The interview was conducted in San Francisco following the stage reading of Drowning in Cairo in June 2018.
Isis Nusair (IN): You made three films, Heliopolis (2009), Microphone (2010), and Décor (2014), with director Ahmad Abdallah. The work on Microphone ended just as the Egyptian revolution was about to start in 2011. It is as if the film sensed what was about to happen in the country.
Khaled Abol Naga (KAN): Microphone started as a documentary; then we changed it to a fictional film based on the stories we heard from various artists in Alexandria. Here we have a young generation that is looking for ways to be represented in the culture in the midst of a stagnant political situation. A whole generation was feeling left out, and that pushed their art and music underground. A few months after shooting the movie, the entire country revolted, and this young generation became the voice of the revolution. After the revolution, artists would paint their graffiti and government officials would paint over it in white; then graffiti would be painted over the white and so on and so on. Layers of cover up!
[Horeya Farghaly and Khaled Abol Naga in Décor]
IN: Microphone received a large number of awards.
KAN: Producers and directors from the Arab world chose Microphone as one of the best one hundred films in the history of Arab cinema. The film is non-linear and complex. Young directors who understand the language of international cinema and are willing to experiment with new forms make these kinds of films. They include directors like Ahmad Abdallah, Ayten Amin, Najwa Najjar, and Ali F. Mostafa. I had a small role in Ali F. Mostafa’s film From A to B (2014). A small role could be as critical if it is well written and executed, which was the case here. I actually find these opportunities extremely important and refreshing as they help shake off the "movie star" bubble that we end up living in, and no matter how we think we are handling it, it is unhealthy for an artist.
IN: These new forms and re-ordering relate to the social and political realm as well. The film, Décor, examines the connection between what is individual/collective, real/fictional and traditional/modern.
KAN: Décor is about choices and the parallel lives of the main character, Maha (Horeya Farghaly). Maha, an engineer who works as a movie set designer, loves old movies, especially Faten Hamama’s The Last Night (1963) and River of Love (1960). The whole film depends on the choices Maha makes. Faten Hamama’s character in the film within a film, River of Love, makes the choice of being with the man she loves. She actually has more choices than Maha in Décor. It is a testimony to how limited choices are becoming for women and the rest of society. Freedom of choice is a great measure of how society is progressing.
[Horeya Farghaly and Khaled Abol Naga in Décor]
IN: In The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller (2017), there are at least three levels of violence discussed in the film. They relate to Omar’s inability to fulfill his childhood dreams and finish his education, his tragic death, and the fact that the film was banned by the censors in Egypt.
[A scene from The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller]
KAN: The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller is a short film about the death of a young boy, Omar, during the 2011 revolution. It uses the technique of Rotoscoping with a mix of comic style drawings alongside 2D animation. It is a story that needed to be told. Ahmed Roshdy, the director, was touched by Omar’s story in the midst of the mayhem of the revolution. The layers of violence in the film relate to how Omar’s family could not tell the story of what happened to him, and how the censors banned the screening of the film in Egypt. The film was supposed to be screened at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2016 but was cancelled at the last minute. It is sad that the film is not being screened in public! The film got an award recently at the Miami Film Festival and is being screened at other international festivals. We still hope that it will be screened in Egypt.
[A scene from The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller]
There are so many things about me in the film that I never thought would end up happening in real life, but they did. I never thought about leaving Egypt. Yet, here I am in this position today. Artists are capable at times of sensing and projecting the future. Microphone did that too. It was supposed to have its first debut screening on 25 January 2011; the day the revolution started in Egypt. If you are honest to the story, then you have to be honest to the whole environment in which it emerges. These stories need to be told. Is this not why we started the revolution in the first place? The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller has a universal message to tell about this child who lost his life. Why is anyone afraid of telling such a story? This raises lots of questions about the people in power today and their relation to the Arab Spring, which I believe is still unfolding.
IN: How do you envision it unfolding?
KAN: The youth in Egypt are part of a real revolutionary generation. They still believe in the revolution. When the police stop them at metro stations and force them to show their social media accounts on their phones, you would be surprised to learn that it is very common for them to have two accounts. One is fake to show at such random police checks, and the other is a real one, which they hide.
[A scene from The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller]
This gives you the answer about the future, and why the regime is afraid of this young generation and putting them in jail! It is important not to “tune it down!” That is when you start suffocating and dying! Omar from The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller is everywhere. He resembled the hope of the revolution. As the current regime in power continues to buy time, this generation will not shut up and will not be suppressed. Big revolutions always have ups and downs. The current political situation in Egypt is a huge joke and an insult to all those who took part in the revolution.
