Documentary filmmaker Sara Shazli talks about Coming Back Home and the courage it takes to share personal stories on screen.
Sara Shazli never had plans to make a movie about her life, even though she says she has “always been haunted by the idea of returning, which was reflected in my film projects.” Studying film in Cuba, Shazli only planned to shoot her graduation project in Egypt. “I had not decided at the time whether I wanted to return to France or stay in Egypt. Two weeks after I came to Egypt, the coronavirus pandemic struck, the graduation project was postponed, and my international crew never came, as the film school in Cuba was closed.
As a result of the pandemic, Shazli suddenly found herself compelled to remain in Egypt—without a specific project. “Shooting was the only consolation for me. It made me feel like I was doing something,” says the filmmaker who adds she shot nonstop every day for months in Cairo, as well as when she went on family trips outside the capital. “I had no intention of making a movie, but as I watched the material I felt that there was a potential for it to be a movie, so I set a daily routine for editing and that is how Back Home came to light.
The documentary premiered internationally at the fifth edition of El Gouna Film Festival and garnered positive feedback. Egypt Today sits down with the talented Egyptian director to discuss her film project, the notion of returning to the homeland and her plans for the future.
You’ve been raised in different cultures. How has this affected your character?
The way we were brought up in the family was kind of different. I attended a French- speaking school, then moved to France. Egypt has always been a strange place to me. I didn’t feel really Egyptian, and that was the dilemma of my life.
Yet, on my last visit, I felt that something had changed inside of me. Perhaps because I spent a period in Cuba, which was on the other side of the world and was completely different from Egypt or France. I finally got the feeling that Egypt is my country. Perhaps it is also age-related or has to do with development, and as we grow up our desire to stay with our parents intensifies as they age.
But my decision to stay in Egypt is also linked, primarily, to my relationship with cinema. I finally realized that making films is what I want to do. It took me years to reach this realization. My relationship with cinema has been a persistent and baffling question for me. But attending film school in Cuba a few years ago changed me a lot. There, we get a lot of freedom to experiment, discover ourselves and find out what we want.
Only there did I realize that I had something to say through cinema. Perhaps this is how the decision to come back was born before I consciously realized it. Now, if I was offered to move to another part of the world and make films there, I would definitely not accept.
Back Home highlighted your intimate relationship with your father. Tell us more about that
Cinema for me is an urge that surrounds you until you respond to it. In Back Home my motive has been to keep my father’s presence alive all my life. One day I will do the same with my mom too. I make films to memorize the ones I love, to reveal the pain and the memories. It took a lot of time and honesty to come to that conclusion.
Was it difficult for your family members to shoot in front of your camera?
Not at all. The camera has always been a part of our lives since childhood, and it doesn’t bother anyone. Also, the idea of revealing in front of the public didn’t bother them because they did not shy away from anything. Of course I’m talking about my immediate family, because I don’t know what it would have been like for the extended family. Also, they would attend the editing session from time to time, but there was no family gathering to see the movie for the first time, no wow moments. But everyone was happy with the movie as far as I know.
Your family has a rich cinematic history would you say that was an advantage or a disadvantage to you?
Being in this family did not diminish the challenges that any emerging director faces in film production. I had no obstacles during school films, but once I got out into the real world I realized how difficult film production can be. In fact, I need the same support that any other filmmaker needs. I’ve been writing my feature film project for the past two years without knowing where it’s going to lead.
Making a movie is a difficult and uncertain process and requires a lot of patience, of which I have very little. I could not wait five years for the film to receive production support, so I resorted to making films on my own, regardless of their quality.
My true ambition is to make real movies with big budgets and professional crews, which is never easy. I started looking for opportunities to produce my feature film project Searching for Woody through traditional means such as festivals and development platforms. But if I can’t get the necessary support, I’ll make the film anyway, whatever the outcome.
Do you feel female filmmakers face even more challenges?
I think women’s lives are more difficult in our societies. We are champions because we are able to live in the midst of it all. I always think that males have a lot of privileges that they don’t even realize exist, and therefore don’t understand what we miss out on as women.
What was it like being part of the Gouna Film Festival’s official competition?
My participation in GFF means a lot to me. It gives me hope that there is room
for low-budget films and intimate personal stories to find their way to major festivals. It is a welcome sign of diversity. Things like this give you hope. On the other hand, I’m kind of worried about showing an audience a movie about my life. But maybe I have to accept this and accept myself.
What is your next step after Back Home?
I want to keep making movies, but at the same time I want to do other things in life. Cinema is a difficult field and the filmmaker has to find the right balance in his or her life. What I’m sure of is that I’m going to stay in Egypt.