Iman Kamel, Egyptian filmmaker based in Germany, talks about her relationship to Egypt, her positionality between cultures, the use of cinema as a medium of storytelling, and her film project Jeanne d'Arc Masriya ("JDM")
Iman, talk a bit about yourself, your trajectory into documentary practice, your experience as an Egyptian living and working between cultures.
To talk about oneself one has to meditate about almost half of a life lived between cities, between cultures, between minds and ideologies. In fact I became a filmmaker by accident. Brought up in an artist’s household becoming a visual artist was a natural born thing. But then studying visual arts at the Academy of Arts in Berlin I found out that sitting in a studio and making art was not my thing. The director of the film academy of Berlin who was at the same time professor at our arts academy attended a presentation of my work. Then he came over to me and said, “everything you do has something to do with film, so come and make your first short film.” I did and my career as a filmmaker started from there. Actually I do not consider myself as a documentary filmmaker per se. I am more like a storyteller using the capacities of cinema to tell untold stories. Living and working in between cultures makes me sensitive to in-between stories, mostly subtle and introverted stories that are not crying out, it is the everyday life of my protagonists that interest me most, looking at the beauty and the lyrical in their universe.
While living outside of Egypt, issues and experiences regarding the country are your point of reference in terms of the stories you want to tell. Some reflections…
Actually my connection to my beloved home is so inherent in my system that it is actually not possible to live outside of Egypt for too long without suffering too much. There was an encounter with schoolmates in a reunion, and I listened to one of my schoolmates telling me, it has been seven years that she hasn’t been in Egypt. She would come together with her family in Zurich or London but not back home in Egypt. The longest time I really have been away from Egypt was two years and I got literally homesick, physically. I have to be home at least once a year. My artery of life is working on a movie, so I could connect to my protagonists, to their everyday struggles, to be emotionally connected I mean, to the smells, to the sounds, to the colours and to the agonies of my people.
Your film Jeanne d'Arc Masriya ("JDM") is described as a creative documentary. Talk about your process, your choices in telling the story, especially how you connect to the story, on your return to Egypt.
The film industry always struggles to put my movies into a marketing box, so the easiest way to do it is to label it as a creative documentary. Me personally I do not distinguish between documentaries and fiction. For me cinema is cinema, the film language cannot and shall not confide itself to a funding category. I do get moved by very authentic moments in front of the camera; but I always love to apply these documentary-like moments into a playful—even fictional—storytelling, just to delve into deeper and multiple levels of a theme or a story. I do believe every scene caught on camera and edited later on film is going through a fictional process of abstraction. You have to put these scenes into a framework of a storyline. The protagonists are—whether aware of the camera or not—moving in front of the camera, so they move differently, etc. I do connect to my protagonists in an organic way. I listen; I observe; I feel; I am inspired. And then during the shooting, that is very much like a fictional shooting, has a beginning and an end, I try to capture these authentic moments that I create together with my protagonists. To work on an overall story as main line of action becomes then the challenge. So the dramaturgy, the editing, the voice over and music are essential in this process. These processes feed into each other to create a “whole” body of work.
It is very different from classical documentary shooting, where you follow your protagonist maybe for years, where you have hundreds of hours of footages, and then you try to compile a film out of these materials. For me to have twenty hours of material shot at different times during the process of the film will suffice totally to create the foundation for my movies. I then study every image and motion in these footages; and it becomes for me the material like a poet works on his poems. The documentary transforms then to cinema as a universal poetic language.
In what way is Jehanne who dreams of being a dancer and disappears in Tahir Square on 9 March 2011 during the revolution while detained by military forces, a Jeanne d’Arc figure, an apparent reference to Jeanne d’Arc, a heroine of France?
I am aware that the reference to the French heroine will generate a lot of questioning. It started already in the pre-screenings we had. Actually there is a wealth of associations and meanings to this title and to the connection to this French figure who left her people in a village, made her way to the king and pursued her vision until the very bitter end. There is an inherent force in her story that stays with me forever. Every time when I am exhausted of moving against the stream, I always think of this young Jeanne d’Arc and get the power to move on despite of all obstacles. Also the title of Jeanne d’Arc refers to a movement of the revolution in Egypt itself that started in a dynamic of euphoria and infinite possibilities to get betrayed in the end even eliminated from history.
Jeanne d'Arc Masriya explores issues related to female emancipation and the right to female expression in ‘post’ post-revolutionary Egypt, through your eyes as an Egyptian woman living in the diaspora. What was your experience in telling this story from your subject position?
When I embarked on the journey to rebel and question the codex of my society, that did not allow me the simplest things like living on my own in a flat or making love to a man before marriage, it seemed an impossible task to go against the current. Now I feel the clogs of fear were broken and as many women now seek their intrepid path for these kind of emancipations, struggling with feelings of shame, struggling to find their own ways beyond the westernized or even conventionalized ways of emancipation without loosing their precious roots.
In you search for Jehanne, talk about the choices/selection of voices of those who knew Jehanne.
These voices as I said entered the movie in an organic way. I would meet women and tell them about Jehanne and they would say, ah yes I met her on the streets as a demonstration companion, or ah I shared with her my first discoveries of body and dance at that course, etc. So it is a dialectical process. I created Jehanne out of the stories that I heard from women, but I also related Jehanne to many of the women in my film. It is a very fine line between reality and imagination that we walk in this movie.
There is a written text in the film, apparently in reference to Jehanne’s desire to be a dancer:
Dance, when you’re broken open.
Dance if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free.
Rum, 14th century.
Rumi has expressed the core of my movie in this poem. I would experience for so many years now following my protagonists the way they express their kind of resistance in the midst of turmoil. They would wake up every morning and there is a friend who disappeared, or got arrested or had to flee the country, they would then go to their studio and keep working, they would never give up in their own way, no matter how much it breaks them, or eats them up from the inside. That kind of “inner” and “subtle” and I would say “spiritual” resistance is the blood for this movie.
Interview with Iman Kamel by Beti Ellerson, February 2016.
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