IN: In the Heliopolis Flat (2007) the emphasis is on the emotional, and in your films with Daoud Abdel Sayed there is an emphasis on the spiritual.
[Ghada Adel and Khaled Abol Naga In the Heliopolis Flat]
KAN: In Mohamed Khan’s In the Heliopolis Flat, there is a certain subtlety about the characters and the feeling of falling in love for the first time. The whole film ended by exchanging a phone number. Sometimes fate keeps pushing you to stay in one place until you get what you need. This film was a reminder, a breath of fresh air, and a statement against violence. Nothing much happens in the movie, but there are a lot of emotions. Emotion is the true language of art!
[Salah Abdallah, Khaled Abol Naga, and Shaaban Abdel Rahim in Citizen, Informant, and Thief]
I had my first lead role in Citizen, Informant, and Thief (2001) with Daoud Abdel Sayed. Abdel Sayed writes the scripts for his movies, and they read like literature with elevated emotional build-up. There are layers and subtexts and spiritual dimensions to the characters. I love reading his scripts. In the film, my character, Selim, is looking for the truth, as he had lost his ability to write. This was also the case in my last film with Abdel Sayed, Out of the Ordinary (2014). He always digs deep into the spiritual side of the culture. It exists, but we do not always know how to deal with it. Yet, when the character is “undressed,” they start looking for guidance. In Citizen, Informant, and Thief we see the contrast between the uneducated and the intellectual, and how striving for absolute power and influence wreaks havoc on the social structure. Maybe that was a warning sign for what was to come! In the musical None But That (2006), directed by Khaled Al-Hagar, we witness the use and abuse of the talents of the younger generation in this age of neoliberalism. It is a fake and glamourous bubble that is doomed to burst!
[Khaled Abol Naga and Mariam Tamer in Out of the Ordinary]
IN: You had roles in Eyes of a Thief (2014) and From A to B. Is there, in your view, a Pan-Arab cinema?
KAN: In Eyes of a Thief, the [Israeli] occupier had to approve my entrance into the West Bank to take part in the film. I stayed in Amman, Jordan until the last minute waiting for the permit. Surprisingly, filming in Nablus had a certain familiarity; I felt as if I were in one of Egypt’s governorates that I never visited before! I loved the idea of working with a Palestinian director [Najwa Najjar], a pan-Arab cast especially Souad Massi, and a crew from Iceland and the United States. This was a courageous, brave, and optimistic project.
[Khaled Abol Naga in Eyes of A Thief]
I had to learn how to speak with a Palestinian dialect. The challenge for Tareq, my character, was to find his daughter, and the minute he found her, he knew he had to leave in order to keep her safe. This is the dilemma of what it means to live under occupation. Tareq is a quiet guy with constant internal conversations. He spent ten years in prison; people who spend time in prison are usually calmer, more appreciative, and less complacent. The film is inspired by true events and mingled many stories into one. Tareq is Christian, and that was intentional to move the conflict from its usual representation of Muslims against Jews. This was a twist to the real story that the film is based on.
[Khaled Abol Naga in Eyes of A Thief]
The timing for making this movie in Palestine was a "savior" for me as an artist! I had just finished filming the very demanding and complex character of Hussein in Villa 69 (2013). Hussein was taking over me! I guess I loved Hussein too much to be able to let go of him on my own. I kept finding myself thinking, talking, and becoming like Hussein, which was alarming, to say the least! I needed Tareq's dilemma and what he had to overcome to find his daughter, so I could finally let go of Hussein. I am very fortunate to land these two roles. Such character-based stories are full of what constitutes "life," and were fundamental for me to mature artistically. I would even say that Tareq in Eyes of a Thief saved me as a person, as Khaled, from Hussein's terminal fate!
IN: Your role in Eyes of A Thief came immediately after finishing the filming of Ayten Amin’s Villa 69. How did it feel to move between these two roles in such a short period of time?
KAN: I was supposed to give the script of Villa 69 to my older brother Seif, who is an architect. He had one but major successful debut playing the role of Mustafa with Faten Hamama in Empire M (1972). Ayten Amin was looking for an older actor. I read the script and fell in love with the main character, Hussein. I secretly wished to be offered such well-written, character-based scripts when I became older. My brother corrected a few things in the script and sent it back declining the opportunity. The production team found the villa and the cast except for Hussein. I will never forget the phone call from my friend and co-producer, Mohamed Hefzy, asking if I was interested in doing a make-up test. I did not need much convincing to play the role of an older and terminally ill man. That was not the real challenge for me. The challenge was in nailing the emotional arc of the character and what it meant in the story.
