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ANOMALY CINEMA (4) - Interview with Yousry Nasrallah

Thursday, 30 March 2017 08:07

Lorenzo Esposito to tell a better story


Nasrallah Who inspires you in filmmaking?


Recently I was re-watching two films by Douglas Sirk, Written in the Wind and The Tarnished Angels. He has such an incredible finesse in portraying the ambivalence of things… This is a possible path for cinema, exploring places where things cannot be explained in just one-way. And then Visconti, Rossellini, Pasolini… Japanese films…


What Japanese films?


Not only the most famous! For example, I like Tarayama a lot… I like directors who have a non-formal approach to life. Also, I enjoy the pleasure of dream as a filmmaker is to stop shooting and start telling a story.


These days that’s not ‘cool’ though.


Yes, indeed, it’s considered ‘out of fashion’. Still, there are strange ‘objects’ being generated from the pure pleasure of telling a story… For example, Rester Vertical by Alain Guiraudie, I loved it! He is able to transform that kind of weirdness in a mood, something that for me counts much more than having a style or a formal vision of filmmaking. If you make a film with a lot of characters - like mine - producers and distributors start to be worried because they think people - the so-called audience - are too lazy to handle ambivalent stories. That’s completely false though!


Do you like writing?


I do like writing scripts. The only script in my entire filmography that I have not written myself is Scheherazade. I’ve written or co-written all my films, including Bab el shams which is based on a novel.


You worked on the script of Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces for many years…


Yes, it took me a very long time to get to the final form I wanted. It started as a nostalgic story about a grandfather who works for a ‘pasha’, stuff like that… Then I made a second draft in which the story was set in the present and had a much more political nuance, it was about a corrupted policeman… But I didn’t want to make a movie to complain or denounce things. Finally I was able to reach the final form that the film has got now: a political story which is told through simple and beautiful things such as desire, transgression, and the will to live. I knew from the beginning what I wanted, but I felt that I needed more maturity to get to that point.


Is there a connection between maturity and simplicity?


Yes. Simplicity...and the revolution.


What revolution?


The Egyptian revolution. It played a big role in the making of my film. Seeing that people acted so strongly, and with such great dignity and freedom, gave me the push to change the script and finish the film.


The film - like all your films - is very sensual. Do you think that there is a connection between revolution and sensuality?


Sensuality is the topic of the film.


When you write a script where do you start from, characters or images?


I’d rather say that I start from situations. I write a story, then when I start working with actors it becomes clearer and clearer. The mise en scene comes from how actors relate to the story and to the different directions that it can eventually take. That’s how I work. I will give you an example. In 1993 I made a film called Marcides through which I realized that what I’m discussing with you right now was exactly the point. I had a scene featuring the main character looking for his brother under a bridge, and the actor performed it as if he were looking for his lover. I hadn’t told him to do that but, when he asked me: “do you like this?”, I said “yes, I do like it”. When an actor gives you something like that you know exactly how to put the camera in the right place. Another example would be my first film (Sarikat Sayfeya, 1988; editor’s note). There is a sequence in which families arrive, and the main character - a boy - is the only one without a father, so he desperately tries to get some attention. The script just said: ‘families arrive’. But how to film that? The image I had got in my imagination was about crowds of families getting to the place like big elephants who don’t see the little boy, so they eventually crash him. My method is to create a ‘mood’ catching this first impression, which then makes actors to react in the most physical and aggressive way.


Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces has several sequences featuring many

characters shot with complex camera movements. Was everything

throughly planned and organized?


Yes! I’ll tell you something. Recently, I did six months of teaching. I showed the students a bunch of comedies that I really love, stuff like Buster Keaton, Blake Edwards, Peter Sellers... Then I asked them a question: what is it about? Students would start to sum up the story and I would say “no, it’s not about that”. Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances is a very abstract film about time in which he manages to give a very palpable feeling of what time is. This is it, when you start asking yourself ‘what is it about’ - which is the real essence of a scene - then camera movements and actors movements follow, it’s easy to figure them out. Take Karima’s character in Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces. She’s very mysterious: she doesn’t speak much but she’s always at the center of the frame, watching, observing... until you discover what she’s doing. So, putting her at the center of the frame and seeing her watching, moving here and there, following her without really insisting on her, this is what gives the whole wedding sequence its real form.


A matter of space rather than time....


Exactly. That’s why locations are so important. My main fight with the producer - a very commercially oriented producer - was all about that.


Where did you film?


In Mansoura, a big town in the north-east of Egypt. We shot in a small place near Mansoura, actually. I worked a lot to find the bad guys’ house, and when I found this strange and super kitsch villa I literally freaked out, I wanted to put my characters in there. People asked me: “don’t you think you’re going a bit over?” I said: “yes! I want to go over!”. “Don’t you think that the last sequence with the bees attacking seems too much cartoonish?” First of all, it is not cartoonish at all, those things happen, I saw it happening. But even if it’s cartoonish, ok then, that’s exactly what I want!


