Arabic Film Festival - Khaled El Hagar - Birmingham / Cairo film director

Posted on 4 July 2011

The first Arabic Film Festival in the UK is being held at FACT, Liverpool, 4 – 10 July, 2011.

The Festival event on July 6 celebrates the Birmingham / Cairo film director, Khaled El Hagar, and welcomes him to Liverpool from Cairo, where he has been editing a new drama series shot in Cairo for BBC World.

Professor Roger Shannon profiles below the Egypt / UK Feature Film Director, Khaled El Hagar, the ‘Pharaoh of Film’.

KHALED EL HAGAR is acknowledged in his home country Egypt as one of the most controversial movie makers of his generation.

He studied law at Cairo University first, but since 1985 has worked in film. His first short film, ‘You Are My Life’ (1985), won best film award at the Oberhausen festival, after which he completed a postgraduate degree at the UK’s National Film and Television School, where he directed his second short film, ‘Doody’s Dream’. His 50 min drama, ‘Little Dreams’, was screened at 37 festivals and won awards at Film Festivals in Birmingham, Amiens, and FESPACO in Burkina Faso. Since the late 1980’s Khaled has based himself in Birmingham; and more recently partly in Birmingham, and partly in Cairo, as his film commitments have increased internationally.

His film  ‘A Gulf Between Us’, set in London in 1991 during the Gulf War, caused an uproar in the Egyptian press, when it was shown in Cairo in 1995. Khaled, who not only directed, but also starred in the film, was accused of promoting ‘normalisation’ with Israel and could not return to Egypt until 2003.

Recent years have seen a renewal of support for his film making ambitions in Cairo, where he has been filming almost back to back for the past few years on a range of multi award winning movies, and re establishing himself as an A list Director in the Arabic market.

It was his London set and UK financed film, ‘Room To Rent’, that brought Khaled’s talents in 2001 to the attention of the international film world, a film that, when Head of Production at the BFI I had the pleasure of developing with Khaled and then of helping Producer Ildiko Kemeny to raise the finance.

‘Room To Rent’, a comedy drama,  stars American actress Juliet Lewis, as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and French actor Said Taghmaoui, as a young Egyptian screenwriter, and revolves around Ali’s pursuit of life, liberty, and  a green card.
Since ‘Room To Rent‘  Khaled El Hagar has built his artistic career shared between his native Egypt and the UK. It is the depth and the range of his films that resonate with audiences, as he shuttles between cultures and genres with an ease and a versatility, taking in comedies, dance films, popular musicals, and contemporary dramas with a social cutting edge, and all filmed with Khaled’s heightened palate of ‘kitsch bazaar,’ for which distinctive visual look he has been dubbed ‘the Pedro Almodovar’ of Arabic cinema. 

In 2009 this Egyptian/British director was honoured with a retrospective of his major films at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival.

With 30 national and international film awards already to his name, Khaled El Hagar is without doubt one of the most important Egyptian filmmakers of the past two decades.

Khaled El Hagar’s recent filmography  includes ‘Kobolat Masroka’ / ‘Stolen Kisses’, which focuses on nine Egyptians in their 20s faced with common, but taboo subjects in Egypt: family conflicts, unemployment, sexual frustration, prostitution and violence. By keeping an Egyptian voice accessible to the larger audience, this 2009 production kicked off many heated debates in Egypt, including death threats.

The film, known for its bold, steamy scenes strayed far from from the lines of ‘Clean Cinema’ – also known as  “proper” or “righteous” cinema -  which since 1998 had dominated the arts scene in Egypt, imposing new restrictions on freedom of expression.The film narrates the stories of three couples  Ahmed Azmy and Yousra El Lozy who love each other, but cannot get married lawfully because of the vast class differences between them; the relationship between Farah Yousef and Basem Samra, which is frustrated by Farah’s ambition for a more luxurious life, and Randa El Beheiry and Mohamed Karim, who strive to make a living, and keep the balance in their relationship.

‘Mafeesh Gher Keda! / None But That !’ is a  musical, made in 2006, which follows the life of a single mother of three, who is struggling and dreaming of riches. The efforts of the mother, Nahed, bear fruit when her youngest daughter, Dina, succeeds in show business. However, jealousy, in-fighting and tension follows.
Loosely based on Brecht’s The Deadly Seven Sins, ‘None But That 1‘  exposes celebrity longing and wealth.

