Cairo Filmmaker Nesrine El-Zayat Turns Lens on Family to Deliver Nuanced Portrait of Women’s Status in Egypt

Nesrine El-Zayat, whose debut feature “On the Fence” is world premiering at the Cairo Film Festival this week, is typical of the new generation of young Egyptian filmmakers.

Lacking access to funds, equipment and formal training but bursting with stories and ideas, El-Zayat borrowed a friend’s camera shortly after the death of her father in 2006 and started shooting.

“I didn’t study cinema but watched many films with my father from the age of six and read a lot. I thought: ‘Let’s just try. I will shoot what I feel.’ For me, cinema is feeling,” she told Variety.

In her 72-minute documentary “On the Fence” – running in the Horizons of Arab Cinema competition – El-Zayat turns the camera on her own family to explore Egyptian society’s expectations of women.

According to El-Zayat, her father treated her as equal to her brothers when they were growing up in 1980s Tema, a small village in Upper Egypt, where women are still expected to wear the veil and obey male family members.

The film explores the tension that this has created within the family, which has been acerbated by her father’s death, as her mother berates her – albeit warmly – for smoking and refusing to wear the veil when they return to visit friends and family in Tema.

El-Zayat’s lack of conformity reflects badly on her as a mother, the mom tells her daughter, although she acknowledges the fact that the filmmaker’s “reins have been cut loose.”

The director also addresses her own conflicting feelings about her upbringing: while she persuaded the family to move to Cairo in 2004, El-Zayat refuses to give up her father’s crumbling home in Tema, a 400km journey, which takes seven hours by train.

Courtesy of Nesrine El-Zayat

It’s a village that requires her to conform to traditional standards but is also the last link between her and her father and she is filmed repeatedly trying to repair her father’s deserted house and salvage items.

The film favors these nuanced moments over big set pieces, although a wedding party scene in Tema that shows men and boys dancing and clapping while the women and girls remain static highlights more obvious gender differences.

Shot over a six-year period, “On the Fence” was made with the support of her family even though they don’t understand some of the choices that she makes: “I think my mother just got used to being filmed over a long period of time,” she said.

The documentary is seeking distribution and sales at Cairo and was made through Hassala Film, a collective set up in 2010 to help directors make their first films

The film’s executive producer is one of the Hassala’s cofounders, Hala Lotfy, who received numerous awards for her 2012 film “Coming Forth By Day” and is now intent on helping another generation of directors make their first features.

Lotfy came on board after viewing El-Zayat’s first short film effort, “Ward No.9,” a 13-minute doc about two human rights activists, which won the Jury Prize for documentary at the National Egyptian Film Festival.

While “On the Fence” has received funding from the British Council in Egypt, Screen Institute in Beirut as well as post-production funds from the CC Film Festival, funding and distribution remain a challenge in Egypt’s independent film sector.

Owing to little state support, features often take between four and six years to make. “Many visit platforms outside Egypt, or co-produce or set up collectives to help each other and pass on their experience,” El-Zayat noted.

Zawya Cinema, a distributor and Egyptian arthouse outlet housed within downtown Cairo’s Cinema Karim, is the main focus for local, independent feature-length documentaries, although El-Zayat remains hopeful that streamers such ONS and Netflix, hungry for local content, may one day change things.

“Maybe at some point in the future, in a couple of years, streamers will have opened up more doors for us – until then it is all very grass roots, relying on small companies that want to help a new generation.”

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