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Documentary: The Dream of Shahrazad

South African director François Verster brings Shahrazad to life in his documentary examining the intersections between art and politics in the Middle East

By Sherif Awad

The character of Shahrazad, the central storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, has influenced many writers, musicians and novelists of contemporary literature and also filmmakers of fantasy cinema. Now, a filmmaker from South Africa has decided to approach Shahrazad as a projection on present-day female characters and also as a reincarnated figure watching the complex happenings across the Middle East.

The director is South African-born François Verster and his documentary is called The Dream of Shahrazad. Mostly shot in Egypt, the film held its African premiere in March during the 4th Luxor African Film Festival where it received the Al-Husseiny Abou-Deif Prize for Best Freedom Film. Another screening followed a few days later at Downtown Cairo’s Zawya Cinema, with Verster and some of the Egyptian artists in the film in attendance.

Verster’s background has its foundations in writing, music and film with an acclaimed debut as documentary director-producer of Pavement Aristocrats, the first ever documentary made about the Bergies, a unique homeless community living on the streets of Cape Town. Verster then directed another documentary called A Lion’s Trail that retold the history of the South African 1960s song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” After receiving an Emmy Award for A Lion’s Trail for Outstanding Cultural and Artistic Programming, he made When the War Is Over, a short documentary that looked at the survivors of the anti-Apartheid struggle.

After beginning the process of conceptualizing The Dream of Shahrazad in 2006, Verster was writing, shooting and editing until September 2014. After filming over 200 hours of material in Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon, the final cut reached 110 minutes. “This film had been a huge personal voyage of discovery for me,” said Verster. “After 9/11, I started wondering about how the world perceived the so-called Middle East or Arab World, having grown up close to Muslim and Arab friends. What immediately came to my mind was my own childhood memories of the Arabian Nights and the Russian musician Rimsky-Korsakov who composed Scheherazade, the symphonic suite based on her magical stories. As young “white” South Africans, we were taught classic music at a young age because it was a way of the apartheid regime to discriminate against white and dark skinned South Africans at that time. But now, music plays a pivotal part in my films to the extent it became a guide showing me how to conceive and implement scenes from scratch till finish.”

In a way, Verster used the character of Shahrazad as his guide in his journey to investigate Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 and to shed light on the connection between art, culture and freedom of expression using storytelling and songwriting during critical times. Once in Egypt, Verster shot across Cairo’s streets and art spaces, putting many Egyptian artists and ordinary people on film. Then, on January 25, 2011, the Arab Spring happened and so the documentary continued to put on film the daily events, linking the art of storytelling and political changes, proving that art and politics are interconnected in daily life.

In The Dream of Shahrazad, we meet artists like the Egyptian independent actress Abeer Soliman and several theater actors being captured by Verster’s camera while meeting mothers of martyrs who died in the street demonstrations. Verster also followed the Lebanese Ghida Hammoud who, after having experienced the horrors of civil war in her own homeland, came to Egypt to attend workshops with Hassan El-Geretly’s Warsha Theatre Group, in order to learn the art of traditional storytelling and work with stories that deal with situations similar to her own. In the film as well, we watch Egyptian artist Hany El-Masry, a Cairo-based painter, who has been drawing Shahrazad, but seemed to be unable to find an outlet for his massive tapestry based on parts from The Arabian Nights. The stories of these characters and many others are interweaved with their own artistic practices and daily exposure before and after the Arab Spring.

After the two Egyptian premieres in Luxor and Zawya, The Dream of Shahrazad got another acclaimed screening at the UK Human Rights Festival before the end of March. “It was great to have this kind of acknowledgment for our first screening in Egypt,” says Verster. “I also hugely enjoyed screenings at the Human Rights Festival that always select my films. Screenings were sold out, audiences were immensely engaged and the Q&A sessions were great.”

Next for The Dream of Shahrazad, a screening at the 12th Planete Plus Doc Film Festival in Warsaw, May 8-17, 2015.

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