Khaled El Hagar is that rare thing – a Birmingham-based international feature film director. Acknowledged in his home country of Egypt as the most controversial movie maker of his generation, Khaled lives quietly for part of the year in Kings Heath.
With 30 national and international film awards to his name, he is one of the most important Egyptian filmmakers of the past two decades and recently tasted success with the greatest triumph of his career by scooping best international film with El Shooq (Lust) at the 34th Cairo International Film Festival.
The film also reunited the film maker with fellow graduate of the UK’s National Film and Television School, Nestor Calvo, who was director of photography on El Shooq.
“For El Shooq to win this award feels like Egypt has won the World Cup,” Khaled explains. “For me it was a mix of dream and sad realty. A dream, because finally I have won the big award in my own country, after many years of struggling to get my name in the A list of directors. My films always generate a strong controversy in Egypt and the Arab world. The award for me was an award for all my hard work as a film maker who wanted to improve the quality of his home cinema, and to speak about what I feel.”
The film was controversial in Egypt, even before release and there were moves to prevent it representing Egypt at the Cairo Film Festival because it was deemed to portray his home country in a negative light.
“Myself and Sayed Ragab, the writer, and Nestor Calvo, the camerman, tried to create an unreal world from the real world of poor Egypt. Yes, it’s a shocking film and it’s sad, but that’s the film I wanted to make.”
El Shooq takes us into the lives of the inhabitants of a marginalised street in Alexandria. Familiar, moving and funny, each character is isolated in his or her fierce, yet fragile dreams. The central character is Umm Shooq, a woman whose sense of shame and inadequacy drives her to gain some leverage over the little world in which she lives, in the hope her dire financial situation will improve. Umm Shooq takes her daily journey around the neighbourhood, selling coffee beans and using her talent for reading the dregs of used Turkish coffee cups to provide a glimpse of her customers’ future.
The film is the latest addition to a relatively new trend in Egyptian cinema: movies that realistically follow the lives of a group of characters living in one of the poorer areas around the main cities. The plots are mostly harsh and challenging, full of life-altering crises.
Khaled has worked in film since 1985. His film A Gulf Between Us, set in London in 1991 during the Gulf War, caused an uproar in the Egyptian press when it was shown in Cairo in 1995.
Since his move to Birmingham in the 1980s, Khaled has been a significant figure on the film scene in the city, presenting his new films in the then annual Birmingham International Film Festival, picking up awards at the same festival, and passing on advice and tips to younger film makers.
It was his London-based and UK financed film, Room to Rent, that brought Khaled’s talents to the attention of the international film world in 2001. The comedy drama, starred American actress Juliet Lewis, as a Marilyn Monroe impersonator, and French actor Said Taghmaoui, as a young Egyptian screenwriter, and revolves around Ali’s pursuit of life, liberty, and a green card.
Since then, Khaled has built his artistic career between his native Egypt and the UK. It is the depth and the range of his films that resonate with audiences, as he shuttles between cultures and genres with an ease and a versatility, taking in comedies, dance films, popular musicals, and contemporary dramas with a social cutting edge, and all filmed with Khaled’s heightened palate of “kitsch bazaar”.
In a recent interview, Khaled talked about a new project which takes him into the realm of television drama.
“I am in pre-production for a TV series of 15 episodes, Shopra, which is an Egypt/UK co-production with the BBC. The series is about young people and their dreams, and problems, and the relationship between Egyptian Muslims and Christians in Shopra.”
Toward the end of 2011 UK audiences will be able to see El Shooq, hopefully, if selected, at the London Film Festival, and shortly after that it is anticipated that Shopra will be broadcast by the BBC. With his wife Janice Rider, an experienced and talented costume designer with many films and BBC dramas to her credit, and their son, Adam, a talented young actor and musician, the Rider Hagar family are almost a film studio in their own right. And in Kings Heath.
FILM PRODUCER AND PROFESSOR ROGER SHANNON