Cairo Jazzman: Musical hope coming from the crazy Cairo streets

By Adham Youssef

Part of this year's IFFR film programme, that examines voices coming from different parts of our world, is Scopitone. It shows the power of music and words, where individuals can aspire, challenge, and question, and finally understand.

Among the titles selected for Scopitone in 2017, one that stood out is Atef Ben Bouzid's Cairo Jazzman, a music docu-fiction that follows the aspiration of Amr Salah, an Egyptian musician, festival director, and amazing piano player to organise the Cairo Jazz Festival, one of the country's most prestigious cultural and growing event.

We sat and talked to the filmmakers (director Atef Ben Bouzid, and co-producer and editor Sebastian Leitner), who asserted that they are: "the unique unicorns of the festival" as their film is "100 percent self-funded and independent". We wanted to understand their vision and their strategy in this music documentary.

Can you tell us how you came up to do a film about Cairo and jazz, which is a very contradictory yet interesting mix? Are you a jazz fan or where you involved in the underground music scene in Egypt or the Middle East to come up with such a narrow idea?

(Atef)-In 2002 first time in Cairo. I have Arab roots but not Egyptian roots. I was born in Germany but I have Tunisian roots. So in 2002, I decided to make a student exchange scholarship and then have fallen in love with Cairo, Egypt, and its people. I met Amr Salah in 2002, ever since I have followed his work. He founded the Cairo Jazz Festival in 2009, and I was following it. In general I am very interested in music not just jazz.

The western perspective is dominated by bad news

I wanted to show his spirit in creating an event without a lot of support and without financial support. The real aim and goal was to show a completely different image of Egypt and that is a civil society on the rise. It is not that huge, but there are people who are trying to build and create a civil society for democracy, human rights, culture and music to show different perceptions, as because you know the Western perspective is dominated by bad news, violence, misery, islamophobia.

I was lucky that I had a friend like Amr. So in 2013, it popped in my head why don't I start a documentary about him to show his effort, in this crazy but charming and lovely city. But of course after the Revolution and the Counter-revolution, the condition are getting more difficult. The small civil society is struggling for survival.

My protagonist is a member of the starving middle class, just as his parents. The idea there was to show a middle class that was eager for education and wants to do progress with culture. This is a side which is not known in the Western world.

So the idea started as a political documentary?

(Sebastian)- No that was the beauty of it, without getting directly political. I came in later. Atef told me the story of the film. He didn't have the vision to do a direct political movie or rather pointing something out. Atef wanted to portray the struggle of the musicians and have the musicians tell their stories, and we get to feel their passion.

(Atef)- But there is not a single sentence that is political, as people just sat and told their opinion and you see make up in your mind. But in no way it is meant to be downgrading. This what interested me about his story - that it never got political and his struggle in the city

That explains the beautiful shots of Cairo & Giza. I felt really homesick. Can you tell us about them?

(Sebastian)- This coming from an Egyptian is good criticism. I tried to keep them in an 1980s bubble. It looks very timeless. It serve the purpose no matter what time it is. It not about when and where, it is about the passion of music. And we actually managed to get these shots in just one day.

In your film, you managed to get the other side of the government, state controlled ministries as well as privately owned organisations, to get their narrative and talk about the journey of Amr and other individuals like him. How was this important to your sequence of the film?

(Atef)- Yes, i still insist that it is not political at the first glance, but maybe on the second or the third. I wanted the people to talk about the obstacles that they deal with and how is the real situation there, and to show that there has been a change of thinking and mentality especially in the young generation - that they are becoming eager and motivated to realise projects on their own. They don't get support from the state, they tell themselves never mind, we will do it on our own, even it is no or low budget. This didn't exist really before. I hope it stays like that. I am not very optimistic to be honest, when you see the political developments, but nevertheless you should never lose hope in people's activism.

I tackled music to reflect on the political aspects in the country

I wanted to show Arabs or Egyptians, never mind Muslims or Christians, but people who think like you and me, here in the West and here in Europe, who are not different. They have the same dreams, they want their human rights, progress, and culture.

The music is the universal bond between human beings, regardless where they are from or language they speak. I tackled music to reflect on the political aspects in the country. You can not do a film about Egypt and ignore the setting.

Having shot the film in 2014 how was your experience with having a camera crew and filming in Cairo? Did you face any restrictions or logistical problems?

(Atef laughs)- You are kidding. As a purely independent film, and having been shot in five weeks, it is impossible as a freelancer to get shooting permission. However, luckily I had a small network of people, because I am journalist also, and they helped me in the international press office. However, it was difficult and they said that you have to be a big production company, and advised not to start shooting otherwise i will be taking a very big risk. But there was good karma, and there were a lot of people who knew me and destiny helped us! Eventually we got shooting permission, but for one day and for filming indoors!

However, luckily on our last day, we managed to get exterior footage, thanks to the officials in the international press office who organised a day where I can shoot freely in the street. Of course I got a state security guard. But he was very cool and cooperative, as he understood my intention and my objective, that I want to visualise the Egyptian people, especially the younger generation. I was not doing a film that is transporting the bad image of the country. I was hoping that the Western people will stop with the ignorance, and acknowledge that these people should get a chance and should get our support.

Question to you Sebastian. Concerning the editing in the film, as the film is not an orthodox documentary with interviews and footage with voiceover, you included amazing footage from Cairo, mixed with jazz music, and managed to keep the story prevalent and interesting, while focusing on Amr and his passion. What was strategy when it came to editing, given the fact that the film is around 82 minutes?

(Sebastian)I came in the project last year. Atef told me about his vision and what he wanted to do. My main thing is that i do stuff with music. My first feature film was also a documentary about music festival and for me it became a speciality to tell stories with music and portray places and people. We both had the same pictures in mind and the same feeling, and atmosphere. We wanted to start a journey, while having also a tour guide of music in the city, to let you peek into those little back alleys of Cairo and the same time to meet people.

It was my first time there, so this was an advantage as i could just take a look and have a new approach. Atef had a strong script and a workflow, and what we did is that we edited in blocks. First we edited the interviews which were already transcribed and then we edited the fitting shots. We looked for music that fitted in. We looked for the locations shots we had. We worked on people's basis, and saw what fits with this person. The incredible thing is that we cut the entire film in three months. So the rough cut was finished after two months and we spent another month just refining and detailing.

The music points out the emotional rollercoaster

There was lots of material but at the end it is never enough material specially when you have one day to shoot in Cairo. We spent days listening to music. Our editing approach was a feature-narrative, so we could avoid the classic way of interview presentation, especially for people who have no idea about Cairo.

(Atef)- The music points out the emotional rollercoaster throughout the film. Not just of the main protagonist. It is actually about the rollercoaster that every Egyptian has to go through and suffer, combined with the shots of Cairo to bring accross the proper feel.

When I started to tell people about the film, many were shocked of combining the two words "Cairo and jazz", "Muslims are playing jazz". As a German with Arab roots, I wanted to show this image. I had the privilege and advantage in Egypt, as I understand what is happening between the lines.

I think it is very interesting and important that a festival like Rotterdam is interested in films like this. Because it is 100 percent independent and self financed. But also because this is a place where people will watch the film and attend a jazz concert. We are hoping that other people get to see the film.

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Cairo Jazzman