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Kawthar Younis: Exploring Gender Roles at Venice Film Festival

In conversation with Egyptian filmmaker Kawthar Younis on the road to Venice Film Festival with ‘My Girlfriend’.

Farah Desouky

Kawthar Younis: Exploring Gender Roles at Venice Film Festival

After establishing herself in Egypt’s independent film scene with ‘A Present From the Past’ (2016) and ‘About Separation’ (2020), director and producer Kawthar Younis has hit a milestone in her cinematic career with the release of ‘My Girlfriend’ (2022). While it has inspired varied reactions from audiences with what some would describe as its audacious subject matter, the thought-provoking 17-minute film proved to be powerful enough to earn the Special Jury Award for Best Short Film at the Cairo International Film Festival, and become the first Egyptian film to be selected for Venice Horizons Award’s short film competition at the Venice Film Festival.

‘My Girlfriend’ follows an Egyptian couple - Ali (Marc Haggar) and his unnamed girlfriend (Elham Sadie Eldin) - who try to spend an intimate night together. Ali disguises himself as a woman named Alia to deceive his girlfriend’s parents. Once they are alone, the couple find themselves embarking on a journey of gender exploration, confronting their frustrations, helplessness and identities by questioning the roles imposed on them by society.

While Younis’ first two films were at least semi-autobiographical in nature, with ‘A Present From the Past’ being a straight documentary featuring her father, her most recent endeavour takes a different approach. “I was deliberately not trying to create a personal story with ‘My Girlfriend’,” Younis tells CairoScene. “Nonetheless, I was still inspired by my anger and frustration with the societal roles forced upon women.”

Having begun her career as an assistant director while studying at The Higher Cinema Institute in Cairo, Younis joined film sets as a trainee and worked alongside the likes of director Amr Arafa over the course of a decade. Although her previous films were critically acclaimed - with ‘About Separation’ being selected for Odense International Film Festival, Amman International Film Festival and Shnit Film Festival, amongst others - Younis had been worn down by her experiences in a male-dominated industry.

“I feel like being an assistant director brought out a very aggressive side of me, almost like I had to perform ‘masculinity’ in a sense,” Younis shares. “Imagine a woman in her 20s trying to control 120 men.”

Frustrated by her unfulfilled creativity and the ways in which she had to fight to exert control on set, Younis ultimately saw ‘My Girlfriend’ as “one last chance at directing.” She took the opportunity to channel her experiences with gender roles into the story.

“‘My Girlfriend’ is an examination of gender. What is it and what creates it?” Younis says. These questions seeped into the creation of the film itself, creating its own set of obstacles. The actors needed to be willing to embody traits of both genders, and be willing to examine the premise of a binary between them. “The casting process was very challenging, especially when it came to the male character,” she continues. “It was difficult to find someone who was fitting and also willing to play the role of a woman.”

When it came to finding the ideal actress to play the girlfriend, it had been a matter of chance. “I cast Elham after I stumbled upon her in the restroom during a party,” Younis shares. “I loved the idea of her having short hair and asked if she was interested in acting.”

The film was developed and written in 2020. During post-production, however, the doubts that preceded and led into the film’s creation caught up with its director. Younis fell into a period of demotivation, abandoning ‘My Girlfriend’ for a year and refusing to submit it for consideration in the film festival circuit. "I began editing the film with Khaled Marei, but after the first cut, I stopped. I told him that this film was going nowhere," Younis recalls. "The producer, Sandro Canaan, had to persuade me to submit the film to the Venice Film Festival. I told him I’m not about to pay an EUR 80 application fee for something I know isn’t going to happen.”

After numerous arguments with Canaan, Younis submitted the film to the Venice Film Festival on June 17th - which happened to be her birthday, as well as the festival's deadline. A month later, an email Younis initially believed to be spam turned out to bear good news. When she arrived at the festival, she discovered that ‘My Girlfriend’ was the last submission to arrive before the deadline, as well as the last film that the jury viewed.

The enigmatic nature of the story and the varied reactions from audiences - ranging from confusion to shame to outrage - serve as further reasons to celebrate the film from Younis's perspective. "For me, what made the film successful is the questions people ask me after watching it,” Younis says. “The way they grapple with the characters' choices and reactions, and consequently, with their own identities."

To her, the film aims to provoke questions and encourage introspection rather than dictate a singular viewpoint. As ‘My Girlfriend’ makes the rounds at the festival circuit months after its premiere, the story of Ali and his girlfriend continues to captivate viewers, echoing the struggles with the limitations of gender roles and gender expression faced by director and audiences alike.