Kristin Jankowski: It is the energy

Posted on August 17, 2012 by

Amr Waked and Salah al Hanafy in “Winter of Discontent
Photo: ZAD Communication and Production

I jumped in the taxi, the Air Condition was too cold. And it was too smoky in the car. “Where do you want to go?” asked me the driver. He looked in the mirror, smiled at me. “Dokki” I said, a neighborhood in Cairo. The streets were crowded, motorbikes, loud horns, Ramadan’s traffic, too much for a European, but I got used to it. I have been here for more than three years. I live in Downtown, close to Tahrir-Square. When the people are asking me, why I decided to go Cairo, I say: “Frankly, I don’t know. I have lost my job in Berlin, we had so called media-crisis, within a couple of days I was unemployed, meanwhile I had lost my room in my apartment. I was homeless, jobless, but my former company gave me some severance pay. It was not a lot. But enough to leave the rat race for a little time.

Well, I thought, if life tries to test my ambitions and my endurance, okay then I am ready. What can be the best challenge? Letting everything go, starting from zero.
I booked a flight to Beirut. I had no idea why, but step by step I start to understand now. Sometimes your calling is so loud and so intense, that you just have to follow it. No matter what. Even when almost everybody is against your decision. I have heard all these insane advices like “You should wear bulletproof vest when you are walking in the streets of Beirut”, “Watch out – you might get kidnapped”. And my favorite: “What the hell do you want to do with the Arabs?” I was a young journalist, 27 years old. And I didn’t care what the people told me. And then I went to the airport, without a single look back.
I went to the refugee camps in Beirut, tasted the delicious food in Damascus, had great days in Petra. And then I got stuck in Cairo. I ran out of money. I had no job, I learned how it is to be poor in Cairo. I know how the slums smell, how it feels when you walk through the dusty streets. I know how the babies are crying at night, how the kids are playing with their bikes under the sun. How it stinks when you find a dead rat under your feet. And how it feels when you see the needles, used by depressed young Egyptians who are trying to find their salvation in heroin. I knew I had two choices, not more. I give up and go back home, or to grab the stars in the sky and jump in. I chose the second. Option number three never existed. Three years later I was sitting in that taxi, I was in a hurry. I didn’t want to be late. I remembered the past, with a smile in my face, thankful for every single experience, glad to feel that gift. I remembered the days of the revolution in Cairo, the teargas, the hope and the fear. Slowly I start to open the treasure of life, the depth, the contentment.

I jumped out of the taxi, took the old brown elevator, opened the door of Salah al Hanafy’s office. I met him a couple of weeks ago, in “Horreya Café”. Destiny is not playing tricks. It knows exactly what it is doing, one moment can throw you in a dark corner and another moment can take your hand and lure you to another dimension. It always depends if you are able to stand still, and if you are not losing your balance, and if you want to dive deeper and deeper. With all its consequences.
I sat down on the blue sofa. Salah was not there, the air condition was too cold, I could smell the smoke. Maybe I should tell him one day that he should stop smoking so much. Otherwise he will get wrinkles and lung-cancer, or the doctors have to amputate one of his legs so he has to move in a wheelchair through the streets of Cairo, instead of racing on his motorcycle. And the world needs people like him, with visions, ideas and strength. In the middle of these thoughts I heard someone coming. Amr Waked entered the office, smiling at me. He wore a white “Jackass” T-Shirt. I never saw it before here in Cairo. “Nice shirt,” I said. He laughed and apologized that he was not able to make it one day earlier, while he was smoking red Marlboros.
“I am really happy for you guys, that your movie will be screened at the Film Festival in Venice. That’s a wonderful honor” I said. Amr smiled. Obviously proud: “Yes, we are all very happy.”
Salah came, he smiled, lighted up a cigarette. Yellow Merit. He took his ashtray from his desk. The one with the black women legs, a gift from a friend. “Let’s do the interview now”, he said. I took my mobile phone out of my bag to record the conversation and put it on the table. I was looking in their curious faces and at that moment I have realized how awesome life can be. How it brings people together. Especially during and after the uprising in Egypt. Amr and Salah will mention it a couple of minutes later. Yes, it is the energy. We all can feel that. Artists, strangers, the guys with the weird ideas, the ones who are not able to fit in a system, the freaks. It is somehow as if we are connected to the same brain, to the same spirit. If we are all addicted to the feeling which is driving us. The feeling that makes us sit in the office till 4am in the morning, that feeling that makes us shout at our friends when they are disturbing us while we need to think quietly. The feeling that nothing else is more important in the whole world than to follow our call. And the uprising was a call with an echo. And if you open your ears, maybe just for one minute, maybe you can hear it also. It is as if someone or something took a deep breath and we are surfing on the exhale now. With all its twists and turns. But it is fun to make the looping. There is no reason to be afraid of the free fall. You can stand up and try it again. Don’t care too much about the pain. Just enjoy it. It is there for a reason.
I smiled at Salah and Amr. And for sure, they had no idea why.
“Your movie “Winter of Discontent” will have its premiere at the 69th International Film festival in Venice, Italy. What does it mean for you and what does it mean for the Egyptian media scene?” I asked them.
Salah sat in front of me. Amr was next to me on the chair.
“It is a recognition for all the efforts we put in the film”, Amr answered.” Finally there is a very respectful platform that has given us a sort of attention which is important for us. We are making films to get attention basically. When a platform such the Venice film festival decides to screen our film in their selection, it is a promising thing for the exposure of the film and it is huge reward for any filmmaker.

