From the Egyptian sun to the summer of Abu Dhabi, Warehouse421 and Cinema Akil, celebrating their 10th season of film present the digital film program "Makers in the Sun" an online series of Egyptian design-centric film screenings, essays, talks and Q&As brought to you in collaboration with Film My Design, the Cairo-based design-film festival. This six-week summer screening series will present the online film series in conjunction with a series of pre-recorded conversations with the filmmakers, editors, designers and programmers centered around the relationship between film and design. FMD was first launched at the Zawya arthouse cinema in downtown Cairo in partnership with the Milano Design Film Festival bridging the worlds of design and film through commissioned locally produced documentaries that spotlight local design studios, artisans and craftspeople.

For this series we are joined by Film My Design (FMD), the first and only design-film festival in the MENA region, which takes place in Cairo, Egypt.

Cinema Akil is an independent cinema platform that brings quality films from across the world to the audiences in the UAE.


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The Spectres Haunting These 5 Egyptian Documentaries

Guest writer Ma Hoogla-Kalfat writes about the five films in the curatorial context of the summer film program "Makers in the Sun".

Some of these 5 documentaries (2 shorts, 2 medium-length, 1 feature film), all recently produced in Egypt, may be easily picked for a human rights film festival or by an arthouse theatre, while others can feel at home on TV or in a conference for SMEs or startups. Together, with their different approaches, standpoints, modes, tones and emotions, they create a closeup account of labour in the country today, by looking at its outliers, where art, design and nonindustrial manual work meet. Meanwhile, the backdrop is a history populated with spectres, in a conversation with yet more spectres in the midground, populating public squares, quarries, workshops and studios.


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Where Did Ramses Go? (Amr Bayoumi, 2019, 62 min)

Amr Bayoumi's only feature documentary, produced after 20 years of filmmaking, is the  film of his life in more than one sense. It’s a film about himself as a child, a son, a schoolchild, a conscript, a young man, an adult, a citizen and a filmmaker. Through this two-tiered self-reflexivity, where the author and the medium both appear as subjects, autobiography further merges with the author’s history of his country. Far from a ‘biography of a nation’, this social history of the imagined community of Egypt consistently abandons linearity. At face value, it’s about the famed Statue of Ramses II. But throughout the film, tensions will remain between it and its supposed subject, reaching its height as the closing shot repeats the eponymous, cunning question.


The film’s foundational moment sees Bayoumi’s return to his father’s house, and coincides with the father’s death, but also with a critical point on the political timeline, the terrible meaning of which we know only retrospectively without any commentary or explanation on screen or from the voiceover. In fact, January 2011 will not be referred to until towards the end of the film, and almost only because back in 2006 Tahrir was en route to the Grand Egyptian Museum. The 2013 moment takes us back, by way of a double flashback, to the experience of shooting the transfer operation in 2006, and to childhood memories invoked by the sight of the revisited void left behind by the removed statue, the void left behind by the deceased father, and the vacuum produced by all the preceding unspoken events in the withdrawn shadow of a fallen patriarch. This will set off a cascade of memories and associations, and open up a web of detours and meanderings along the way.


Serving mainly as a placeholder, the question of the title gestures, tongue in cheek, to other undercurrent questions leading to one another, as we’re invited by the author-director-narrator to take part in a needle-in-a-haystack search for answers - no child's play - through archives in the broadest sense; photographs, art, images, objects, discourses, private collections and personal belongings, but also official archives. Ten years after, Bayoumi tries to reflect on what he had captured on camera, and, decades later, to make sense of his childhood and early youth against the background of what was happening in the country (and the nearby public square), which becomes a deliberate attempt to make sense of the city and its transformations, to trace the paths of Egyptian modernity under colonialism and after the republic, by examining the urban experience of moviegoing that introduced him to Bab el-Hadid (Cairo Station, Youssef Chahine, 1958), an older name of the railway station located in the square, which also gave it its earlier name; the relations of subject and object via both the old and emerging mass media (press, television); development projects (transportation); shifting demographics and urbanization; and ultimately the reestablishment of a modern nation-state, complete with a national narrative, that later acts to “break” younger Bayoumi’s identity into a “civil self” and a “military self”.


Announcing a new state (of affairs), the statue is removed by (the will of) the Free Officers from countryside where it was unearthed by an orientalist-archaeologist more than a century before to a new location in Nahdet Misr (or Masr) Square (later Ramses Square), replacing 1919’s older brand of nationalism embodied in Mokhtar’s “Nahdat Misr” (Egypt's Renaissance) Statue, which would in turn be removed to a less central square. A colonial history intersects with an unfolding history of a newly independent country desperate to catch up (having been waking up for a while from a historical slumber). Requirements for the process include cultural and ideological paraphernalia: inauguration of museums, erection of memorials (and apparently moving monuments around), and creating new subjectivities, all as part of the contradictory procedure of giving legitimacy to a new/modern nation by tracing it back all the way to an ancient past. Objects are relocated, maps reappropriated, and history rewritten. Bayoumi’s commentary, accurately but sparingly, gives us room for processing and reflecting; here it accentuates the meaning involved in the arrival of an ancient military officer-cum-monarch accompanied by republican officers, new leaders of war and peace.


