The making of Mafrouza

Talking to Emmanuelle Demoris

The five episode feature-length documentary Mafrouza was awarded the Golden Leopard at the 2010 Locarno Festival. French director Emmanuelle Demoris spent two years in Alexandria shooting in Mafrouza’s back-alleys, resulting in a unique 12-hour film. In this interview, Emmanuelle Demoris speaks about her vision, the filming and the relations between actors, viewers and the director.

What’s behind your choice to work on a full-length? And what do the people living in Mafrouza have to say?

First of all, I didn’t say to myself: “I’m going to work on what people say”. I had no underlying theoretical or thematic ideas about this work, that’s not how I went about doing it. For me, people’s words are indistinguishable from what their bodies do. Naturally, I did meet verbal and expressive people in the Mafrouza neighbourhood. I’m very wary of the idea of “letting people say what it is that they have to say”. It’s not a question of “letting the poor people say what they have to say”. That way of describing it is quite condescending and inadequate.

But I can answer by describing how the film came into being. In my research into the relations between the living and the dead, I collected quite a few narratives. Because the dead cannot really speak, we questioned the living and their imaginations. What really impressed me about the people from Mafrouza (or Q’aberi which is the other name used for the neighborhood), is captured by a statement from Adel, one of the film’s main characters.

“If neither hell nor heaven existed, what would that change for you?”

He answered the question: “If neither hell nor heaven existed, what would that change for you?” by inventing his own framework: “For me, nothing. I can only reason based on my own experience and my own human logic,” he said. This is something he discovered as he was pondering the question. In seeing that, I witnessed something rare: an incredibly moving statement of belief in humanity. He was thinking as he was speaking, a contemporary of his own thoughts. On that level, there was something quite unique and essential happening in the field of speech. Essential because he was an example of how people from Mafrouza normally speak. There’s an incredible ability to verbalise, which we could film.

Italian director Nanni Moretti speaks in his film Palombella Rossa about striving for “true words”.

He’s someone who talks a lot, often makes statements, crafts his words. What we worked on with in Mafrouza doesn’t belong to the same category. I prefer to think of Edouardo Coutinho’s films instead. Coutinho has an incredible ability to film people’s narratives. When watching the film’s first rushes, I saw no difference with what I had filmed and how I had felt during the shooting. Before, I didn’t think it was possible to film people that close up without becoming a voyeur, without setting up a one on one relationship, one of trust. In Mafrouza, I didn’t want any complicity between the actor, the director and the viewer. If the film rings true, it’s probably due to the fact that us who made the film aren’t buddies. We don’t have that closeness, so there’s always the notion of “we’re making a film”. It’s possible to come very close to intimacy without falling prey to the emotions triggered by what is being said.

Did this approach come into being as you were shooting? Or had you thought of filming that way before seeing the rushes?

There isn’t really a specific approach. There’s the camera, myself and a translator. What’s important is that, while we change registers in the different sequences, we always leave an opening for coming up against either the camera or the translator. We didn’t pretend that there was a fourth wall hiding the camera’s existence. That’s perhaps is something you could call an approach. Myself with the camera on my shoulder, myself and the various relations with people from Mafrouza — both those who opposed me and those who took me for a mediator.

My goal was never to produce something scientific. I always strive to dis-assign people’s identities, not to give them new ones.

In the first episode, Adel and Samia tell each other things through a third party, which is the camera. Words flow between them, and the camera becomes the third party which enables them to say these things. Other speeches are testimonies, dialogues, seduction ploys. People’s ways of expressing themselves near the camera changes all the time, evolves as the episodes evolve, as the film’s sequences are played out.

There’s also something very specific about the way in which you approach the labyrinths of narrow streets which you film.

One thing was very important for me: I didn’t want any long shots for at least the first one and a half hours of the film. This is probably one of the reasons why I couldn’t find a producer. When you spend hours shooting slums, it becomes more or less the same thing in the end. Be it Alexandria or Calcutta, the footage will label people in one way: as living in slums. If you put that off for an hour and a half, people get to know the characters in other ways and therefore won’t simply categorise them as slum dwellers. For me, that was very important.

But it was also important to locate the neighbourhood and its relation to the harbor. For that, showing the urban background in the movie was necessary. The film then moves through the Mafrouza labyrinth, which is made up of concentric circles. That is indicative of the way in which people and things were approached in the movie. It was also necessary for us to find moments where the images themselves could resonate, since my way of seeing things wouldn’t always entail being with other people. There had to be a way of showing also those inner moments.

Mafrouza also belongs to the category of ethnographic film. Is that something you worked on?

Not at all. I was able to discuss it my work with sociologists, anthropologists. But it never crossed my mind to establish generalities through a comprehensive scientific vision. This film only talks about a few people, I’d rather call it a “documentary testimony”. It says something about a neighbourhood, not about Egypt. We presented a paper at a conference by the Cairo research centre CEDEJ on the theme of Documentary Film Making and Anthropology-Sociology. But I didn’t feel that we had very much to say on the scope of our work. I just want people to have a think, to take pleasure in the process.

My goal was never to produce something scientific. I always strive to dis-assign people’s identities, not to give them new ones. That led me to wonder about what identity I was assigning to myself. In this respect, this work was about me just as much as it was about the people in Mafrouza. When asked about this, I always answer with the example from the third episode when Adel and Samia go to the beach. This is somewhere they would normally never go! But they did since they thought that my goal was to make a film about love. After the second episode, they knew that they were going to have a child. So they constructed something on love and aspects they wanted to show. That was fiction.

Do you want to continue working with the same kind of method as for Mafrouza?

Frankly, I don’t think so. I’ve spent ten years working on Mafrouza, that’s enough. and I don’t want to make it into an easy recipe to make films. If I left France and travelled to work on the topic of the living and the dead, it’s because there was no room for such work in France. In the fiction department, I find the French movies made ten years ago highly disappointing. The new releases, I haven’t seen them. As soon as the characters start speaking, you know it’s a French movie. It’s quite awful. I think we’re in a dead-end fiction-wise, even though there are more interesting filmographies elsewhere, in Portugal for instance. I don’t see how, today, I could make a fiction feature. I don’t see where to start. I liked the idea of writing a play, working in a theatre, but I never found the money to do so.

What kind of hardships do you have to cope with in France to release a documentary film such as Mafrouza?

Today, to do a movie in France, you have to write everything in advance. You must have your draft all set and there’s barely any room left for imagination and for creation. You need to pick a topic and to illustrate it with images full of certainties about the world. This is why the documentary film production at Arte keeps decreasing year after year. Happily, there are more and more self-producers. For Mafrouza, I had won a grant from the Villa Medici to lead an investigation on the living and the dead. We were on the road for nine months. Initially, it was only an idea for a research and not for a movie, but being on the road we tried to invent something. My motivation to meet people was extremely high. A year later, I dropped this initial idea and returned to Mafrouza. Only there could I truly grasp the and fundamental question which, after all, might have been what I aimed at filming from the start. The nature of a visceral humanism, that some people have deep down in them.

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