Tribeca: Tell us a little about Cairo Exit:
Hesham Issawi: This film is very close to my heart because I was born in Cairo, and coming to it after 20 years living in the States was refreshing and bewildering. I returned with fresh eyes and an eagerness to capture its reality.
In this world, dreams and despair, luxury and poverty—and religious conflicts—are all part of the social background. The story deals with many issues that touch on the fabric of the Egyptian society. Religious conflict between Moslems and Coptic is one important taboo in Egyptian media.
This film is about choices and individuality. Each character must make up his or her mind by the end, and they have to choose what is good for themselves, regardless of the social consequences. I was trying to paint a true picture of Egyptian daily life. I was trying to be committed to the truth rather than understanding it. I feel the script addresses an important thread to the multi-colored fabric of the Egyptian society and the struggles of common men and women.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Does it reflect the experiences of people you know—lack of job opportunities, striving to leave the country?
Hesham Issawi: I have been away from Egypt for a long time. When I started to go back, I noticed people from all classes share one idea: leaving. Most of my friends, regular people I talked to, want to leave Egypt. It was a common concept that Egyptians shared. It is hard for someone visiting Cairo to ignore the slums in the middle of the city—the poverty, the chaotic streets. You look at people’s faces and you see hopelessness. I used to walk with a small video camera, shooting the streets, my friends, relatives, and I was struck by the grim look on people’s faces in the streets; people don’t smile, they just look tired.
The problems of unemployment, poverty, the lack of opportunities for young people are not new to Egypt; all these problems existed when I lived in Egypt. And I returned 20 years later and the problems are the same, if not worse. So I think this story came out of the streets of Cairo, what I witnessed and sensed after returning to Egypt. Even the buildings in Cairo look tired, everything looks exhausted. It was the mood that spread over the country. I think, after January 25th, things look better. People are not as stressed as before—even though the economy is not doing well—but there is a sense of hope in the society.
Tribeca: It’s impossible to watch this movie and not think about the recent revolution in Egypt. What are your hopes for the future of Egypt, now that change is in motion? What is the mood now—is there hope?
Hesham Issawi: I think it is amazing that I finished this movie in December 2010, and then the revolution happened in January 2011. The revolution is a testimony of the truth in the movie and the story.
When I screened the movie at the Dubai Film Festival, in December 2010, some Egyptian critics criticized me for having a grim image of Egypt and for not finding a solution to the characters’ social and economical situation; that the only solution for the characters is to leave Egypt. Well, my answer was: I couldn’t find solutions for them, because there were none under a brutal system. The anger and hopelessness of the characters are real. We saw them in the streets demonstrating against dictatorship.
If I did this movie after January 25, 2011, I would definitely change the ending. I wouldn’t have an ambiguous ending, because I would have some sort of solutions for the characters’ problems. The Revolution brought hope to the people in Egypt. It broke the wall of fear that old system planted inside people’s minds. The people of Egypt are aware they have rights, and they can and will fight for their rights. I think what happened is that people went in the streets with no leaders and political agendas except a desire for change and freedom.
My film suffered a lot because of the censorship during the old regime. Now, people can say anything they want on TV and criticize the government and the army with no fear. It is amazing that the system that scared people a few months ago—when we look at it now, we will find it was a weak system, NO system, actually. It was a one-man show, protected by police brutality. When people broke the fear from the police, the One Man crumbled into pieces.
There’s hope in Egypt now. Democracy is very tough. I keep telling my friends in Egypt: we have to accept people we don’t like, we have to accept different opinions, we have to accept mentalities that we dislike… But I feel optimistic about Egypt.
Tribeca: Can you talk a bit about your casting process? Maryhan is spectacular (as are all your actors). How did you find your cast?
Hesham Issawi: Egypt has no system like in the States when it comes to make movies; there are no agents, no casting directors, and no managers, etc. So it is very tough to get information about actors or crew. You have to be an insider of the movie circle.
We did audition many actresses. It was hard to find someone young with a name in the market. It took a while to find some one to play the role of Amal. When I cast Mohamed Ramadan, who plays Tarek, he told us about Maryhan, the sister of Ruby.
Ruby is a famous pop singer in Egypt. She came to the production office, and when she entered, I saw her face and I looked to Sherif and said, “This is the face.” She has a very Egyptian face, with tanned skin tone, hazel eyes, very black hair. The features of her face are very Egyptian, and she is fresh and willing to do anything. This is her first film.
The casting for Mohamed Ramadan was quick. I had him in mind when I was in the States before arriving to Egypt to shoot the film.
Tribeca: I loved the ambiguity I found in the ending. What made you decide to leave their fate up to the viewer’s interpretation?
Hesham Issawi: The ending in the script is different from the ending in the movie. The ending in the script is ambiguous and has an open ending. I don’t know how to end a story like this, like I don’t know how to find solutions for the characters’ problems. I never thought a revolution would happen. Under the old system, no way those characters would have a future in Egypt.
When I shot the movie, I decided to shoot a different ending from the script and give myself choices. During the editing, I came up with a third ending. At some point, I had 4 endings, and my editor was going crazy. I kept changing it everyday. In the end, it was obvious that the two lovers should end up together. After all that happened, I can’t separate them. It doesn’t matter if they’re together on earth or in heaven, as long as they’re together. So the last image… is open to the viewer’s interpretation.
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Tribeca: What power do you believe film has in effecting societal change?
Hesham Issawi: As a filmmaker, I believe that we can use the visual medium of cinema to bring cultures closer and create better understanding of our humanity. Film can be an important instrument for bringing greater awareness to serious social issues. The way I see it, if movies can succeed in making one or two Americans or people from different nationalities think or feel positively about each other and bring them together, then I believe that all of us involved in this industry can feel we have accomplished something worthwhile. Art is a great tool to reflect people’s hopes and desperations. We need it like we need air, food, sun and water.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Hesham Issawi: Don’t listen to your parents. Don’t sell your soul. Don’t give up, be persistent: you’re your weakness and strength. Don’t be afraid to be different and not follow the trend of the day. Leave your ego in the bathroom after you take your shower in the morning. Always learn, learn and never stop learning. We are always students.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for Cairo Exit at Tribeca?
Hesham Issawi: I hope people like it. I am glad it is out to the public and the Americans will get a chance to see it.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Hesham Issawi: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Hesham Issawi: Books: The Book of the Dead. Music: Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin). Movies: Taxi Driver and Red Desert (Antonioni).
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Hesham Issawi: Once Upon a time in Cairo.
Tribeca: What makes Cairo Exit a Tribeca must-see?
Hesham Issawi: It is a trip to the city of Cairo while you’re in New York.
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