The lonely life of Heliopolis

A middle class couple is swamped with financial obligations. A loner, whose family awaits his migration to Canada, maintains a hopeless affair with a neighbor. A receptionist dreams of living in France. A soldier is exiled inside his wooden kiosk. A heartbroken young researcher seeks to retrieve the social history of Heliopolis and ends up on his own journey of self discovery. Each character suffers from his or her own malaise in Heliopolis.

Heliopolis, which premiered 12 November as part of the Cairo International Film Festival, is the first feature film by Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla. Heliopolis is set in the Cairo neighborhood of the same name and portrays the lives of eight people in the neighborhood whose lives seldom intersect.

Events move slowly, as the film takes place within a single day. This helps convey a sense of monotony and despair, which is the theme that binds the film’s eight characters together despite their differences in class. They move through the film like secluded islands, sometimes even appearing in the same scene. Yet they remain strangers.

“This film is about what’s not happening,” explained Ahmad Abdalla at the press conference. Heliopolis, he said, is a reflection of reality, where people who could make a difference in each other’s lives cross paths yet never meet.

The film’s characters reflect depth but they barely develop. “Like our reality, I‘ve noticed that despite the passing of time, I haven’t developed much,” explained Abdalla, also saying that such people represent the Egyptian status quo.

“This film is about those trivial details that define, in one way or another, our lives and tie us to our own past,” Abdalla said. “The characters are unsatisfied with their present, so they delve into a parallel life with different dreams and alternatives.”

This is exemplified by the researcher who is obsessed with the Egypt of the 1950s and falls under the charms of the district’s cosmopolitan legacy; the money and lies that the receptionist sends to her parents every month, telling her family about her time in Paris while all she has is a poster of the Eiffel Tower in her humble rented room in Cairo; the indecision of a Coptic doctor as he tries to sell his apartment and watches a girl chant in church; the soldier who guards the church yet hides in his wooden kiosk, listening to old songs and playing with a stray dog. When the day comes to an end, the alienated characters peacefully return to their homes.

Heliopolis is Abdalla’s first film. He previously worked as a film editor and studied music in the 1990s. In 2007 he won best first script from the Sawiris Foundation. This year the film is being screened as an official selection of the Toronto Film Festival, the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, and Vancouver International Film Festival.

As a director, Abdalla has employed some unconventional techniques in the film. The actors became co-producers, improvising the dialogue. Abdalla also incorporated documentary-style footage into the storyline. Abdalla insists that it is not a new trend in Egyptian cinema

“Khairi Beshara’s film Ice Cream In Gleam included documentary footage, Mohammed Khan’s film Al-hareef, and many others really documented the socio- economic status of Egypt in the eighties," he said, adding that he was meticulous in choosing actors who he thought would be able to improvise their own script within the context he created.

“Unlike the common belief of the divine director who has ultimate freedom, I believe the director’s role is to direct the actors who are not mere tools in his hand.”

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