An Encounter with Ayten Amin on “Souad” | A Window into Women’s Lives in Egypt’s Peripheries
14 Jul 2020

Following the recent Cannes selection, Egyptian director Ayten Amin discloses in this interview the ins and outs of her latest film “Souad”, a “real” window into women’s social/virtual lives in the Egyptian peripheries.

Could you tell us about your filmmaking journey and how it all started? So you began your career as an accountant, then left it all and pursued your dream?

I graduated from university from the faculty of commerce, and I started working in a bank because my father was a banker. I was interested in cinema since ages, yet I never got to pursue it. I did not know anyone who worked in cinema. I did not even apply to cinema in university.

Working in a bank at the age of 20 was really boring and made me unhappy. I started attending workshops in film criticism, until I came across a diploma being offered in filmmaking, and so I registered. When we started, there were three levels we had to take before specializing. In the first level, we were required to make a film project and I knew this is what I wanted to do: direct films.

Being an introvert who does not like talking, I discovered that this was the best way to convey feelings, without having to communicate out loud. I directed “Her Man” in 2006, as a graduation project adapted from a story by Ahdaf Soueif. It was my first short film as a young director, so some aspects were rudimentary, but it nevertheless did well, and went to Clermont-Ferrand, an international film festival specialized in short films. Shortly after that, in April 2007, I left the bank. I was fulfilling a dream.

Your latest film, “Souad”, delves into the secret and double lives of young women in Egypt in the age of social media, narrating the story of a 12-year-old girl named Rabab who lives in the Delta area of Egypt and her sister Souad. What prompted you to reveal this double life syndrome and the effect of the virtual realm on this new generation?

My co-writer, Mahmoud Ezzat, was an influencer during and after the revolution. He was followed by scores of girls from peripheral areas in Egypt. I was very interested in these girls who came from small villages. I am the kind of person who can sit for hours on social media and trail people I don’t know for my research. I am for example very interested in girls who post photos that are not theirs; or who refer to themselves as “the princess of the dessert” or “the heartbreaker” …. I had the film’s story in mind, and was very interested in virtual relationships. These relationships change us as human beings. I started talking to Mahmoud, and he told me about these girls who send him messages from the peripheries, and showed me the chats, which were addressed to him as well as to other influencers in his circle. It spiked my interest. We started addressing some of the followers, including girls from Zaqazeeq, Tanta and other cities, and auditioned them over a long period of two years, from 2015 to 2017. The objective of these auditions was not to find actors. We were talking to girls, from outside the capital city Cairo, about their lives, which interested me greatly. These girls had no voice whatsoever; not in cinema, nor in television, nor anywhere else. Nobody really talked about them.

The casting was organized outside Cairo; I encountered around 250 girls from various cities across Egypt. I was looking for persons who would take the characters a step further; who were close to the characters in their daily lives. The girls that I selected fit these criteria; there are many details in the film that are attributed to them, to their stories. We spent five months doing rehearsals, and during those five months, the girls did not read the script at all. I would explain the framework of the scene, and we would shoot; in this way, they would say things and come up with ideas for scenes of their own. It was an organic experience, related to my discovery of this world of girls and social media, and their discovery of themselves. There was a script, but I built it around them. During the shoot, Mahmoud Ezzat would mention a scene, yet the girls would perform it without script, just like in a documentary, in a very realistic manner. The girls knew the characters by heart, and completely understood them, so it went smoothly.

For example, the make-up scene – the scene from which the film poster was designed– was not written in the script. Mahmoud was proposing that we shoot a scene where the younger girl would photograph her older sister, and we were on the rooftop, and I suggested to have a scene with one sister applying make-up to the other. We made it like a documentary. The girls moved and did it all naturally.

The film was shot in peripheral areas of Egypt (Delta cities); the casting process itself was undertaken in these peripheral cities. Have you faced any challenges during the filming process?

The casting was done with a lot of people, as I did not want real actors. The main male actor was supposed to be a professional actor, and when I started shooting the first part, I did not have the lead actor for the second part. We started looking for someone who had not acted before. Eventually, we found the main character. There was a friend of Sameh Awad, the producer; someone who worked in a bank and had nothing to do with acting.

This will to use non-professional, first experience actors and to refuse professional actors, was it present before the casting, or did it result from it?

