Hell Is Where The Heart Is

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Photo: Nishant Shukla

The day Mohamed Morsi’s regime was ousted, Aida El-Kashef decided to take time off the protests and fly down to Mumbai to promote her film Ship of Theseus. For days before that, she was camping at Tahrir Square as a full-time activist and for the first time since the revolution of January 2011, she chose to focus on her other life, outside of politics and protests. The filmmaker from Egypt has been a part of the fledgling independent cinema movement in the country, and featured as one of the leads in The Square, the Sundance Award-winning film on the Egyptian revolution. She teamed up with director Anand Gandhi when they met on the sidelines of a film festival in Germany and he convinced her to act the part of a blind photographer, the lead character from one of the three stories in his film.

We meet at Gandhi’s office before she sets off for a day of sight-seeing in Mumbai. Her face bare of makeup, she appears almost Indian, but her politically-charged conversation is representative of the new generation of Egyptian youth driven by idealism and anger. “I am not an exception; almost everyone around me is invested in the future of the country. We are all emotionally attached to the revolution and our collective dream. We feel this is just the beginning of the beginning.”

Before the revolution, she made two short films, which she took to festivals around the world. The daughter of Radwan El-Kashef, one of Egypt’s acclaimed filmmakers, Aida finds the parallels between Hindi and Egyptian film industry fascinating. “Both are commercially driven, the story lines are often similar. While the industry in Egypt is small compared to India, it is the cultural hub for the Middle East and very important to the region. There was a time in the ’90s when Bollywood was a very big deal in Egypt. Every Monday night, the streets would be empty as people headed home for the screening of Hindi films. Amitabh Bachchan was better known than Michael Jackson. Now, Hollywood has taken over.”

The revolution in Egypt has breathed life into the art and cultural scene in the country. “It has given us hope that the future can be better for the country, and for artists and filmmakers,” she says. One of the most prominent media collectives to have come up post-revolution is The Mosireen Collective, which Aida co-founded with a group of friends, covering news from the ground and documenting post-revolution Egypt. Aida became an activist by accident. When the protests began in 2011, she took her camera and started filming on the ground. “My relationship with the camera and the events around me kept changing. I first took it as I would take it to film a friend’s birthday party, but it helped me hide my fear. It became a layer between me and everything around. I felt less scared of facing fire while holding my camera.”

She recently left the collective to focus her energy on Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group that has been working in rescuing and extricating women who have been attacked during the protests at Tahrir Square. A week before Morsi stepped down, the figures for the number of women raped and sexually assaulted at Tahrir stood at an astounding 91 (in four days). “The attacks against women have been rising. Some of it has a precedent in society and some are organised by the militia and political parties. Many of our volunteers are female. We want to send out the message that this is our fight and we will not be threatened.”

The trip to India has been liberating for her. “In two days I will be back in hell,” she says, almost casually. “I know I make it sound normal as we’ve learnt to live with it, but it is far from that.”

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