It’s not cartoonish, it reminds of a Roger Corman’s film ending.


That’s right, it’s the end of the world! Have fun!


Yet before having fun with ‘the end of the world’ the film becomes very dark and bloody..


Yes, definitely. You know there’s a lapsus I made when I wrote my letter of intentions for Locarno Film Festival... I wrote: “this film is about things I like in life: food, sex, freedom and… death”! I sent it to a friend to proof the text and he asked me “What? Do you like death?” “No! No! Of course not! Remove that!” But the presence of death, even the glorification of death nowadays is so… I mean, you can’t make a film entirely about joy, drama is everywhere…


Well, you like comedy which is deeply related with drama…


I play with contrasts.


Am I crazy to think that…


Of course you are!


That’s because I like you and your cinema! Seriously, I see a strong connection between Brooks, Meadows and Lovely Faces and La Regle du jeu by Jean Renoir.


It’s true! I would say with Jean Renoir in general and more with Partie de campagne actually. Have you seen it recently?




I re-watched it after shooting my film and I was astonished by the similarities, especially regarding the connection between food and eroticism.


Now you remind me of Marco Ferreri’s La Grande bouffe.


Come on, he’s one of my favorites! You know I met him in Cannes when Chahine was in the jury and Ferreri presented Storia di Piera - a wonderful film -, and Hanna Schygulla got the best actor award. That guy was amazing, we had a lunch together in a french restaurant in Paris and they served us a ‘stufato’ and suddenly I found Marco Ferreri in my plate, literally, joining my food and saying delicious! delicious!


Italian style… You know it’s something that happens in Italy, especially in a big family, when the mother is cooking you go to the kitchen and steal food!


I understand, he was fantastic! If I think of his cinema the thing I like more is that he’s a storyteller, all his films are a pretty unique connection between imagination and real life.


How much is your film influenced by popular Egyptian cinema?


A lot, especially regarding the wedding culture. Dresses, food, people… In Egypt weddings imitate films in a certain way. If you’re familiar with Egyptian cinema you know for sure a classic like Zuzu (Khali Balak Men Zuzu, Watch Out for Zuzu, 1972 by Hassan al-Imam; editor’s note), well for many years people play the famous Zuzu’s songs during their own weddings trying to recreate the atmosphere of the film and producing a very strange va-et-vient between fiction and reality.


What about italian melodrama? Watching your film I thought about De Santis, Matarazzo…


I don’t know Matarazzo well… I only saw Riso amaro by De Santis, a masterpiece, Silvana Mangano is so sexy… But my main reference would still be Visconti.


I think you’re less formal than Visconti, you have a totally different conception of freedom in filming.


Yes, but for me melodrama is not a form, it’s about telling stories, and I like Visconti as storyteller, I’m interested in the way in which he gives a narrative form to a simple plot. The question is how you can be realistic and authentic with such a dramatic material, so much based on emotions. Visconti was a master in managing this kind of stuff.


Tell me about the title of the film. When you say “lovely faces”, I can feel some kind of irony here....


It’s not ironic at all. Since they’re veiled women I put a lot of make up to break the rules. That’s why some extreme islamists is against the film. And you have that scene in the film: the one shot scene, a fixed frame full of mirrors where women are all doing their make-up and getting ready to seduce and to attract the attention. In our world it is a transgression, a way to play but also to be very subversive. I don’t like to be the film critic of myself but, if I think about it, that’s the real point of my cinema: to film the tension between showing or not showing. That’s why I’m not so fashionable nowadays! I think that something is lost in filmmaking, and to find it you would require you to have a soul.


Can you give me an example of a filmmaker with no soul?


Haneke, Von Trier…


I won’t say that I disagree.


The question is what makes people going to the cinema. What makes a child going to the cinema. My answer is that it still requires something magic, something related to life, discovering an adventure, discovering people, discovering emotions, opening windows and let some fresh air enter…


Renoir, again.


Yes, when I hear someone discussing what is ‘trendy’ today, I simply feel this as a part of a big despair. They no longer care about telling a story, they don’t care about anything. Though they started to prevail in the nineties which is exactly when people started to lose hopes in making the world a better place, in changing the world. You know, when you make a film you think a lot about how to look at men, how to look at women, how to look at children, how to look at violence, how to depict these things, what am I going to show, what am I not going to show, why am I not going to show it, why am I giving or not giving this information.... all this it’s only because you want to tell a better story! That’s why when I think about films like CachetWhat are you chachet?! You know all the story, why don’t you tell it!? Why are you hiding information!? Why are you putting me in the position in which I come out hating myself, hating the characters and feeling very intelligent because I hate myself and I hate the characters… For me this is not cinema, it’s the contrary of cinema. Why should I be considered old-fashioned because I think this way? Well, then yes, I’m definitely, completely old-fashioned. I’m being myself!




Rome, november 2016.



The editor thanks Giulio Casadei (MedFilm Festival head of programming)



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