Egyptian helmer-writer Ahmad Abdalla, known for being part of the new wave of independent cinema in the Arab world with his early films “Heliopolis” (2009) and “Microphone” (2010), returns to the Cairo Film Festival with the world premiere of his sixth feature, “19B.” It marks the sole film from the host country in the International Competition lineup.
The multi-layered narrative centers on the elderly caretaker of an abandoned Cairo villa known as 19B. The owners have been absent for so long that no one even knows how to contact them, and the building is falling apart. Nevertheless, the caretaker is happy with his jerry-rigged life there, sharing the space with abandoned dogs and cats, and drinking tea with the doorman of a high-rise down the block. But things change when the old man is bullied and threatened by the aggressive ex-con Nasr, the leader of a street gang.
Talking to Variety from Berlin where he is finishing the film’s color-grading, Abdalla reveals that he wrote the film during the lonely days and nights of the pandemic, when fear became his greatest obsession. He says, “The film was inspired by an old guy I used to pass while walking in the Zamalek neighborhood, who was feeding cats and dogs in the street regardless of how broke he was. I started imagining his life and mixed it with my own questions.”
Although the story reveals a lot about contemporary Cairo, one could also see it being remade in another culture. The nameless protagonist is guarding an almost demolished house that no one cares about anymore. He clings to it as it connects him to his own past. The building and the stray animals give his solitude meaning since his loved ones are gone. Abdalla says, “In Cairo, the problem of modernizing the city vs the old city has been a cultural issue for years and years. And the idea of the old man who is unable to simply accept that the world is changing around him, and that this change will reach him eventually is a timeless story.”
While the protagonist holds fast to his old ways, many changes are taking place just outside the villa’s walls. These are symbolized by the youths, led by the ruthless Nasr, who charge motorists for street parking, including in the space outside the villa’s gate, and sell various black-market vices including alcohol and cigarettes. Abdalla says, “Egypt has always been a ground for clashing philosophies, ideologies and lifestyles. I have always been fascinated with the question of co-existence and how we can all live together and share the same resources.”
As the dignified oldster referred to only as “the old guy” or “Haj,” Sayed Ragab is a revelation. Abdalla says, “When I was pursuing my career as a filmmaker, I used to watch a lot of independent theater. This is where I met Sayed Ragab for the first time and I was fascinated by him as an actor ever since.” As time went on, Ragab became an established star and Abdalla finally found the right part for his talent in “19B.” He notes, “I was astonished how smart and sensitive to the topic he was after the first reading.”
Also working for the first time with Abdalla is Ahmed Khaled Saleh who plays the antagonist Nasr. Abdalla says, “His amazing performance added a lot to the story and to his character.”
The film also features a strong performance by petite rising star Nahed El Sebaie as the old man’s caring and fearless daughter Yara. As she refuses to be intimidated in a confrontation with Nasr one can imagine women in the audience cheering. Abdalla says, “Nahed El Sebaie was in my mind for several films, but I was never lucky with her schedule. Finally, we managed to work together and I’m looking forward to more collaborations in the future.”
Like Abdalla’s first film, “Heliopolis,” “19B” is a film about a Cairo neighborhood. Another way in which it represents a full circle for the helmer is that it marks a return to his collaboration with busy producer Mohamed Hefzy of the Film Clinic. Abdalla says, “Honestly, I never stopped working with Hefzy. We had a couple of ambitious projects we tried to launch throughout the years, but unfortunately, we were not lucky with them. But he has always been one of my favorite producers and one of my first choices whenever I have an initial idea.” Indeed, when Abdalla sent Hefzy his first draft, the producer texted back, “I love it! Let’s shoot tomorrow.”
In addition to his producer’s early encouragement and support, another thing Abdalla appreciates about Hefzy is his openness to trying new ideas and new blood. Abdalla says, “For instance we have ‘Dada,’ Mostafa El Kashef, as the director of photography, though it is his first long feature. We also have Yara Goubran, an established and well-known actress, working as executive producer for the first time.”
Speaking of firsts, this year also led to a debut for Abdalla: a photography exhibition at the prestigious Tintera Gallery in Cairo. He says, “I consider myself still starting my career in photography, but it is something I really appreciate and loved doing over the years.”
Abdalla’s next project, “Berleen,” will be his first to take place outside Egypt. He says, “It’s a light-hearted story taking place amongst the new wave of young Arab immigrants in Berlin and how they cope with their new life.”