The first time Emmanuelle Demoris arrived in the neighbourhood of Mafrouza was in 1999. She had come all the way from France driving in her car, hoping to gather images and scenes on the road about the living and the dead. Eventually, in Alexandria, she was introduced to the Mafrouza area by an archeologist.
All 10,000 inhabitants of the djebel (rock) were living on the ruins of a Roman necropolis, carved in 4th century AD stones. Funerary rooms had been converted into tiny apartments. Demoris’s initial project took a very different turn then. Taken aback by the freedom of the people she met, the French director ended up spending two years shooting in the neighbourhood’s back-alleys. A unique, 12-hour documentary film split into five parts resulted from her immersion.
The length of the film is not random, rather it pays tribute to Mafrouza’s intricate relationship with temporality. As Demoris analyzes, “there is a way to make the present last a bit longer.” Because of that, the movie was almost named after the most common expression in Mafrouza, lessa shwaia, not just yet. The movie shows how time passes: its dead corners, its length. One man waits anxiously for the guy who will kill the sheep on Aid el Adha, one woman for the baby who should have been delivered weeks ago. A young woman watches satellite TV all afternoon, a family sorts out kilos of rice while discussing the sheikh’s recent expulsion from the local mosque.
Boredom is discussed with lucidity. One woman explains: “All morning, I take care of the chores — cleaning, cooking, and so on. But usually, around 2pm, I’m done and my husband only comes back from work at 10. So, in the afternoon, if I don’t pay a visit to neighbours or family, I watch television. Occasionally if there is a fight in the neighbourhood, we go out and watch it. What can I say, people grow frustrated out of boredom!”
In Mafrouza, people enjoy the present and Demoris enjoys filming them enjoying it. She hardly ever stops filming. During a Q&A session, when Mafrouza was first released in Paris, at the beginning of the month, Demoris recalled: “At the end of the long scene when Adel and Ghada throw a party for their newborn baby, I had a choice: I could leave, like all the family members and friends, or I could stay, and continue filming. Adel gave me a tired and slightly pissed look, meaning “Are you still here?” He had almost forgotten about me. I changed angle and put my camera at the other end of the room, they knew it meant I wanted to keep shooting. After a long silence, Ghada started to sing and pray for her newborn. It was beautiful.”
It took Demoris four years to complete the montage work. From the initial 150 hours of raw footage remains “only” 12 hours. But looking at these scenes, which can last for as long as 20 minutes each, you would swear that there is no montage at all. Indeed, the genius of the movie consists of integrating all the pieces which could be considered as junk in a shorter feature. For instance, you can see Demoris’s presence being mocked. The director is threatened to be bitten if she stays too long in the neighbourhood.
If you tell a story well, you can give people white hair
The other main component of Mafrouza is the narrative. Even after satellite TV has entered their lives, the characters of Demoris’s film all have in common their passion and skills for storytelling. This is what makes Mafrouza as thrilling to watch as a season of The Sopranos. Some write poems, others sing, many improvise and talk. The master in storytelling is without a doubt Mohamed Khattab, the sheikh who also happens to be a part-time grocer. As one neighbour — also a gifted story-teller — sums up with respect, “Facing Mohamed Khattab is like facing the pyramids.”
Inspired by the rhythm of muselsel (TV shows), Khattab writes his sermons accordingly: “All you need is to maintain the suspense at the end. If you tell a story well, you can give people white hair!” One is tempted to think that Khattab is only bragging. But after he innocently started to tell you the story of a prince, his wife, and a poor good-hearted kid the prince had adopted, you start paying attention. The prince has to go away, the wife falls in love with the kid, the kid rejects the wife, the wife lies to the husband out of revenge. Khattab turns a smiling and victorious face to the camera: “Now, you want to know if he’s going to kill him, don’t you? Well, you need to wait until next Friday to have the answer! See how I enchained your brains!”
“Is poverty the topic of the film?”
Back to the Q&A session. Three elegant old ladies, in the back of the room, question the truthfulness of the movie. “This is a fiction, right?”, they ask. “Because we grew up in Alexandria, and we had never heard of a neighbourhood called Mafrouza.” Demoris smiles. Touché. If the inhabitants of Mafrouza knew of all the other areas of Alexandria, the reverse wasn’t true. Patiently, she explains. “You see the harbor? You see the highway? It’s on your right, down there.” One of the ladies used to go swimming in the area, a long while ago, she remembers it very well, but she never saw anything like Mafrouza. She never saw anything like a shantytown.
Another lady asks: “These people, all they have are their kids. They live is such small areas, they have nothing. Is it what you wanted to do, a movie about poverty?” Demoris, this time frankly annoyed, answers: “I’ll let you think about it and answer for yourself.” The woman insists. “We never see them working!” “Of course”, replies Demoris, “since they only accepted to be filmed in circumstances where they knew they could be in control. This is why you can see the sheikh inside his grocery shop and not when he works at the factory.”
The characters of Demoris’s film all have in common their passion and skills for storytelling
Most of the time, the director had to be in the middle of the room to be able to film her characters this close. All knew when she was filming and when she wasn’t. Demoris only had one crew member, a translator. “I’m always in the middle of the room with my camera,” Demoris explains, “sometimes I had to put it on a chest of drawers. Obviously they can’t ignore my presence. They know I’m here, they know that what they say is being recorded.” Demoris takes her time. She lets them talk to the point that sometimes the people she films grow out of themselves, and then go back. When at some point, Ghada, a twenty-something woman, is pregnant and sick, she yells at her mother. She threatens to put a curse on her. It’s a very violent moment. “If I had wanted to create some dramatic effect”, Demoris explains, “it would have been easy to cut there.” But after this moment, another one, even more surprising, occurs: the mother starts laughing about the curse and Ghada starts laughing with her. They pretend it was only a joke and they go back to being “themselves.” That’s precisely what Demoris aims at witnessing and conveying.
Mafrouza disappeared in 2007. It was no surprise, since the municipality of Alexandria had announced for a while that the djebel would eventually be dismantled. All the inhabitants — most of whom had come from Upper Egypt to find work — have been relocated 15 kilometres away, in a tower block area, ironically called “Mubarak city”. Once her movie finished, Demoris returned to see them and share it with them. She dutifully asked each one of the protagonists how they wanted to see it. Some chose to see it at home alone, some wanted to share the screening with their neighbours and families. Adel and Ghada wanted “Iman” to see it with them. Demoris says they were all very happy with the final version.