Basel Ramsis explores forced temporary marriages in his latest documentary
By Sherif Awad
Basel Ramsis’ concern for the marginalized straddles the Mediterranean. The documentary director and film columnist moves between his home in Spain and his native country Egypt in search of film topics that highlight the sociopolitical challenges facing women, immigrants and refugees. His latest film, Sokkar Barra (Sugar on the Side, 2014), brought him back to Egypt to work with village women forced into temporary marriages. He fears his work may be lost, however, if the local cinema industry can’t get it in front of audiences.
Ramsis started his film studies in Egypt, and after graduating in 1995 from the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University, he enrolled in the Egyptian Film Institute to study scriptwriting. After his third year, however, he dropped out and moved to Spain to attend the Seventh Art School in Madrid, from which he received a diploma in cinema.
During his second year in film school, Ramsis began making his own films. He debuted with a documentary called The Other Side about immigrants residing in Madrid’s neighborhood of Lavapies. He followed up with two other documentaries for the Spanish-Portuguese television channel Odessa. In 2003, Ramsis started teaching filmmaking in the Madrid Film Institute and The International School of Film and Television in Cuba.
In 2007, he was back in Egypt to show his documentary Marageeh (Swings) at the Townhouse Gallery. Nominated for best feature film at the 2007 IBAFF International Film Festival, Marageeh profiles Palestinian women from different generations and villages in the occupied territories.
Ramsis’ latest work, Sokkar Barra looks at the temporary arranged marriages between rich Arab tourists and poor women from the villages of southwest Giza. The documentary was supposed to premiere last June at the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, but Ramsis pulled it out because it was selected for the non-competitive Panorama section. He is planning to submit it to the Cairo International Film Festival in November.
Egypt Today sat down with Ramsis to talk about the film, his filmmaking and the problems facing Egyptian cinema. Edited excerpts:
Why did you leave Egypt for Spain?
There were many personal and political reasons. Some of them were related to my political activism during university years and others were related to my sense of fulfillment in my third year of the Egyptian Institute, although I had great professors like Dr. Yehia Azmy, I felt had nothing more to learn there. I chose Spain because Spanish cinema during the 1990s was experiencing a high. I also admired Spanish films by great directors like Luis Buñuel and Carlos Saura.
How did you come up with Sokkar Barra?
While I was in Egypt shooting another documentary, I was invited by Azza Kamal, founder of the Center of Appropriate Communications Techniques For Development (ACT), to lead a six-day workshop for young women from El-Hawamdeya, Abou El-Noumros and Al-Aziziyah villages who had been in arranged marriages with rich men from the Arab Gulf. The workshop was to show these women how to retell their stories on camera.
Since the workshop created some kind of trust between me and those women, I decided to make a documentary about their lives and the challenges they went through. Although I was working with very limited funds, I was driven by my passion for exposing gender problems through cinema. I was shooting Sokkar Barra in December 2012, during a time when Egypt was going through a lot of turmoil, which created an opportunity to show the sociopolitical effects of life in general on these women.
I also wanted to show how Islamists view women as objects. This was obvious during the discussions of the 2012 Constitution as they were trying to lower the age of marriage for teenage girls [which would allow families to marry them off earlier]. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, these ideas about arranged marriages to the wealthy still exist in some rural areas due to the lack of education and the rise of poverty.
[caption id="attachment_18284" align="alignright" width="300"]
A scene from Sokkar Barra[/caption]
Why did you choose Sokkar Barra as a title of your film?
Sokkar Barra comes from Egyptian slang. When someone orders tea and asks for the sugar on the side, it means you can put as much sugar as you like. The title refers to these women who are ordered like merchandise according to the needs of their would-be husbands.
In 1995, Inas el-Degheidi directed a film called Lahm Rikhis (Cheap Meat) taking place in the countryside where she pointed out the same problem — you included a clip of this film in your documentary. Why did you choose the Giza villages in particular?
I chose these locations because they are known to attract seekers of this kind of marriage. El-Hawamdeya is not a village; it has become like a small city because of the money this practice brings in. There are poor homes set next to big villas that belong to the middlemen who arrange these kind of marriages. They are like brokers who transformed rooms in their villas to become motels to receive the newlyweds in marriages they helped to arrange.
The film was supposed to be screened in Ismailia Festival last June. What happened?
According to my past experiences in similar festivals, like Documenta Madrid, I know that every festival has a selection and viewing committee that watches many films until a final selection is reached by voting. I applied to Ismailia this year by sending two copies of Sokkar Barra. Although I received inside information that it got the highest voting from the viewing committee, the festival board decided to move it to the Panorama, a section that is non-competitive and doesn’t get the attention of the attending press. Thus, I and the film producer Azza Kamal decided to withdraw the film from the festival. I don’t know what really happened behind the scenes and I don’t want to point a finger at anyone.
Do you think that directors like yourself living between two cultures and two continents could help resolve some of the problems experienced by the Egyptian film industry through co-production?
It is difficult now because after 2008 the European Fund supporting co-production between the north and the south of the Mediterranean Sea was severely cut. Likewise, a large number of festivals that used to bring the cultures of Africa and Europe together disappeared.
Moreover, I don’t think that even if we find subjects that can be produced between two countries, as a European and an Arab, we would be able to resolve the main problem of Egyptian cinema, which is distribution. If an Egyptian film cannot recoup its costs from its Egyptian screenings, it will not have a future in other countries. Films that are produced to be screened only in foreign festivals have a very short lifetime. Any film belonging to this category will make festival circuits here and there, but at the end it will not reach its main audience, which is the Egyptian moviegoers. Then, a few years later, this film will become like an antique belonging to the cinema archive where film historians and film critics will check it out from time to time for their essays. et