x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Amir Ramses’ drama shines a light on Egypt, post-revolution

Director Amir Ramses on working with Nour El-Sherif and directing his first feature film in six years.

Nour El-Sherif in a scene from Cairo Time. Courtesy Diff
Nour El-Sherif in a scene from Cairo Time. Courtesy Diff

Amir Ramses scored a successful run of three fiction films in as many years, scoring a huge box-office hit with the third film, 2008’s The Code (Wara’et Shafra).

But then the Egyptian director turned his attention to a subject he’d had in mind for years, self-funding two documentaries that attracted notable controversy at home: Jews of Egypt and the follow-up End of a Journey.

Now, however, the 35-year-old writer/director is back to fiction with what, after a long wait, is his most anticipated work to date. Taking place over a single day, Cairo Time is the multi­generational story of six interconnected characters, all at a critical juncture in their lives.

“I never really decided to stop making features,” said Ramses, who was at the Dubai International Film Festival for the debut world premiere on Monday. “I always had the documentaries in mind, and after my third feature film I decided this is the time to do it – I thought it would take a year or two, but those films turned out to be very tough on a number of levels.”

Cairo Time is attracting considerable buzz thanks to its stellar cast, which brings together three Egyptian screen icons: Mervat Amin, Samir Sabry – and Nour El-Sherif, the inimitable star of more than 100 movies, who also picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award from Diff at last week’s opening ceremony.

The 68-year-old portrays a man with Alzheimer’s who flees the stifling confines of his family home in Alexandria, and a discriminatory son, to fulfil a “last wish” in Cairo. He ends up embarking on a rollicking road trip alongside a young drug dealer, played by Sherif Ramzy.

“Ever since I began writing the script I always had Nour El-Sherif in mind for this character,” says the director. “It was just obvious it had to be him.

“So we sent him the script, and 48 hours later he called me and said ‘OK’. “He was the easiest person to get, and the easiest to work with – he’s directed and produced films, so he’s very cultured in moviemaking. He knows what to expect from everybody, and what everyone can expect from him.”

Citing Woody Allen and Wong Kar-wai as influences, El- Sherif’s road trip is just one thread of a three-tier story. Elsewhere, a pair of young lovers, played by Ayten Amer and Karim Kassem, borrow a flat from a friend to enjoy some time alone (“Who in Egypt hasn’t had a similar experience?” says Ramses). Meanwhile, Mervat Amin and Samir Sabry play two veteran actors in the twilight of their careers. Looking to marry, Amin’s character has come to Sabry’s to seek a “divorce” from a fictional marriage the two acted out onscreen decades earlier. Ramses says this was a story he was inspired to write years earlier after hearing a cleric make a real-life declaration against such unions.

The thing all six characters have in common, says Ramses, is social oppression. “Isn’t this the paradox we’re put upon these days in the Arab world? The guy who wants to kill Mickey Mouse because he’s evil,” he says

“This film is about what society does to your individuality – to the different ways of loving, thinking and feeling.”

It’s a theme Ramses doesn’t intend to leave alone. Fans will be happy to hear the filmmaker plans to follow up this triumph with another feature, drawing partly on more stories he had hoped to include in this movie.

“The storyline is changing every day, but basically its about Egyptians living in the post- January 25 Revolution world,” adds Ramses. “Not speaking about, or mentioning the revolution, but looking at the effect it has had on individuals.”

• Cairo Time screens again at Diff, at Mall of the Emirates at 6pm December 17, and is expected to be released across the region in January

rgarratt@thenational.ae