On an Equal Level with Poetry

in 72nd Berlinale - International Film Festival Berlin

by Lamia Fathy

During the festival, Lamia Fathy managed to find time to set up a conversation with Mohammad Shawky Hassan, the director of Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day? In this interview the director talks at length about his first feature film.   

Mohammad Shawky Hassan is an Egyptian film director, writer, cinematographer and editor. His short film And on a Different Note was shown in the 2015 Forum Expanded section during the Berlinale and has been acquired as part of the MoMA’s permanent exhibition. Hassan’s first feature film Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day? had its world premiere in the Berlinale’s Forum section this year

Amidst a lot of polemic in his home country and a strong backlash and a defamation campaign in the Egyptian media against him personally that began even before the film was screened, he has kindly agreed to make an interview to talk about the film, from his perspective, to take us on a journey, an epic journey just like the ones in 1001 Nights, to show us what was happening behind the scenes and to shed some light on some questions that the film has raised.

Q: Why is the title of the film in Arabic “Bashtaalak sa’at”, the name of a well-known pop song, while in English it is the name of a sonnet for Shakespeare “Shall I Compare You to a Summer’s Day?”

Mohammad Shawky Hassan: The reason has to do with the concept of the film, which is first and foremost a film about language and a film about storytelling, above all. As you saw, from the very beginning there is a translation guide and there are different levels of language. This is the case in this film and in my previous works as well. I am concerned with language all the time because I work on pop culture. Arab pop culture, or any other pop culture, once you try to translate it, there will be things that are translatable and others that are untranslatable. I always try to include this from the beginning as part of the concept of the film.

In other words, we do not attempt to translate things and then find out that we are unable to translate them, no, always from the beginning there is an implicit recognition, and we get the Arabic and the non-Arabic speakers alike involved in this matter, that there will be things you will understand and things you won’t, and that is ok. Just like you and I, for example, we have been living in Germany for around three years, yet there are many things we cannot understand 100%. There are signifiers and references we will not understand. So, had I translated “Bashtaalak sa’at” into “I miss you sometimes” I would have lost the signifier and removed the cultural reference.

Q: Was that a conscious decision from the beginning?

From the very beginning, it is visually explicit in the poster and in the film that “Bashtaalak sa’at” are just two words, while “Shall I compare you…” is such a huge sentence. Therefore, we are trying from the beginning of the film, and throughout the film, to send a message that there is Arabic and there is English, and we are doing our best to translate, but this translation will never be enough.

Indeed, this was part of the inception of the concept; in my own head the film had two titles. I wanted to name it “Bashtaalak sa’at” and “Shall I compare you to a summer’s day?” This is a very personal title for me, and it is also a reference to one of the stories in the film. This was also my instinctive thought at the beginning, but later on I found out that it works well with the idea of the film. I am seriously attempting through the film to place Arab pop as a serious genre.

Q: Could you elaborate more on this point? What do you mean by placing Arab pop as a serious genre?

MSH: I feel that most of the cinematic or even contemporary art work dealing with Arab pop treats it as a parody or something to make fun of. But I think it is a serious genre. I listen to Arab pop, I like it and I respect it. So for me it was interesting to use the title of an Arab pop song as the title, and put it exactly on the same level with a Shakespeare sonnet. All the time, whether through Shehrazad or the songs or all those things, they are on the same level, the same serious level. In other words, the film is blurring the lines between what is considered high and low art.

Q: The title of the film is the name of a song. The film begins with a famous Egyptian song, sung by a very strong male voice on a black screen. Why did you rely on implementing songs rather than narration in many scenes?

MSH: First of all, the song in Arabic on a black background is an introduction to the idea of the film, which is a very sonic film. If you listened to the film, and we did try to do that, just play it as a soundtrack on its own, actually it could work. I mean, of course it will be different. But we are used to, and this is what we study at the academy or in universities: “Film is image.” In my opinion, this is not the case, film is very much both, and sound is as important as the image in my films, and from the beginning we are sending several messages:

As soon as you listen to the choir in the cinema, instead of ten minutes of narration, by listening to the song, already many things are taking place in the first two minutes. We get to know that this is a sonic film. We know that songs are an important part of the film. We know that there is a choir, just like the traditional choir in the Greek theater. It is intertwined with the events. The song is not translated, so we perceive it as sound more than a comprehensible language.

