Ahmed Amer / “Arabs make fun of themselves all the time but people in the West don’t see it”

Egyptian director Ahmed Amer explores the history of intimacy in Egyptian Cinema in his mockumentary Kiss Me Not

"It’s so easy to make people cry. I mean write a character who is dying and voila! But comedy is tricky," Ahmed Amer, director. Photo: Supplied

By Ali Sabti

Culture 23 April 2018

The history of the kiss in Egyptian cinema is, if anything,  curious. It was common to see couples on screen locked in a dramatic lover’s embrace or an innocent peck in the black and white films of the 40’s and 50’s – even in the 80’s there was a whole barrage of kitsch, cult classic Egyptian films that showed daring kissing scenes… but today it’s unheard of.

Why is something so simple such a point of conversation? The kiss has been the savour of princesses in fairy tales, the reason of death in others the happy ending in many. How can something that feels natural and be part of life also be viewed as common and vulgar enough to be an indicator of something dark, sinister and immoral? Although Egyptian cinema has no problems showing platonic kisses as soon as real intimacy might be depicted the kiss, can’t exist.

This is the case that’s presented in Ahmed Amer’s brilliant mockumentary Kiss Me Not. The film follows a popular Egyptian actress, Fajir known for her risky roles and sex pot persona. But while shooting a new film with an up and coming talented young director she gets a spiritual awakening and decides to follow a more religious path in life. With one scene left to shoot, the final kissing scene between her and her onscreen husband, Fajir abandons the film and decides to wear the hijab. While the media, investors and her fan base all have a say and opinion as the story makes headlines,  the young director is desperately trying to convince Fajir and to, at least, finish his film – the  final kissing scene.

Kiss Me Not is funny, light but with serious undertones on how different sects of society and the Egyptian movie industry deal and view the issue of intimacy on the screen and what that says about society in general. That’s a lot to pack in a film but the best part about the script and in fact the performances is that not for a minute does the audience feel as though they are being educated or pushed to a specific point of view. In fact, many points of voice are presented in a balanced an humours way.

Written and directed by Ahmed Amer, Kiss Me Not is his first feature film after years of working as a professional screenwriter where some of his credits include working as an Arabic script consultant for the film Looking for Umm Kulthum by director and artist Shirin Nashat. The Arab Edition had a chat with Amer about how his first film, how Arabs view humour and why a kiss is such a big deal.

How did the idea for this film come to you?
It came to me after I had a meeting with an actress that I was supposed to work with on a short film. I saw the character of Fagr in her and that’s how it all started.

 How did you find writing a mockumentary? This genre of humour has proven to be very popular in the West. How did you find adapting it to an Arab audience?
I can’t claim to say that I am the first person to write a mockumentary in the Arab World. There are other earlier examples maybe. I just loved the genre and felt that it’s the best way to capture the comedy and the satire in the story. It’s also a device through which I can place my story in the context of kissing and taboos in Egyptian cinema.

Do you think it’s harder to make audiences laugh? Comedy can be very difficult to convey.
Yes that’s absolutely true. It’s so easy to make people cry. I mean write a character who is dying and voila! But comedy is tricky. No one can claim that she or he knows what makes people laugh exactly. In the first screening of the film, I honestly had no clue if people would laugh or not. When they did, I was happy of course.

What I loved about this film with an audience is that I noticed that Arabs were able to laugh at themselves and the small misconceptions and hypocrisies that we are all guilty of. Do you think Arabs can make fun of themselves? Or does it depend on the context?
Arabs make fun of themselves all the time but people in the West don’t see it. Once I was attending a workshop with Robert McKee who is a famous screenwriting teacher. He said in his lecture that Arabs can’t make comedy because they can’t make fun of their institutions (institution of marriage or family etc) I raised my hand and told him that’s not true. He didn’t believe me. I wanted to prove him wrong. Look at what people post now on social media. Arabs make fun of everything with great humour and with great results. The world is changing and we are changing too.

Sadly, our kids learn about sex from online porn and not from family and school,” Ahmed Amer

How would you describe your style as a director? Do you strictly follow the script or are you happy to work organically? What’s your style when working with actors?
I did a mix of both. For some scenes I followed the script. But for most scenes I encouraged controlled improvisations and the actors brought a lot to the scenes. They surprised me all the time.

What’s the last good film you saw that you think everyone should see?
It is not the last film I saw but it is one of my favourite films ever. It is called Yoyo by Pierre Etaix. I truly love this film.

What project are you working on next? Can you tell us anything about it?
I am currently writing two feature films for other directors. Also, I am developing a new mockumentary about marriage in Egypt.

Kiss Me Not directed by Ahmed Amer and starring Yasmin Raeis (pictured) as Fajir explores how we view intimacy in everyday life and who we depict in on the screen. Photo: Supplied

What do you think prompted the change of attitude toward kissing from the 40s to the 80s in comparison to the 90s and even in present day?That’s a tricky question and there are many theories. Some people say it’s the failing educational system. Others say it the Wahabi influence. I think it’s a combination of so many factors. It is simply a reflection of the society’s taste and moral judgement.

Why do you think Arab audiences can accept images of violence in film more than images of intimacy? Even if it is just a kiss.
Cause we are brainwashed to think that the kiss is such evil while we see images of violence on TV all the time and it’s somehow OK. Kids are playing violent video games all the time but they get no education about love and intimacy and dealing with the opposite sex. Sadly, our kids learn about sex from online porn and not from family and school.

The character of Yasmin Raeis who decides to go down a more spiritual path in life while filming the movie is interesting for many reasons. Was she an allegory for many of the issues that exist in Arab society (and many other societies) on hypocritical stances on how seduction or intimacy should exist in the arts?
Definitely. This whole debate between religion and art and what is permissible goes back thousands of years and I think it will continue. It’s still the role of artists to push boundaries every now and then.

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