‘Hob El Banat / Women’s Love’ is a romantic comedy from 2004 that won seven major awards at the 2004 Egyptian National Film Festival and went on to become a major commercial success. It is the story of three half-sisters brought together by the death of their mutual father. The three—according to their father’s will—must live together for one year in Cairo, before they can inherit his considerable estate.

 ‘Elements of Mine’, made in Germany in 2004 by Khaled El Hagar and Norbert Servos, is a 20-minute modern drama dance, examining passion and sensuality.

I caught up with Khaled recently and found out what his recent, and future, projects are. He was celebrating winning the Best Film Award at the 2010 Cairo International Film Festival.

“For ‘El Shooq’ to win this award feels like Egypt has won the World Cup,” Khaled explains. “For me it was a mix of dream and sad realty. A dream, because finally I have won the big award in my own country, after many years of struggling to get my name in the A list of directors. My films always generate a strong controversy in Egypt and the Arab world. The award for me was an award for all my hard work as a film maker who wanted to improve the quality of his home cinema, and to speak about what I feel.”and it is the only film representing Egypt.

‘El Shooq‘  brings us into the lives of the inhabitants of a marginalised street in Alexandria, the second largest city in Egypt. Familiar, moving and funny, each character is isolated in his or her fierce, yet fragile dreams. The central character is Umm Shooq, a woman whose sense of shame and inadequacy drives her to gain leverage over the little world in which she lives. Umm Shooq takes her daily journey around the neighbourhood, selling coffee beans and using her talent for reading the dregs of used Turkish coffee cups to provide a glimpse of her customers’ future. The trailer for ‘El Shooq / Lust’ is at –

The film was controversial in Egypt, even before its release and there were moves to prevent it representing Egypt at the Cairo Film Festival, because it was deemed to portray his home country in a negative light.The film is the latest addition to a relatively new trend in Egyptian cinema: movies that realistically follow the lives of a group of characters living in one of the poorer areas around the main cities. The plots are mostly harsh and challenging, full of life-altering crises.Khaled also talked about a new project which takes him into the realm of television drama.

‘ I am also in production for a TV series of 15 episodes, ‘Shopra’, which is an Egypt / UK co production with the BBC. The series will be in Arabic; shooting began in November  2010. The series is about young people and is called ‘Shopra’ : their dreams, problems, and the relationship between Egyptian Moslems and Egyptian Christians in Shopra, which the is most mixed place in Cairo between Christians and Moslems.’

As he works between the UK and Egypt I asked Khaled did he see himself as a ‘diasporic’ film maker, blending cinematic elements from different traditions and countries ?

‘I see my self as a director who can work anywhere. I have worked in England, Egypt, Germany, and France.  My film elements are from all the countries, where I am living in and, of course, all the international cinema I have seen. But I can talk to different audiences in every country…, if i make a film in Egypt, I must talk to the Egyptian , and if I do a film in UK, I talk to the British people. For me, a director is like a doctor – you must, and should be able, to operate anywhere .’

The Arabic Film Festival in Liverpool will screen -  on Wednesday July 6 at 6pm at FACT – Khaled El Hagar’s first feature film,  ‘Little Dreams /Ahlam Saghira’. This is the story of Ghareeb, a 13-year-old Egyptian boy who follows his father’s ghost to the front line. It powerfully conveys a generation’s disenchantment with the popular leader of the late 1960s, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Set in Suez, in the period leading up to and during the six-day war against Israel in 1967, the film is filled with captivating, dreamlike sequences that unfurl with vivid splashes of colour. The picture begins by recapping the protagonist’s life — from his parents’ wedding, his birth and early childhood to his father’s death as a Resistance hero in the 1956 Suez conflict. But soon, our protagonist’s idealism is destroyed by the brutality of conflict, along with his home, town, and dreams for the future. El Hagar’s statement is a gripping, prophetic and human wartime drama.
‘Little Dreams’ will be followed by a Q and A with Khaled El Hagar and Professor Roger Shannon, from Edge Hill University, moderated by writer and curator, Omar Kholeif.

Roger Shannon
Professor of Film at Edge Hill University

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