At the Cannes Critics' Week Competition in May, six of the 10 selected projects were directed by women. Among them was Egyptian director Nada Riyadh’s film The Trap, which sparked controversy for its bold storyline but won critical acclaim.
Riyadh shares the highlights of her filmmaking experience with Rachel Dawson.
Egyptian director Nada Riyadh’s film Fakh (The Trap) premièred in the short film category at the 58th Semaine de la Critique during the Cannes Film Festival 2019 in May, and received a lot of attention as a German-Egyptian co-production challenging societal norms. It features a deteriorating relationship between a man and a woman, while exploring the human psyche from a female perspective.
While Riyadh’s film did manage to make it to Cannes, the journey itself involved more hurdles than she had imagined, she says. Halfway through the film, production had to be stopped due to what the filmmaker calls “resistance”.
“This film is an Egyptian-German co-production, which affected the filming a lot. When we started pre-production, we did not realise that having a mixed team of Egyptians and non-Egyptians would be problematic on a subject as taboo as domestic violence in Egypt.
“People were already wary, and even more because it was an international co-production. We were forced to stop when the lead actress and some of the crew members decided to withdraw from the film halfway through the filming. Even the set was ransacked, and we had to stop everything after spending 70% of the budget. The rental houses that loaned us the cameras and additional equipment decided to retract all leased facilities as well.”
The team eventually regrouped, recast and adopted a new strategy to shoot a second time with a new lead actress.
“Reshooting meant starting from scratch. I’d say we had a paramount financial situation to budget the second shoot schedule. But then we kind of developed a plan B to make this film in a way we believe in.”
Riyadh highlights the support received from producers Eva Schellenbeck and Ayman El Amir, and says the topic of her film was a little unconventional and that because it dealt with a sensitive issue like abusive relationships, it challenged norms.
“Conservatives were not pleased with the film’s storyline and tried their best to create hurdles for the production. The industry is also not very welcoming of women directors.” The struggle was harrowing for Riyadh, who says she almost lost her drive to make the film because of the backlash.
“It’s not easy to have a clear thought of what motivated me to make this film when production goes through so many problems. With such complications, it was hard to maintain a positive attitude. You have to constantly remind yourself why you want to make films and why it’s relevant to society.”
Riyadh’s story is not unique. She says Egyptian female directors are under-represented in general.
“Out of the 37 theatrically released films made in 2018 in Egypt, only four were produced by female producers and none were helmed by female directors. I think the industry is quite resistant to stories told from a female perspective. They are more used to films told from a dominant male gaze.”
The Egyptian-German co-production was a result of the Robert Bosch film grant that Riyadh won in 2017 at the Berlin Film Festival. This one-year annual development programme offered by Robert Bosch, extends compensation through various levels of development, and The Trap went through a series of phases before it was made into a film.
“Together with our German counterparts, we decided on the best plan to go on a three year period to make this film. One year was spent developing a strategy and how to finance the project.
“Another year we kind of spent trying to fix the location. Because it was set in such a difficult location, we spent a lot of time allocating production modules.”
To ensure the quality of her film was not undermined, Riyadh chose to shoot on the Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K camera and a Zeiss high-speed lens set. Distribution was managed by Italian sales agent Lights On.
The film was shot in an old resort in Agami, not far from Alexandria. It was a hub of the Egyptian rich and famous in the 1980s and ’90s, a fancy place where they used to spend their summer vacations, says Riyadh.
“It used to be a beautiful place, but in the last few decades it has become a hideout for drug dealers, vice workers and even fundamentalist groups,” she explains. “For me, filming there was a way to capture the decay of the Egyptian society in which we live. From a visual perspective also, the structures are very striking and say a lot about the situation of the country.”
Riyadh is not alone in her difficulties in a largely conservative society. Other notable filmmakers in Egypt are also defying societal norms with television series and movies that deal with modern relationships between men and women and the empowerment of the young.
To support fresh voices and filmmakers in the early stages of their career, she started Felluca Films, her own production house in Cairo. Her goal is to support filmmakers who “want to share an idea that is not very mainstream or acceptable by the standards of society”.
Riyadh was born in Alexandria and studied engineering before pursuing a career in cinema. To continue her education, she moved to Cairo and won a competition to participate in a workshop supervised by Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Khan. There she made her first film, Ifterady (Virtual), produced by well-known producer Marianne Khoury and Misr International Films in 2013.
Three years later, she co-founded a movie and documentary production company with her partner, Ayman el-Amir. She later launched Mahd Film Lab, a programme that supports aspiring filmmakers in the MENA region.
Riyadh is part of a new wave of filmmakers attempting to revive what they call the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema by depicting topics of social taboo. She is presently working on two feature films, the details of which remain under wraps, as well as the fourth edition of Mahd Film Lab.
The Trap’s première at Cannes was a surreal experience for the young Egyptian director.
“Until the credits rolled and the curtains closed at the Cannes world première of The Trap, I never realised that the film was finally over. After all the drama, it was such a validating experience and celebration of the hard work that was put in. It was reassuring to meet our German co-producers, our sales agents, actors and DPs; it was a reunion and celebration of all the hard work put in. I was on cloud nine.”