It was present from the beginning. My ambition was to film it in the style of a documentary, although I had never done it before, however the spirit of this film went in that direction. I felt that an intrinsic part of the film was to cast real people who were close to the characters, and discover with them – instead of reading a script and shooting scenes accordingly. While we were working on the film, I ended up knowing everything about the girls – we became friends. They have their life, their relationships on social media, which are totally different from me at their age (when these virtual relationships, this exposure, Instagram and so on, did not even exist). Even Rabab (the younger sister) has an eagerness to talk to people on Instagram. In short, the discovery of this world was a vital part of the film.

The purpose was not to do research, produce the film and move on, as there are things that I personally cannot write, things that will not occur to me. It is this authenticity that I wanted to reach. This is why the casting took so long, and we met many girls while we were looking for four girls (two main characters, and their respective friends). There was one girl whom I really liked, however she got engaged, and told me her fiancé would not agree to this – which was very much in the spirit of the environment of the film, in a way. We kept shortlisting out of these 250 girls, until we reached two sets of two girls. In other words, I had two options for each Souad and Rabab.

I remember very well why I chose the girl who played the role of Rabab. Rabab’s personality was not written this way originally in the script. She was more innocent. In reality, the girl who played Rabab was actually brighter than what we had foreseen in the script. I clearly remember in the audition, the assistant director was sitting by her to read the script, while moving his leg frantically. The 18-year old girl, up front, while reading, looks at him and says: “your foot”. He asked “what?”; she said “do not move it”. She really impressed me, with her strong character.

Also, there is an undefined, subtle attraction between Rabab and Ahmed (the main male character in the film). This was not in the script either, yet I had this feeling that there should be something between these two, underneath the surface, unsaid; related to Souad, to adolescence, to the fact that for Rabab, Ahmed is good looking and belongs to another world… I wanted to explore this ambiguity.

“Souad” was recently announced among the Cannes official selection for this year. It is worth mentioning that the cast is almost entirely composed of women, and so is the film’s crew. What is your take on this? And how in your view will the film, by shedding light on women and their struggles/dreams, contribute to changing the existing mentality toward women?

It is something I hope for, in as much as a film can create change.

Commenting on the fact that the crew was composed of women, I must say that the producer, Dora Bouchoucha, was someone very empowering to me. When she first read the script and we worked on it at the Sud Ecriture workshop, which she supervised, she empowered me and gave me confidence. I was a little insecure as I was receiving rejections from all sides for the film, but she believed in it and in me, and injected confidence in me. I did not know her before attending the workshop. She was willing to be a producer on the film and support the project, while there was no one else. She pushed me and “Souad” forward.

The fact that the film’s characters and filming crew were almost all-female led to a very intimate atmosphere. There were no inhibitions, the girls were talking and acting naturally. Furthermore, a bond was created between us. Outside of shootings, we would go out together. The assistant stylist, who was 16, became friends with Rabab; they would go out and play together during shoot breaks. There was this overarching fun and intimate ambiance throughout.

Cinema is a tough profession, yet for women, it is even harder, in Egypt most definitely. I have been working in this sector for a long time, yet with every film, it is as if I am restarting from zero, as if each film is my first project. Producers do not trust you, despite your previous successes. I had directed a television series with Nadine Khan and Heba Yossry, prior to “Souad”, which was a big hit. Everyone had consequently assumed that “Souad” would be a smooth project.

On the contrary, it was much tougher, especially at the financial level. No one wanted to invest in the film. The film actually took off when a friend of mine from way back who is not from the film industry yet was very interested in the film, decided to invest in it, in addition to the development support the film received from ElGouna film festival. Otherwise, the financing of the film would have taken a very long time.

I am positive and certain, had the film director been a man, this would not have happened.

As a female film director, I feel I need to prove myself all the time, before I gain the trust of the investors/producers, every single time.

I surely hope that the Cannes label will facilitate the process moving forward, especially with respect to the film’s distribution.

What is the plan with regards to the film’s premiere and distribution?

There is nothing confirmed yet about where we will physically premiere – we will know soon. The Egyptian premiere will be in ElGouna Film Festival, provided that the festival actually takes place.

With regards to sales, we are in discussions and negotiations with several parties.

Any final thoughts?

I directed a commercial series before directing “Souad”. I suffer from a real problem: in the commercial scene, I am viewed as an independent director, while in the independent scene, I am considered a commercial director. I feel like an outsider at all times. There is this trend to categorize the scope of work of directors. As for me, I do what I am interested in; I would direct artistic films that I want, and at the same time, work on a TV series that appeals to me artistically. I don’t like this categorization in the film industry (in Egypt specifically), which restraints me within a given frame and limits creativity. I believe there should be freedom and ease in one doing what he/she feels like and directing the artistic output that appeals to him/her. For me, there is no difference between the two, provided that it is something you believe in.