Documentary Cairo Jazzman traces Egyptian composer Amr Salah’s musical journey

First-time filmmaker Atef Ben Bouzid’s affectionate portrait follows Salah in the three weeks leading up to the Cairo Jazz Festival, which he organises.

Director Atef Ben Bouzid, left, with the film’s editor and co-producer Sebastian Leitner. Photo by Dirk Eichler
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The title of Cairo Jazzman, a documentary that had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam last week, refers to Amr Salah, an Egyptian composer and musician with a passion for jazz.

First-time filmmaker Atef Ben Bouzid’s affectionate portrait follows Salah in the four weeks leading up to the Cairo Jazz Festival, which he organises.

The film certainly showcases amazing music, but also the charismatic Salah’s struggle with a tiny budget and minimal assistance from public bodies.

“People need music that makes them think, and not the canned music on the radio,” is how Salah describes the appeal of jazz in the opening moments of the film.

While Tahrir Square and the political upheaval the country has experienced are never mentioned directly, the film reflects, through the challenges with which Salah is confronted while organising his festival, many of the daily problems and struggles the Egyptian people face, particularly the younger generation.

The premiere took place in a concert hall, where a large, occasionally rowdy crowd were enthralled not only by the documentary, but a post-movie concert given by Tunisian artist Nabil Khemir. He plays the Rayjam, a novel stringed instrument that combines an oud with an electric guitar.

In attendance were both Salah and Berlin-based Ben Bouzid.

“You can’t make a documentary like this if you don’t have an outstanding protagonist,” says Ben Bouzid.

The filmmaker and his subject first became friends when Bouzid moved to Cairo to begin an Arabic course.

“I was following his story and position, and at the end of 2013 it popped into my mind, why am I not making a documentary about this guy?” says Ben Bouzid. “I thought I have to do this. Even with no funding or support, I will do my best to showcase Amr’s idealism and effort to change something, cultivate jazz and educate the people.

“He is not really privileged and nevertheless he is fighting for progress through music.”

Salah admits he was amused when he saw himself on screen.

“It’s funny,” he says. “It’s like seeing yourself in a mirror. You learn a lot of things when you see yourself in a mirror – you see your mistakes, how do you speak, how do you think. It’s like an echo.”

He admits he was surprised to see how he presents himself and of some of the ways he tried to put across his ideas.

“If you want to present your goals, you have to invest as much time as possible putting them in a good way,” he says.

“I’m never a satisfied guy, but I can say that since making the movie, there has been an improvement in the festival. We are more organised and established, so that means we can move things forward.”

So what is the state of the jazz scene in Egypt?

“It’s vibrant and growing, and as Carsten Daerr, the German pianist says, it’s attracting more youngsters,” he says. “In terms of public, it’s doing well. But the production, I’m not happy with the situation. We need more bands to be in the line-up of events such as the Cairo Jazz Festival. It’s a little bit weak.”

One of the highlights of the film is an interview with Salah’s parents. His mother, a music teacher, is especially animated.

“I did not know that Atef would interview my parents,” says Salah. “He told me he was visiting my parents – but because he knew them before, I didn’t know he was going to make an interview. My mother is really funny.”

Bouzid, who works as a sports journalist in Germany, says one of his goals with the film was to show Egypt as he sees it.

“I love Egypt and I definitely want to see civil progress in this society, but I’m a very critical guy so I tried to show it in my way,” he says.

“I want to provide a different window into Arab civil society, because there is a huge ignorance in the West. They don’t know that there are jazz musicians, or musicians trying to cultivate progress.”

• Visit for more information about the film. The Cairo Jazz Festival takes place every October. The International Film Festival Rotterdam ends today