By Maya Dukmasova
Mohamed Abdelhafez is probably the world’s only practicing gastroenterologist and independent filmmaker at the same time. His first film, “The Door,” premiered as part of the Digital Feature Film Competition at this year’s Cairo International Film Festival.
Abdelhafez created this gripping psychological thriller for a total of about $100. He used a family digital camcorder, and purchased minimal equipment: camera dolly, additional lights, and metal scraps to create a stand. The director’s brother, Amr Abdelhafez, and friends starred in the four-person cast and delivered commendable performances.
The doctor turned director had been nurturing the idea of making a movie since he was a child. Finally, last year he decided that it was time to give it a try. The script was written in three days and over the next year he toiled every afternoon after finishing his rounds at Qasr Al-Ainy Hospital and before going on call again at night. The film was completed three months ago and selected to be shown at the 34th CIFF.
The plot of a young man whose life is slowly destroyed by the insatiable curiosity to find out what is behind a locked door in his cousin’s apartment was based on the director’s own unpleasant experiences of middling curiosity in Egyptian culture. Being a young doctor with long hair and what he called “unusual religious views” has solicited a lot of unwanted attention from the people around him. Egyptians seem ready to do just about anything to find out a secret, he explained.
The story is a flashback of the protagonist who at present suffers the consequences of his curiosity. The message of the film is ultimately a pleasantly moralistic one. After over an hour of frightening suspense, the film’s anticlimax leaves us with a question: How far can we go to know someone else’s secret?
Despite the low-budget limitations, the film nevertheless revealed technical skill and careful attention to detail. Digital filters applied to the footage through computer editing created the impression of depth and softness to scenes which would have looked unrealistically crisp and raw in an un-edited HD version.
Abdelhafez, who attributes some of his camera skill to regular use of an endoscope to examine patient’s digestive systems, also shows off a diversity of scene constructions. His intriguing aesthetic vision is a testament to great creative potential if combined with higher quality equipment and a more permissive budget.
Pleasant color and light combinations in the apartment of the characters (the director’s own) are used to frame moments of contemplation, despair, and anxiety as the protagonist experiences the mental torment reminiscent of Roskolnikov.
Indeed the age-old theme of a guilty conscience is the perfect thematic background for Abdelhafez to have explored his filmmaking capabilities. The story is simple yet intriguing and the suspense is created only through the use of appropriate music, lighting and camera angles rather than complex scenery or special effects.
Though he is looking forward to making more films as soon as time and money allow, Abdelhafez is not ready to let go of his medical career at this point, especially due to his success in the field and the “close relationships” he has forged with his patients.
“The Door” is also set to be shown at independent film festivals in London and Berlin among others. Unfortunately, before more interest can be generated for the film to be publicly shown in Cairo, Monday’s screening was the first and last at the CIFF.
Besides his interest in filmmaking as a personal challenge and rewarding creative process, Abdelhafez hopes that his work will help to revive the Egyptian cultural values. He lamented the decline of art appreciation from painting to cinema and stated that today it is increasingly hard to find people with whom to intelligently speak of art, culture, politics and religion. The director blamed capitalism and the rise of mass entertainment for this decline.
His remarks were particularly powerful given the behavior of the audience. The small room at the High Culture Council was mostly filled with journalists and critics. However the atmosphere was reminiscent of a bunch of seven-ear-olds on their first cultural outing. Had no one taught these people how to behave when watching a film?
People were talking loudly, answering their mobiles or letting them ring, walking in and out of the room, slamming the door and, in general, betraying no signs of being a group of educated professionals. Abdelhafez said that this behavior was a clear sign of the eroding cultural sophistication in Egypt and a reason to struggle to make better art.
Director Mohammed Abdel Hafez