Versatile Egyptian auteur Ahmad Abdalla is well known on the fest circuit for “Microphone,” about Egypt’s hip-hop scene, “Rags & Tatters,” which exposed the country’s deep post-revolution poverty, and female identity melodrama “Decor.”
In “EXT. Night,” which is his 6th feature, he returns to Egypt’s darkness with a wry comedy in which a young film director, a hooker, and a cab driver wander around Cairo’s backstreets during the course of a single night that poignantly puts on screen the city’s segregated class system and its misogyny, besides its bustling vitality. During the Cairo Film Festival where, after bowing in Toronto, the pic had its Middle East premiere, Abdalla spoke to Variety about how he built “EXT. Night” around the character of an empowered woman named Toutou who happens to be a prostitute.
If I’m not mistaken, after “Decor” you were supposed to make a Zombie comedy. Then due to budget issues you instead did “EXT. Night” which in a way marks a return to your roots, shooting on the street, like “Heliopolis” and “Microphone.”
Yes. I wanted to make “Zombie Gozombie” but due to financial difficulties I decided that while I was waiting for the the financing to come through I would embark on another project that would be more personal; that would take me out of my creative comfort zone and that I would shoot and and co-produce myself.
In this film you pay tribute to Cairo. I think you have called it a deconstruction of Cairo. Can you elaborate on that?
Yes Cairo really is a main theme of this film. The characters all share this same city, and actually all live very close to each other. But each neighborhood is a world of its own. So it was my way to observe the extreme segregation in Cairo and how people who are living in this huge city aren’t able to communicate. This is happening in every big city [around the world] but I think it’s more obvious in Egypt, and it’s very clear that social stratification is a problem.
How did you choose Egyptian-Austrian actress Mona Hala who carries the movie?
When me and Sherif [Alfy] were working on the script we were already thinking about Mona. Many people told us she doesn’t look Egyptian, that she has European features. But I didn’t care, because she’s actually very Egyptian. The way she speaks, the way she understand the community and the old traditional dynamics between men and women in this city. She’s a very smart observer of everything happening around her regarding social differences and gender issues.
Would other Egyptian actresses have turned down the role of a prostitute?
I would assume that many would, and probably this is why I didn’t think of calling most of the obvious names on the market. I tried going to Mona Hala who isn’t as much of a familiar presence in Egyptian cinema. I knew that many of them would not like to play a prostitute, even though I don’t see Toutou as a prostitute. I see her as a struggling woman trying to find her place. I knew that many actors in Cairo who would refuse to play this part, but I also knew that Hala would read more into it than just being a prostitute.
Even though Toutou is mistreated, its clear that you are not portraying her merely as a victim. She’s headstrong and smarter than the two men she is with. In fact I think the whole film is centered around her character.
True. I wanted to use her character to delve deeper into Cairo because usually the voice of women, and especially women in her profession, is very suppressed in Egypt. It was interesting for me to work with a character that has become a stereotype in cinema and look at her from a different perspective and also a prism to view the other characters and the city.
The film talks about censorship in regards to a novel, citing a real case. Several Egyptian films, such as “The Nile Hilton Incident,” have been censored in Egypt recently. But it seems you have not had any trouble with this film even though the police are not depicted in the most favorable light.
I can’t speak for other films because I don’t know what negotiations went on with them, but I’ve been lucky enough that so far the films I’ve made have all been approved by censorship. That’s probably because my films are not very direct in the way they observe Egyptian society. “EXT. Night” was cleared to play at the Cairo festival and will also be playing in Egyptian cinemas in mid-December.