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Cannes Film Festival: Hala Elkoussy is Resilient in EAST OF NOON


Cannes - East of Noon (Sharq 12)
Hala Elkoussy is an acclaimed Egyptian artist and filmmaker. Renowned for her multidisciplinary approach, she explores themes of memory, identity, and urban landscapes through photography, film, and installation art. Elkoussy's work often reflects the socio-political complexities of contemporary life in Egypt, particularly focusing on the vibrant yet chaotic nature of Cairo.

As part of the Quinzaine Cineastes, Hala Elkoussy presented her film East of Noon (Sharq 12) which is set in an industrial wasteland in the middle of nowhere. East of Noon is a folktale somewhere between The Arabian Nights and Ubu roi, in which a bunch of brilliant youngsters find ways to survive the autocracy of a childish tyrant whose currency is lottery tickets and sugar cubes.

AM: How were you able to produce your film?
HE: The funding stage was the longest and the most challenging. It was already my second feature, and I was not a young woman from the Middle East, so that was one obstacle. Also, there are not that many funds available locally and regionally, there are very few funds, and they're open to all of the Arab world so we're all competing. Without them, we cannot acquire public funding from abroad. So initially I started out this way, and I realized it's not going to get me anywhere. I am also a Dutch national, and I've been living in the Netherlands, for around 20 years now. So then came the idea to first approach a fund in the Netherlands that is specially set up for artists, visual artists who are making films. I came to filmmaking from the visual arts, and it's a competition every two years open for visual artists only for projects sit on the brink of film and art. They judge on a completely different criteria than film funds would. If my project would not have had this experimental aspect, I would not have been granted funds. And then once you have that important fund, it's much easier to continue finding money.

I did all the scouting myself, because as I said, I was a visual artist from the start and a photographer. I was looking for this very special sea landscape. When I started in the industrial space, it felt like it's giving another dimension to this notion that we are in this beyond time. Because in the whole of the Arab world, becoming an industrial nation in the 60s was the big dream. And there were all these investments poured into this, and this has all been collapsing since the beginning of the year 2000. It felt like there was another dimension there that kind of anchors this moment, even though this moment does not have a specified time or place, it's beyond the factory or post-factory.

Everything was conceived with the notion that we were going to shoot in black and white because that also excludes a lot of things. You can see deeply if you play with these lines that are coming in every direction. There was always the realization that I did not want to anchor it in a certain time, therefore everything about what they wore and what they were surrounded with kind of played with it.

AM: Any other anecdotes that occurred on set?
HE: I mean there were always surprises. One big challenge was that there was no open laboratory in Egypt, so we had to open an old laboratory that was closed for years and bring back people from retirement that used to work there. We started doing tests and had to go into production while the laboratory was still not delivering. There was huge stress because we had one week worth of material that we did not see the result of. So that's not very funny, but I've been working with the same cinematographer for 15 years now, and he's the last cinematographer who shot on film in Egypt in 2013. So, he already has experience and the ability and it was actually our mutual desire to go on this adventure. Our producer from the Netherlands is an artist who also shot on film many times. There was this group that accepted the risk. We were kind of gambling big time, but we knew we were doing well. And eventually, after one week, we went into it. So then, for example, we kept all the night shoots until the very end. Especially because these are the most challenging to do. Outdoors at night with film is much less sensitive than digital. You need to light in a certain way, otherwise you get nothing. The challenge for me was also having to deal with so many accidents. That's something I've not done before, but I was well surrounded with assistants that have more experience. Usually, the director is the one with the least experience. And it was gratifying to actually see it come to life in this way, and it would not have happened had we not had this number of people.

AM: You are one of the ambassadors of Egyptian filmmakers this year, what’s your take about Egyptian cinema nowadays?
HE: Basically, I would say that Egypt has all the talent and all the know-how. It should be a big contributor not to regional cinema only but to world cinema as well. What we do lack is governmental support. We don't have public funding, and it is with public funding that interesting projects are born everywhere in the world. France produces a lot of commercial stuff, but there is still government funding interested in creating cinema that will last. I'm not against commercial cinema but I feel like there's not enough energy or will put in there for these voices to be heard. Basically, every year two years you get one Egyptian project and it does not mean that there's not all these people waiting. I had to wait for eight years for my project to happen and it would not have happened had I not produced a Dutch film.

AM: Would you say this is a political movie?
HE: I would say that us sitting here is a political act so therefore exactly if we read the one thousand and one nights, we could also say that it's a political story. I don't make this distinction; I care about why and now, and if I feel that I have answered this question satisfactorily then I am in a good place to start. The answer to these questions needs to remain clear in your head for all those years and if you don't pick on something that you believe is pertinent then you would lose stamina very early on the process. Hence by the time this project is out there for the public to see, it's already dated.

AM: You mentioned eight years in the making, how did you keep yourself motivated?  
HE: I see all my work as part of a bigger earth, like a big thing and that there's a continuum. So, if you start to look at my first film and then this one, 20 years later, you would see that I've been concerned with the same questions. I just uphold those questions in a different way as I grow, as I know more, and as I know less, because as you grow, you could know less.

AM: How do you think Cannes will contribute to your career?
HE: I honestly do care very much because it gives me credibility and it's a credibility that I would need to go forward with my third project. I don't offer people who work with me a lot of money, I don't offer them fame. When I asked for their dedication during the time, I asked them to forget about how they work with other directors and it is difficult to be convincing when you don't have credibility. When you have something that is worthwhile, if you keep being told no all the time, there’s a problem. But the thing is, as you get older you also become more resilient, and more difficult to be turned away because you know that sometimes people just don't get it, and that they need a bit more time.