Shaina Anand: This was your first film, and it followed from Domestic Tourism I, a photography-based work, which was not connected to cinema. What took you down Egyptian film history, and how did you research and collate the footage?
Maha Maamoun: In Domestic Tourism I, I was interested in looking at some of the staple touristic images of Egypt, and intervening in them. I looked at some of the generic images of beaches, of the Nile, and of Cairo. But I did not use images of the pyramids or other ancient Egyptian monuments. Years later, I came across a scene in an Egyptian film, which I found very interesting for its use of the pyramids as a compositional element in the scene, or as a silent protagonist. This started me on a search into Egyptian cinema. I started looking for scenes in Egyptian cinema that were filmed in front of the pyramids, and building a little archive of the different types of scenes or “roles” that the pyramids played across years of cinema production in Egypt.
SA: In your pyramidal structure (beginning in the present and going backwards but upwards to the fifties and down again to the mid 2000's) your mid-point seems to be a film set in 1952, (made in 1959) that speaks of the overthrow of the monarchy, a holy battle to build "new pyramids of freedom and independence". There are specific references to the 1972 war, martyrs, Nasserite Pan-arabism... Could you provide us with a brief reading of the film text/structure?
MM: Actually, the mid point of the film is the 1959 film called Ismail Yassin on a Trip to the Moon; a comedy about a trip from Egypt to the moon where the rocket crew encountered a large group of people who had escaped Earth and its wars years ago, and developed a scientifically advanced civilization on the moon. When the crew met them, they encouraged the latter to return with them to Earth, and in this case specifically to an optimistic post 1952-revolution Egypt. In this and in many other films here, the Pyramids stand as a symbol of Egypt, its glorious or oppressive Past in relation to the Present (depending on the time and political context of the film), and as you mention, references to various important moments in Egyptian history. So the pyramids are often used as a projection screen for the contemporary national narrative, but interestingly you also see less direct moments when the Pyramids loom over a scene in silence with no direct or outspoken script of its own. Its also interesting to look at those scenes and read the other less obvious roles it plays in the background.
SA: It also provides an utterly engaging and vibrant timeline of popular Egyptian cinema, its genres and stars. The modern city of Cairo glimpsed ever so briefly outside the backdrop of the timeless pyramids of Giza in the short clips that precede or follow a pyramid scene come and go so quickly but remain lasting in the memory: Oops upside your head in the disco, Cafe's, a car manufacturing unit, construction sites...
MM: Yes, in the various scenes you see how the pyramids are situated in both the space of the city and in cinematic narrative. Cairo is a huge megalopolis that reaches up to the foot of the pyramids, but the pyramids are usually kept immune in official and touristic representations from the spill over of that city. What was interesting in their cinematic representations here is how they are re-inscribed into the complex and dynamic narratives of the city, and the dense and fluid changes, hopes and frustrations of its engulfing population.
SA: Were these films popular through the Arab World? How is your film felt in Cairo?
MM: Yes these films, and Egyptian Cinema in general, were extremely popular in the Arab World; Egypt being the earliest and most prolific cinema industry in the region for many decades. As for my film, of course when its viewed in Egypt and the Arab World, the audience is more familiar with the various films, the narratives of the films beyond the scenes that I chose, as well as the changing socio-political contexts, etc. This provides for a sometimes more complex, and sometimes more simple, reception of the film.
SA: From here on, you have continued to make videos using cinema, but also the format of remake and assemblage or – I learned a new word recently 'supercut'. Night visitor: The Night of Counting the Years (2011) is in that sense, a youtube supercut, yet both films produce psychological and political effects that ‘keyword,’ or database films rarely achieve. It may be too early to detect a style in your video works, but is this something you will continue to explore?
MM: I have made three video that use found-footage or that restage or reference scenes or titles of earlier films. One video led to the other and as I look back I see these common threads and ways of working. My last video, Shooting Stars Remind Me of Eavesdroppers, and a new work that is still in its early stages have departed from that ‘style’ for now.
SA: We screened this film on our rooftop cinema at CAMP in December 2010, during A season of Footage and Films. We paired it with Harum Farocki’s Workers leaving the factory (1995), to which as a post script, we added a chronology of scenes of workers factory gates from Indian cinema. Your film then seemed hermetically packaged, containing within it Egypt’s history, but also a stasis; a state of nostalgia, and of going nowhere – just up and down history, cinema and memory. And yet, exactly a month later, the Thawra at Tahrir Square happened. Freed from this statis, the pyramids may no longer be the backdrop to the flux of new hope and despair each day. How do you see the cut today?
MM: Actually, films have come out after the revolution that again have scenes that use the pyramids as a backdrop, and that continue to recast new stories in front of the timeless witness of the Past. There will always be this urge to measure up the status of the present with what is presented as a fixed or better measuring rod. But from one scene to the other in Domestic Tourism II, you could see that neither the present nor this “fixed” symbol of the past were static. They were both in motion, separately and in relation to each other. Yet there is of course a sense of overall political stasis, which in fact increases in the two works that came after Domestic Tourism, that is, 2026 and Night Visitor. It is hard to revisit Domestic Tourism’s cut today. The state, its previous visual and rhetorical representations, and how people re-iterate or rearticulate their relationship to it are all in flux and hopefully something much more interesting and pertinent rises from the ashes.