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"Cinema is a language we all share."

— Sameh Alaa

interview by Inge Coolsaet

Sameh Alaa

Sameh Alaa is an Egyptian director residing in Brussels. His first short film 'Fifteen' had its world premiere at TIFF. He won the Palme d'Or in Cannes in 2020 for his film 'I am afraid to forget your face'.

Sameh Alaa is the first Egyptian director ever to be part of the Official Short Film Competition in Cannes. Now he also won the Palme d’Or. During the Namur Film Festival we got the chance to talk to this passionate filmmaker about Cairo, zooms and the universal language of cinema. 'Your imagination is always stronger than the image that is offered to you'.

Sameh Alaa talks about his work with great passion, his love for cinema leads our conversation. Due to his enthusiasm he taps into themes he would afterwards have preferred not to discuss. At Alaa's request some parts were therefore omitted from this text. The particular caution of this cinephile partly has to do with the strict censorship policy in Egypt, but also because he doesn’t want to spoil the viewing experience.

This same courtesy is reflected in the composition of his images and the construction of his stories. His second short film 'I am afraid to forget your face' depicts the impossible reunion of two lovers. Alaa doesn’t reveal whether it was inspired by the gender dichotomies of Egyptian society or by prevailing pandemics, but the urge for connection is tangible nevertheless.

Inge Coolsaet: The formalistic approach in ‘I am afraid to forget your face’ is very similar to the choices you made in your previous short, ‘Fifteen’. One of the differences though is that you chose the 4:3-format. Why?
Sameh Alaa: Somehow this film fixed the problems I had with my previous one. It's like an upgrade. I choice that aspect ratio for two reasons mainly. ‘Fifteen’ was about a guy who's lost and is accompanied by his younger brother. The world is too big for him, so I wanted to portray him as a small, scared human being. In my new film, it's quite the opposite. I always thought about the main character being trapped between groups of people; I wanted the frame to be filled with as much persons possible, in order to feel an always lurking sense of social control. Two specific scenes ultimately led me to opt for this format: the bus scene and the funeral.

The composition of your images is very meticulous and symmetric.
A: I consider photography as just a hobby but I do like to use still images in my films too. I believe it's better to take your time and observe, rather than speeding things up or give away too much information. Film is a meditative experience: you need to spend time with what you see. Though it’s not easy not to become boring. I try to find a rhythm that also allows moments of observation.

The scene in which you break the fourth wall really stuck with me, it captures the essence of the story. The actor’s gaze is the cherry on top, as if he’s checking whether nobody sees him doing what he’s not supposed to do. He grabs our immediate attention.
A: The idea of using a zoom somehow came to me. I wanted him to look back but I found it more emotional to have him really facing us. I was scared because a lot of people wondered if I knew what I was doing. Usually when someone looks straight at the camera like that, it's the beginning or the end of the film. Here it’s in the middle. So far, it worked for most people. Emotionally, at least. I don't care if people understand it the way I intended it — people can make up their own explanation.

You not only break the fourth wall, you also keep your shots rather long — I counted 21 shots for a 15-minute film.
A: I’ve always used still images until this one commercial I once made in which I zoomed out during its entirety, because I wanted to try something new. I liked that. When on set, I’d agreed with my director of photography that I’d tap his shoulder when I wanted him to stop zooming. But I improvise a lot on set, so I decided not to interrupt him. He kept going and looked at me and I let him zoom until we finished — just followed my intuition.

You grew up in Egypt and studied film in Prague & Paris. You also studied German literature. Your film is the first Egyptian film in the short film competition in Cannes, ever. Do you feel you represent Egyptian cinema? Where do you put yourself within that discourse?
A: I have lived in Egypt most of my life. My memories, experiences and family are all set in Cairo — thus all my films take place there because it holds a lot of stories I want to address. I still feel very connected to Egypt and consider myself an Egyptian filmmaker, but I'm also equally influenced by other cultures and arts. I studied many things, travelled a lot, I have friends everywhere. Cinema is a connection we all share, because it has its own language. That’s why Jim Jarmusch uses Ethiopian music sometimes. It’s not part of his proper culture, but it’s part of the culture of cinema. I make films that I really want to see and enjoy myself, which is therefore probably a mix of different kinds of cinema.

You see cinema as a universal language...
A: …spoken also by someone who hasn’t studied cinema! By watching a lot of films, you already set expectations and build your own cinematic language, even if you're not a filmmaker or not actively analysing films. We all have films we love in the back of our minds at all times. It’s a language on its own.

Though its name isn't mentioned, Cairo plays a big role both in ‘Fifteen’ and in ‘I am afraid to forget your face’. Each short has a least one shot where the main character is enclosed within the lines of the city's landscape, primarily made out of grey buildings.
A: The city is very unique. I actually shot both films where my grandparents used to live. That’s where I grew up, I like it a lot. It doesn’t have a particular message other than that’s where my characters are living. The city also feels like a character to me, it’s what moves me.

How did you experience your collaboration with cinematographer Giorgos Valsamis, who worked on the Short Film Palme d’Or last year too?
A: Giorgos has been a friend of mine for some time before we collaborated. We have been thinking about working together for quite a while. I love his photography. Two years ago, I went to Greece and we spend a night talking it through. That was a great experience. Greek people are very similar to ours, we have lots of Greek people in Alexandria. Culturally, we have a lot in common. I also didn't feel like a guest, more like a brother. He gets along with my parents really well.

You paid a lot of attention to your sound design, which is diegetic, but often outside of the frame.
A: To determine whether a film is good or bad, I start cooking. If I still understand what is going on, then something is wrong. I love films where the silence makes you look up. Sound and image are not each other's equals, but they complement each other. Something that is made clear in the images doesn't need to be emphasized on the soundtrack. The reverse also applies. I believe that sound is often stronger than image. . If sound only exists to support the image, then the result is undoubtedly a disappointing film, no matter how perfect the image is. That is why I do my very best to offer the viewer a rich listening experience.

Your imagination is always stronger than the image you are offered — sound stimulates that imagination. The viewer not only has to look at an image, they have to experience an entire world.

© Images

1 P.LeSegretain / GettyImages
2 'I am afraid to forget your face' (Sameh Alaa)
3 Behind the scenes of 'I am afraid to forget your face' (Sameh Alaa)

This interview was previously published in Dutch on Kortfilm.be.