Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim Elbatout: events in Manchester

by Dalia Mostafa, Middle Eastern Studies

cities@manchester, in cooperation with Middle Eastern Studies, the British Academy, and the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) at Manchester University, sponsored a public talk with renowned Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout as guest speaker. The event, which was entitled “Filming the Revolutionary City: Independent Filmmaking in Egypt after the January 2011 Revolution”, took place on 8th December 2011 (5.30-7.00pm), followed by a wine in the Samuel Alexander Foyer. The event was open to staff and students, as well as the general public. It was well attended, with an inspiring discussion taking place between the speaker and the audience after his speech. El Batout also showed a short film clip from the recent demonstrations against military rule in Egypt.

El Batout’s event came as part of a week he spent in Manchester (4-9 December 2011) whilst taking part in a number of activities. On Monday 5th Dec., Elbatout’s award-winning film Ein Shams was screened as part of the course module “Contemporary Cinema of the Middle East”, with an introduction by the director. Then, on Tuesday 6th Dec., the director held a master-class with the students on the module. However, both events were also open to all. On Wednesday 7th Dec., the Cornerhouse Cinema in Manchester screened El Batout’s latest film Hawi (Juggler) which was released in 2010. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with the director, facilitated by Dr Dalia Mostafa (Middle Eastern Studies) and Dr Joseph McGonagle (French Studies) from Manchester University. These events attracted different audiences who showed great interest in communicating with the director and in discussing fascinating issues with him about the themes presented in his films, his cinematic stylistics, and his future work in Egypt.

Ibrahim El Batout is best known for his internationally acclaimed feature film Ein Shams (Eye of the Sun, 2008), which was rated number 6 of 10 best films of the year 2008. The film won several awards including The Golden Hawk in Rotterdam Festival, and the International Carthage Festival Award. Elbatout is also one of Egypt’s pioneering independent filmmakers. He has traveled widely across the globe and made a number of documentaries in war-tarnished areas, including on the Iran-Iraq war (1987); the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka (1992); the massacres in Rwanda (1994); the war in Kosovo (1999); and many others. In 2004, he stepped into the world of fiction and made his first feature film Ithaki in 2005. His third film Hawi won the best film award at the Doha Tribecca film festival, and the Dubai film festival in 2010.

Elbatout’s feature films aim to bring together the two worlds of fiction and documentary. They focus on the experience of living in and shaping urban environments: we see representations of Cairo in his first two films Ithaki and Eye of the Sun, and of Alexandria in his last film Hawi. His characters appear to be products of the cities they live in, and their lives are shaped and influenced by the political and cultural dynamics of the urban spaces they inhabit. In Elbatout’s films, we see beautiful cinematography of city streets, urban landmarks, the sea, and the Nile, as well as little shops, traditional cafés, and private rooms, places which embrace the characters, articulate their identities, and determine the choices they make. On the other hand, cities in his films cannot be perceived in isolation from the masses which re-appropriate urban spaces whilst continuously negotiating and creating new horizons for themselves: reclaiming the streets and squares in mass demonstrations; transforming gender relations; and establishing new free places of their own, and so on.

In his public talk on 8th Dec. at Manchester University, Elbatout stressed the integral relationship between the documentary and the fictional in his films. He said that he was drawn to the world of feature filmmaking after spending so many years as a war reporter and documentary filmmaker, because he felt freer in the world of fiction. He could capture certain emotions through his fictional characters, which he could not do within the documentary sphere. He said that his next feature film, which is due to be released this year, focuses on the lives of three characters who could not take part in the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and the story follows the characters to explore their private lives, their relationships with each other, and their relation to the city they live in. The film interrogates the question of why these characters did not participate in the revolution, hence raising many issues about the individual and politics as well as the relationship to a radically transforming public space in today’s Egypt. Elbatout also explained that cinema in Egypt will see important developments in the aftermath of the momentous event of the revolution.

Indeed, the week was very successful and many important discussions took place throughout. I look forward to inviting Elbatout again in Manchester with his new film!

Dr Dalia Mostafa, Lecturer in Arabic and Comparative Literature
Middle Eastern Studies, School of Languages, Linguistics and Cultures

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