Enter the masses. Until now we’ve been looking from afar or from above, at the rooftops of El Sakakini, typical of those of Cairo’s middle and lower classes with their semi-abandoned junk, the distant empty streets in aerial photographs, and ‘remote’ villagers. Now millions crowd in the streets and squares, coming from the capital city and beyond, on their own, showing up for Nasser’s funeral. A most memorable spectacle, it’s tantamount to a superimposition that Bayoumi sets out to unpack, a highly condensed capture of history in motion yet standing still (Salah Jahin’s euologic metaphor of an abruptly and shockingly jammed film reel allowing us to examine the frozen image on screen), as it occupies the square in question, forever occupying and haunting the child witness, who’s now reconstituting and redeeming this moment from a foreign archive that has just released the material for the first time. The spontaneous, frenzied crowd is conjured up in later appearances, on later occasions, as the narrator jumps forward (and sometimes backward) - an on-the-move observational mode culminating in a nocturnal peripatetic sequenced camerawork - following the statue’s slow cavalcade. A strictly state funeral follows, with no masses in sight. Then later on the statue’s symbolic “funeral” turns into a royal, but again popular, this time even convivial, procession. (In the summer of 2021, the viewer will recall a fourth, more recent, grandiose, macabre “Pharaonic parade”). Meanwhile, maps recur, with changing meanings and functions.


To wait to see the statue at its final destination is not to get the joke of the title, a fake threshold that leads to open, poetic ending, an equally fake exit, making Ramses an allegory about true and false paths, pointless endeavors, and human agency in the face of destiny and authority. Amid a slew of archival material, childhood memories, old songs and solo oud tracks, viewers are sensitively spared an overwhelming nostalgia, thanks to a shrewd selection of music designed to emphasize the marginal and engage in ‘revival’ only by making ‘heritage’ relevant. Ramses proposes a survival by working rigorously through a certain Egyptian heaviness. One example is how the animated commercial (whose slogan gives the film its title), along with the Ramses cartoons, strips the ancient Egyptian civilization from its notorious gloominess associated with its religions, from its obligatory nationalistic and high-culture seriousness, but at the same time without succumbing to nihlistic sarcasm given the commercial’s exploitation of history early on in the post-1967 era of defeat, decadence and disillusion. 


From the outset, Bayoumi points out to this distinctive Egyptian weight of history, of living in conservative society, but also of family and private life, and establishes his film’s articulation of a yearning both for lightness and for a future, at a moment when a sense of impasse, a blockage, was felt. (One imagines Benjamin’s “Angel of History” stuck, with no winds of progress blowing). The weight takes the form of baggage, cardboard boxes, and endless junk plus a necessary return to give the spirits of the ghosts their bodies and voices back. But the diagnosis is also borne out by the central symbolism of a colossus that from time to time must be pulled, dragged and carried. This tedious task is also a site of a coming-together of technicians, manual workers and laymen to devise a way to implement decrees. Bayoumi chooses to join them, to help rescue them from collapse and disappearance and to make them the subjects and owners of the story. Like the engineer who designs the transfer process, Bayoumi designs a cinematic way to reduce weight and save labor. A meticulous inventory is required, and, here at least, is accomplished.


There is a moment in Ramses when the camera does a 360-degree pan, more than once, from a footbridge, the image is dyed with darkening, spreading red, and a dull, muffled buzzing dominates the soundtrack, while Bayoumi elliptically tells us that he lost memory on the day he finished military service and just after a confrontation with his father followed by an aimless walk to the square. It’s a scene that ruptures but also connects, an isthmus and a bridge at one and the same time, pushing Ramses further into a hybrid area, conflating fact, fiction and poetry. If the momentary memory loss is metaphorical, rather than a medical or biographical fact, it’s still a wake-up call for him, for us, to rest, to heal, to forget in order to remember.

Beyond the Factory (Mostafa Darwish et al, 2018-2019, 41 min)

The rest of the films in this program can be watched as if they were adaptations from Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Studs Terkel’s 1974 book that interviews workers in various professions, a humane collective testimony about the tribulations, torments and joys of work, and a parallel set of conflicting emotions and states: frustration, pride, boredom, self-realization, and so on. Beyond the Factory is one of these social and oral microhistories in transmedial form. An anthology film, it was compiled in 2021 from short videos published on YouTube between 2017 and 2019 as episodes of a nonlinear online series from Mada Masr accompanied by short descriptions. Except for their rearrangement here and for the 8 videos/episodes entirely edited out from the film version, the 13 included were almost not retouched for the occasion. The project is in a way comparable to Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Human (2015), also made to be watched in parallel, both in fragmentary form and as a 3-hours theatrical documentary, and similarly based on interviews.


In its origin, this was intended to be a series on “labor crafts [sic] in Egypt” or “labor-intensive workshops in Egypt”, which holds true and applies to Beyond the Factory by extension, although this laconicism doesn’t do it, nor does it do the standalone episodes, anything near justice. The (original?) Arabic versions tell us a bit more about the subject-matter, about "handicraft workshops in Egypt" and “life” or “workers’ lives” in these workshops. In Beyond the Factory, the evolutionary dimension of the series, watched chronologically from a playlist, is lost; the last published episode (not included) runs for four times the average 3-minutes duration, but is also stylistically different.


Watching the very short films here (with “The Zincographer” as the longest at 4:47 and “The Cart Saddler” the shortest at 2:11), makes it compulsory to listen repeatedly to the intervening musical motif, with its psychedelic, hypnotic, and authentically Egyptian melancholy, mixing very well with the content to serve the function of lamentation and mourning, especially for those Egyptian or Arab viewers familiar with its lyrical source in a classic musical movie, where the singing actor plays a hard-working poor man complaining vicissitudes of time and life’s betrayals and longing for the good old days. Loaded with meaning and irony, this purely sonic reference is a wink and an interrobang.