For me, songs are really part of the things I listen to all the time. It is part of the things we say to one another. Part of the references we use, whether as jokes, or in order to comment on things together. For instance, we could be talking about something and then refer to a song. This integration of the song in the middle of the narrative is very much like integrating the Arabic language in our conversations as lovers or as friends. It becomes part of the language, just like dialogue, just like prose, just like reflection. These are not movie songs. The songs are part of the fabric of the language of the film. As I said, they are on an equal level with poetry, on an equal level with narration, on an equal level with Shahrazad’s monologues.

Q: Why have you decided to rely on a narrator, Donia Massoud, and why 1001 Nights in particular?

MSH: From the beginning, the film was very much for me, not merely a film about love, but rather a film about how we talk about love. How we talk about it. How we remember it. What do we remember? What do we forget?

So, once again, the film has to do with language and form. My personal reference is 1001 Nights, because I grew up listening to, and watching, 1001 Nights, even before I read the book as a grown up. For me 1001 Nights is mesmerizing on the level of storytelling technique, as there is a frame story, and a story within a story. The film takes indeed, in a very detailed way, even if this is not directly visible, from 1001 Nights, through the use of language, through the use of the action verb, because Shahrazad would always use more action verbs than anything else, verbs that do something, that move the story forward (or backward).

So on the one hand, the idea of 1001 Nights‘ storytelling technique plays on a personal note for me. But a lot of this heritage could be problematic. It contains misogynistic elements. I used to love 1001 Nights, and this generation liked it a lot when we were little kids. However, when we watch it now, we see to what extent it was misogynist, racist, homophobic, etc. So I wanted to explore how we could own these things, how we could take this work that has been quite formative for so many of us and use it in a personal way. I like 1001 Nights, but there are these things that I do not like about it, so how do I create my own version of 1001 Nights?

On the other hand, there are many versions of 1001 Nights. Some versions were very erotic. Adaptations were made to make it adequate for “The Egyptian family values” (he laughs). All these things had to be removed from the text or the series. Everything sexual and erotic was removed and it was presented as a platonic love story. This is the second reason. We wanted to restore this erotic and sexual part of 1001 Nights, which I felt was taken away from it.

Q: We have both lived in Cairo, a conservative city. We both know that most of the new generation lives a double life, especially when it comes to their sexual life. When you were making this film, how did you feel about that? What were your fears as you were making what could be the first Egyptian film about homosexual love stories?

I don’t think this is the first film about Egyptian homosexuals or queer communities. It is exactly as you say from a queer perspective. I cannot tell also if it is the first film or not, in the sense of a film made by queer people for queer people, and therefore we do not have to carry the burden of representation. We are not representing anyone, we are only representing ourselves.

As for your question about fears and revealing secrets, to be honest with you, we haven’t given it much thought. I mean, it is there and it is clear. But we were trying all the time to focus on the stories, how we were going to tell them, how we were going to respond to one another, how the dynamics, the performance, and the acting style throughout the film are. Does it look real? Does it feel like it is part of the script? This was where our focus was, not what was secret and what wasn’t or where the double layers were.

I can tell you for sure: All the conversations, the improvisations, the rehearsals and throughout the process with the dramaturgy’s and the actors, the sound designer and the editor, we never had this conversation. Nobody brought up the subject of secrets or fears and we sat down to discuss it. Everyone was devoted to the stories themselves and the different layers that make up the film. How do we tell the story, how is it visually, how is the dynamic, and what’s the result.

The film is not about an issue. Nobody in the film is suffering or playing the role of a victim, because of homosexuality. Nonetheless, we know for sure that there are problems, there are issues. But we have already seen so many works that are in this direction. But the film deals with jealousy, with death, there are question marks, threesomes and everyday-life dynamics. We are living together and there are issues in all relationships. We do not wake up in the morning and talk about homosexuality.

Q: How did you convince the actors to talk in front of the camera about secrets from their sexual life, which is perhaps the first time they talk about them with anyone, yet they talk about intimate moments, painful moments, and sometimes regrets?

