Emerging filmmaker Sara Shazli’s Back Home had its world premiere at the El Gouna Film Festival. Twenty-eight years-old, she is the daughter of filmmaker and producer Marianne Khoury, who was the niece and long-time collaborator of Youssef Chahine.
Back Home was filmed during the pandemic and sees Sara going back to her family after a ten-year absence. It is touching to watch father and daughter living such a significant time together, but the film is not only about Sara’s family. It is also a look at the world outside the family’s apartment. With a sincere, curious, inventive eye, she observes the inequality and the madness of the world.
Structured like a road movie, it becomes a deep inner journey, reflecting on family relationships, loss and life. This is a praiseworthy breakthrough, which is both perceptive and determined to persuade us to look at things through different eyes.
Meeting Sara in El Gouna, she told me about her desire since young age to study cinema. “I wanted to prove to myself that I had talent. I was obsessed to enter in a good school with an exam, where I could not just pay to be accepted.”
The Cuban Film School was the right choice, she said:
It is a very good school in Latin America, very selective. I was the only Egyptian on board, and the only Arab. Cuba is far, but I've always been attracted to Latin America. Latinos are like us, Arabs, but more open minded.
When did you decide to make this documentary?
In my third year in Cuba, I went back to Egypt to film my graduation project. I was waiting for my crew to come from Cuba. But it never happened. The pandemic started and I changed my project completely.
How did you start Back Home?
When I arrived at the airport, I saw everybody wearing face masks. I thought what's going on in the world. I heard about the coronavirus. But from far. I went back to my family in Egypt, I had been away for 10 years. I went back to my family’s apartment. I've always struggled with this apartment because you see Cairo all the time, and it is very noisy. I started filming my dad, but not in the idea of making a film. I just wanted to capture my dad on my tape. I wanted him to live forever through my archives. I wanted to create him on the screen.
Back Home is about your family, but then you look outside the flat, almost searching for the world, to connect with it. And there are very brief but powerful fragments, for example when you look at the children playing during the lockdown.
Where I live in Cairo, it is not a poor neighbourhood, but a lot of people live on the roof. I don't know how people will receive this part. Maybe Egyptians won't like it so much because I'm showing the reality of the country, but for me, growing up in this apartment with all these windows, it wasn't a very nice view. Cairo is constantly in my face, and I used to stay at the window a lot. I feel like I'm high, they're low. It was the kind of thing I did not enjoy.
In the documentary it is me looking outside the window, this is what I've been doing for the last 20 years. I look, I observe, I imagine other people's lives. How could they live on the roof with the sun? Who is the father living there? I wonder about how people live and how people manage to live in Egypt.
There is a moment when we see somebody, a man, lying on the pavement, in the middle of the Cairo traffic.
I was shocked when I saw that man. I was searching outside the windows in the street with my camera and suddenly I saw that man. I opened the window and I zoomed in. I asked myself, Is that man all right? What is he doing? But yeah, in Egypt you see stuff very shocking. The inequality between the rich and the poor is so strong. And you wonder, how do these people live?
There is a sort of magic because they live in Egypt, they are safe. People in Egypt are nice. People are generous. Nobody dies of hunger. It's not like in Europe when you have somebody dying, nobody will help. But this also make me think if I have kids, could I provide for them? Would they be comfortable? I worry about that. In Egypt there are five kids in every family. This is the reality and that was important for me to show.
A dramatic moment is when during lockdown everything become silent at night, when the cars stop. Your dad says, "Oh, this is beautiful." And you reply, "It's scary."
Yes, it was scary, the silence. Terrifying. Because I've never, ever, ever, ever seen Cairo like this, ever, ever. Cairo, it's a dream. It's a dream, but also terrifying. I've been living in that apartment for many years. We never saw the streets empty. It was incredible. Cairo is always crowded. You wake up at 4:00 in the morning you will see people in the streets. People live at night, in the morning.
The pandemic was not only for a region, but for all people, no matter if rich or poor. Egypt never really took it seriously. Egyptians don't care. Some people are obliged to go work.
In the last part of the documentary, you are finally out of the flat, but a feeling of “death” still there. In the cemetery your dad asks your mum do you want to be buried with me?
He was very obsessed with it. When people get old and start to be sick, they want to assure they will die in dignity. I was very touched because I understood my dad wants to be sure to have a place after his death. We bought the tomb for him. It wasn't for the film. He wants to assure that he will die in dignity in front of the desert. He always loved nature, water, deserts, open air. He's a free spirit person.
What is impressive in the documentary is your courage to say what you wanted, as a woman, and as an artist.
I was an introvert for a long time, and it used to make me suffer a lot. Sometimes you'll misunderstand a lot of people because things are not being said. I feel the need to express myself and I want people to be truthful to me too. So, when I don't have that, I go grab it. I look for it. It's important to let things out because we only live once. I really believe people should work on themselves and be honest with themselves and talk truth. I think this is the way to live. I don't carry burdens and strong emotions.
What can you say about gender equality?
In Egypt? It's so tough to be a woman in the world and it's also tough to be a woman in the Arab world. I also think women are powerful and they can make a difference. Honestly, I see so much more powerful women than powerful men. I admire women’s success. I never thought I could be representative of that. Now, I'm feeling I'm a woman. I'm also a strong woman and I must accept that. And with art it's even stronger because you leave a trace. You change people.
What's the use of cinema for you?
If you have something to say, make a film. If you don't have something to say and you just want to make it for fun, or to make money, that’s fine. But that's not true in my case.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.