Fresh grad Tamim Al-Nowairy writes, directs and acts in the complex short I Am Diaa, which explores the thorny issue of mental health in Egypt.
By Sherif Awad
For the second year in a row, the Mohamed Bayoumy Competition for young Alexandrian filmmakers, where short films by up-and-coming filmmakers compete for two prizes, was held in the context of the Mediterranean and Arab competitions that were part of the official selection of the 31st edition of the Alexandria Mediterranean Film Festival (AMFF), held on September 2-8.
Among the films showcased in the competition, was the short drama I Am Diaa by talented writer-director and actor Tamim Al-Nowairy, a fresh Pharos University Faculty of Media and Mass Communication graduate.
Son of Egyptian critic Emad Al-Nowairy, former director of the Kuwait Cinema Club, Tamim showed exceptional talent during his college years. In his second year, he wrote the script for the short film Al-Tahweela (Shunt) that was aired on Alexandria’s Channel 5. The following year, he discussed the phenomenon of street kids in Al-Maraya Al-Be’eida (Distant Mirrors) for which he received first prize in his college. This year, his senior-year graduation project, I Am Diaa, was selected among the short films competing at the Mohamed Bayoumy National Competition for Alexandrian Filmmakers, which has been organized since last year at the AMFF. Although he was asked by his professors to make a documentary for his graduation project, Al-Nowairy insisted on writing and acting in the short narrative too. The result is a film that does not play as a graduation project, was largely incomprehensible to his professors and too complicated for the Alexandria Jury that did not deem it worthy of any prize.
However, Al-Nowairy proves himself an exceptional actor, director and writer, with him assuming the role of the main character, Diaa, a mentally challenged young man suffering from schizophrenia that has him face great challenges: His family thinks he is crazy and his neighbors think he is either a drug addict or someone possessed by devils. When his father and brother are fed up with him, Diaa is sent to a mental hospital where he is wrongfully diagnosed and ultimately put in solitary confinement. In his cell, Diaa retraces all the sorrows he feels about his family and his community, while imagining that he is talking to a professional and caring psychologist.
“We lack knowledge about how to accept and communicate with mentally challenged people,” says Al-Nowairy, commenting on the reason behind making the film I Am Diaa. “When people treat a mentally challenged person in a bad way, his condition goes from bad to worse. Also, our Egyptian media does not discuss their problems and our commercial films only make fun of them. According to the research I conducted, 1.5 percent of Egyptians suffer from schizophrenia. In this sense, I created the character of Diaa to represent all of them: The schizophrenic lives in a virtual reality he creates for himself where his emotions are scattered.”[caption id="attachment_356764" align="alignnone" width="620"] Aspiring director Tamim Al-Nowairy at the Alexandria Mediterranean Countries Film Festival.[/caption]
During his preparation for I Am Diaa, Al-Nowairy read many books, including Psychological Stories by Adel Sadek and saw many US films, including A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe; One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson; Fight Club starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and I Am Sam starring Sean Penn.
“After six months of research and readings, I decided to play Diaa and not to cast another actor or give the script to another director because I knew all about the character and how it should be played on screen,” he says.
In the film, Al-Nowairy showed visionary craft with the use of unconventional lenses and camera work, especially in the scene where Diaa is imagining all the people that made him suffer gathering in his cell along with the angel of death. No Egyptian mental institutions agreed to allow the shooting of the film behind their walls, perhaps because the truth is sometimes worse than fiction, an so the scenes in Diaa’s cell were shot at an empty deserted factory in Alexandria.
The film ends with Diaa surrendering to his virtual world after writing poems addressing his family and the whole world. “I tried to show the exponential relation between the psychological disease and creativity found inside many people," he says. "Diaa is like Franz Kafka who transformed his fears into written literature."
Although I Am Diaa did not receive any prizes at the AMFF, it was selected to screen during the Rabat Film Festival, which is taking place from October 16-24. Meanwhile, Al-Nowairy is working on his first feature film and is thinking of becoming a newscaster.