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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Cairo Exit” Director Hesham Issawi

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Cairo Exit" Director Hesham Issawi

Yearning to be as free as she feels when motorbiking the dusty back streets of Cairo with her Muslim boyfriend Tarek, 18-year-old Amal is torn between absconding to Italy illegally by boat with her beloved, or staying in Egypt with her Coptic Orthodox Christian family. Amal cannot bear to consider the future she faces as a poor woman in Egypt, reflected in the lives of her sister and best friend: one makes grave sacrifices so her son can have a better life, while the other prepares for a surgery to feign her virginity so she can enter into a loveless marriage to an older, wealthy foreigner. But even as Amal actively seeks out opportunities for self-sufficiency, it is ultimately fate that will determine her path.

Director Hesham Issawi’s sophomore effort, co-written with Amal Afify, offers a rare, insider portrait of Cairo’s working people from the perspectives of four young women struggling to carve out a better future. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

“Cairo Exit”
World Narrative Competition
Director: Hesham Issawi
Screenwriters: Hesham Issawi, Amal Afify
Producer: Sherif Mandour
Director of Photography: Patrik Thelander
Composer: Tamar Karwan
Primary Cast: Mohamed Ramadan, Maryhan, Sana Mouziane, Saffa Galal, Ahmed Bidder

Changing majors, becoming a filmmaker…

I was born in Egypt and raised in a devoutly intellectual Egyptian family. I moved to America in 1990 to study anthropology. I changed my major to art and photography. This is where I learned about my love to lighting, the ability to show emotion through shadows and painting a story through the lens. There was something magical about the process so I decided to change my major to filmmaking.

The widespread desire to exit Egypt…

I lived in the States for 20 years. During those years I didn’t go back to Egypt except for few times starting from 2005. Since I have been back to my native country, I noticed that all my friends and many people wanted to leave. They wanted to exit Egypt. People from different classes, poor or rich. They shared one thing, the dream to Exit their native land. The destination is unknown but they just want to leave for many reasons: economically, socially and some felt alienated in their own country.

I was struck by this mentality. So I wanted to write about the new generation who felt alienated in their own land. I wanted to show the struggle of the daily life, the harshness of Cairo. It is a beautiful city but chaotic. The story evolved to become a love story between two character with different religions but sharing one land. The two can’t survive not because the differences of their religions but for the lack of opportunities, the lack of hope for a better tomorrow.

From a plan that didn’t work out to no plan…

The approach changed after the 2nd day of shooting. We shot for 2 days than the DP and I figured that we can’t go on as planned because the lack of permits, the cut in the size of the crew and the difficulties of shooting in Cairo streets. So basically, the plan was to have NO plan. Make it natural, simple and capture it as it happens. We figured that the camera and the natural lighting will capture the rhythms of life and the raw reality of the streets. Using caressing natural light, early morning breath, the real tone for the city, the dusty look in some of the locations like the house of Amal will convey the emotion of the story. By using a hand-held camera to reflect the urgency of the city, the disorder of details and to activate the perception of loneliness for the characters.

Fighting censorship in the name of film…

There were many challenges, the main one is the censorship. The script was rejected by the government censorship and they refused to issue the permits for shooting. In Egypt it is almost impossible to film a movie in the streets without permits. Undercover cops are everywhere. The censorships had many reasons but the main reason is the love interest between the Coptic girl and the Muslim young man. With the encouragement of my producer we decided to go ahead and shoot the film. This brought us more problems.

The censorship found out and shooting in the streets became a nightmare. I throw all my previous shooting plans and story boards out of the window and the movie changed from an independent film to a guerrilla shooting film. We had to shoot some scenes in 20 minutes to avoid getting arrested. We drove in the streets with the actors looking for the best locations were no one can notices us than bring everyone out of the car and shoot the scene quickly.

Consolidating the crew, making it work…

We went from 30 crew members to only 7 members without the actors in order to keep low profile. The DP had to wear many hats, gaffer, grip… you name it. Everyone in the crew wear many hats. Finally, film school came handy. Shooting started on April 2010 for 18 days straight then we had to stop production for 2 month because the producer was being charged with shooting a movie without permits which turn out to be a crime in our situation. The movie was banned from Egypt and we had to continue making it. Mentally it was draining.

Everyday, I go home not knowing what I am shooting tomorrow except tomorrow: what is going to happen to us the next day? Will the actors show up? Will we get the location or find a location? Many changes in the script had to happen on set because I had to fit the locations and the actors I have in this day to the chain of events in the story. It was the hardest experience I ever had, challenging and sometimes uninspiring because of the comprises we had to do.

And now that there’s a product…

I am proud to get this movie made because it was impossible to make it. When it was obvious that the censorship will never going to approve the script, this was a turing point, it was like: “Okay, so we can’t stop and there is no turning back…so we have to film and finish the movie regardless of what it looks, sound or end up like. I used to tell my DP, this is a very loose movie. He looks at me and tell me “what the hell that means.” I respond “we will break the structure… it will be raw.” I think I was trying to convince myself that what I am doing makes some sense.

What was rough?…

Shooting in the slums of Cairo. People are afraid of the slums because how danger they can get. However, for us and our crew it was the safest place to shoot because there is no police. So no one bothered us while we were shooting. We got the approval from the people in the street and we felt home. We shot in the summer in Cairo, in places with no fans, forget about A/C and sometimes no bathrooms. We still survived. My crew was 7 and 3 of them were women.

What’s up next…

After I finished Cairo Exit, I started writing a Fantasy story that takes place in Egypt. But then a Revolution happened on Jan 25th in Egypt and things changed drastically.

I went to the demonstrations during the revolution. I shared my love to Egypt with the rest of the people. I saw the people from the same slums we were shooting united with people from the upper class neighborhoods against dictatorship and brought him down. The experience was amazing. I saw history being made and it is a rare moments in ones life. Stuff like this you never dream of witnessing.

So now I am planning a movie that takes place on one day about this experience. It is my personal experience during the protest that toppled Mubarak. It is like a road movie but takes place in a march from the District of Maadi in Cairo to Tahrir square which became the symbol of this revolution. But my real dream is to make a fantasy movie in Egypt, a love story that brings the ancient to modern Egypt.

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