INTERVIEW: HESHAM ISSAWI - LAST EXIT TO CAIRO
Dec 16,2010 - 11:49 AM
For the DIFF 2010 Cultural Bridge Gala, a very special film was required. A narrative that demonstrated with resource, wit and insight, the clash and resolution of intercultural barriers, the overcoming of adversity and a little love too. Happily, Hesham Issawi’s ‘Cairo Exit’ fits the bill perfectly.
LA-based, Cairo-born Issawi tells a tale of star-crossed lovers battling economic, religious, social and emotional divides within a city perpetually teetering on the brink of chaos. For Issawi himself, who creates perspective and hope amidst the ricocheting cultural rhythms of Cairo, ‘Cairo Exit’ serves as a colourful, spirited love-letter to his home city.
There seems to be a general movement of independent cinema coming from Cairo in recent times. Would you agree?
Yes, absolutely. Over the last few years, there is a sense of defying the system – people who can’t get into the commercial cinema system are going their own way, making the movies they want to make. You can call it independent or you can call it new wave or whatever, but definitely, it’s young filmmakers expressing themselves in a way that they want.
I think, finance, for one thing. There is just no money to make films, so people are using cheap technology. But even these Red, D7, D5 cameras, the quality of these is great and anything, you can edit in Final Cut.
Socially, is Egypt in a place where socially, politically, economically, there is a renewed sense of urgency for informed documentary and feature filmmaking?
This reality is nothing new - what’s new is that its being expressed. OK, you can look at mainstream Egyptian cinema and see social issues being expressed, but it’s usually being done in a very commercial way. But now, there is now a young generation taking this subject matter seriously and dealing with it in a deeper way, more layers, locations, more, you’re seeing, feeling and being there.
The film was shot almost entirely on location – on streets, alleyways, inside ordinary houses and so on. Was this a conscious decision to avoid the very studio-based style of mainstream Egyptian film?
Yes, before, everything was stuck in a studio. Here, you’re on the streets and the people who work in the industry they don’t think that way. Now filmmakers grew up with whole digital stuff – they want to shoot the homes they see, the streets they walk – that’s their reality, and that’s what happened to me – when I shot this movie, I wanted to shoot ‘this’ street I see every day, that small alleyway, those stairs – there’s that scene where she is climbing the stairs – I want to see that. This is my reality. I didn’t really have an art director; the art director was the location itself. Even the furniture, in the home we used, the bed, the couch, this is what we found. We might add accessories for the character but it’s what people use in that house. That reality was never there before in Egyptian cinema.
Where does the story itself come from?
A theme that I felt was missing from the city is love. You don’t see love in the city of Cairo any more. Its just so harsh here, I walk the streets and every day you hear people fight between themselves, one guy smashes another guy’s car or whatever. People screaming at each other - that comes from stress, from oppression, the harshness of daily life. So, ‘Cairo Exit’ is about two young people who are in this chaotic city, this hard city and they just want to love each other, despite that everything around them is hard, socially, economically and with religion.
Your film is being presented as the DIFF Cultural Bridge presentation. Does this chime with your own approach towards cinema?
As an Egyptian, we know we have domestic problems going on, but to the West or the other Arabs, we want to send a message of positivity too– people will see our film and see us as human. And this is something that’s lacking in other Egyptian movies. They are very local, they lack that humanity.
I believe you make a movie for everyone. Like, I made this and I chose the music very carefully. It’s absolutely different, it’s not Egyptian, and it’s more guitar and piano. I remember when we put this piano music to a scene of some kids running down the street and I was like, ‘Wow! These kids look totally different now!’ – how – the piano music makes them so different. Usually, they use oud or whatever, but its so clichéd! In the States, a lot of Americans use Eastern music in their movies – so, why can’t I use Western music in my movies! And that’s what cinema making is all about – art is not specific. It’s for everybody – art is not made for specific people, closed to them – no, there should be no monopoly on art.
Egyptian Film at DIFF