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For one Egyptian filmmaker, a chance to swim against the tide

February 3, 2011 |  4:34 pm

Many journalists are contemplating their immediate future in Egypt -- Katie Couric just landed back at JFK tweeting how happy she was to be home -- but don't raise that point to Mai Iskander.

As others are heading out, the Egyptian-American filmmaker is heading in. Iskander is planning a trip to Egypt to shoot a documentary about women's role in the uprising. The director is working with a Cairo-based producer and plans on looking at a handful of women on the front lines of the protests against President Hosni Mubarak, as well as how the uprising has affected female roles in more traditional households.

"The BBC and other news media are only covering the day-to-day current events," Iskander said in an interview from New York, where she is preparing to board a flight to Cairo. "I'm planning to focus on a few people and where they're coming from rather than experience [the upheaval] on a superficial level."

Iskander, 37, came onto the independent-filmmaking scene two years ago with "Zaballeen," a documentary look at a group of Coptic Christian teenagers in Cairo. (The title is an Arabic word that translates as "garbage people"; the film's English title was "Garbage Dreams" and refers to the teens' job as recyclers and garbage collectors.) The movie earned rave reviews from Variety and the New York Times and also won a documentary prize overseen by Al Gore.

Born in the U.S., Iskander spent every summer in Egypt when she was a child and still goes back several weeks each year. She has about 25 cousins, aunts, uncles and other extended family in the country, mainly in Cairo.

Egypt has a robust film industry, but it's mostly designed to produce commercial comedies and melodramas; more serious work tends to be made by a small group of intellectuals in Egypt and abroad.

Iskander said she already has several subjects chosen and also aims to look at how the clashes have disrupted the rhythm of everyday life. Her goal is to document feminist leaders but also depict how women across the socioeconomic spectrum are being impacted by the political turmoil. "I'm going to look at conservative and secular, rich and poor, to show Egypt as a land of contradiction," she said.

Security across Egypt remains a concern, as numerous journalists report attacks and threats in the country's capital. On Thursday an ABC News crew said it was hijacked and threatened with a beheading on its way from the Cairo airport. Late Thursday, NBC's Brian Williams joined Couric in exiting the country.

Iskander said she remained concerned about the violence and would shoot inside homes at least part of the time to avoid more dangerous areas. And she added that, for at least one relative, the turbulence has provided a silver lining. Said the director: "My grandmother actually said she's happy with the uprising. The curfew means her daughters come home early."

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: A scene from 'Zaballeen.' Credit: Dogwoof Pictures


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Mai's great films Garbage Dreams has just been scheduled for an encore broadcast on PBS's Independent Lens on May 31, 2011!


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