[Khaled Abol Naga in Villa 69]
To tell the story of dismissive and bitter Hussein at that time in Egypt was in more than one way, albeit indirectly, political! Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power, and they were going to vote on a new constitution for the country. I was the goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and was asked to join one of the meetings with Muslim Brotherhood parliament members on children’s rights. They were extremely exclusionary, making decisions about basic children’s rights as if no one existed in the room but them! I felt suffocated and lifeless! The resemblance to the "dismissive" Hussein in Villa 69 was mind-boggling. Hussein was also very exclusionary and no other opinion made sense to him. Villa 69 is a character-based movie about a terminally ill person, yet its message and timing was very important to a suffocating political regime. That is what happens when you lose contact with life. Hussein decided to live his final days in his own happy bubble with books, music, and imaginary friends, until his sister and her grandchild came to live with him, bursting that bubble!
[Khaled Abol Naga in Villa 69]
The film ends with an interesting glow of life on Hussein’s face when he realizes that being dismissive is what kills life, and helping others is what brought life back to him. We leave him with this newly-felt sense of hope. Hussein’s opinion was always the right one. He claimed righteousness and absolute truth. That is exactly what the Muslim Brotherhood were doing while in power! It killed the essence of being alive. Egyptians felt suffocated and lost the euphoria and liveliness we experienced right after the 2011 revolution. We wanted an impeachment, not a military coup! Unfortunately, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime is restoring the old military-Mubarak regime.
You played recently in Tyrant (2016), Vikings (2017), and The Last Post (2017). There is a long and complex history of Orientalist representations of Arab and Muslim characters in Western films. How are you trying to break away from the limitations and problematics of such representations?
KAN: My first lead role in an English-speaking feature film was in Civic Duty in 2006. It is a very clever script about exactly what you are asking! The film is also an homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and how we look at the “other” through rear windows and media images in our minds. The film is set in the aftermath of 11 September 2001. You see two sides to a story, and the audience is not sure what to believe. The film pushes the audience to think for themselves. Until the end, we are not sure if Gabe Hassan (my character) was innocent or if Terry Allen (Peter Krause) actually saw such terrorist activities or was imagining them.
[Khaled Abol Naga and Peter Krause in Civic Duty]
There is definitely a historic stereotyping of Arab and Muslim characters in American media. But there has been a change! In observing the narratives in shows tailored for American and British audiences, we see a much more sophisticated narrative of British colonial history and of the Palestinian conflict in specific. The British media made a considerable progress in trying to get rid of such stereotypes that shaped most of their viewing in the past. It is taking longer for that to happen in the USA but it is starting to take place.
[Khaled Abol Naga in Vikings]
The story in The Last Post is set in Aden, Yemen, and is told from the point of view of the British occupiers. In Vikings, written by Michael Hurst, I played in Season Five the role of the enlightened Emir of Kairouan, Ziyadat Allah. He made historical trade deals with the Vikings, and is a very colorful character. I love that character! He spoke several languages and was much more cultured than the Vikings who were visiting North Africa at the time. I believe that Arabs are depicted in a more honest way in more of these Western TV shows as a result, in part, of the Arab Spring and the revolt against stagnation.
[Khaled Abol Naga in Tyrant]
We made a short film titled Camera Obscura (2015) about an Arab scientist in Egypt called Al-Hassan Ibn Al-Haitham (Alhazen), who made serious contributions in the eleventh century to the invention of the camera. The name camera comes from the Arabic al-qumrah al-muzlimah (the dark room). It is always shocking to my Western friends when they learn that!
IN: You recently directed a stage reading of Drowning in Cairo.
KAN: We only had eight hours at the Brava Theater in San Francisco for a stage reading of Drowning in Cairo (written by an Egyptian student from New York University in Abu Dhabi, Adam Ashraf Elsayigh). I worked collectively with the actors to bring their own experiences and emotional input into their roles for the stage reading of the play as a phase of developing the script. The story is based on the surprise Queen Boat arrests in Cairo in 2001. The Queen Boat incident is similar to the Stonewall raids in New York in 1969. Activism followed in each of these historic incidents and they had a great impact on LGBTQ awareness. One iconic image is very telling in this context. As the young men in the typical all white clothing were being arrested and moved from jails to courts to face the made-up charges of "promoting debauchery," they covered their faces with one hand, yet held their other hand up with a victory sign! They were fighting for their right to remain anonymous while already promising to win this sudden witch-hunt fabrication of a public opinion case.
The Egyptian newspaper coverage of the arrests showed only the covered faces and chopped off the victory signs! Youth were dancing and having parties on these boats and no one interfered or cared for many years until this happened. UNICEF and Human Rights Watch documented the abuses and systemized outing of the names of those arrested in the newspapers, which to say the least is against the law. A public opinion case sensationalized by homosexuality was deliberately used to sidetrack people’s attention from politics. That is when Egyptian LGBTQ activism was born. The case backfired and the authorities had to acquit the fifty-two arrested after two years in prison. The incident became an international disgrace for the Mubarak regime. It still echoed in the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. The play is based on true accounts of those arrested at the Queen Boat incident, and follows the lives of three friends from 2001 until 2011.
