Clicking our way through Alexandria

It’s ironic that I’m writing this blog about photography when at many times during the three weeks I felt like my camera was weighing me down. I don’t photograph as much as I should, but I wanted to document the special moments. Since my often “loose” memory can’t be trusted, this slowly turned into an instinctive duty. Whenever something interesting would happen, and I would look around to find no one documenting, I wouldn’t be able to shake my itch to take a picture. You can imagine my frustration when, instead of enjoying the moment I would attempt at the perfect shot, and often end up doing neither. That’s why I was especially relieved when photographer and videographer Sherif Sharkawy literally stepped into the picture. For many of us he started off as Sherif, the friendly ghost – smiling while peaking around, sometimes surprising us with his camera. Over a short period of time, he naturally became part of our everyday, with participant Lizzie Walmsley often greeting him by waving and saying “Hi Sherif! Hi camera!”.

Sherif Sharkawy during his photography workshop for the group

Sherif Sharkawy during his photography workshop for the group

While creating the documentary about our IPP and the Behna project, Sherif asked us to contribute our own pictures. To help guide us, he conducted a photography workshop, walking us through the technical aspects of the camera and then walking us through the streets of Alexandria. For two days, Sherif and Gudran member Mohamed El Nagar took us on photography walks, allowing us to explore the city the same way Sherif had been exploring our group. It must not have been easy having to guide foreigners with cameras and endless questions through downtown. As an Egyptian, I laughed at the comments from local Alexandrian bystanders that must have both worried and humored Naggar and Sherif – “What are all these foreigners doing? What do they want?”

Snapping away during our photography walk

Snapping away during our photography walk

At this point, we were all taking pictures as Sherif was curating the best shots from our experience in Alexandria for the opening of Behna. Seeing our pictures mounted on the walls we worked so hard to renovate was surreal. All of us were living the same environment and yet our pictures showed that we each had our own interpretations. Although, personally and probably as a group, we became quite adamant about documentation, what sometimes felt like a distraction turned into memories we can continue to re-live.

Part of our very own exhibition at the Behna opening

Part of our very own exhibition at the Behna opening

By Farida Hammad, Egypt

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Bringing film back to Behna

“Am Hamdi observes the rooms he passes as like it is a routine. A thick layer of dust, spider webs and old papers covers them. He puts his head in to some of  the rooms to check them out. When he sees that they are untouched, he smiles.”

These are the first lines of our short fiction film, made in the Behna apartment. Mamoon Azmy and Sherif Sharkawy have been leading a workshop with a couple of the volunteers, trying to find a common perception of the place. Together we have gathered words, pictures, emotions and impresions from the stay, and we all agreed that the tall doors, the endless dust and mystery of the place is what we wanted to keep with us.

After a long process it resulted in a short film about the care-taker of Behna, Am Hamdi, who has been looking after Behna for the past several years, making sure that no one broke in and that the doors and windows kept wind and rain out from the archives. Making a short film about him seems like the perfect way to portray Behna, because he has been following our work from the start, and knows the place better than anyone.

Today nearly the whole group participated in the last scene of the film. We truly brought film back to Behna.

By Liv Mari Mortensen, Norway

IPP Alex Film Behna CISV

 

Bringing Behna’s cinema heritage back to life

The focus of the practical element of the IPP is a 12-bedroom apartment owned by Behna films. The company was one of the biggest production companies in the Middle-East between 1932 and 1962, and they used the apartment as the hub of their work. The apartment has not been in use since the 1960s, which both allows for artistic creativity and also brings a challenge of 50 years of dust.

The owner of the apartment is Basile Behna, who is donating the apartment to Gudran, our partner organisation. They plan to transform it into a hub for independent cinema, a museum, a venue for film screenings and other visual-arts activities.

The role of Gudran and the International People’s Project (IPP) is to prepare the apartment for a soft opening by the end of the IPP. We will transform long-forgotten rooms into spaces of expression. So far we have removed the plaster from the corridor walls and sanded around half of the rooms, to reveal how the apartment looked in it’s heyday. The work consisted of a lot of hammering and chiseling, scraping and sanding, sweeping and cleaning. The apartment now looks dramatically different to the day we walked in, and believe with this level of process we will have it complete with the soft opening.

The Behna Apartment after the first day of work

The Behna Apartment after the first day of work

 Alongside this, we have discovered a large amount of old material from the production company. This ranges from business cards, to paintings, old movie posters, set designs, official documents and artistic sketches. Though Gudran was aware of some of this material, we never expected to find this valuable material that can be used for the museum.

Cleaning Behna's old film posters

Cleaning Behna’s old film posters

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Documents showing details on the production of a film

This project so far has not only been fun, it has also been a solid start of the hopefully long-lasting relationship between CISV Egypt and Gudran, who have been supportive, excited and very complementary of the energy and work of the IPP participants. With five more days to work on the apartment, we are looking forward to seeing the final result of the apartment and our work.

By Jess Wanless and Camilla Wetzel