EGYPT: Final Cut

After winning awards in the United States, Tahara
November 2007
Final Cut
Egyptian-American filmmaker Sara Rashad addresses female genital mutilation in a striking film that resonates with audiences worldwide
By Sherif Awad

In 1991, CNN released a three-minute clip of a young Egyptian girl being “circumcised.” The piece aired all across the world and the reaction from an outraged international community forced Egypt to take a closer look at its disturbingly high rate of female genital mutilation (FGM). Critics within the country were equally scathing, for an entirely different set of reasons. Authorities blasted the film crew for not getting official permits to document such a ‘sensitive’ issue, coming down hard on them for ‘tainting’ Egypt’s image.


Over a decade-and-a-half later, up-and-coming filmmaker Sara Rashad has revisited the prickly issue, releasing earlier this year her critically acclaimed debut Tahara (literally meaning cleanliness, but also the term used for circumcision). The short yet powerful film tells the story of Amina, an Egyptian housewife living with her family in Los Angeles who is pressured by her mother to follow ancient traditions and circumcise her young daughter, Suha. Amina seeks the advice of her doctor, who warns her of the consequences of the surgery. Regardless, Amina is bound (albeit reluctantly) by tradition, and ends up taking Suha to a local underground daya (traditional midwife) to perform the operation. Suddenly, images of Amina’s own circumcision experience during her childhood resurface from the depths of her memory.

The film serves as a piercing insight into the now-outlawed practice, exploring the many facets of the cultural clashes to which the filmmaker herself is clearly no stranger. The daughter of an Irish mother and an Egyptian father, Rashad was born and grew up in the United States, leading her to assimilate different, oft-contrasting beliefs and values, especially after her first visit to Egypt at age 18. On tour with her film, Rashad is temporarily back in Egypt, where she plans to promote Tahara at film events including the upcoming Fayoum Festival 2008.

Edited excerpts of Egypt Today’s interview with Rashad below:

Tell us about your parents and early childhood. How did they end up in the US?

Actually, my mother, who is Irish, and my father, who is Egyptian, first met in Ireland when he was on a scholarship studying medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast. After they got married in Ireland, my parents moved back to Egypt for a while. As soon as my father completed his studies, he decided to emigrate to America after being inspired by a film starring Julie Andrews, which was set in Hawaii. That’s where my parents decided to go, and that’s where I was born, shortly after their arrival in Honolulu.

Mohsen Allam
After extensive delays trying to get permission to film in Egypt, Rashad decided to change the setting of Tahara to Los Angeles.
You studied acting. What made you turn to filmmaking?

I suppose I inherited my father’s love of the movies. But I am not sure how I got into acting. It was like a natural thing for me, from the very early age of eight, and I performed in plays, television and theater which I mostly enjoyed, because, as a stage actor, one can create an immediate and direct bond with the audience. When I turned 18, I decided to study acting at Cornish Conservatory in Seattle, Washington, because it was the only thing at that time that I could see myself doing.

My senior thesis project, which I wrote, directed and starred in, was called Cleo in Cairo. It was a modern adaptation of the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra, set in modern-day Cairo. During our final performance, which was being taped for documentation purposes, the camera didn’t work. After months of hard work, I was extremely disappointed. I vowed that I would learn how to capture things on film which, at some point is everlasting.

There are many other factors that drove me to become a filmmaker. At an early age, I remember watching Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978), the story of a drug-smuggler who is thrown into a Turkish prison. In this film and others, I remember feeling uncomfortable when I saw the way some ethnicities, especially Arabs, were being portrayed in foreign films. Throughout the years, I also noticed that all ethnic minorities were racially stereotyped and highly misrepresented in American mainstream media.

During film school, I spent a lot of time in the library researching the historical representation of Egyptians and Arabs, which was highly falsified. I don’t need to go into the classic stereotypes because we all know what they are: jihadists, suicide bombers, thieves or religious fanatics, etc. As an American of Egyptian descent, these stereotypes angered and offended me. I decided to investigate my own heritage for stories to tell. I wanted to learn how to write and direct films about Egyptians, with Egyptian themes, characters and specific Egyptian issues and yet to find a way to make them accessible and entertaining to a mainstream global audience. I think Tahara is an example of this.

Which of your film teachers have most influenced you?

I have had many incredible teachers, but my greatest influence was Ron Shelton, director of Play it to the Bone, Tin Cup, Bull Durham and many other films. He was the adviser and professional mentor of Tahara. When I returned from one of my trips to Egypt in order to obtain permissions to shoot, I had felt disheartened by the whole experience and actually thought of eliminating the circumcision scene so I could shoot on location. When I consulted with him, Shelton encouraged me to follow my vision, never give up and fight for it at all costs. He said if I compromised my vision at this early stage of my career, then it would be full of compromises later on. But if I found the courage to keep the scene, it would eventually pay off.

Why did you choose to tackle FGM?

Although Tahara was my thesis film for the University of Southern California, I also made another five-minute film called Tahara about the same issue as a directing exercise in one of my first classes at school. When I saw the reaction on the faces of the African and Egyptian women to whom I have screened this initial short, I decided to make a longer film addressing the same issue and depicting the women who are still practicing circumcision.

