Film Show 006: Sharief Zohairy

An interview with director Sharief Zohairy, whose debut feature film 'Seven Years Around the Nile Delta' premiered at the 71st Berlinale

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Sharief Zohairy

Sharief Zohairy is an Egyptian filmmaker whose feature-length debut, Seven Years Around the Nile Delta, premiered at this year’s edition of the Berlinale. The film is a no-budget, 331-minute documentary travelogue that finds him traversing different cities across Egypt. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Zohairy on March 19th, 2021 to discuss his film, memories of his hometown El-Zarqa, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello!

Sharief Zohairy: Good morning from Alexandria.

Good evening from Chicago. How has your week been?

It was a relaxing week after the [film] markets.

I’m glad to hear that. I wanted to start off by asking, where were you born?

In El-Zarqa, Damietta.

Is that where you grew up too? Did you move around a lot?

Yeah, I was born in Zarqa, Damietta, it’s on the Damietta branch of the Nile River. Then my father sent me to Alexandria to engage in primary school. Since then I have been living in Alexandria. But I was going back to Zarqa sometimes to visit my family: my uncle, my grandfather, my grandmother. My father and mother died over five years [ago] and they got their last place in the graves of Zarqa. So I’m visiting them once in a while.

When you think of El-Zarqa, what do you think of? What sort of memories come to mind?

Playing football in the streets with my friends is one of my favorite memories from Zarqa. Also, visiting my grandmother—she’s still alive and I like her company. One of the most beautiful memories is how in the afternoon, there’s this sudden, relaxing time after work when merchants would go back to their homes to relax—the streets would be empty. You can hear the sounds of everything in the streets during this time. It’s between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.: two hours of quietness.

Was that something you were always interested in since you were little—being attentive to the sounds of an area?

Yeah. This time of day I told you about is one of the most attractive things to me when I go visit. The first thing [I do], especially after I stop playing football in the streets, is to enjoy those two hours daily because it’s the most relaxing time. I can’t find those two hours in the city, in Alexandria. There is nothing like that in Alexandria. It’s still one of my favorite memories.

Was there a specific place you would go to during those two hours?

No, I would stay at home. When you feel quietness like I do at home—in contrast to city life—the best way to enjoy it is at home.

Can you describe Alexandria to me? What is Alexandria like?

It’s a big city. It’s the second biggest city in Egypt after Cairo. It’s a huge population and is getting more crowded over time. There are crowded streets. It’s on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea so during the summer season it gets more crowded than you can imagine because of the tourists.

Do you like Alexandria? What’s your favorite thing about it?

Yeah, I love it. I’ve lived there since I was five years old. And the winter season is my favorite season in Alexandria. It’s quieter. And heavy rain is relaxing, too.

It’s interesting how you say you like the quietness, because I feel like the thing that I really liked about [Seven Years Around the Nile Delta] is that it’s not very loud. I’m not being overwhelmed by anything, and instead it feels very casual, very relaxing. Most of the film, you’re sort of traveling in this area.

Midway through shooting, I saw the film as a travelogue, without characters, without a narrative. So that was the cornerstone to making the film: to capture daily life, this normal daily life. While shooting I tended to capture normal conversations. Whatever I recorded would be perfect for some situations, especially during the transportation scenes where we’re moving from one place to another. There’s a casual conversation between those who accompanied me during the transportation. It was the casualness of life, of how normal it was—without clashes or tense conservations. There was something key to the quietness I was looking for during shooting.

There are points in the film though that you have this repeated ambient music. It comes an hour into the first part when you’re in the car shooting through the windshield and it sort of feels like there’s a layering  of images, and then it appears later on throughout the film too. How did you decide on the use of this music? What did you want the music to portray when you edited it into your film?

I repeated this theme five times over the five-hour duration of the film. I recorded it casually by chance. I was recording some audio files to help me capture this place even though I wasn’t going to use it in the film. So when I was revisiting the audio clips that I recorded, I heard that theme. It wasn’t music or humming—it was the preparation for the call for prayers we have in Egypt, for [one of] the five calls for prayer every day. This was over the microphone from the mosque—it was a mix of the one who calls Muslims for prayer and the wind and the empty streets. I liked it and I thought it was the perfect theme to portray this immersion, when you lose yourself in space and time. So I use it, most of the time, during long takes.

Do you consider yourself a devout Muslim? Are you a religious person?

Yes, I’m a believer.

