Ahmad Abdallah is an award-winning filmmaker and photographer who has become an integral part of the new wave of independent cinema in the Arab world.
He is best known for his feature films Heliopolis (2009), Microphone (2010), Rags & Tatters (2013), Decor (2015) and Exterior Night (2018).
His many prizes include best director from regional and local festivals such as Dubai Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Antigone Prize at the Cinemed Film Festival of Montpellier, the Golden Tanit Prize in Journées Cinématographiques de Carthage, and the Golden Tulip at the Istanbul International Film Festival.
His films have participated in other festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival, the London BFI, International Film Festival Singapore, and the São Paulo International Film Festival.
Abdallah recently launched his first photography exhibition under the title Deceiving Time.
Taken in the period from 2010 to 2021, the 19 large color archival pigment prints are made up of superimpositions of disregarded photographs where he investigates how we recollect and remember.
Visually, the work references both long exposure photography and chronophotography.
His photographs are an exploration of everything that lies outside of the frame arbitrarily chosen to encapsulate a memory.
Abdallah is also currently working on his new feature film 19B (working title).
Written and directed by the artist himself, the film is produced by Mohamed Hefzy (Film Clinic), marking a new collaboration with Abdallah after previous films like Microphone and Rags & Tatters.
Egypt Today spoke with the talented director and photographer about his latest photography exhibition and his cinematic style.
1-Your cinematic style is never traditional when it comes to discussing ideas and the method of photography and montage. Is being a photographer the reason behind that?
Working on pictures is always about self expressing, either moving pictures or still photography, in each frame there is a story. Sometimes the story is very visible, and other times it is hidden and waiting for the viewer to reimagine and reveal it. I always liked ambiguity in art, I liked making films that have a lot of what is untold. I believe that photography is somehow the art of the untold, the story we all have to imagine beyond this still frame.
2-Your interest in the issue of social segmentation can be seen in most of your work, especially in your last film, Exterior Night
Cairo is the reason, living in such a diverse city, it is impossible not to notice the huge difference between neighborhoods, visually and culturally. I’m more interested in the second. I contemplated the thought of how we are all capable of living together and across the boundaries. In Exterior Night I found it easier to explore the differences via the story of the prostitute, the filmmaker and the taxi driver trapped in a car/city all night long, and who are suddenly forced to get to know each other.
3-You are a talented photographer. Why have you only now decided to launch your first photography exhibition?
I don’t know if I’m talented or not, all I know is that I truly love expressing through the lens. For me, filmmaking was my first choice for telling stories for over a decade. Meanwhile photography was more of a misty area for me. But with the guidance of TINTERA gallery co-founders Zein Khalifa and Heba Farid, and with the support of many friends and artists, I managed to overcome my worries and I started to print dozens of photographs. Discussing the photographs with the TINTERA team was an experience that made me connect with photography in a new way—holding the physical photograph and working on it has spoken to me in a unique way and I hope it would also speak to the audience at the exhibition.
4-Why did you name your first photography exhibition Deceiving Time?
No concept fascinates me as does time; that ancient notion that crosses us as we cross it, like an invisible stream. My classical music training, over 20 years ago, inducted me into considering our temporal relation with tempo. As a filmmaker, time became my primary tool of constructing reality. Why do certain images occupy our hearts and nestle in the corners of our minds? Does the significance of the time and place when these moments occurred guarantee supremacy in recollection? Or is it possible that they are but leftover ruins of other forgotten moments, ones that preceded and followed the recollected moments? For all of that, I found Deceiving Time was a good title to describe the world we are presenting in this exhibition.
5-How did audiences react to the exhibit? Were you happy with the feedback?
I was very happy to meet artists and friends discussing photography, visually and conceptually. As we all are exposed to over 10,000 pictures a day, I don’t think that we spend enough time to discuss them and study how we relate to them.
It was amazing how many students came to the gallery and for many of them it was the first time they had ever visited a gallery! We spoke about the photos, the printing experience and how unique it is to see an exhibition with proper lighting and carefully curated works compared to scrolling through hundreds of photos on our devices. I believe the thing I’m proud of the most in this experience is introducing a new generation to the world of printed photos. Given that we have very few venues in Egypt specialized in photography, I am grateful to have had the chance to work with TINTERA on my first exhibition.
6-Does being a good photographer help you to master your tools as a director?
Understanding pictures and composition is a tool within itself, but to be a filmmaker is not about the picture, it is more about life, human beings and ideology in my humble opinion. Then how to work with actors to express a subtle idea or emotion. Mastering photography is a great tool indeed, but you can’t make a film using cinematography alone. But knowing the lens and the power each can provide is a great asset.
7-You are always roaming the streets of Cairo with your camera, to what extent have you been influenced by the cinema of the late director Mohamed Khan?
Since my beginning I never liked to film in a studio, I would always choose a real street over constructing it, and I let myself go with the flow of the street and the people on it. It doesn’t mean I oppose shooting in studios; great films like El-Kitkat were filmed almost entirely on a film set, but personally I liked the adventure of the street and allowing it to surprise me and allowing myself to be open to what will happen in such a crazy city like Cairo and Alexandria. It is not an easy task but I believe it is very rewarding.
8-You hear about independent cinema, clean cinema and other cinematic terminologies: are you with the classification of cinema?
Such terminologies were created by the media, I would even say by lazy media writers. It was easier for them to quickly pigeonhole everything instead of dive a little deeper and see if the film actually intersects with many concepts and genres. For me, the classification has made cinema feel like a supermarket, a section for candies and another for shampoos. This is not how I see films, personally I try as much as I can not to use such terminologies. If I’m forced to use a category I use the classic genres, I say the film is action, musical, comedy, keeping in mind that a film can contain many genres as we all know.