VO talks with Director Ahmad Abdalla

The Vancouver Observer's Wendy Dallian contacted director Ahmad Abdalla, via email, to discuss his feature debut film, Heliopolis.

Abdalla gives us a compelling look the trials and tribulations of modern Egyptian life. The film beautifully intertwines the stories of a host of characters living in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis, Cairo, allowing us a deeper look at the common struggles of ordinary people.

VO: Could you please tell us a little about yourself. What made you want to be a film maker, and when and how did that begin?

AA: As a teenager, I spent several years trying to approach the local film scene in Egypt with no luck. I even failed to obtain admission in the only film school in Egypt. That's why I turned to another art-related subject instead. I graduated from the faculty of music in Cairo in 2001.

While I was in college, and thanks to that devil called the internet, I began to learn about non-linear editing. It was new in Egypt, and I played with it until I knew enough about it to actually edit. It occurred to me that I could work my way into film making by editing short films for students. That was a good way to meet young filmmakers from my generation while making some money at the same time. Later, I found myself editing commercial spots and eventually working as an editor.

Just when my name was starting to look familiar in the editing field, I discovered that I was only doing this to make my living, and not for the passion of cinema. I therefore made a radical decision; to stop my editing career immediately and to start working on my own projects.

VO: Could you tell us a little about your film and why this subject matter resonated with you. What inspired you to make this film?

AA: I don't consider myself a film director yet. I am just a film editor who happens to have a very personal story to tell: Heliopolis is my first feature film. I believe making it independently was the best choice, not only for financial considerations, but mainly for the experience of having people work with a fresh and different mentality, one that does not conform to the mainstream film making mindset.

It all started with a failing love story. This personal tragedy has inspired me to tell other related personal stories, about my life and my friends, and to put it in the context of the stunning Heliopolis neighborhood in Cairo.

I believe Heliopolis is the only remaining district in Cairo that still struggles to preserve its cosmopolitan spirit. This neighbourhood is still home for people from different ethnicities, religions, cultures, and social classes, while Cairo, the mother city, is witnessing a rapid elimination of its multicultural character. I wanted to search for the sources of such transformations and to tell, in the process, my personal stories in Heliopolis.

VO: How has your film been received so far? Is there anything that stands out that you may not have expected?

AA: Vancouver International Film Festival is our world premiere. The film was officially selected to participate in Toronto International Film Festival, but it was withdrawn by the distributor.

We had a small screening of an early working copy at Cannes Film Festival's market. Several of the journalists and critics who attended this screening liked the film. Consequently, we received a very positive review from the respected Variety magazine.

I am hoping that people in Vancouver will like the film, especially that it is related to Canada somehow. But you have to see the film first in order to recognize this relation.

VO: What would you like people to take away from this film?

AA: I don't make films to convey specific messages nor to convince people of my beliefs. Films are just films. Heliopolis expresses questions rather than answers. I don't think I have any answers, and to be honest, I don't admire films that tell their audiences what they should think or do. I only hope to make the audience think with us, and see our lives the way we see it and the way we show it in the film.

VO: What is in the future for you? What are you working on now?

AA: Honestly, I am currently overwhelmed with film festivals and screening in different parts of the world. But I am trying to watch other films, to learn more about people and cultures, and most importantly to learn about my mistakes in this film.

My main concern now is to make this micro-budget film Heliopolis available to the largest audience possible, not for the sake of receiving awards or for personal publicity, but for the sake of proving to myself and to my small crew that it is possible for a crew of seven people, all volunteers, to make a film that can be recognized as such and watched in different parts of the world. Proving this to ourselves will help us continue to make the films we love, with the support of film lovers around the world.

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