Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The momentous events surrounding the January 25th Revolution in Egypt—which toppled President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and subsequently ushered in a quasi-democratic system of governance—are still fresh in the minds of ordinary Egyptians, as well as the nation’s artists. In the cinema world, among the films that have tackled the events of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt is writer-director Ahmad Abdallah’s Rags and Tatters, which stands out both for its quality and its approach to examining life in Cairo during the protests that briefly threw Egypt’s political system into chaos.
On the surface, Rags and Tatters is the story of a prisoner who walks out of jail and steps into a twilight world of a city in turmoil after his jailers abandon their posts. The film avoids the areas that were caught in the glare of the global media, such as Tahrir Square, and seeks instead to look at life on the fringes of Egyptian society, among the poor and dispossessed.
Rags and Tatters—which could be described as a docudrama—has attracted favorable reviews from critics at festivals around the world, most recently at the London Film Festival in October. After it was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, a reviewer from Hollywood’s premier trade magazine, Variety, said it was “likely to become a touchstone of post-revolutionary Egyptian cinema.”
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to acclaimed Egyptian actor Asser Yassin, who portrays the film’s nameless protagonist, about his hopes for the film, the process of getting it made, and the future of Egyptian cinema.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Has the film Rags and Tatters achieved its desired turnout in Egyptian cinemas? How much does the fact that this is a quality independent film have to do with public reception?
Asser Yassin: The work will be exhibited in a limited number of venues for one week but I hope to see a big turnout once the film makes it into theatres. We can’t predict what the Egyptian public will do because they tend to leave everyone guessing.
However, the feedback I received after various film festivals was reassuring, especially at the 38th session of the Toronto Film Festival where we received an award. If we don’t achieve much success in movie theatres, we will do better when the movie is shown on satellite channels.
Q: Why did you come back to independent film after more high-profile work?
At the beginning of my artistic career about 13 years ago, I participated in numerous independent films and they were not as “fashionable” as the ones we see now. This new type of independent film contains a clear and explicit message, carrying a pedagogical tint. My entering into this experience did not take away from my position as a well-known artist, but I do feel that we must take an interest in this type of film and alter our perceptions of it.
This change must come from the industry and it requires support from the government, especially as Egyptian cinema appears in many international festivals and the world is exposed to Egyptian culture through these films. We as artists must create recreational businesses that generate revenues combined with activities that encourage a sense of public consciousness. We all work for the people and the issues that affect their lives.
Q: Where did the idea for Rags and Tatters come from?
I am a very good friend of writer Ahmad Abdallah, and we are always looking for ideas that we can implement in independent projects. I liked the idea of the film Rags and Tatters, and its name is expressive of the work’s content. I expect it will become a reference to discuss an important period of Egyptian history, especially because the film observes the lives of the marginalized. Demands for social justice are still present, but there has been no measurable change on the ground, so I consider what I created to be an artistic duty and it is one of the most important things I’ve done in my lifetime.
Q: But there are many works that discuss the lives of the marginalized. What makes your work innovative?
What is different is that this work discusses the marginalized through human relations. For example, we always hear about the number of bodies from the January 25th Revolution from a certain sect but not about specific individuals.
We decided to research these numbers, not searching for the heroes of this revolution. We consider it circumstantial that whichever person belonged to this specific group that was and continues to be marginalized before and after the revolutions we’ve experienced.
Q: Do you mean that you’re asking for more of these types of works and that they will reveal a bit about the entertainment business?
I’m not against a large number of films geared toward entertainment, but I hope to see more of a balance. I also want to see more films that carry real content and discuss important issues in our community, such as illiteracy.
Raising awareness about these issues through film has the potential to impact our society, and we must stop looking at this as though it is an act of charity. There must be a national perspective to these works. As an artist, I strive toward this goal and hope to highlight Egypt’s issues to the world through film festivals.
Q: Could it be argued that these kinds of movies spread a bad reputation for Egypt across the world?
I don’t like this line of thinking. I don’t publish bad things about my country. I speak about the truth as it is and I would be a traitor to my country if I did not do so. This means I present cinematic works and Egyptian art as they are and I originally hoped to exhibit my work inside Egypt before bringing it to other festivals. My role is to be clear about what I am putting out there. When French theaters distribute the film, it is a win for Egyptian cinema.
Q: As we are living in a time where faulty information and rumors fly, what types of sources does the writer draw from for information?
We filmed for a week and then stopped after working in one of the tombs. We met with someone living in the area and he began telling us his story. Ahmad Abdallah suggested that we combine real personalities associated with various groups in the film, like the residents near the graveyard and the homeless and others, in order to tell each of their stories while drawing from Egyptian news sources and documentaries at the same time. All of the scenes we used were in line with what happened after the January Revolution. We tried to utilize a mix between actors and real figures.
Q: The revolution is the hero of the film, correct?
No, the revolution actually doesn’t have a huge role in the film. We used the event to mark a significant change in people’s lives in recent years. We could have potentially used any other event, so the work really has nothing do to with the revolution.
Q: Was it not difficult for you to mix real personalities and actors?
Certainly. This was largely difficult because the drama was centered on one character, and then using real figures pushed me to approach more real personalities and understand their lives to the point that months before shooting I attempted to live like them by sleeping on the ground, etc. In spite of the fact that the film is essentially optimistic, its words do not hold as much significance as the work’s expressive nature.
Q: What is the purpose of the silent dialogue?
This was the director’s vision. Screenwriter Ahmad Abdallah preferred to work through sensory messages rather than concrete language. We do not ask questions, nor are we for or against any party, and we leave the viewer to take away a personal message from what he sees. The film does, however, encourage the community to take up the issue of marginalized groups in society. The real challenge of Rags and Tatters was not the silence, but to act naturally like people that you see on the street.
Q: Many films have been made in Egypt focusing on the marginalized. Again, what is innovative about your film specifically?
The film is a special case and I cannot compare it to others because it encompasses the lives of many people without putting forth a specific message. It encourages dialogue with the group it focuses on because it is a documentary and narrative piece. We relied on many documentary interviews and I had to be as close to those people as possible.
Q: Why did you use a personality close to that of main character in the series The Thug?
The main character in the film Rags and Tatters is one of the “overcome,” one of the most marginalized groups in our society, and does not resemble the main character in The Thug, which was produced two years ago. It happened by chance that I was filming the two works simultaneously.
Q: What about the places where you filmed?
This process was difficult because we filmed in various venues, including tombs, and I lived out the relationship between recitation and spirituality there. We filmed in places that the homeless frequented as well.
Q: How do you feel about the direction in which cinema is heading today?
I am optimistic about cinema’s short-term future. The negatives will be cast away over time and the positives retained, and what brings me hope is the presence of a new generation of actors, directors and writers.
Each generation has its own reflections on reality and I consider what is happening now to be a difficult time with regard to art. This happens despite the fact that recently produced cinematic works have played a big role in attracting foreign business. We need to put sector-specific controls on each industry that everyone will adhere to. Although I would not like to do this to the film industry, each of us must play a pre-set role.