It would be useful for comparison to imagine (or actually watch) these same crafts, or even same workshops and same interviewed workers and workshop owners, through a different media outlet, or filmed by other content creators, Egyptians or not. It’s easy to see them romanticized, aestheticized, melodramatic, a pretext for nostalgia or consumption, made exotic for a foreigner’s - or even a local tourist’s - gaze. Alternatively, say at the hands of militant or leftist ideologues, propaganda and agitation, for better or worse, might’ve been the case. Or more reasonably, since a Marxist orthodoxy would shy from going “beyond the factory” and wage-labour anyway, a radical leftist media would be more studious, delving more into the contradictions of labour, the nuances of profit, value, and means of production. We can imagine more and more approaches in this manner, developed in a more academic, anthropological or feminist vein, emphasizing any of the many aspects involved, including, say, the theatrical or the material, or putting these crafts in a global context from a business-friendly or entrepreneurial liberal standpoint. To the advantage of Mada’s project, it’s all and none of the above; an engaged journalism that wants to speak a visual language as purely as possible.


Quintessentially modern, cinema might have relatively neglected these pre-industrial spaces, while showing an obsession with the factory (notwithstanding Harun Farocki’s talk of “commercial film’s dread of factory work”) and office work. Which is one more reason why these films matter.


Many crafts in Beyond the Factory can be described as “endangered”, “obsolete”, “in decline” or (the more dramatic, scientifically-sounding and generally favored by the characters) bound for “extinction”, but the case studies add more complexity and strangeness to the matter: one of the last tarbush (fez) makers in Egypt, cut off since late colonialism from daily life, now exclusively produces for a staged, dramatized past, namely TV series, movies, and theater on the one hand, and, on the other, for the age-old institution of Al-Azhar, where the fez and the turban remain part of the religious attire worn by students and clerics. Papyrus-making even goes back farther to antiquity, but while “revival” is allegedly the case it is not clear if the contemporary practice followed an actual discontinuity. Similarly cut off from daily life, papyrus is made mainly for a now-stagnant tourism, also the target market of alabaster handicrafts. Meanwhile, copper smelting is still in more or less general use but also on the brink of some vague kind of disappearance.


It is significant that the film version (consciously or otherwise) emphasizes this sense of decline, demise and imminent “extinction” by not including some of the more stable and relevant and least threatened crafts in the series, such as the upholsterer, the feseekh and molasses manufacturers. As for those in the film who produce for a wider population, they do so for social occasions and special events (weddings, newborns’ sebou’ celebrations, feasts). A very specific and unexpected foreign market targeted by one of the crafts, the traditional ferka cloth making in Upper Egypt, is Sudan, where it’s imported to be used by Sudanese women. An obvious and ongoing trade relation between the two countries suddenly appears like a secret cult, thanks to the obscure nature of this outsourced folk costume making. Some products like the traditional Akhmim textiles and handmade tiles found the other side of the coin of decline: niche market, while others look like rare curiosities (Siwa’s salt sculptures).


Beyond the Factory looks at the strange in-between situation of a pre-industrial, premodern worker stuck in an out-of-joint time of high tech and de-industrialization, due in part to a colonial past and underdevelopment, and in part to a kind of resistance to an elusive yet threatening progress, together with an emotional attachment to the security of tradition and simplicity. The proud owner of the tarbush workshop, also on behalf of invisible brothers/cousins, is adamant that the fathers’ and grandfather's shop sign is there to stay, as a matter of family (and almost national) honour, come what may, reminiscent of the classic film The Bus Driver (Atef el Tayeb, 1982), where the threat closes in as the storm of the early neoliberal Open Door policy blows. The mixed feelings are also ours. We’d feel like protecting the vulnerable, but fully aware that gone are the days of protectionism, and that preservation is never enough. How do we reconcile our dreams of futuristic utopias and abolition of labour with our weakness for workmanship? We’re enamoured of ‘heritage’ and traditional art, angry about persistent backwardness and lagging far behind, and confused about ‘primitivity’. Is it cool or uncool that rural and medieval means of transportation are still roaming the streets of our big cities, threatened by tuk-tuks?  Isn’t “Our ‘Age of Anxiety’,” as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in The Medium is the Massage, “in great part, the result of trying to do today's job with yesterday's tools — with yesterday's concepts”?


At the risk of vulgarizing Marx, these films also seem to disrupt or undo, if temporarily and indirectly, an alienated fetishisation of commodities. First by an appreciation of the intimate relationship of craftspeople with their product, their sense of ownership, fuller knowledge of the stages of production and its various aspects, and their closeness to their bosses. Secondly, by introducing the potential consumer to the ins and outs of the product, when even salespersons and vendors don’t really know what they’re selling (including this writer who once traded in papyrus and alabaster artifacts).


Visually the unmistakably characteristic gritty look and visceral feel of the Egyptian workshop is the first thing to meet the eye. Fouad Haddad captures the hellish nature of any of these workshops in a colloquial poem about blacksmiths from his thematic collection about "Livelihoods and Artisans": an underworld of endless darkness and endless fire. The inferno of work is literal and visible (and fire safety is wordlessly out of question)—workplace as, at best, a heroic purgatory.


Troubling questions lurk behind the image and the statements (sometimes made by the interviewed while working with their hands, inspecting the process, or moving about); questions about religion (for example, Islamic aniconism dealt with in Ramses), child labor and workplace relationships, among other things. These silences become part of the restrained political commentary, with sporadic mention of a politicized lack of job security, labour organizing or state neglect. Questions of national diversity also creep in from among the lower, lower-middle and (shrinking) middle classes, together with questions of solidarity, resilience and limits of coping mechanisms and empowerment. A veteran zincographer reportedly committed suicide (a taboo topic) because of debt burdens. The clockmaker (a single mother) tells of her clients’ gendered professional expectations. Two women from Akhmim affiliated with a Coptic NGO are like soulmates “struggling together”.


The workshops of Beyond the Factory are not only haunted with the specters of the past, but also by the more immediate ghosts of the workers who left or stopped working, now possibly unemployed somewhere, invisibly, and who once - so we’re told - filled the workshop spaces, or the houses of entire villages, during a relative booming or in not-so-cruel times. These spaces often look frozen in older times, and from the rundown walls, old, sometimes decaying, portraits of the departed, stare into space.