How important is the religion for you? How does it sort of impact your life for you? And do you feel like it played a role in the film at all in the way you thought about it and approached it?

Yeah, I see religion as one of the cornerstones in life in Egypt. We are a devoted religion. The special thing about religion is how everyone is dealing with it separately. It’s about how you absorb the religion, how you connect with God, how you organize your meetings with your neighbors and your colleagues. I like the individuality of seeing and analyzing.

Throughout the film, there’s also text that appears. You have a religious text. I know you have some from the Book of the Dead. I know you have also texts from the novelist [Khairy] Shalaby. How did you determine the passages that you wanted to use for the film and what did you want for those things to do?

I added the texts in a later stage, once I saw the film in its entirety. The texts are about the relationship between the inhabitants and their place: the river, you can see it in the letter from our prime minister. It dealt with a distribution of the Nile water between Egypt and Sudan. So it’s something related to the place. There’s a text you mentioned from the novel of Khairy Shalaby, which deals with the distribution of wealth and how we share the wealth of this place—who deserves it and who doesn’t deserve it. Also, there’s texts about religion from the book of Genesis. Also there’s a definition of a city’s name, Kafr El-Zayat. I tried to find out why they called it Kafr El-Zayat and I found out that there is someone called Zayat that was dealing with oil factories, and “Zayat” is oil in Arabic. 

It’s about the relationship between the inhabitants of the place and the daily activities there. The first text was about “playing” as a word in Arabic, from the dictionary. This playful life which is intersecting with working life. I found that the most important characteristic of life is mixing play with work, and it’s portrayed in that scene with the factory of plastic bags, where they’re talking while the mechanics behind them were working by themselves.

Can you just talk about the beginnings of this film, like how you decided to do it, and why you decided to go forward with it? Especially with how it took several years to make, how did you initially start with this film?

It wasn’t planned to be that long from the start. It was maybe in 2017 when I decided I would go through with the film, that I didn’t care about the duration of the final product. I thought it would be very sincere to keep the duration suitable for what the shooting was like itself. Also, side note, I didn’t make any kind of [color] correction to the film. So one of the most important things to me is to capture this trip—this travelogue, this actual moving from one place to another—without adding anything, except for sound of course.

I started filming in 2012, when there was political instability in Egypt and the Arab region, and also in the world. As a filmmaker, I [had] made about three short narratives since 2006. I wanted to make something but I couldn’t make something organized with the political instability; I couldn’t find the funds for the preproduction phase and for shooting—the classic way of making films. 

I borrowed a camera from a friend of mine and then went to visit my father and mother in a program which included visiting four cities. It was Zarqa and Port Said, which is outside the Delta, and Cairo, which is also outside the Nile Delta. Then I planned to go back to Alexandria over four days. So I made a video that was about 20 minutes called Four Days Around the Nile Delta. I liked the name and I like the province. And so I focused on how to construct another thing, more organized and more allocated in a single space, or a place which had a special character—every part of it would be sharing with each other, like the Nile Delta. I restricted myself to move between the two branches and the north coast, that geographical distribution. I limited myself to this space, not trying to cross the river outside the Nile Delta, which made me more focused on how to make the film and how to prepare for the trip and every stage of the travelogue, which lasted seven years.

How did you end up editing the entire thing? What was the structure that you wanted to capture?

I would come back to the editing room and construct the scenes I shot days before. Then, once I reached a decision to make a route starting from my birth place and ending in my birth place, I found the routes and followed it geographically. I organized the [structure] and pattern of the film, where I would put Kafr El-Zayat, where I would put Tanta, where I would put Zarqa. It’s ordered geographically. With timing, you can see in the film that I move from Zarqa in 2012 to Shirbin in 2018  to Belkas in 2020 and then another town in 2014.

Were you using the same camera or cameras throughout the entire filming process?

Mainly it was a Sony Handycam and it was the perfect camera for this kind of film. But I also used a Canon 5D and a Nikon, but 80 percent of the film was shot on the Sony Handycam, which was perfect.

That makes sense. It’s very portable, easy to use.

And with the gyroscope that’s behind the lens, it can absorb bumpy and sudden movements. It was perfect for this kind of trip, which is full of surprises.

I like how you said earlier that you didn’t do color correction, you wanted it to be as true-to-life as possible. At the end of the first part, though, we’re looking from a train and then images of different people are laid on top. How did you decide on that decision given that for most of the film, you’re not doing any sort of editing like that?

