Likened to audacious filmmaker Bela Tarr, Egyptian director Karim Hanafy wowed audiences at the Cairo International Film Festival with his striking feature debut The Gate of Departure.
The festival’s only Egyptian world premiere played to packed audiences, leading to a rewarding finale by winning the Silver Pyramid for Best Artistic Contribution.
Pushing boundaries both in story and style, Hanafy compares the film to a haiku poem, where structure ebbs and flows in long, meditative sequences, interrupted with bursts of colour and emotion.
The film opens with a haunting scene of two women walking through a graveyard, followed by a young boy longingly staring out the window. Subsequent images show a beautiful woman slowly brushing her hair, her mother cooking and then arranging candles around a vintage photo.
Rather than opting for a standard narrative, Hanafy aims to create a more nuanced construction of one boy’s entrapment to his mother’s sadness, something he himself experienced growing up.
“I’ve had the idea of this film for many years. It was like something that I had to do. And it was always going to represent a non-linear structure that represented life through death. The feeling of going up and around, and then going back again,” says Hanafy.
Referencing Dutch graphic artist MCd Escher, whose sketches and lithographics broke boundaries in the 1930s, Hanafy creates each scene as if it were a film unto its own. From the specific arrangement of background objects to the constant slow movement of the camera, a reflection of art and mise-en-scène is transparent.
Cinematographer Zaki Aref toys with colours, working to transpire Hanafy’s notion of “four seasons, beginning in autumn, where there is darkness and sorrow, and ending in spring, where there is light.”
Further adding to the melancholic feel, traditional Arabic songs including Asmahan’s ‘Ya Habibi Taala’ and Sayed Darwish’s ‘Ana Hawit’ play out from an old radio.
Bu what Hanafy remarks as possibly his best achievement in making the film is working to its minimal budget of $84,000 USD (600,000 EGP) - almost half of that stemming from his own money.
“There are no post-production funds in Egypt now. I received $42,000 (300,000 EGP) from the Ministry of Culture, and $7,000 (50,000 EGP) from an outside investor, but the rest I had to front. So in Egypt, we try and work together. Both Ahmed Magdy and Salwa Khattab are notable actors, and worked on this for very little money, and Sherif Fathy at CinePost Studios helped me immensely with grading.”
Hanafy is not new to the challenges faced by Egyptian filmmakers, previously working in documentaries as well as setting up his own film training programme, Jesuit Film School. But he chooses to put aside politics, and to instead focus on making the films he wants to make.
“I can’t think about all the problems here. They are here yes - but if we work together, we can produce great things.”
Hanafy aims to direct his next feature about love, again manipulating time and space, just as his role model Andrei Tarkovsky did in films like The Mirror.
“I want to create emotions. With The Gate of Departure, I wanted to convey sadness. Following on from that, I want to explore love and death, which ultimately creates a rebirth.”
The filmmaker again plans to choose image over dialogue, and is currently in the process of storyboarding his next film.