White Hell (Ahmed Assem, Mahmoud Khaled, Omar Shash, 2018, 15 min)

Unlike Bassam Mortada's Waiting For His Descent (2014), the multi-director short White Hell never leaves the White Mountain where the limestone quarries are located. Their TV-worthy reportage is a reminder that documentary film (at least in North America and Western Europe since the 1980s) is a democratic tool that ought to be fought for. The camera swiftly alternates between indoor interviews and testimonies, clips of the stages of work enveloped in clouds of limestone dust in the open air, and tiny glimpses of leisure and friendship, as the workers take turns to sit in front of the camera to suggest a trial of… capitalism? The invisibility of an employer - a temporary owner who holds a lease on the quarry - or even a recognizable foreman, allows the mountain itself, and by extension, nature, to assume an evil Olympian presence anachronistically complained against in a cinematic forum of grievances.


If seen in this specific order of writing, the anxieties of Beyond the Factory become a precursor for the traumas of White Hell, which otherwise brings out the hellish dimension to the front, into the very title, with drudgery in a hazardous work environment taken to an extreme, horrific level. How then, wondered the programmers behind a screening of Mortada’s film, can a filmmaker look at this harsh reality amid the aesthetic temptations of the site? An important ethical question compounded by an accompanying temptation: it’s easy to make the limestone quarry workers look cool, as daredevil badasses flaunting their (cheap) sunglasses, scarves and hood-like headcovers, uncannily recalling the haunting images of defiant masked protesters amid clouds of tear gas.


If what saves Mortada’s film from falling into this pit is a focused relatively extended look at the social trauma and the protest politics of late Mubarak’s era, what does the job in White Hell is the formal interviewing technique, the generally gritty approach and the observant but not too observational camerawork. Instead of serving as a beautifying filter through a detached gaze, the whiteness of the hazardous raw material suggests nothing but death, in the same manner that cancer patient Amal Dunqul’s deathbed poem about the whiteness of hospitals establishes the sad irony: "All this whiteness reminds me of the shroud". The bliss of work and working with others, the pleasure, pride and consolation we see elsewhere, blushingly recede: identical, infinitely churned out hexahedron bricks are not what we had in mind when we thought of dexterity and craftsmanship. We’d rather be killed by robots and autonomous drones as some human beings actually were, wouldn’t we? After all, factory workers’ death or mutilation by machines - still in the Egyptian living memory - was easy to explain away by citing industrialization.


Although the end credits can make one feel uneasy with visual effects and melodramatic music that suggest a TV series, almost giving the workers the aura of dramatic characters, heroes or movie stars, this can also be the aura of martyrs, the credits being an early obituary.


Patterns from the Sun (Mohamed Taymour, 2019, 43 min)

The remaining two films are the most faithful - followed by Beyond the Factory - to the spirit of what the program proposes to call ‘design films’, apparently as a genre rather than as mere touching upon themes of labour, namely manual and artisanal work in this case. Coincidentally, Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky has recently made the case for a recognition of a broader, transmedial genre that would also include these ‘design films’ as ‘process films’. (The Process Genre: Cinema and the Aesthetic of Labor, 2020, Duke University Press).


On the other hand, the two films are also the least politicized, with nothing of the grittiness and viscerality of the others—which never prevents politics from creeping in anyway, even if we watched them separately, but especially with all the films seen side by side.


I can imagine Patterns from the Sun as candidate for a non-Western version of Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design, that is to say it is the link in this program with an advanced society - a future society in the Egyptian case - coming with the luxuries of experimentally mixing work with art, science, technology on the one hand, and with privileged conditions of laidback creative independence where the artist’s studio seamlessly feels like home and vice versa.


The two designers are eager to make local handicrafts contemporary and trendy with their signature-in-the-making conceptual and spiritual touch of digital art. An emphasis on the work-in-progress mode, hybridity-oriented development of techniques and small-scale materials testing akin to an amateur R&D, all towards a vaguely anticipated potential end product and a brand personality, helps Patterns from the Sun to be a subtle, almost uncertain marketing tool, promising a more artistic than commercial form of the medium. (After all, some of the finest art films were originally meant as propaganda.)


Likewise, the films’s unhurried pace and contemplative mood effortlessly translate its subjects’ desires and attitudes: George Farid’s ambient soundtrack, with its serial patterns, has a 1980s New Age vibe to it; the interior and exterior wide shots of the expansive workspace and the unspoiled spacious landscapes convey the need for time and space, and also offer a study of ergonomics―bringing the already pathetic or outright horrific workspaces featured in the film program to new light; the 28th minute’s kaleidoscopic visuals express the amazement of scientific discovery and fascination with possibilities.


The more-than-merely-reconciliatory adoption of home-as-workplace-and-workplace-as-home, a “work as lifestyle” philosophy in practice, and the enjoyable fusion by choice of working time with leisure time call for a revision of our allegedly emancipatory notions about freetime, but also an update of existing sober analyses. In her artistic research about work and leisure in Hong Kong, featuring conversations around a tile-based game with a retiring letterpress craftsman, Elaine W. Ho explains that a special working-from-home arrangement “allowed a generation of housewives, their children and their neighbours to find a dynamic balance between affective labour and economic survival,” but wondering, “where does that leave us today in the negotiations between the private and the public, between work and leisure…?” She elaborates:


The ‘putting-out’ system of domesticised labour and cottage industries are often described as a form of proto-industrialisation, but without trying to be nostalgic about what a new cottage industry could look like today... the answers must lie somewhere in the rewriting of the work and leisure balance… (“Getting Lighter, Still Labour-Intensive”, How to maneuver: Shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics, Warehouse421, Abu Dhabi, 2020)