At the end of the first part, I used the faces and this shot from the back of the train to prepare for the second part. There were faces you didn’t see in the film until this scene, and you can see them in the next part. It wasn’t something where I was trying to grasp the attention of the audience, but more about us asking, “Who are these people?” and knowing that the filmmaker saw it all. [The audience and I] are traveling together, but I am guiding you through the trip as a filmmaker.

Was there anything that was difficult about the filming process? Were there any big challenges that you faced throughout filming?

How to grasp different aspects of life, especially in places where it was my first encounter with it during shooting. I didn’t visit [these cities] before shooting, and sometimes I returned back to reshoot, but [I was capturing] the first impact between me and these places. I don’t know more than anyone in the audience about these places, so let’s discover it together. I put the camera where I found myself in the place as a person, not as a filmmaker. This was one of the most important aspects of finalizing the film. It was difficult, but interesting—how do I make it natural? 

Because you hadn’t visited these places until you started filming, I’m wondering, did you have any favorite places you ended up visiting?

I like them all. Of course, their differences were enriching for the film and for me. I visited cities on the north coast where you can find the sea. And the lake, Burullus Lake, was one of the most interesting trips of the film.

What does the Nile Delta mean to you? Do you feel like making the film changed what the Nile Delta meant to you? Do you feel like you learned anything about it?

[The film] is not about the Nile Delta exactly. Wherever I would be going, I’d meet other people, see new places, so I can’t limit what I learned from making this film to the Nile Delta. This is my homeland, it’s my birth place. I just tried to live in it, to get closer to my birthplace and my homeland. Both my father’s family and my mother’s family are living there and I was visiting them all the time. Getting closer meant staying longer.

Are there things that you sort of have planned or want to film next?

I think my next project will be a feature length narrative.

Do you have any topics you want to explore or are you still thinking about it?

The screenplay was finished two years ago. [Because there were] seven years of shooting Nile Delta, there was a lot of time I could [put] into other projects. I finished directing the screenplay of this next project during these seven years. It’s about a complicated relationship between a man and a woman in Alexandria.

Was there anything you wanted to say or mention about yourself or the film that we didn’t talk about?

Yes, the sound! What interested me in this conversation with you is about sound because 80 percent of the soundtracks in the film were recorded after the shooting—I synced them later in the mixing room. That was a very interesting task because while you are syncing the sound of the road over the scenes of another road, it was a way for me to get me closer to the place, to the space, and the time. Half of that 80 percent was for the sake of normalizing the scenes, to make them look natural because before acquiring a sound recorder, I was recording the sound with the mic from the cameras—it wasn’t that good. Then I tried to find Zoom sound recorders to make the sound of the film better, and that worked.

So half of that 80 percent was just to make the scene natural, without any remarks about “this is not the sound of this scene.” But the other hope was for the sake of finding beauty, to add some layers to the scene, like in the scene of the sunset and the dialogue from an Arabic film. This Arabic film, I recorded the sound later and it wasn’t in the original scene while shooting. There was no need to add this layer, but I added this to intensify the feel of that sunset, of that time of the day, that relaxing time of listening or watching an old Arabic film from the ’60s, and then there’s the call of prayer and we have to lower the volume of the television, and when the call of prayer ends, we want to continue watching the film. So half of that 80 percent was for aesthetics, [to capture what] I saw in daily life around the Nile Delta.

Wow. Love hearing about all this. How long was the entire process of syncing the sound? Was that a difficult thing for you to do?

It was difficult. My budget is low as you know—it’s a cheap travelogue, so my budget was, uh, no budget. I was looking for someone to make the sound mix and edit, but I couldn’t find anyone according to my budget. So I went through the trip by myself. It was a very interesting process which lasted for, if you add the days, three months, but it was distributed over a year because I was re-editing some sound according to the footage. And sometimes I was re-editing the footage, according to the stage I was in during the sound mixing.

The whole film was inspired by city symphonies, a film genre in the 1920s. After World War I, there were many films, silent films, exploring daily life in these cities, especially Berlin. I wanted [Seven Years Around the Nile Delta] to be like a symphony, as something you hear. I was syncing and adapting the footage, according to sound, and adapting the sound according to the footage. What to delete from both of them, what to minimize, what to shorten, what to lengthen and in what order—[all of that] was interesting.

I have no more questions. Thank you so much. I enjoyed this conversation—it was really nice talking with you.

Thank you, Joshua. Good morning from Alexandria, again.

Good evening from Chicago.

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