Two Egyptian directors have been selected for mentorship and funding platforms to help them complete works in progress as part of the Cannes Film Festival, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary when it opens on May 17.
Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s Hamlet From the Slums is among 15 projects chosen for L’Atelier co-production forum and Morad Mostafa’s Aisha Can’t Fly Away Anymore is one of 10 films selected for La Fabrique Cinema programme.
The festival unveiled its official selection of 49 films last week, while the titles in the Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight sidebars are set to be announced in the coming days. Although the majority of the films are European, festival director Thierry Fremaux said the line-up is yet to be complete and will include “many good films coming out of Maghreb-North Africa”.
For the past two years, Egyptian filmmakers have made history at the event.
In 2020, Sameh Alaa became the first Egyptian director to be part of the French festival’s Official Short Film Competition for I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face. He went on to win the Palme d’Or for that category, the highest award given to a film at Cannes. The same year, Ayten Amin became the first Egyptian female director to be selected at Cannes with her feature Souad.
And last year, Omar El Zohairy’s debut feature Feathers, an absurdist black comedy about a woman’s struggles after her husband is transformed into a chicken, became the first Egyptian film to win the Grand Prize at Cannes Critics’ Week.
While we've yet to see what else could make history at this year's event, Fawzi Saleh, 40, is riding the wave of being invited to one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals for the first time.
Showing concern for the underprivileged
Fawzi Saleh has written and directed three films. His first, the 2010 documentary Living Skin about children living and working in the inhumane conditions of Cairo’s tanneries won top awards at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Baghdad International Film Festival.
His 2018 feature, Poisonous Roses, which centres on two siblings living in the impoverished tannery district, was Egypt’s submission for the 2020 Academy Awards. It was also screened at a number of international festivals, including the Cairo International Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award.
What his projects have in common is his “concern for minorities” and the underprivileged, says Fawzi Saleh.
Hamlet From the Slums tells the story of Ahmed, 18, who lives in a Cairo slum under threat of urban development. After the ghost of his late father demands revenge for his alleged assassination, Ahmed struggles to reconcile his perceived duty with his peaceful Sufi beliefs.
The film is produced and co-written by Ahmed Amer, who also co-wrote Feathers, and stars Ahmed Dash.
The project has been in development for the past two years and won several grants, including through El Gouna Film Festival’s CineGouna platform, the Doha Film Institute, and the Rotterdam Lab.
L’Atelier supports emerging filmmakers and arranges meetings with film industry professionals interested in investing in their projects. Out of the 231 projects presented from 2005 to 2019, 182 have been completed so far.
“I hope that we will find people that will like this project, so that it will be made,” said Fawzi Saleh.
Other Arab directors selected for L’Atelier include Iraq's Ali Al-Fatlawi with The Blind Ferryman, and Palestine's Ihab Jadallah with The Doubt.
"I'm happy there are films like Feathers that have won and gone to big festivals, because it opens the path to other films. And it affects the type of films that get made in Egypt — other types of films, not just commercial," Fawzi Saleh said. "Unfortunately, sometimes in Egypt, the films don’t get enough support to get made.”
He said he hopes that will change as the industry evolves.
On the right path
Aisha Can’t Fly Anymore, meanwhile, is Mostafa’s first feature film. He has directed and written three short films: Henet Ward, What we don’t know about Mariam, and Khadiga, all three of which made the rounds at international film festivals, earning a combined 88 nominations and 17 wins.
Mostafa, 34, also worked as an executive director on Souad, which was selected at Cannes in 2020 when the physical festival was cancelled owing to the pandemic.
He estimates that it will take another two to three years to complete Aisha Can’t Fly Anymore.
“The short film format is very different than the long film format in terms of the volume of work, the production, the scenario. So that, of course, is harder, but it’s also enjoyable,” Mostafa said.
The film is co-written by Muhammad Abdulqader and produced by Sawsan Yusuf and its co-producers include Mohamed Hefzy, the founder of distributor Film Clinic and the former president of the Cairo International Film Festival.
It revolves around a young Somali woman working as a caretaker for the elderly in Ain Shams, a Cairo suburb where many African refugees live. The pressures on her build up until they come to a head.
La Fabrique Cinema was created by the Institut Francais, in partnership with several sponsors, to support new talented filmmakers from southern emerging countries.
The programme invited 10 directors working on their first or second feature films to attend Cannes along with their producers. Apart from Egypt, the countries selected this year include Burkina Faso, India, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Rwanda, Ukraine and Vietnam.
“It’s a big step forward,” Mostafa said. “I feel we are on the right path for the project, especially when there’s confidence from established programmes, like La Fabrique Cannes.”
“Every year, our connection with Cannes is developing more, as Egyptian cinema and Arab cinema overall,” he added. “There is a transformation in Egyptian and Arab cinema from being regional to becoming global.”
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17 to 28