Behind the Lens: AUC Documentary Filmmakers Tackle Social Issues
For Amir El-Shenawy ‘13, a documentary film can spring from the details of life.
His short essay film, Cairo Syndrome, which follows a young woman growing up in a city that feels both suffocating and comfortable, is inspired by what those details can say about the bigger picture. “Some visuals you really love in Cairo, at a certain time of the day, like at 6 am when the streets are empty. But then, when it becomes noon, you hate it. You find yourself stuck,” he said. “So, I’m trying to make use of the visuals and to reflect...The opening scene of the film is about this love-hate.”
In the same vein, stories as simple as a Syrian family changing their basbousa recipe, or a pharmacy major deciding to farm bell peppers, El-Shenawy says, can speak volumes about Egypt, empathy and survival.
The ability to craft a story that’s both telling and subtle is a useful skill -- and one that students can develop through AUC’s film program.
El-Shenawy, who recently received his master’s degree in Screen Documentary from the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, graduated from AUC with a film minor in 2013. AUC has since created a film major within the Department of the Arts. This will be Associate Professor of Practice Tania Kamal-Eldin’s first time teaching documentary production after previously teaching film theory, and she says she’s getting her students to focus first on story-building.
“It’s a very, very difficult junction right now. It’s really difficult to take a camera out in public,” Kamal-Eldin said. “[The students] need to find a way of expressing themselves. This small space of the University is where there is a modicum of freedom for self-expression. This is what I should be doing in the classroom, and that’s the best I can do as a facilitator or as a teacher."
"This small space of the University is where there is a modicum of freedom for self-expression. This is what I should be doing in the classroom, and that’s the best I can do as a facilitator or as a teacher.”
Meet two AUC graduates whose documentary aspirations tackle big issues that often intersect with their personal lives.
When El-Shenawy came to AUC as a Public School Scholarship recipient in 2009, he wasn’t confident in his English and disappointed with AUC’s lack of a film major.
He decided to make best use of his electives -- pushing through early difficulties by speaking up in class -- and became a mass communication major with a film minor. His first project behind the camera at AUC, about Syrian refugees in Cairo, won first place in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication’s graduation projects competition.
When he finished his army service in 2014, El-Shenawy embarked on his first real feature documentary. The film, called Kilo 64, is about his brother Wael’s decision to start a business farming bell peppers on a plot of land off of Alexandria Desert Road. Kilo 64 won a post-production grant at Cairo Film Connection at the 2016 Cairo Film Festival. Like Cairo Syndrome, it is an example of how broader economic and social struggles affect individuals.
“I spent my entire life in Cairo,” El-Shenawy said, reflecting on his inspiration for the film and his complicated relationship with the city. “When I traveled to London and looked back to Cairo, I started to say, there’s something special… I can see potential here, I can see potential in my work and can see myself going here.”
For El-Shenawy, this is the beauty of documentary filmmaking: Sometimes you get taken places much more meaningful than where you began.
Through his experiences in AUC’s Cairo International Model United Nations and during his study abroad to Denmark in 2011, El-Shenawy learned this in reality. “We have all of those differences embodied here at AUC, and we have to deal with it and coexist together,” he said. “I’m sure you cannot be a filmmaker without being open -- especially a documentary filmmaker...You cannot control how people should speak.”
El-Shenawy’s ongoing project, El Camera Bara El Mal3ab, is a web series that features his father, former Egyptian sports broadcaster Hazem El-Shenawy. Correlating with Egypt’s most recent bid for the World Cup, Hazem uses his extensive sports knowledge to compare the past with the present. The series currently has nearly 60,000 followers on Facebook, where it airs.
Perspective in the Personal
Starting out as a photography project, American study abroad student Colette Ghunim and a classmate, Tinne Van Loon, took a hidden camera onto the Kasr El-Nil Bridge in 2014 and documented a multitude of predatory stares and catcalls as she walked.
The video went viral -- amassing nearly 2 million views on Vimeo and close to 500,000 on YouTube, as of today. Ghunim and Van Loon used the momentum to crowdfund a documentary, The People’s Girls -- a gripping look at both the reasons behind Cairo’s culture of sexual harassment and the way women are fighting back. Among several awards, the documentary won the Best Documentary Short Film Award at the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco in 2016, as well as the Ambassador Award at FLICKERS: Rhode Island International Film Festival in 2016.
“At film festivals and college screenings, the film resonated with many people based on their own experiences at campuses. It definitely helped see how other women are fighting back around the world and that it’s not just a U.S. issue,” Ghunim said of the reaction to The People’s Girls. “I want [my films] to be like an exploration and really get into issues beyond just the normal documentary structure… I do want to have my films be broadcast in different languages, around the world. Just being able to put it out there for people to see it is huge.”
Ghunim said a large part of her experience at AUC was based on networking and learning from industry experts. While here, she helped out at the Ismailia International Film Festival, where she got to meet documentary filmmakers and watch films that brought important issues to light. One such film, Sleepless Nights, which centers on two figures whose lives revolved around opposite sides of Lebanon’s Civil War, particularly touched her for its ability to tell so much through the eyes of just two people.
Her most recent project, Traces of Home, documents the history of her parents, who were forced to leave their homes in Mexico and Palestine when they were children. This film has a similar goal: narrowing in on personal stories to address something much broader.
“It’s both easier and harder," said Ghunim. "It’s easier since you already know the subjects, so it’s easier to actually talk about things with them. But it can be hard when your parents are talking and saying, ‘No, I’m done’, and you say, 'No, you have to keep talking.' [Initially,] I wanted to wait until I was more established in my career, but I feel like now is the time to do it with the refugee ban and everything that’s going on with Donald Trump.”
Ghunim's experiences thus far have taught her the power of a video. "One guy [who watched The People's Girls] said, 'I really felt it when I saw all these guys looking at me. It felt like it was me in this video.'"
You can find more of Colette’s work here.
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