In the final analysis, what the spirituality and inspiration mantra of Patterns and the ritualistic “work is worship to God” ethic of toilers in the other films have in common is, well, Human; Human created into hardship to sweat for bread, Human as a transformative mediator between God and raw material as in a Salah Jahin poem: “O, iron! There is a spiritual thing about you!” Work emerges as an inescapable necessity for one or another reason, be it a strenuous and backbreaking dead-end job or a coveted career requiring cognitive effort. Meanwhile, unemployment is looming, together with the feared twin specters of irrelevance and inability to work―sudden death. Even the tranquillity of Patterns is disturbed by invisible craftspeople, whose livelihoods are threatened (and cultures are endangered), burdening those who have a place under the sun with their wishes for being part of the future.

Cairopolitan (Aly Soliman, 2021, 19 min)

Produced by the brand name that gives the promotional short its title, Cairopolitan shows us very few examples of their craftsmen at work. The name reveals an often suspicious wistful fondness for the long-gone ‘cosmopolitan Cairo’.


Cairopolitan capitalizes on the tropes of Masr Zaman (“yesteryear’s Egypt”), popular online, in what seems to be a self-conscious phase of cultural iconization that allows for the familiar ahwa baladi (Egyptian café) wooden chair to be rediscovered as vintage, and thus eyed by, say, antique shop owners who may soon buy as many as possible of those items to store away for sale at an opportune moment. Any such object is thus redeemed from daily use for an afterlife as a collectible object on display while still in use within trendy interiors, if not for mere decoration in the loneliness of a boutique’s shop window. But Cairopolitan’s million dollar business idea was to sell the icon without the object: the said chair is meticulously copied, camelcased and trademarked as CoffeeChair™ and sold in miniatures; an infinite supply of commodities is tapped into.


While a dozen articles can be read in serious American publications about the quintessentially globalized, ubiquitous, arguably more practical, and utterly banal Monobloc (also an inspiration for Cairopolitan’s PlastiChair™), it’s through a very brief oral history by a craftsman in Cairopolitan that Egypt’s more elaborate and enduring equivalent gets its overdue rehabilitation if not a newly-found appreciation.


To put it in more general and less abstract terms, the idea is to transform the objects functionally, or strip them from functionality altogether (as is the case with the chairs), so that they metamorphose into toys, accessories, or souvenirs. However, the ablution structure at the Mosque of Ibn Tulun is shrunk, cast, and copied as pencil sharpeners, but also at the same time as something akin to a religious ceremonial object, falling into an ambiguous area between sacredness, worldly use and profanity, a curiously twisted postmodern example of Walter Benjamin's modernist equation of cult value replaced with exhibition value at the heart of mechanical reproduction. Cairopolitan’s inclusion of TulunArt™ miniatures fits well with the choice of the coins magnified into coasters (Coinsters™). Specters of prohibition and illegality are inadvertently and amusingly awakened, while a very deep joke (given its source) is made, if unwittingly: a joke that poses questions about the nature of authenticity and the legal, ethical, artistic and economic limits of imitation, and nods at all that’s presumably kitsch in Beyond the Factory and the extant figures of Ramses II including the ones yet to be discovered. The recurrent elements of banality and emotional conflict again creep in when a craftsman talks of occasional, normal boredom, in the same breath professing his love for the job.


In "The Philosophy of Toys", Baudelaire saw the 19th-century children's play with dolls and toys as the universe of their search for a future individual identity. As an example of his mid-20th century Mythologies, French toys were found by Roland Barthes to prepare the French child to accept the adult world (one of a strong national character in their case), to become a user of it, not a creator or maker, unlike the case with building blocks. (Barthes’s enthusiasm for wooden toys made by older craftsmen is also noteworthy.) This lingering insult to children’s intelligence is what toy designer Cas Holman says (in an episode of The Art of Design) provokes her into action. “The ‘child’,” McLuhan reminds us, “was an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare's day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.”


How do we make sense of objects from the world of adults and older generations turned into toys of a sort that are not aimed at children? The question feeds back into others raised throughout “Makers in the Sun”; questions about working and not working, dreamfulness and wakefulness, childhood and growing up, ghosts of the past and specters of the future.

The Program: Makers in the Sun

A multi-leveled spectrality inherent in cinema, Derrida suggests, enables filmmakers (and also curators and programmers?) to "graft" more ghosts, more specific ones, into films ("Cinema and Its Ghosts: An Interview with Jacques Derrida", Antoine de Baecque and Thierry Jousse, Discourse, 37.1–2, Winter/Spring 2015, pp. 22–39.). Mark Fisher builds on Derrida's hauntology by applying it to a turn-of-the-century sonic response in electronic music to a disappearance of future from sight, as well as to earlier British and American films that were haunted with this defeated future, a defeat of social democracy and communism beginning in the 1970s and 1980s. ("What Is Hauntology?", Film Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 1, pps 16–24).


As the films of "Makers in the Sun" coalesce, people and things that populate them come and go from and into one another. The original hypnotic effect ascribed to the spectrality of cinema is reinforced by the hypnotic element in ‘process films’, placing the viewer in a mode of intense exposure to a plethora of specters. These Egyptian specters were promised many futures, demanded their own futures, and now assemble, along with their fellow living (as in “live-action”) countrypeople in these films that look in the direction of what might be future, while turning back. The garment printed with digitally processed patterns from the sun, hung outdoors as if it was laundry, is not a mere designer clothing prototype. Everything suggests that it is also an archaeological find for display in a museum or for a posthuman eye. It belongs to someone no longer and not yet here, from time immemorial, a distant future, or forever stuck.