IN: You made a documentary film about the BuSSy Monologues/This Who Speaks Never Dies (2013; اللي بيحكي مش بيموت) that deals with sexual harassment, violence against women, and gender issues in society more generally.
[The BuSSy Monologues]
KAN: The BuSSy Monologues project started at the American University in Cairo in 2005. By 2010 the project was directed by two students, Sondos Shabayek and Mona El Shimi. It follows the style of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. This project is all about taboo subjects! The public, mostly the youth on university campuses, responded to an ad by the BuSSy team to share anonymous but true taboo stories. The actors performed the narratives in a storytelling style theatre. They wanted to keep the exact language of the original letters without censorship. That is where the title, “This Who Speaks Never Dies! اللي بيحكي مش بيموت” comes from! I got involved in the project in 2010 when the organizers invited me to attend the performance at a parking lot corner on the grounds of the Cairo Opera House. I immediately fell in love with them as these were amazing and authentic stories by members of the young generation that we do not usually hear! These stories needed to be documented, and we arranged to shoot a filmed version of this 2010 season of stories. The film was screened in Brighton, England and in few other festivals, but mostly it was used for fundraising purposes. The group is still active today and they became the face of the 2011 Revolution. They now proudly have their own performance space in Cairo.
IN: It seems that you like musicals. You had a leading role in None But That, and you recently directed the first Arabic adaptation of the musical Oliver (2015).
KAN: The original Lionel Bart's musical Oliver (based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens) is a classic theater piece that came into my life very early as a theatre student and actor at the American University in Cairo. I played back then the role of the villain, Bill Sikes, in an ambitious and successful university production. Over the years, and especially as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, I kept a special memory of this musical as it touches in each vignette on a child’s basic right. With the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, the idea of making an Arabic adaptation of the musical became a dream of mine. It is one of the projects I am most proud of in my life.
Oliver in its Arabic adaptation was performed three times in Amman, Jordan. Schools in Jordan are crowded and students have to attend in shifts. Jordanian children attend in the morning and Syrian refugee children in the afternoon. We wanted to work on integrating the Syrian refugee children and provide an opportunity for the children to meet each other. I met and somehow convinced Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who owns the script rights for Oliver, to agree on adapting the musical to an Arab city of today. He was generous enough to also be the main sponsor of the production.
[A scene from Oliver]
Guardian angels were definitely involved in making this performance come to life despite all the bureaucratic hurdles. We wanted Broadway standards, but most of the orchestras in the region were booked. We were lucky an orchestra in Bulgaria had a show cancelled, and were able to fly its members to Amman. The conductor and musical director of the play, Nayer Nagui, held with a professional team a phenomenal music camp for hundreds of children who never sang before in order to choose our cast of thirty-seven children. They also worked a miracle with the orchestra in few days of rehearsals. Zeinab Mobarak completed the adaptation of the script and translated the musical numbers from English to Arabic in only six weeks. We cast the adult professional singers from Cairo’s Opera House and from Jordan. As I told you, this was a project with immense tasks miraculously achieved with a lot of people believing in the children and the magic that theatre discipline brings.
[A scene from Oliver]
The script adaptation of the original play did not change as the challenges the children face are still the same. The play was a great success, and we managed to bring a bus from Zaa'tari Refugee Camp for other Syrian refugee children to attend the show and meet the performing children since they, unfortunately, were not allowed to take part in it. The work on the show took three months to complete, and the participating children were Jordanian, Palestinian, and Syrian. Some of the Syrian mothers worked with us on making the costumes and provided backstage help. We need to revise our governments and society’s views on refugees, and think of them as a fortune to have, who simply need investment. It is important to understand the plight of refugee families particularly children and women. They keep hearing on the news that they are a burden on society and the economy and that, on its own, is exhaustive enough!
IN: What are you currently working on?
KAN: I have a role in the short film, A Star in the Desert. The film, directed by Zachary Kerschberg, has an incredible script written by Iraqi American Yasmeen Turayhi. The film is about a young boy who faces tragedy on the eve of the first Gulf War in Baghdad. He embarks on a journey into the underworld where fiction and reality become intertwined. The film focuses on the plight of children in wartime. The other project I am working on is Messiah. It is a Netflix TV series about a man in the Middle East who claims to be the Messiah. My role appears in the last episode of Season One as an introduction to Season Two, where the story unfolds in relation to the current turmoil and political situation in the region.