MSH: How did I convince them? I have no idea! They were convinced! You ask them (He laughs). I had the privilege of working with experimental people and playful performers. Back then when I first met with them, the film had not taken the form that we saw. It was a bunch of ideas and concepts. I was really lucky to work with them. There was a lot of enthusiasm. I wanted to play. I wanted to experiment. For me it was a lot of fun, because everybody wanted to play and to experiment, they put themselves in vulnerable situations, yet all the time there were playful moments in the gaps between questions and answers, how a question was asked and was it answered right away or not. What we were thinking about was really capturing the dynamics of the relationships. This mixture of questions and answers has ended up being much richer than what I initially had in mind. Of course there was a framework for the stories. There are certain things we agreed upon beforehand. But there were so many things that were also spontaneous. I had amazing improvisers. This resulted in an astonishing material that was available for editing. This opened up so many possibilities and so many options to play with.

Q: Was it your plan from the beginning to make it an experimental film? Or did you realize after you began working on it that it can only be experimental?

MSH: Experimentation has to do with the form. From the beginning we had ideas that are somehow trying to challenge the things that have to do with the cinematic forms we are familiar with. This was clear from the beginning. Of course the film did not take this shape except towards the end. This is why it is experimental. In other words, we were trying things out from the first moment to the last. There are certain things that we knew beforehand that are holding the film together and there are other things with which we could play as much as we can within this framework. This is what I was telling you about the actors. But not just the actors, between the actors, the director of photography, the wardrobe, the editor, the sound design, and the music, it was so open, to such an extent that we could try to try and fail and to try and to fail and to try… This could go on for a month just to reach only one idea, that would then change everything and we go back to the beginning. This is why the process has been crucial for this film. I also think that this experimentation has a lot to do with the playfulness and the mentality and the openness of everyone on board. That we could keep trying until we reach the final outcome.

Q: Did this have anything to do with the funding? For example, when you referenced Egypt, it was through an animation, was this due to the funding? Or was that because you were unable to film inside Egypt? Or was it for artistic reasons?

MSH: For artistic reasons (he laughs)!

Let me elaborate on this question in connection with your previous question. It is extremely difficult to get funding for a film that is trying all the time to figure out its form, and that is trying to experiment and to play around. Most (of the) grants and producers want to see a written script from the beginning. This is really difficult when it comes to a film that has experimentation. In Germany in particular, it is very difficult. Because the very first condition in all cinema grants “You cannot have started working on this project before”. So you are supposed to know everything from the beginning. So the obstacles of funding come from the difficulty of the form itself, which is constantly evolving and changing. This was the main issue with the funding of the film.

As for the location, this has to do with the concept of the film. We wanted from the beginning to use the green screen, before any funding and before anything else. We wanted to use it as a reference to 1001 Nights, and also as a queer language, as it gives one the ability to be placed in different locations, to question space and time, to question everything that has to do with the place or the time we are in. This is why you will find that the backgrounds change and the first background remains while the characters change. Someone disappears and another appears. This is very much a storytelling technique. The green screen is also an economic technique, but this was not the main reason why we used it. We used it because we wanted this aesthetic from the beginning.

Q: I want to get back to the funding. We briefly talked about it during the Berlinale, and I would like to bring it up again. The fact that the film is Egyptian, Lebanese and German, and especially a German film, is something that seems to bother so many people, do you have any idea why this might be?

MSH: Like who?

Q: I heard many people say, whether at the Berlinale or in the media, that this is a German film rather than an Egyptian one.

MSH: To be honest, I think we all need to free ourselves a little bit from the idea of giving films a nationality. Festival systems have changed and so have funding systems too. The way we see film and how films are circulated has changed dramatically. The concept of labeling “This film belongs to country X and that one to country Y” does not exist anymore. The decision to assign these countries to our film was one we made based on how we really see the identity of the film. I am Egyptian, the actors are Egyptian and Lebanese, many people who worked on the film are Egyptian and Lebanese, and many people who worked on the film are German. But the film from start to finish is outside the scope of any traditional production model, whether economic or political. It is funded through grants, but none of these have a “country” per se. It could be an Arab grant or an international one. You know how it works. It is not the case that this fund is based in the USA then it is American or based in Lebanon then it is Lebanese. As a matter of fact, people from dozens of nationalities are in this film. At the end we decided that it should take this shape based on our perception of the film’s identity. If we had to choose, we would choose not to put any nationality on the film. But in the end, we felt it was important for us that the film is recognized as an Arab film since we have to assign it a country anyways.

All of us, including the German producer, have had extreme difficulties trying to get funding for the film within the system. We all had to improvise within a non-national system. Now all of a sudden it is interesting to see the film being debated from a nationalistic point of view!

Lamia Fathy
Edited by Steven Yates