A group of young filmmakers from Cairo have joined forces to produce a poetic essay film about Cairenes’ complicated love-hate relationship with their city. It’s a hybrid film, mixing fiction and non-fiction, aimed at helping people better analyze and express their feelings towards their hometown. We talk with the co-director of Cairo Syndrome, Karim El-Shenawy, about his new film project; getting into the details of the movie, the idea behind it and how it portrays the citizen-city relationship.

The film doesn’t belong to any film category on its own; it floats freely, picking up a feature from each. Cairo Syndrome focuses on different aspects that unite the individual, the community and the space. It’s a movie with a disintegrated storyline, interrupted by narratives formulating the troubled relationship the film tries to capture. The story revolves around one fictional character who doesn’t have his/her relationship with Cairo clearly defined other than it being a very intense place for him/her to handle. In a way, this fictional character connects a group of other non-fictional characters who talk about their story with the big city in a documentary-like manner.

A big part of the film deals with a mental disorder related to Cairo’s city life and its influence on the person’s state of mind and wellbeing. On a wider scale, mental illness is something looked down upon, often in denial, in Egyptian society. “This denial is usually rooted in the high levels of stigma in our society as well as a lack of understanding of mental health disorders. These issues can only be tackled by public awareness and education campaigns, normalizing mental health disorders and decreasing the stigma associated with seeking treatment,” clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the American University in Cairo Dr. Kate Ellis tells progrss.

Dr. Ellis adds that the further key issue contributing to the struggle is the lack of community mental health services available. “Treatment is either privately sought, at considerable expense, making it unobtainable to nearly every Egyptian, or it is available in centralized governmental hospitals, of which there are few in Egypt. These hospitals have been highly stigmatized historically and decentralizing care into the community is vital to increase access and decrease stigma.”

The cinema and drama industries have long tackled this matter but not necessarily to neutralise the social stigma. For example, the movie The Blue Elephant involves a supporting character who is a patient in a psychiatry rehab. But it doesn’t really feed into the social awareness needed to dismantle the stigma, instead taking a very different turn, affiliating the mental disorder with the supernatural mythological world of genies. An earlier film called Messages from the Sea stars a character with a speech impediment, which results in being bullied by his colleagues at med school, leading him to leave the career ahead of him to become a fisherman in Alexandria.

There’s a wide range of movies that have reflected on city life through human relationships, like Lost In Translationwhere two strangers bond in Tokyo. When asked about other films that fall under the same genre, El-Shenawy talked to us about New York, I Love You and Paris, Je T’aime. “However, these and most films about city life tackled the issue in a very romantic way, we don’t want to do this; we want to present it as realistically as possible,” El-Shenawy tells progrss. “We want to include the complexity of people’s lives in the city that changed radically in the past five years on all levels.”

After the January 25 revolution, Egypt has been going through many political and economical turnarounds, which have greatly affected social movements. Other than going through personal financial crises in parallel with the government’s financial crisis, Egyptians (youth in particular) have been raising questions about their traditions, beliefs and identity, which has all poured into their ever-troubled relationship with Cairo. The crew behind Cairo Syndrome is using the film as a therapy to help them find out their relationship with Cairo, and they’re hoping it does the same for the potential audience that is going to watch this film in late 2018.

It is safe to say that the stories behind Cairo Syndrome are partly crowdsourced from social media. They asked their fans on Facebook, “What is your relationship with Cairo? This is a space for you to express your feelings towards the city: love, hate, and everything in between. Let us know your story with the city.” They decided to post that and interact with as many people as they can because there’s so much that one can say about a city that shelters around 20 million people from all different backgrounds. The more feedback they receive, the more diversified stories are included, the more angles get tackled and the more reality is revealed.

Black and white image of clothed manikins, without limbs, hanging from wire in Cairo Syndrome

Nelly Sharkawy

“This interaction is really changing the way we think of the story, in terms of how the output would turn out to be and how the distribution should be carried out,” says El-Shenawy. However, the movie will not change anything in people’s behaviors or feelings towards Cairo. The co-director doesn’t believe movies have the power to do so anyway. “Films entertain, and we hope our film to be entertaining and engaging enough to help people reflect on their relationship with Cairo.”

El-Shenawy previously worked on documentaries, short fiction and movies — most significantly, the award-winning Clash. “However, this film is very different than any other work that we all have worked on, since it’s not by-the-book and flies spontaneously cross-genre,” he adds. The so-far self-financed Cairo Syndrome has a core crew of five people: El-Shenawy’s brother, Amir, who is also co-directing; Sara ElKamel, co-writer with the Shenawy brothers; Mohamed Taher, the film’s producer and lead cinematographer, who is also behind the project Ballerinas of Cairo (together with his peers); and Ahmed Fathy, who is also working on Cairo Syndrome as a cinematographer.

Ballerinas of Cairo is a visual project that captures Egyptian as well as non-Egyptian ballerinas posing and dancing in different alleys of Cairo. The ballerinas might be included in the film; El-Shenawy neither confirmed or denied. The Facebook page’s cover photo portraits a female ballerina in her attire sitting in front of a male figure masked with a Vendetta masquerade. The co-director didn’t really spell out a description for this eerie, almost-dystopian picture set in al-Moqattam district. However, he said that it was part of their shoots, which represented a state of confusion and dilemma.

The crew, along with the many contributors pitching in with stories behind and in front of the camera, are still in the process of filming, and they’re always on the lookout for more stories and insights. Since it’s self-financed, the release will probably be online-based, with an initial 15-minute teaser to test the waters ahead of the official release of the feature-length movie (75 to 94 minutes) during the last quarter of 2018.

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