“About Her,” which world premiered in International Competition this week at the Cairo Film Festival, began life as a short story, which director Islam El Azzazi penned in 2003. In 2017, he started adapting the story for the screen.
“The short story faded, somehow,” he says of the changes he made in the process. “I don’t see what’s happening on-screen as a fantasy; it somehow has its own reality.”
The Berlinale Talents alumni says that, initially, “I was refusing to write a screenplay. At the time, I had two long screenplays that I had spent six years trying to fund. I was trying not to get into that phase again.” So for the next year and a half, he would explain the project as scenes. “I think this helped develop a certain perspective that made the film organic somehow.”
When he got down to writing these scenes up in script format, he began writing a cinematic manuscript rather than a screenplay. In order to get going, the decision was made to shoot the film in phases starting with the interior scenes inside the house. “While waiting for the next phase, where we were planning on shooting exterior shots, I started editing. Suddenly in the edit, I found out that I had a film, and didn’t need to shoot anything else.”
Nadah El Shazly plays Durriya. “She’s an upcoming musician in the booming underground music scene in Cairo,” says El Azzazi. “We had a meeting, and of course I had to explain the story to her because at that point there was no script. Then we started working for two years on acting exercises, which included working with scenes from Harold Pinter’s play ‘The Lover.’”
With each scene from Durriya’s memory, the house takes on a different appearance. The production design inspired by the works of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. “We copied some of his paintings as well that you might recognize that are hanging in the house,” El Azzazi says. “Because at this time in Egypt, there were a lot of foreigners living in Egypt, it was a really cosmopolitan place where it was common for artists to make replicas of the works from great artists. There was a huge surrealist movement, The Art and Freedom Group, which was connected to Paris and Andre Breton. So we tried to reflect this era within the apartment itself.”
“About Her” is being handled by MAD Solutions, the sales and distribution outfit which has offices in Abu Dhabi and Cairo. “They were onboard at the beginning of the project, and they were trying to get funds at different phases of development, but we were quite unlucky.”
Producer Dina Farouk, also credited as editor, was the primary financier of the film. The difficulty in raising other sources of finance has left El Azzazi lamenting, “I sense that arthouse films from the Middle East without a socio-political commentary on present-day events don’t have much support. However, it’s not remote. For me, it’s very close to the events happening today.”