Though Yousry Nasrallah has been in the director’s chair for 24 years, it’s taken a surprisingly long time for the Egyptian director, Variety’s Middle East Filmmaker of the Year, to garner the kind of international recognition the maverick helmer deserves.
Maybe it’s because diversity is a positive trait when applied to almost every artist except filmmakers. Pundits and programmers generally like easy categories, yet Nasrallah defiantly refuses to be boxed in, delighting in mixing genres and styles to achieve a potent vibrancy.
Following “After the Battle,” his first Cannes competition title, and a retrospective at Gotham’s Anthology Film Archives, it looks like 2012 is Nasrallah’s year.
“The only thing I was sure of was that eventually my films would be seen,” says the 60-year-old helmer, recalling the small home releases of his early solo efforts.
Since his debut in 1988 with “Summer Thefts,” and in such works as “Mercedes” (1993) and “Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story” (2009), he’s incorporated a form of unruliness that captures life, especially Egyptian life, far more accurately than most neo-realist films.
As rising director Ahmad Abdalla sees it, “Yousry was the first spark of independent films in Egypt. In 1991 we found him making a film on a DVcam with almost no stars and a very uncommon story. Ten years later we started to make our films in a very similar manner.”
Though Nasrallah’s fluency in world cinema rivals his mentor, Youssef Chahine, he’s never felt the need to make films for the international art house market. His interest lies in developing Egyptian stories told in an individual manner.
“There’s one constant in my films,” Nasrallah says, “I always make films about individuals who will not be crushed by history, who will not define themselves as victims.”
This nonconformist spirit meant funding sometimes lagged behind. Films like “Mercedes” and “El Medina” (1999), the latter co-scripted with Claire Denis, showed a bold director celebrating difference and slyly engaging with politics.
But it wasn’t until Arte France Cinema, the film division of Franco-German net Arte, asked him to make “Gate of the Sun” (2004), presented out of competition at Cannes, that the international community began to take notice.
Those expecting copies of that success were surprised by “The Aquarium” (2008), capturing the sense of paralyzed dissatisfaction under then President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
” ‘Aquarium’ was a sort of statement,” says the director. “It was, this is what I want to do and I’m not going to be put in a framework of someone who does big nationalistic epics.”
Although some assume he’ll continue to focus on the Arab Spring following “After the Battle,” Nasrallah refuses to meet such expectations.
“If I’m going to be pigeonholed as specializing in films about the Egyptian Revolution or politics or something like that, no, that’s not going to be the case.”
Given the precarious state of public funding for cinema throughout the Arab world, it looks like Nasrallah’s rebelliousness will be an asset.
“I think cinema will have to find another solution,” the director says. “You thought it was good enough to cater to Arab tastes, and it’s not feasible now. It might be good for Egyptian film, to get that shake-up.”
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