Ma Hoogla-Kalfat (formerly known as MF Kalfat) is a cultural worker/producer based in Cairo, Egypt. He has translated between Arabic and English, edited, a film e-zine, hosted and programmed film screenings and contributed to publications.

Through a grant from AFAC, Hoogla-Kalfat is currently writing a book, Covering the Naked, that tries to map the occurrences and appearances of the naked human body/nudity across a labyrinth of literatures, discourses, visual images, popular cultures and daily life experiences in Egypt and beyond.








Design and Serendipities: Interview with Filmmaker Amr Bayoumi

Guest writer Ma Hoogla-Kalfat conducts an interview with Filmmaker Amr Bayoumi. 

The author, director and narrator of Where Did Ramses Go? tells us about his practices and process of documentary filmmaking, his philosophy of truth, how he deals with varied receptions and interpretations, the strange ways artistic sensibilities, creative choices and the filmmaker’s fortunes interact, and the politics, ethics, aesthetics, and also economics, of all that.


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Ma Hoogla-Kalfat: Your most recent film, Behind a Transparent Cement Barrier (2020), was screened today along with an earlier documentary about a child actor. How can you describe the experience of watching and discussing your films with the audience?


Amr Bayoumi: As you make a film you do have your doubts about what will or will not come through, and the kind of impact it can make. This eventual encounter is where you’d finally see for yourself. It was a rewarding experience when my previous work, Where Did Ramses Go? (2019), was received by Egyptian and international audiences that identified with the very personal and subjective aspects built into it. But this is also where their ownership begins, with each viewer making their own claims on the narrative. An inevitable multiplicity of meaning ensues, along with a certain frustration—why, for instance, is there too much of this and too little of that?


How would you introduce us to your filmography?


My debut was a fictional film, The Bridge (1999), an Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU) production, followed by my first documentary, Tomorrow the Sun Will Rise (2001), which depicts sunup on the first day of the millennium. There was another fiction in 2007 (Girls’ Country), my first and last mass-market movie.


Since then I’ve been making only documentaries, whether independently or for al Jazeera Documentary Channel (JCD). The latter are not so many but are important to me. One such project was shot in Bosnia and Herzegovina and depicted the postwar situation 13 years after the end of the Bosnian War. There is also a film about Zein el-'Abidin Fouad’s poetry of resistance, another about the assasination of Rifaat el-Mahgoub, part of JDC’s “Political Crime” series, and The Dream of Cinema (2008), a short with Al Jazeera Children's Channel. In 2010 I ventured, with a group of friends, into co-producing Sex Talk, which was never distributed―I still have to share a private link in order for individuals to watch this one.


Then comes Ramses, followed by The Tree of Life, which has yet to be broadcast by JDC, about grave dwellers of the so-called City of the Dead (Cairo’s Necropolis), a subject of so many reports and images often with an emphasis on the melodramatic aspect. Despite this, and despite the limiting requirements, the result was quite different, thanks to mixing with the community. A lot has changed since I made this film. Moataz Abdelwahab, the Executive Producer, has been in prison for more than a year now. Two persons featured in the film passed away. The whole area is transforming. The film will show a reality that no longer exists.


I’m currently working on two film projects; one about Mazaher, a zar music ensemble, and another about Abul Hasan el-Shadhili or Humaithara.


About the sufi moulid festival?


What intrigues me is how Egyptians, inventors of religion, came up with a tailored version of hajj, a pilgrimage for the poor.


Whose production?




How much progress have you made?


We’ll be shooting over the next few days during the pilgrimage until the Big Night, marking the Day of Arafah. Post-production begins after we come back.


Let’s dwell a bit on Ramses. Back in 2006, you and a friend of yours recorded the primary footage that shows the removal of the Statue of Ramesses II to a new location. It took years for this to be part of a film, during which time the chain of events that culminated in January 2011 unfolded and became an integral part in the film’s narrative. One also wonders if it was a mere coincidence that your film appeared on the eve of the 200th anniversary of unearthing the statue by Caviglia. I want you to shed some light on the temporality of filmmaking, and how it interacts with your practices, especially your decision-making regarding what, why and when to shoot, with or without a certain use in mind.


In his review of The Bridge, set in El Korba, the late film critic Samir Farid noted that it was a visual document that recorded the neighborhood. To look at and make sense of a place is at the heart of my films, fictional or documentary. Ramses is where I explore my lifelong relationship with Ramses Square and the railway station. There’s a special place in my heart for Mohamed Khan because the city features strongly in his work. I am a son of this city. It’s my universe. All my childhood memories are in Cairo. Films are an extension of my exploration of Cairo, where I contemplate city life and the social changes reflecting history and politics.


As I followed the conflicting news and controversies leading up to the transfer operation, I became aware that a historical moment was upon us, and had an inexplicable urge to film the event. I was one among the crowds and onlookers but unlike them I had a plan, designed along the route in arrangement with owners of the places we shot from. That sleepless night had an enduring effect on me, of which I would have no idea before it actually happened. It’s striking that ordinary people gathered, marched and cheered spontaneously, sort of parading the statue, in a religious atmosphere where statues were deemed un-Islamic.


But to do something with this footage was, for the time being, out of question. On the one hand, there was a need for these emotions and thoughts to ripen in me. On the other, the images of the event were still fresh in people’s minds. It takes time, a distance, for images to work their magic. Meanwhile, January 2011 posed its own questions of a filmmaker’s positioning, of representation, and of the choices to make in approaching a subject that’s by definition a drama unfolding. Do you observe from afar as if you were neutral?


