x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Tahrir Square comes to Cannes

Filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah grabbed a brief window while Mubarak was falling to make an up-to-the-minute film about the Egyptian revolution.

The Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah in Cannes last week. Alberto Pizzoli / AFP
The Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah in Cannes last week. Alberto Pizzoli / AFP

The Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah's After the Battle depicts the wake of last year's overthrow of Hosni Mubarak - filmed while the uprising was still unfolding. It is one of the 22 contenders for the coveted Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes film festival.

Nasrallah mixed archival footage of the demonstrations with a fictional account of a relationship between the wealthy revolutionary Reem and the poor horseman Mahmoud, who has been involved in an attack on protesters.

Last year, Nasrallah made a short film for the portmanteau project 18 Days, in which 18 filmmakers told stories about the revolution. Both 18 Days and After the Battle received post-production funding from Sanad, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival's annual fund dedicated to helping Arab filmmakers.

The stories in 18 Days were full of hope and excitement, but Nasrallah has come to Cannes with a feature film that has an air of despair, one suggesting that repression in Egypt is far from over.

"18 Days was made in a state of euphoria - indeed there was no state at the time. Anybody could shoot a film, you could just go out on your own, sometimes there was harassment from thugs or the army, but more often than not, you'd be left to your own devices," the 59-year-old director says.

"When I started After the Battle, this spirit of euphoria was still there. I went to the censors and I had five pages, I had no script and I did not intend to have a script - and they accepted it, partly because of the time, and partly because I was a respected filmmaker."

Filmmaking has become increasingly difficult. "The situation has worsened," he says. "The role of the army has become much clearer and the persecution of artists has started - such as the arrest of someone like Adel Imam, the biggest superstar we have. Now, he's accused of despising Islam and is put on trial. It's a way of signifying to artists: take care not to cross the boundaries."

This raises the question whether the revolution has failed. Nasrallah responds: "I don't know what you mean, honestly. What does it mean when a revolution has failed? What is a revolution? I'm not playing with words here."

Gender and class are big themes in After the Battle. Indeed, the action starts on International Women's Day, March 8, 2011, when women were attacked in the square. At the end of the scene, the character Reem comes to the conclusion that the country is heading to another period of repression, that there is no hope for peace.

Asked what it was like to work with the film's female cast members, Nasrallah says: "Solidarity is something we experienced while making the film. I didn't have access to the women, and so we sent the actresses to meet the women of Nazlet and immediately they would start confiding in them, their relationships with their husbands. It was almost instant."

These conversations can be seen in the film. In fact, Nasrallah makes it clear that the dialogue is not scripted. "I just took the camera and said 'go'," he says.

Rather than make the film look like a documentary, Nasrallah used a hyperreal aesthetic, even for the archival footage. When he took the actors to real demonstrations to shoot scenes, he was careful not to make the images naturalistic. "I never stole an image. I like people to know they are being filmed because immediately when they see a camera they start acting," Nasrallah says.

"I think that through fiction, you can go deeper into this story. For starters, you cannot show desire in a documentary, so it would have been impossible to show the characters' crazy relationship. In the end I think that revolution is actually about desire."

In the meantime, Nasrallah says he refuses to be intimidated. "I'm almost 60 and that is too old to be thinking of exile. What's going to happen?" he says. "I have a small camera and if I have a good story, I'll make films. If Jafar Panahi, who is a great inspiration, was able to make This Is Not A Film using a small camera in his apartment, then I can continue to make films, too."