For me it means, yes, we can do it, we can be internationally recognized. We have resources so we just need the right direction and the right topics basically. To come out with something global, that can be exported to many different markets and not just in the Arab market, which we been aiming for since the beginning. We decided to make an Egyptian film that speaks to the world and not to be concerned by the Arabic audience only. But also to address humanity in general with most of our topics, no matter how local they are. We are looking forward for projects that are addressing human values and reflect on any human being, no matter what is the nationality, ethnicity, nationality nor which culture.”
Salah looked at Amr, he was following his words, nodding. “What does it mean for you, Salah?” I wanted to know. He came closer to the table where my mobile was recording the interview.
“You don’t need to have a big budget to do something great”, he said. “And for a film to be selected by Venice, it is a quality standard stamp, that means this is a good product, well made, production wise and artistically, by one of the world’s best film festivals. This provides us with the energy to peruse what we believe in, and what we should be doing, which is the low budget and good quality film. It is not about having the money. It is about having the brain. It is a sign for us that we are on the right track. Our brains is what matters and not our pockets and money. For me personally, I am super happy, that this is our first feature film production as a company, ZAD, which we have been waiting for since years. Now we have reached one of the targets which we have dreamt of and it motivates us to continue and do such a kind and quality of product. Because when we look at it, it’s more that we are validating, revising and empowering the industry of cinema in Egypt and the region in general. For the past 30 years, the regional cinema scene was not led by Egypt but by other countries who even had the wealth or freedom to express. It was not bad that other forces appeared in the region but it tells us something. It rings a bell. It says: “Guys, where have you been ? You have been disappearing as Egyptian producers and film industry” So I believe it is a sign that we are back and on the rise again. We had a film in Cannes. Now we are in Venice, it’s a good answer to the people who thought, the Egyptian cinema industry has died. No, it is not dead. We had a revolution. The Egyptians were tricked in the past, sleepy, lazy. But now they have woken up with the revolution. And it is not about politics. It is about everything in our life.”
Yes, that was exactly what I was thinking of before I started the interview with them. The alarm-bell is ringing, we are waking up. Now it is up to us if and how we are using the new stage we live in. Falling asleep again? Or choosing something else? I have found my answer already.

Zad Communication and Production

“You have started shooting the movie during the uprising. Under which circumstances did the crew work?” I asked them. Back to the topic.
Amr raised his voice, I felt, he had everything in front of him again: “It was a very impulsive film to make. We worked on impulses. It was very difficult to study things before we do it. It was the revolution, everything was messy, and people were all over the place. And we thought we will just go with it and started to film within these conditions to deliver something. We didn’t know what it will be. But we know what it is about. And the film made itself. It was made in the really most uncontrollable condition during the revolution. And then after the revolution we kept hearing all that stories about all these crews that got attacked by thugs and they had to stop the shooting. And we were shooting in the middle of Cairo, at Tahrir-Square where most of the demonstrations were happening. And we didn’t stop after the 18 days. It kept on going for months and months. And every day there was violence, people were getting injured, people were dying and it was very difficult to focus on the film under such a condition. But somehow the film was so powerful, that it overtook everything around us. It absorbed us all into it and pushed us to make it. It is a very spontaneous film.”

