ABU DHABI: We often hear about underprivileged people through numbers mentioned in news headlines. But what if we were able to hear the other side of the story? Wouldn't we want to meet the people behind the numbers? Reem Saleh gave us that opportunity.
Her lens reached the heart of unprivileged people's lives in the neighborhood of Rod El Farag in Egypt, capturing much of the district’s life for six years, until she created What Comes Around, a documentary that was released in 2018.
What Comes Around was nominated at Glasshütte Original Documentary Award in Berlin and Golden Star awards in El Gouna, among many other nominations. It was also screened in 40 film festivals around the world.
FROM MOTHER’S INSPIRATION TO ASSEMBLY
Annahar interviewed Lebanese filmmaker Saleh in one of her favorite coffee shops in Abu Dhabi, where she currently lives and works as an External Relations Officer for the UNHCR.
Saleh’s main inspiration behind making the movie was her Egyptian mother who raised her in Lebanon with her Lebanese father.
“My mother always mentioned Rod el Farag in beautiful, inspiring stories. After she was buried her in 2009, as requested, I began to pay frequent visits to Rod al Farag,” Saleh said.
She added that these visits made her see that forgotten district in Egypt from her own perspective, and so she became fascinated with the idea of a voluntary charitable assembly.
“I thought that it's a stroke of genius to have an alternative banking system that's in line with people’s needs,” she said. This assembly is based on collecting very small amounts of money from a group of people in a certain neighborhood, and once per month, the money is collected and given to the person who’s in urgent need of it.
In one of the scenes of Saleh’s documentary, a caring woman sits between modest buildings to ask a number of kids and adults what they will use the assembly money for. Meanwhile, motorcycles pass by and little girls perform some belly dancing moves, authentically depicting the spontaneity of life.
More than anything, Saleh believes that it’s really important to see the details of a community of people living under the poverty line, emphasizing the need to understand poverty without having any prejudices.
GOING INTERNATIONAL… HOME FIRST
What Comes Around’s screening in international film festivals around the world was very rewarding for Saleh. International recognition serves in telling stories the way they are from the other side, where media outlets hardly turn their lens to.
“We’re here to bring cultures together,” she said.
Despite international recognition in festivals and media, home always means much more to any artist, Reem told Annahar.
In Lebanon, however, there wasn’t much interest as there was on an international level since the film was not about Lebanon. However, Saleh sees it as "ironic" because wherever she goes with her art, she represents Lebanon.
“You can be recognized all over the world but home always has a different taste,” she said.
Nonetheless, What Comes Around was screened in Tripoli Film Festival, and also a second time in 15e Ecrans du reel, Metropolis Sofil. The feedback, though relatively small, was positive.
ROD EL FARAG’S CHALLENGES
The fact that Saleh's mother was Egyptian made her filming process in Rod El Farag a lot easier, however, it still took the residents six to seven months to start showing their first genuine reactions on camera.
Throughout these months, Saleh thought they were being genuine, but she discovered that they only revealed their true selves for the camera after being bored of filming for a very long time.
“That was when they were the most realistic,” she said.
Committed to authenticity, Saleh sees that anyone could have captured amazing scenes in Rod El Farag in two or three months, but “they're not enough to show the reality of these people.”
There was also a financial challenge since it's less likely to receive funds for a documentary than it is for fictional movies, along with technical challenges such as sound recording in a noisy neighborhood. Despite all of that, the documentary was a success.
A PHILOSOPHY THAT CELEBRATES LIFE
One would wonder how is a scene of a graveyard a way to celebrate life, before realizing Adel’s (a character in the movie) reasons to take his son to the graveyard. The people of Rod El Farag celebrate life in the same way they celebrate death.
In “What Comes Around,” Adel says that visiting the graveyard is a reminder for whoever’s doing good to keep doing it and whoever’s doing bad to stop doing it. It brings humility to people's hearts.
MORE ABOUT SALEH
Saleh is passionate about storytelling. She's always thinking about movie ideas and says that cinema is the only reality she knows. She graduated from the Lebanese American University in Beirut with a BA in Radio, TV, and Film.
She worked on TV social documentaries and worked in Al Jazeera Children before moving to Doha to work for seven years as a Deputy Director of Ajyal Film Festival. She's currently the External Relations Officer at UNHCR Abu Dhabi. Her current projects include co-writing a fiction film with Assad Fouladkar.
Saleh sees that inspiration is everywhere, and it’s not difficult to find it. “Everything leads you to have your own voice somehow,” she told Annahar.
What Comes Around has also had an impact on its creator, and it has taught her valuable lessons.
“When I see people who have nothing but give everything, it makes me appreciate the little things around us. This happened while I was grieving for my mother,” she told Annahar.
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.