Here’s a quick conversation with Mohammed Siam, director of Amal. The film follows a teenage girl during and directly after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. In this coming of age narrative, Amal struggles with loss, identity, and relationships amongst the political upheaval in Cairo.
TF: How did you get involved in this project?
MS: I was looking for a hooligan member – male teenager to cast for a film about anger until I met Amal by coincidence and the film turned to be about her solely. I wanted to investigate the future face of Egypt represented in this young generation who witnessed [the revolution] at the age of 15-20 where this experience might shape who you are
TF: How long did you spend shooting?
MS: Six years. It took me two years to understand that it’ll be a coming of age story therefore the best way to do it is to witness this slow change over time and in fractions not by continuos shooting. The post-production took one exact year from rough editing to sound and color.
TF: Amal presents herself as a very strong character, so boisterous and full of anger. In a way, she acts as an embodiment of the revolution itself. How quickly did that mirroring present itself and how do you use that in the film?
MS: I see Amal as an embodiment of Egypt not for the revolution but could be also for her generation. That comparison started to be clear after certain changes and couple of years of upheaval to see the assimilation.
TF: Gender plays a huge part in the film. Amal insists that she be treated as a boy, but there is also this tension that she is very much a girl who craves a heternormative relationship. Her narration talks about a past relationship with a boy who is killed during a riot, which kind of acts as a catalyst for her action in the revolution. How careful were you about what to include when thinking about her gender expression and portrayal?
MS: This part I was not very cautious how to put it, and I wasn’t at all trying to be politically correct or even narratively accurate. I just let things play out as she grew up and changed. To see Amal as an infant, and at end the film with her having an infant, is a full circle that teaches you a lot about life and makes you question the reason and meaning of many incidents that happen and you never care for and make you take much graver things easily because you saw things over time and you had the mature reaction to these minuscule and major events of one’s life up close like that.
TF: You use found footage of Amal’s home movies from when she was young. Can you talk a little about why you chose to include those in the film?
MS: Having the advantage of following a teenager who’s been born in the digital era – as we’re all now having a digital record of each of us – enriched the six years journey to give a three-dimensional portrayal of the same person for full twenty years which is the sum of her life.
TF: Your sense of place is really important as well. As much as this film is about Amal, it also follows the Egyptian revolution closely, showing the five-year aftermath of a political upheaval. How did you weave the place into the narrative?
MS: This layer is very subtle in the film as I see it. It’s developing and announcing itself every now and then but it’s not shouting to take the front or have the focus at any point. It was clear that the film is only about her and if she has moved within certain atmosphere it’d have been the container that envelops her story.
TF: The other tension in the film is between Amal and her mother (and her father, to a smaller degree). There are quite a few scenes where they have big disagreements, mainly about politics. Beyond insight into her family dynamic, why did you include these scenes?
Part of it to show how different she is from her family and also from that generation which is a chronic problem in each house whose family is divided on the Arab spring between the youngsters who fought in the square and the their parents who would rather safety over any risk for liberty, rights or change they might get in return.
TF: Can you talk a little bit about your music selection? You feature some contemporary songs with lyrics that talk about the revolution, and the diegetic music also plays a large role in the film.
MS: There are some music references in the film as Avro Part whom we’d never afford so we’d change these pieces obviously. The choices of music and pop songs in the film are related to the adolescent sense of taste and atmosphere. Part of the music choices are actually Amal’s choices as these are literally the songs she hums by herself while walking in the street.
TF: Was Amal a large part of the creative decisions in the film?
MS: Part of it, no. But she was a major influence on how I shifted my thinking 17 different times to figure out who she is, then who she is becoming and where she’s going to. She never seizes to surprise me still. In that sense, she was part of it.
TF: What stage of post-production were you in when you came to Rough Cut? Had other people seen the film and were you pretty far along in the feedback process?
MS: I’m in the late middle of it. Few others have seen the cut and gave feedback, very different though from the feedback I’ve received in your great retreat. The feedback at Rough Cut was much more detailed and focused on certain problems. Also, the main meeting – when everyone was involved – was as constructive as it gets when Paul and David took the helm to dissect the structure and what scene didn’t work for them with Megan and Lisa’s moderation.
TF: During the retreat, you received feedback from a bunch of different filmmakers, what was some of the best feedback you got and how has it impacted your film so far?
MS: The ones about restructuring the second half of the film and about the need for an elevating ending which I was working on but they’ve confirmed my ideas and intentions.
Rough Cut Retreat is a collaborative project from True/False Film Fest and Catapult Film Fund that strives to give filmmakers with new projects dedicated time, mentorship, and feedback to help their work move from a rough cut to a final cut.