When you are in the middle of an uprising against the system, against the structure you were living in, against the bars you have created and which were created around you, then it is as if you are in a tornado. Yes, it just takes you with it. And what is deeper? What touches you more than a revolution inside yourself? How much strength do you need to just let it go? Not a lot actually. When you know you have nothing to lose. When you know, things you own, ending up owning you. I have realized that a struggle against the regime starts with the struggle against yourself. Very interesting experience.
“The movie shows the dark sides of the Mubarak system and the struggle against it. Why was it so important for you to make that movie?” I asked them.
Amr gave me the answer I expected: “We are artists.”
There is no other explanation.

”We wanted to do something inspired by what’s happening”, he continued. “And we have used that creative energy that surrounded the revolution. It was so immense, that we had to listen to it and go with it. And go with hope, that what we do to make a difference. We choose movies to be our weapons.”
Salah interrupted him: “The revolution has woken up everyone.” And Amr nodded. “Actually the revolution has put Salah back to acting”, Amr said with a smile in his face, proud of his friend.
“Yes, that’s true. It was a wake-up call”, Salah remembered.
Amr interrupted him again: “In the movie you wouldn’t think that Salah has never been in front of cameras before. You would think he is a professional actor. He played a very good role. That’s why I think it is a very new career for him. Everybody who has seen that film so far is really impressed. As every time you watch an Egyptian film, you see the same faces and they are titling the same things. And now it is different. There is a new face and he is delivering. And guess what, he is going to have a big ego.”
Salah started to laugh: “I hope I won’t. Seriously it was also Amr in 2001 or 2002. We used to go to school together, we went to university together. And we both disappeared for a couple of years. And then we reunited at that night at L’Aubergene, a trendy restaurant. And he asked me “Why did you stop acting? You have talent, you are a good actor, you used to be on stage in the university”. I said ironically “Yes, for sure”. So I have somehow ignored it, because I was doing a 9 to 5 job at that time. And he convinced me to attend an acting-workshop. And so we were doing it for two years. And it developed my skills. And it did change a lot of things. And now, after ten years, the conversation we had is happening. So I also think it was also the revolution that changed a lot of things including our interests, dreams even careers. I believe that we are making history as filmmakers. People will watch our movies in 50 years and it will be as same as black and white films for us. It will last because it is about the revolution. “

I guess we all reached another level of consciousness. And our actions are the syndrome. For sure they will last. They are contagious.

“You are young actors and young producers. How can you change the media industry in Egypt?” I asked.
For Amr the answer was clear again: “The change itself is in having young producers. And the impact we plan will be enormous regionally, not just nationally. We really want to influence the industry to adopt better content and to protect the consumer of this industry that has been shunning away from the films, because the field was not protected. Every time you pay for a film and you see the movie you realize the money is not worth watching it. There is something about the rights of the consumer, that’s our concern. First of all to find a movie. And second to find affordable tickets. It is a peoples’ product. It is cinema. Here you need such an amount of money to watch a film. For an average Egyptian family it is financially crippling it is almost the half of the average monthly income to take your family to cinema. So where in the world do cinema visits have such a cost? Here in Egypt. That is what we want to change. Would help the industry to expand, reduce the price, make it affordable for people and sell more. You make exactly the same amount of money. But a lot of more people have seen your film. That is what we are trying to achieve with our distribution strategy. We are not just producers. We are filmmakers, which either produce or direct or buy and sell. We are industry people. This is how we want to position ourselves. This is how we professionally participate. “

Salah was calm, waited for a moment, as if he was waiting for the best moment, waiting for the best words which were popping up in his mind.
“Most of the established producers are gorillas, Para shoot-producers, those who have money and are super attracted to high budget films only. They are working in a completely different way, like selling meat, selling furniture, selling whatever. And they are asking themselves: “Why are we not going into the cinema business ? Let us produce some films”. So for them it is a totally money making thing. They don’t have the passion for cinema. They do not know what cinema means. They don’t care about history making, they don’t care about the people, they don’t care about cheaper prices for tickets. We come from the bottom; it is a bottom-up approach. We feel people. We are a part of them. We have made our company with working with them. We are making short-movies, documentaries. We were involved. We want to pay back, to serve these people. And that is the differences in the production scenes here in Egypt. We are representing the grass root. And we are aware of what they need. And they love cinema, but most of them have no access to cinema. Just because they don’t have money for it. Many producers would just look at them as vagabonds, the homeless cheap people who don’t have money so they don’t deserve to go and watch a film. They are underestimating and disrespecting the poor at the first stage. But we, we feel them, and since history falsely teIls us that if you involve emotions and feelings in business profit calculations it might lead you to bankruptcy we don’t care. This is crap. We know it won’t happen.”