I returned to Egypt and traveled from Beni Sueif all the way to Aswan, where I also did screenings and attended discussion groups. I had many private screenings for Egyptian women in their homes or at workshops in rural villages, in collaboration with several NGOs that offered their assistance. I discussed with lots of women their circumcision stories, which inspired my writings of the original draft of the script that was set entirely in Egypt.

Although it was only a student film, I spent many months trying to get clearance to shoot in Egypt with no success. The main difficulty I faced was going through the process of having the script read by the censor board in Egypt. Because we didn’t have the same process of censorship in the US, it was truly daunting for me, to censor your mind and your ideas, and in the end, I suppose, your actions.

I really tried to wait for the permissions to shoot, but in the end I lost my patience and opted not to shoot anything in Egypt, because it became a factor of time and money. I also was not willing to adjust my script to any great degree, which I knew would be required if I tried to shoot the flashback sequences on location. I would have to tone them down quite a bit, and I refused to do so. I overcame these obstacles by rewriting the story to set it in present day Los Angeles. I think it’s made Tahara more powerful, because the issue became more globalized. I finally shot the whole film in LA and used the outtakes from my early five-minute short to cut together the flashback sequences.

How did you cast your leading lady?

Casting was also very difficult, because there aren’t a lot of Middle Eastern actors in Los Angeles, and Egyptians in particular. I had to do an open call audition as well as attending many Arabic events within the community. At one point, I thought of casting entirely non-professionals to get an authentic Egyptian feeling. I had cast the film with a mixture of actors who were of Arab descent and spoke Arabic but the dialects were not colloquial Egyptian.

Several weeks before principal photography, Egyptian actress Caroleen Khalil, who once co-starred opposite the late Ahmed Zaki in Magdy Ahmed Aly’s El-Batal [The Hero, 1997] came to Los Angeles on a Fulbright scholarship. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Hesham Issawi, the Egyptian director of T for Terrorist and American East. As soon as I sat down with her in a coffee shop for a moment, I knew I had found Amina. After one quick reading audition, she landed the part.

It was a really tough decision, because I had to replace all the other actors and cast around her as she was the principal lead. I had another open call audition session inviting many Egyptians whom I met at various Arab festivals in California to find a suitable young girl whose parents would allow her to play the role of the granddaughter. I finally found Aia Nazmy, a native Egyptian whose mother was studying medicine in America, to play the role of Suha. [Nazmy’s] real-life grandmother plays the grandmother in the movie. The background aunts and children in the circumcision scene were non-professional Somali and Ethiopian actors, who came on board for their belief in the message of the film.

How was the film received in Egypt and in America?

The film has been well received in the USA, Europe and Egypt. I’ve been very busy touring with the film in festivals whenever I can. The most exciting festival was the Nigerian International Film Festival, where the film took a prize for Best International Short, because FGM is still an African issue. It was a great honor. Also, the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, where Tahara also took a prize for Best African Short Film.

I’ve been hesitant to screen the film in Egypt until now, but previously had private screenings for journalists and friends. Egyptian viewers have also responded well and given me fantastic feedback should I decide to make a feature film on this subject. The feedback [from Egyptian media] has been positive too. I think the issue is open to discussion now, especially after the two recent deaths in June and the national campaign to abolish this practice. I am happy because the journalistic community has been very supportive as the news coverage was very balanced. When I started making the film, the climate was different and people were not so open about discussing this issue.

In all honesty, the film has been well-received. I guess the strangest comment is that some people think the circumcision scene is real. No, it’s not real, it’s all staged. It’s a movie. I’m glad it looks realistic.

Was it difficult to shoot this sequence?

I wanted to shoot this scene without offending people from practicing cultures because I sometimes felt offended watching some films depicting the same subjects. That’s why I decided to shoot the scene primarily in hand-held shots and strictly from the child’s point of view as she has being held down by her mother and feeling betrayed by someone who is supposed to love and protect her. This is a critical point that circumcised women had discussed with me. If you study the scene carefully, you will find that it is not particularly graphic, however the viewer will share the girl’s feelings on an emotional and physical level through the camerawork and sound effects.

Do you think Tahara will affect views toward FGM?

Yes, it has already affected views. I am happy and it was my intention that the film be used by international NGOs to educate immigrant communities to stop this practice. I also hope to screen inside Egyptian NGOs that initially supported me when I started making Tahara. I hope that it can also be used throughout the villages in Egypt for a grassroots educational campaign to abolish the practice. Although I don’t think people really like to be lectured about their traditional habits, they are bound to open up if it comes in a form of entertainment so that they can talk and possibly ask for advice. That has been my experience with the film in various screenings and conferences amongst immigrant communities in the US, as well as in Africa and Europe.

Is a feature-length film about FGM on the cards?

I have been encouraged to make a feature film about the same subject by lot of people in Egypt and in Los Angeles. This time, I hope that I can get more support from Egyptian local censorship from day one, as the Egyptian government is taking a firm stand against this issue. Otherwise, I can set the story again in the USA or possibly another country in Africa. I am drafting my thoughts about it.

I am also writing other films which I don’t want to go into details about until the scripts are ready. This is a writing period. I hope to write something that excites me as much as Tahara, but it’s not easy coming up with new ideas. I have recently completed a biopic about Hatshepsut which I will shop around shortly. Also, I am developing a cross-cultural love comedy with producer Karim Gamal El-Din at Studio Misr.  et

SOURCE: Egypt Today

AUTHOR: Sherif Awad

URL: Click here

DATE: 20/11/2007

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