It was not until 2015 that I rewatched 4 minutes on a CD of the 2006 footage which had been digitized. It suddenly spoke to everything else and a film was born. I spent a year on the original treatment in which the statue was the storyteller, which made certain dramatic demands on the tone. This choice was inspired by the old commercial which I had dug up in 2006. But this premise wasn’t getting anywhere. Instead, I was to be the narrator. This in turn caused difficulties, namely an implication on a different, personal, level. A fortunate development occurred when a timely grant from DOX BOX meant an opportunity to take the time and work through these and more questions during the residency in Germany. I had to find my own voice which was clearly not that of a detached, professional narrator, and my structure which was far from prespecified.


I realized that telling my own story in my own voice amounted to stripping myself, as it were, and part of me resisted, sometimes in the form of defence mechanisms. At the same time, I was so absorbed in looking at ample and diverse material in my possession or accessible in archives. I took advantage of being a foreigner and would talk to myself in public, which proved to be a progress beyond my internal monologue. It was liberating to convince myself that I was merely telling the story of the statue, only making use of some personal elements. It all helped me stop resisting and get a clearer view of the link between the social and political authorities. Now, my relationship with my father, and my whole life that was somehow a response to it, found their place in a wider context. The rest was a political task; my own iconoclastic critique of authority figures and patriarchy.


The ultimate criterion at play in your film is that of memory or autobiography. The 1967 War has no place in the narrative while Nasser’s funeral is included because it’s associated with a day off from school, witnessing the mourning crowds, and a sad return to school. But some choices are not that clear. As we watch archival footage of passersby climbing over traffic barriers, we hear you comment on how Egyptians in the 1980s became more and more self-interested. How did you make this segment? Did the images lead to the words or vice versa?


This footage is one example of what I used to call “gifts from fate” while making the film. Thanksy to Amgad Naguib, a collector, I laid my hands on the slides from a Faculty of Fine Arts student project. They were in the instructor’s boxes obtained after his death by Amgad. The students were asked to capture Ramses Square with camcorders. Hence amateur videography and camerawork. It goes back to late 1970s-early 1980s. My friend Ahmed el Maghrabi (of Makan) sent me a link to Nasser’s funeral footage just after their release by the Swiss Radio and Television’s archives. A conspiracy, if you will, between intentions, research and the most beautiful surprises.


An example of a different nature is the scene with my own boxes, which I shot before moving back to El Sakakini. The footage was originally intended for another film about carrying your baggage of memories as you move away from one house to another. The project didn’t materialize but it morphed into a theme in Ramses. There began the meanderings that took me to the second treatment in 2015-16 and the rest of choices and interventions during the 2017 residency.


You decided to use your “family archive”―the photos, stories, the letter. But your story and your family’s stories overlap. Your private documents are also theirs. This also applies to your military colleagues. How do you navigate this tricky ethical terrain?


It was a problem, and part of the process I described earlier was to make solutions, as it was becoming clear that Ramses was going to bear the hallmarks of a personal film. The personal was brought further into the foreground, and with it the permanent father-son crisis as it plays out in the Egyptian society. Some even felt encouraged to share their own filial experiences on the Facebook page. In any case, it was necessary to break through those resistances and focus on the actual work, or risk letting the confusion seep into the film.


This takes me to my next question about the different possible readings and interpretations. To begin with, the current program reads your film in a context of films about design, craftsmanship and so on. But let me also give two examples from your film. When I see street vendors hurriedly remove their merchandise, I know the baladiya law enforcers are in sight, but non-Egyptian viewers will miss an explanation through voiceover or subtitles. I, for one, would also say that the juxtaposition of formal registers of Arabic, as in the newsreels and your father’s letter, with the colloquial of the man on street interviews and the more educated spoken Arabic of the experts including your own voiceover, is a very expressive choice, petting the authoritarianism of the former against the democracy of the latter. If the film, once released, is no longer solely yours as you say, while not all creative choices are intentional or conscious, does this lend legitimacy to all reception, to the extent that anything goes?


That takes us back to my communicative doubts. At work here are interesting connections generated within the film, something I’m inclined by taste to trace while watching a film and keen on making room for in my own work.


My selection of George Bahgoury’s cartoons is a case in point. I picked some from a stream of cartoons he published in one issue after another of Rose Al-Youssef, 3 or 4 at a time, obsessively depicting the Statue of Ramses II. I could opt for more serious stuff but these fit better with the spontaneity, informality and lightheartedness elsewhere in the film. Together, the selected objects and other inclusions contribute to a kind of harmony or equilibrium. There is a melody, a main theme and variations; a thread holding it all together, keeping minds from drifting away. The best part of the fun and trickiness lies here.


One surprising and refreshing reading of my film was done through framing it (within an academic program at the Federal University of São Paulo) under the rubric of Islamic studies, historiography, and the politics of memory and archive, complete with a presentation and visuals, and followed with a discussion by scholars and students.


Throughout the film, one doesn’t feel particularly nostalgic, at least not in my experience. At any rate, your film doesn’t wax nostalgic about an Egyptian past, despite an array of archival material, black-and-white footage, old songs and the stuff of childhood memories including the animated ice cream commercial with the jingle. Oud alone can easily arouse our sentimental feelings, but here it just doesn’t. Is it only me? Or is this a paradox that can be explained by your aesthetic politics or sensibilities actively working against an idealized, romanticized or glorified past? The paradox is made all the more curious when social media has given rise to the trope of “Masr zaman” with an avalanche of fragments from Egypt of the 19th and 20th centuries.


I had a million different thoughts, troubling questions and daunting tasks during those 4 years. It seemed to me my job was akin to organizing material gleaned from social media. I was aware of the nostalgia fueled by the new media. But I guess I had nothing against it or wasn’t particularly interested in suppressing it. After all, there is a fuller expanse of history in the film. There were 4 subtopics of research serving as pathways along which the material was organized, which in turn helped me discover relations: Ramses II, this specific statue of him, the eponymous square as a site of history, and the event of the transfer. 