I was thinking about his words. Yes, you are so poor if you can’t feel anymore. So poor, even when you think you have everything. But when you have lost the connection – then you are doomed. Then you have made a pact with the devil, running after sins. And all the make-up you put in your face doesn’t make you beautiful. And the big car you can buy with your money doesn’t make you feel stronger. You are just a looser. And you know it. That’s why you always want to have more and more. But you won’t find satisfaction anymore. You are empty. And it leads you to insanity. To a serious mental disease which is spreading around our planet, greed. Always hungry like a street dog, always ready to bark as loud as you can.

Zad Communication and Production

“During and after the revolution, the cultural scene in Egypt changed a lot. How did it change you, your mind and your visions?” I wanted to know.
Amr smiled: “It changed everything. There was a fabulous energy for creativity. All of a sudden all the barriers we used to have dropped and that released your creative energy. You just do it and on Tahrir-Square there was a hub for that energy, all the bands, all the poets, even the chants were a form of creativity, the selectivity of words, the harmony. People started to draw, people started to write things and to paint on the streets. There was a very inviting energy. And that succeeded from the very first day. And that is the reason why the revolution will deliver what it came for, because the artists have taken a very active role. But we are all concerned about the target and where we want to go but we are celebrating that new creative freedom. I know a lot of people who would disagree with me because of the Islamists but I guess it is a myth that they have the power to oppress the new creative freedom. They cannot take it back by force. Millions would die not to let that happen.”
Salah continued: “I guess that revolution was a birth mark of another era of creativity. Like a giant energy generator for this country, Tahrir-Square, and this generator is giving energy to many people in different directions. Everybody was able to absorb that energy and it will last for a long time.“
Amr took a deep breath: “The revolution was something bigger for the people. And that is art. Art is bigger than you. The artists became very aware of that bigger cause. “

And I really hope it is just the beginning. And then I have asked them:” The revolution started a half and a year ago. Egypt got a new president and there are no more big demonstrations at Tahrir-Square. Is it a sign that the revolution is over?” I asked.

Amr looked surprised about my question and said with a strong voice: “The revolution will not be over until we achieve what we wanted to achieve. It is still alive. There are still revolutionary movements, they are still opposing and they are still pressuring. When we started the revolution it was just a demonstration. We wanted to dissolve the parliament and to deactivate the emergency law. We didn’t want Hosni Mubarak down. “

Salah interrupted him: “We never thought it could happen.”

Amr nodded: “Yes, that’s right. We didn’t want Hosni Mubarak to run again for presidency in September 2011. But some forces decided that he deals with the situation unwisely or maybe he was tricked by his people. I don’t know. But the result was, he pushed the people to hunt for more. And they did. They didn’t give up until they got it. They knocked down Mubarak. And he is in jail now. An ex-president of Egypt is in jail with all the representatives of corruption and during the presidential elections were 13 candidates. Each candidate out of the 5 big ones got a pretty high result. So you have 5 major forces in the political spectrum. And the winner with 51 percent is constantly under pressure, because half of the people don’t want him. And that is a success for the revolution for sure. He is careful, he knows his steps and he will be held accountable for his decisions. Yes, on a deeper level there are a lot of things to do. But that is an issue of culture. We have to change the culture so that you can start to build up a proper institution and this is where we are today. The revolution has stepped into a level of influencing culture, of reminding the people that they can do the impossible. Yes, you can be a super power. Yes, you can make your own conditions. Yes, you can say no, I don’t want that. Yes, you don’t need to be afraid. Yes, all these people in power have something which belongs to you – Power, because Power belongs to you. You have the right to have the power in every single institution. And you have the right to hold the people, who are working in that institution, accountable. That is a culture that needs to overcome the older culture of “Okay there are other people who are dealing with that situation and we have nothing to do with it.” There are a lot of people behave like that and it takes a long time till this behavior will change. It is not just about politics it is about the culture we live in. We should stop boycott ignoring everybody’s rights. We want to have a say in the constitution. We are still trying to reach that stage. And with art we get that.”

Silence, we smiled at each other. What else should be said?

It is in our hands right now.

And that is the adventure, the lesson everybody of us has to learn.

When you are brave enough.