Having just a range of documentary shorts to his credit, Mohamed Siam was more than a little nervous to take the opening-night slot at this year’s IDFA with his feature debut, “Amal”. “It’s surreal,” he says. “I’m a bit nervous, but I hope people like it. They tell me that the cinema has 1,700 seats and it’s sold out, so if they hate the film it could be dangerous!” Nevertheless, he has the full confidence of IDFA’s interim artistic director Barbara Visser, who praises not just the film’s technical aspects but Siam’s decision to present a timely issue – the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 – from a female perspective.
“As a kind of flagship issue,” she says, “I think it’s a very important sign of where we’re going.”
Six years in the making and edited down from 25 hours’ worth of footage, Siam’s film shows scenes from the life of Egyptian girl Amal, who we first meet at age 15 in 2012. Already a physically scarred veteran of the riots on Tahrir Square, the young, almost androgynous Amal is bitter and angry, having lost her elderly father to illness (although the exact circumstances are left uncertain in the film) and her first boyfriend in the notorious Port Said football riot of the same year. Revisiting Amal at regular intervals in her life right up until this year – a device that prompted Visser to draw comparisons with Richard Linklater’s ground-breaking 2014 indie hit “Boyhood” – the film shows the surprising twists and turns that lie in store for the principled, tomboyish girl as she becomes a woman.
Amal herself was unable to attend the festival, due to circumstances the film’s final scenes suggest, but Variety spoke to Siam on the eve of his premiere.
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What was the starting point for this film?
Mohamed Siam: I was originally looking for a male character from a group of football hooligans. But this group was like 99.9% all males. I followed a couple of those male characters, and one day, among this big herd of men, I saw this really little, very short girl, of maybe one meter and a half, almost. It was Amal, and she was wearing a purple hoodie, which she wears in the film. She was very loud, very obscene. But she was also very undefined – she didn’t look like a boy or a girl, physically. Even her voice was very undefined. But she was really, really bigger than life, commanding everybody to follow her. Leading all of these tall men, like the tip of an arrow.
Did she take a lot of persuading?
No. I took my time before putting the camera on her, because I wanted to see how she would act without the camera and then see whether she was going to be different in front of the camera. So I wanted to study her a bit before I put the camera on her. Actually, the incredible thing about her is that nothing changes when she’s in front of the camera. She is very natural.
When did the film start to take shape?
Well, in the beginning, I didn’t really know what I would do with her, what I would get out of her. My background was in fiction. I was a casting director, so I knew that she was a good cast – a good character to be seen on camera. But I thought the film was just going to be, like, a profile of one year [in her life], or something like that. I didn’t know where it was going. Then once I saw how she reacted to the bigger picture of her country – mirroring all the changes – I felt that it might be a very good coming-of-age story: seeing the changes emotionally and physically, and seeing one year after the other. So I retired from the idea that it was just going to take a year. But I didn’t know it was going to take six years.
She’s incredibly vulnerable, but also very brave. Why is that?
Her father used to say that if you have no fear, people will follow you. She thinks of those words as a prophecy. She really believes in that – his words are a religion to her, and that’s the source of her courage and her fearlessness. So although she might get hurt, and she might get into trouble, deep down inside she feels like that’s not gonna happen. She feels like she’s protected – her father is looking over her. That’s the beauty of their relationship, how she looks at him.
The footage of Tahrir Square is terrifying. Did you shoot it yourself?
Yes. I wanted to shoot something different, meaning I didn’t want to shoot while I was running around. I was putting the tripod down, choosing the right lenses, taking my time. Of course, there were bullets and smoke around. But I was just being this perfectionist cinematographer. I put myself and the people in the crew at risk. It was stupid. But I’m really proud of the footage.
How dangerous was it?
It was very dangerous. A bullet passed just beside my neck – it hurt my neck a bit. My assistant was shot in part of the ankle and he was arrested. It was brutal. I saw people die in front of the camera, things like that. But I didn’t want to put that in the film. I just used the things that looked a bit dreamy. Because I wanted to show, somehow, that we are inside her head and everything looks surreal. It’s not totally realistic. It’s kind of beautiful and a little bit mysterious.
Is Amal very representative of the young people in Egypt now?
Definitely. Definitely. And this was a huge part of my motivation for making this film, because I wanted to not only to talk about Amal’s personal story, I feel that she’s representative of all the Arab youth who just went through this hopeful and utopian experience. But then they had to swallow their dreams at some point. They had to let go of their frustrated hopes and get real with their lives. Look for a job, finish their education, get married. But most of all I wanted to point out how few choices this generation has now, and how alienated they found themselves in their own countries after they were caught between two extremes – either the fanatic Muslim Brothers or the military dictatorships. They’re trying to carve a place for themselves in between, and they’ll either find it or they’ll leave and go to Europe or America. So what I’m trying to say at the end is that Arab youth became not only a concern, or sometimes a problem, for the Arab region, it became a concern for the whole world.