Let me circle back to the question of ethics, family and privacy. The decisive factor behind including my father’s letter was a growing realization that it was silencing him that would make my choice problematic. Honesty brought clarity, and clarity produced layers of meaning.


Arabic for documentary film used to be “tasgili”, but then the word “watha’eqi” grew in use. We even referred to generations of documentarians as “tasgiliyyeen”, while “watha’eqiyyeen” doesn’t sound as evocative. It’s not very clear if they can be said to be used interchangeably or referring to the same thing. In what I imagine was the era of aflam tasgiliyya (documentary films), they were associated with a more or less educational brand of the genre, with newsreels but somehow also with television rather than cinema. What’s your take or preference?


While I think “tasgili” is a more accurate translation of “documentary”, what really matters is its vast array of subgenres. Watha’eqi doesn’t necessarily suggest a certain form or tendency, but must have been popularized by JDC based on the idea that documentaries featured documents (watha’eq). The underlying debate, as it plays out in seminal Russian theoretical literature, concerned an original, assumed dichotomy: fact vs fiction, reality vs imagination, documentary film vs narrative film. The bottomline is that once you point your camera in any given direction or edit out this or that, you’ve made a choice, which is not a false choice between objectivity and bias. Suffice to say documentary film has its own ways of telling a story, is a narrative mode of approaching reality, which invites the viewer to a certain mode of thinking.


And yet people expect specific things from a documentary. Today, a member of the film club was surprised that your latest film had almost nothing to do with the pandemic. He was misled by a title and a synopsis that described a short homemade documentary filmed in quarantine.


Another viewer was even more specific and wondered why it didn’t include any reference to the news or Ministry of Health reports! Anyway, let me tell you that when I showed my friends the final cut, none of them liked it at all. Looks like I took full artistic liberty this time.


Could it be that our cinematic culture is at a disadvantage with regard to access to films.


Documentary films bear the brunt of a complicated crisis plaguing the Egyptian cinema in general. No matter how well-made or appealing to a general audience, Arabic documentaries are not yet very welcome by TV channels or market-oriented streaming services. Economic feasibility is key for the viability of filmmaking. Stakes are high.


Funds are not only scarce, but must be reached through a competition between applicants on the basis of an annual call. Selection committees change, and so can your luck. Some of us have learned to play by the rules of the game, if you will, spending far less than what was budgeted, thus avoiding any future losses or even making a reasonable profit.


I didn’t make a penny from my award-winning film, which could not have been done in the first place without the help and support from Jesuit Cairo, Rahala, Team One Productions, The Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts (Makan), not to mention the precious residency grant. But for two years from its production date, the film has been difficult to distribute. Hala Lotfy of Hassala Films (a collective) has been trying to market a bundle of films as a one package deal. Ramses is among them. Very powerful and important films. A major media company turned down the offer. I guess there’s an allergy to documentaries in the region, a deliberate restriction.


As for free access, I may end up making my undistributed films available. Ramses may fare better in the future. But at the end of the day, online access is no dilemma. The problem is we can’t afford to do this labor of love forever.


Hassala and Rahala have been active since or after 2011, as part of attempts to develop alternative economics of film production. More recently, platforms like Beirut DC’s Aflamuna came into existence. Art, independent and experimental films, including documentaries, can be streamed for a whole week or even longer, sometimes for free. More and more films that made it to film festivals appear on Netflix, which also shows the work of Maroun Baghdadi. How come it’s still so hard?


Because individual and group efforts, exerted within a terrible system, wouldn’t result in a new reality or a significant shift.


As a general rule, documentaries on Netflix are mediocre, with very few exceptions that happen to be those made with big budgets and large crews, and not anywhere near that would be available for Arabic documentaries, which are very few on Netflix anyway. Filmmakers cannot submit or pitch to the company. So, although Netflix is a major player with diversified products, with a collection of Youssef Chahine’s films as one of these products, it remains business as usual.


Who are the documentarians, Egyptian or other, who interest you or influenced you?


Omar Amiralay, Hossam Ali, Ali el Ghazouli, Hashem el Nahhas, Samir Ouf, Shadi Abdel Salam, Ateyyat el Abnoudy and Sami el Salamouni. Special mention is due to Said Shimi, the cinematographer, and Shafei Sahalabi, who was more like an independent media person. When the Egyptian state (through the National Center for Cinema) cared about awareness raising, artists like these saw an opportunity and took advantage. But all that is gone now.


Ma Hoogla-Kalfat (formerly known as MF Kalfat) is a cultural worker/producer based in Cairo, Egypt. He has translated between Arabic and English, edited, a film e-zine, hosted and programmed film screenings and contributed to publications. Through a grant from AFAC, Hoogla-Kalfat is currently writing a book, Covering the Naked, that tries to map the occurrences and appearances of the naked human body/nudity across a labyrinth of literatures, discourses, visual images, popular cultures and daily life experiences in Egypt and beyond.


Amr Bayoumi is an Egyptian independent Scriptwriter and Film Director with an exceptional exposure in a diversity of media and film industry related fields spanning through 35 years of experience. Amr holds a Bachelor degree of Art in Film Direction-from the prestigious Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo, Egypt 1985 and was the recipient of multiple awards for his work namely Al-Jesr (The Bridge) 1999; a movie that delicately captures the communication gap in a middle class Egyptian family across three different generations and starred by the likes of Mahmoud Morsi and Madeleine Tabar. Most recently his long documentary Ramses Rah Fin (Where did Ramses go) 2019 received the grand prize of Ismailia Film Festival for managing to link a complex personal history to the history of an entire country, documenting an extraordinary event.