Emerging Egyptian filmmaker Sara Shazli has cinema in her blood as the daughter of filmmaker and producer Marianne Khoury, who was the niece and long-time collaborator of Youssef Chahine, whose film company Misr International Films (MIF) she runs to this day.
Determined to prove herself as a filmmaker in her own right, Shazli left Egypt to study cinema in Montreal and then Cuba, at its International School of Film and TV.
“It’s a very good school, the equivalent of the Fémis in France. I wanted to go to a film school with a proper entry exam process. I come from a family of filmmakers and I wanted to understand whether I was any good. I was tortured for a couple of years because of the pressure I was putting on myself,” she explains.
“Nobody knew about my family background there. I wanted to be away from everything, to look at myself and what I had to say, how I wanted to say it and whether I had anything to say.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, however, would result in Shazli making her debut feature Back Home in close collaboration with her family back in Egypt, after she found herself living with parents under lockdown in Cairo in 2020.
Shot mainly against the backdrop of the family apartment in Cairo, which has a crow’s nest view of the city, it focuses on Shazli’s father and the rekindling of their relationship after many years apart.
A former businessman and the only member of the family not to have worked in cinema, he is a larger-than-life figure with a love of life who seems younger than his 78 years. Their reunion has a bittersweet edge because the father’s cancer has returned and there is a sense he is living on borrowed time.
“He’s a born actor and has always been comfortable around the camera,” says Shazli. “He’s a free spirit. He never wanted kids, he ended up with four kids. He moved with the flow of life. He dreams a lot but he’s not very ambitious either. He lived in Montreal for many years, the Cayman Islands for many years. He’s just different.”
Audiences around the world will instantly relate to their experiences together under lockdown as they bake cakes, watch endless classic movies or dance crazily in the living room to kill time.
Shazli had already planned to be in Cairo in early 2020 for the shoot of her graduation short when the pandemic struck.
“I’d flown back ahead of time to prepare everything and was waiting for my crew to arrive, but they never made it. The pandemic was declared two weeks after I returned to Egypt. Everything got cancelled and the school sent the students back home,” she recalls.
Stuck at home with her parents, she started to capture their life under lockdown, focusing initially on her father, partly because her mother was self-isolating in her bedroom.
“I never knew I was making a film. I wanted to create a memory and an archive of my father and I was bored, stuck in this apartment with my parents after living 10 years living abroad. We were dying of boredom. We spent a month-and-a-half locked in the apartment,” she explains. “In Cairo, it’s difficult to do that with all the noise. It was tough.
“It came quite naturally. That’s why it’s imperfect. It liberated me in a way. I’m usually such an obsessive person when I work in fiction. I just wanted to capture his soul. I wanted him to live with me forever through these archives.”
She admits it was a painful process but explains making the film also helped her deal with the implications of her father’s illness.
”I was suffering a lot especially when he rediscovered he had cancer. I was very sad. I felt like I was losing him but now I have the film, it helps.”
Shazli also panned her camera on the rooftops, balconies and unusually empty streets of Cairo outside, capturing the contrasting realities of its rich and poor inhabitants.
“I’ve always looked out of the window since I was a kid. I love observing people, wondering how they live and who they are,” she explains.
But adds, ”I grew up in this apartment for 18 years and then I left. Every time I came back I would have a sense of anxiety. It was like Cairo was with us. It’s filled with windows and Cairo is with you all the time. You see and you hear it. People would come to the apartment and say what an amazing view and I would say, ‘Yeah, but honestly no.’ I want to live without looking at the world.”
Back Home world premiered in the El Gouna Film Festival’s feature documentary competition last week (October 19) and is now expected to hit other festivals in the coming months.
In the meantime, Shazli is working on two new feature projects, a personal feature documentary called Searching For Woody, that she presented at El Gouna’s CineGouna project platform, and fiction feature Nour, which she will unveil at the upcoming Cairo Film Connection, the project incubator of the Cairo International Film Festival (Nov 26 to Dec 5).
Searching For Woody will revolve around Shazli’s search for a beloved childhood nanny who has since left Egypt.
“Woody is an Ethiopian nanny I had in my childhood for 10 years. It’s a deep dive into my childhood through the story of my nanny, tackling my mother and my future because I’m turning 30 and asking all these questions about working and becoming a mother,” she explains.
“I’ll also use archive material and maybe some fiction or animation to recreate the relationship between the nanny and the little girl. The plan is to search for the nanny. I think she is in Vancouver but the search for her will be part of the film.”
Khoury is producing under the banner of Misr International Films, with Lebanese producer Dima Al-Joundi acting as executive producer. The aim is to start shooting next year.
Fiction feature Nour revolves around a 16-year-old girl growing up in Cairo.
“She’s an Egyptian but she rejects Egyptian culture. She wants to live like a French woman, with absolute freedom and no rules but in Egypt that doesn’t work.”