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Egypt’s Ahmed Magdy on Human Abortion and Giraffe Reproduction in ‘The Giraffe’

Young Egyptian actor Ahmed Magdy (“Microphone,” “Ali, the Goat and Ibrahim”) is making his directorial debut with surreal drama “The Giraffe,” in which a nocturnal search on Cairo’s streets for money to pay for a young woman’s emergency abortion intersects with a mystery involving the breeding of giraffes in the Giza zoo.

“Giraffe,” which is playing in Marrakech after launching from the Cairo Film Festival, will soon be screening in Egyptian cinemas via distributor Mad Solutions. Magdy in Cairo spoke to Variety about the challenges of tackling this taboo subject for the region and also of bringing his vision to the screen.

Let’s start with the English-language title. Why “The Giraffe”?

I’ve always loved this animal. About 10 years ago I heard that we no longer have any giraffes in Egypt…And when I started writing I wanted to add this surrealistic and fantasy touch to the film. The giraffe symbolizes beauty, but also it transcends gender — male and female look exactly the same — and it’s an animal that makes no sounds which somehow represents our generation that is unable to express itself.

Narratively there seems to be a connection between the giraffe’s skin and this black growth on the wall in the apartment where the woman named Laila, who must have an abortion, is lying in bed.

The black stains on the wall are like a nightmare haunting these young women during the course of this night, especially Laila. It’s as though the abortion is the nightmare that she’s having. And this nightmare is trying to eat her up and control her…I wanted people to see that though this girl is pregnant, which is something that should be beautiful, her pregnancy is also something that can be very haunting.

At a very simplistic level the film seems to be about the difficulty of having an abortion in Egypt, where I believe it’s illegal. Is that right?

Yes, abortion is illegal in Egypt. And it’s also illegal to be pregnant without being married. So this young woman — who is pregnant, but we don’t know how she became pregnant — is likely to be criminalized just because she is pregnant out of wedlock. On top of that…she want to have an abortion. So for most of Egyptian society she’s a criminal in more ways than one. I don’t agree with this. I think women have a right to have a baby out of wedlock and also to have an abortion. This is what I firmly believe in.

As I understand it “The Giraffe” will play on movie screens in Egypt. Do you think it’s going to create a stir in your country and also across the Arab world?

This film is made mostly for young people. People of my generation and younger. I hope they can connect to it on an emotional and poetic level. It talks about believing in a miracle in this city [Cairo] where as young people we don’t express ourselves freely and where we don’t really feel connected to the city and most of what’s happening around us. We don’t believe in miracles and we are caught in day-to-day life. It’s a film for those who have somehow lost faith.

How tough was it to get this film made? I believe you got some grants from Abu Dhabi’s now defunct Sanad fund and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC).

Ten years ago I applied to attend the Cairo Jesuit Cinema School which is founded by my dear friend the [experimental] director Karim Hanafy who gave me my first acting role in his “The Gate of Departure.”…I always wanted to be a director first and foremost, but then my career as an actor took off without much effort on my part and I kind of got sidetracked…Hanafy’s input to this project has been really crucial. He was not involved in the writing, but he thought me how to dig deep. Financially, when we finally went into production, my team and I decided that we would do it ourselves. I set up my own company [Garage Art Production] and with two other companies that belong to some friends in Cairo and Alexandria we applied for those funds and self-financed the rest of the budget.

Talk to me about shooting in Cairo

It was a 27-day shoot. For 6 or 7 days we were in the apartment, which belonged to one of the producers…, then most of the night-time shooting was in there streets of Maadi [the suburban district South of Cairo]. I’ve been living in Maadi for almost 15 years and I’ve always hated how dark and scary it can be at night. We shot very late at night in winter; so we were lucky enough that most of the streets were really empty. 

The night-time atmosphere and the lighting of the sodium-vapor lamps really stand out. How natural was that? 

We actually just used street lights. We went to the municipal office and asked them to turn on the streetlights on some streets where, sadly, they aren’t ordinarily turned on. And for a bit of money they did it! 

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