use of fiction films is almost metaphorical, one goes with the other, Egyptian filmmaker and audience member Yousry Nasrallah remarked in the session.
“The degradation of the footage (there is no conservation of it) as a metaphor for the degradation of the architectural heritage and the city’s degradation and the feeling that everything is being thrown away, spent away, because it leaves a sort of necessity for preserving this heritage is pure ideology.[there are] alternative ways of life, Cairo has known and knows multiple choices of lives, and I think the film reflects that.
“To me ideology is secondary, what I like is people, and when they’re true, it’s what’s in their heart and what they’re fighting for, and I respect them for it, for their memory and what they have to teach us, Rached said.
Audience response ran the gamut from appreciation to absolute derision as one reporter criticized Rached for what he deemed to be the limited and selective appearance of some of Garden City’s colorful yet poorer classes and characters. Rached vehemently defended her decision to feature a greater number of subjects whose backgrounds were either once aristocratic or of great fortune and prominence.
“The Baraka family are a simple people, I never intended to capture a chaotic family.my filming of the Baraka family is not chaotic.
Quantitatively, the greater percentage of Garden City’s residents is composed of the well-off, living in the homes and villas of the neighborhood. But the film makes no discrimination, treating all subjects from all social classes with the same affection. One never pities the porter or the big family living on the rooftop.
In a very moving scene, a rooftop resident from a humble background charts how upon attending medical school, he found out that a richer neighbor in a nearby building was enrolled in the same faculty, as were others – reminding the audience that our lives essentially follow the same path.
“Neighbors is beautifully shot, showing not only the lavish interiors of historic parlor rooms and grand sweeping staircases of embassies and villas, but serves as a forum for discussion on the destructive impact modernization, economic changes and the passage of time have had on such a beautiful quarter of the city.