Egyptian director, Mohammed Adel, writes about his short film, ‘My Father’, which shows the difficulties of caring for his father in the weeks before his death.
Writing about my short documentary film ‘My Father’ is not an easy task, just like when I started thinking of making the film itself. This is not because ‘writing’ in its own right is exhausting, but because rewinding the tape of memories around making the film brings back sad events. I write these notes after my father passed away on the 16th January 2017.
What motivates me to write are two reasons; first my desire to tell my story, a human compulsion we all have; some of us visit psychiatrists and pay them money to find someone to listen to our stories. The act of story-sharing becomes a calling, and not a luxury. The second reason for sharing is the hope that my colleague film makers might benefit from my personal account, a lesson I learnt from my friend and mentor Shawn Whitney.
The idea of making the film started after accompanying my father for the thirteenth time during a hospital admission. My father was diabetic. During this admission, my father’s leg had to be amputated due to chronic complications of diabetes; it was not salvageable this time. My father came back home in a wheel chair. A wheel-chair is not a sign of disability for an individual; it becomes a symbol of helplessness for the whole family.
I had a strong feeling that my father was about to die, and shared my worries with my sister Mona who was my strongest ally in making this film. Initially she refused to help, and strongly argued that I should not make it. I needed her on board over and above the fact that she is a professional photographer; she was the central character I wanted to show, the one who suffered the most along with my mother.
Not having a budget to make a film was not the only obstacle. My father’s consent to make it was another barrier. I thought, at least in the beginning, that I should not tell anyone in the family that I am making this film to avoid any unnecessary arguments, especially because my father had a tense relationship with all of us. I borrowed a Cannon 600D camera from my friend, Hisham Tawfeek, who gave it for free; a practical way of making a film with no budget is to rely on a ‘true friend’. I started filming inside our home with simple indoor lights, and my sister’s help, pretending that we were filming objects around the house; my father was totally oblivious to what was going on. I did not tell my mother either about what we were doing. She sensed that we were up to something suspicious. When she eventually found out, she insisted that we must tell my father, so he had a choice, either to accept or refuse. Ultimately she agreed to appear in the film, but only with her hijab.
Filming inside the house helped my father get used to having a camera around, but he did not know what we were exactly doing. He did not care; he thought that I was wasting my time making another incomprehensible film that will not make any money. It was usual for him not to show any praise throughout my career even after I studied journalism, and worked in a very prestigious journal, ‘Rose El Yousif’ in Egypt. I carried on making the film, paying little attention to my father’s criticism and our frequent arguments. You might say that I was selfish, but let me be frank with you, dear reader: I was only trying to be focused and honest in ‘telling a story’ as ultimately the viewer will not care about the difficulties in making the film, he or she will only care about the film itself, so the viewer is selfish too.
There remains the ethical issue of filming someone without their consent or awareness. I quote here words from the French-Algerian director Naeima Bou-firkas: ‘There is a lot of controversy about the necessity of obtaining consent of characters who appear on film. It remains a debated subject that relates to the circumstances of making an individual film.’ My priority was to use film for catharsis; a vehicle to share the overwhelming mental and psychological burden that affected me then and continues to affect me now. Cinema and filmmaking is not only a medium that I love, but also a way of venting my feelings and thoughts. There are a lot of double standards in Egyptian and Arab households about what could and should be shared publicly.
I thought, justifiably, that the film title should have been ‘My Family’ as the whole family has the right to ‘speak up’ – even more than my father who did not want to ‘speak’ – while being vigilant not to expose, suggest without incriminating, hint without pointing the finger of blame. It is a very personal film, and I did not want to cause my family any embarrassment, and I think I did that to some extent.
I shot the film in various stages of my father’s illness filming secretly from different angles and positions; my father never knew about the film till the day he died. The film was shown for the first time in August 2015 in Cimatheque Egypt, and was well received. The film premier was attended by my mother, my sister, and my brother. After the screening, my mother said: ‘’Your film is very dark. I did not know that we lived amongst all this’’. Thank you to my mother and my sister for making this film happen.