Jebel Banat: A Bedouin Tale of Freedom Goes to Cannes' Short Film Corner
Sharine Atif’s masterfully melancholic rendition of a centuries-old legend is turning heads in Egypt and abroad.
Sinai, apart from being one of the world’s most breathtaking natural landscapes, is a birthing ground of incredible stories, legends and tales that have forever etched themselves into the hearts and minds of its people, as well as the entirety Egypt and the at-large. However, one legend stands out among the rest; one that dates back to the early 19th century - a tale of two young sisters defying their predetermined destiny in the male-dominated nomadic order of a time gone by, their sacrifice would ultimately forever change the futures of Bedouin women to come. It is this same endearingly tragic legend that tenacious Egyptian-American filmmaker, Sharine Atif, would weave into her first foray into the world of short film, and eventually lead to its spot on the Cannes Film Festival’s Short Film Corner.
“I would go with a group of friends with mine to hike the Moses mountains in St. Katherine, and one of the mountains there was called Girls mountain," Atif explains. "I asked one of the nomads about why it was called that, and he told me the story behind it. For four years, I’ve always been thinking about making a film about it, but I’ve always been busy with other projects and my masters programme in California. So, I decided to shoot it in my last year of the programme, and it was a massive challenge.”
Atif's impressive thesis project, Jebel Banat (Girls Mountain), is a dramatic recounting of the story that the mountain owes its namesake to; in only 15 minutes, Atif and her hardy crew manage to encompass the essence of the centuries old legend dedicated to freedom. Make no mistake, though; those 15 minutes were a product of months of in-depth research, intense preparation, blood, sweat and almost literal starvation.
“When I came to Egypt, I had to find a whole crew and equipment and everything, and I didn’t have a single dollar for my production. But then I found a producer I’d met through a friend who used to be an investment banker. I pitched him the idea, and he gave me $5000 for the production.”
Having just about enough funds to keep the production train up and running, she’d eventually have to find one of the key elements of any film; equipment. Luckily, her good friend Khaled Abol Naga just so happened to have an ace up his sleeve.
“I called him to ask about actors and in the middle of the conversation, he mentioned that he had some Canon equipment, because they sponsor his small side projects. So, we were able to secure a bunch of equipment that would have cost us something like $15,000.” It pays to have friends after all.
So, there’s money, there’s equipment, things are going pretty smooth so far, but then there was the whole finding actresses business, and that came with its own set of caveats.
“First of all, they had to look the part of a nomad, and be able to speak their unique dialect. Second, they had to be willing to travel all the way out to the deserts of Saint Katherine, which was pretty dangerous at the time because of terrorist activity. Third, and this was arguably harder to swallow than terrorism, they had to be ok with not getting paid.”
Getting actors to work without pay was already unrealistic, but obtaining the necessary permits to shoot there was even more so. What they didn’t take into account, however, was that Atif rarely ever has a plan B.
“I wanted to shoot there, where it all supposedly happened and against that beautiful scenery, and I wanted to collaborate with the nomads because their community had been suffering from the lack of tourism, and I wanted to benefit them.”
The locals weren’t just welcoming (as they are wont to be); they aided the crew in their production, as well as taught the main actresses about nomadic life, even teaching them how to set up a fire. Speaking of actresses, Atif managed to hit the thespian jackpot with two gifted young leads; Jala Hesham and Sara Soumaya Abed. Both girls had varying levels of acting experience, but after putting them together for rehearsals and training, Atif and co managed to have both starlets on the peak of their game, effectively learning the dialects from the women of the community.
“I had to sit with the women and have them recite every single phrase in their dialect, later exporting the dialogue files to the actresses to study.” The men in the production weren’t actors, either; they were actual male members of the tribe, lending the film even more authenticity.
We also spoke to the film’s director of photography, Mostafa El-Kashef, wanting to hear his side of the production process, and the challenges involved.
“We shot it two years ago in Saint Katherine. After Sharine contacted me about it, I read the script she sent and I was immediately on board. I’ve always wanted to shoot the desert and the Bedouins of Sinai, so we pooled all our efforts to make it all happen. However, shooting in the burning sun was hellish; crew members were passing out daily, our water and food supplies were limited and getting resupplied wasn’t exactly easy, since the nearest well was two hours away. Nighttime was freezing and our base was a four-hour walk from the nearest city. I remember my assistant and I having a fight over an orange he’d saved for later. Of course, we laugh about it now.”
Mostafa’s passion for film comes from his deep admiration of his father’s own filmmaking career, growing up watching his films and developing a thirst for cinema, no surprise given his family’s collective interest in film, such as his sister, Aida El-Kashef. Having gone through more than his fair share of trials and tribulations, El-Kashef's passion for cinematography keeps his spirit alive.
Apart from having to combat the elements, they also had to deal with their own psyche and those of others. Arguments broke out, fights ensued and tensions were high, with one of the actresses even forced to face her fear of heights as they scaled the mountain, before eventually leaving the set.
“We would have like 17 shots to do, but within our time constraints and everything else, we’d only be able to get maybe 12," Atif explains. " It probably didn’t come out as concrete as I wanted it to be initially, but I made it a point to get back to it after filming, and I managed to scale it down to 15 minutes from 20, with an almost final music score and mixing courtesy of James Waterman and Andrew Key.”
After managing to defeat all odds, be they financial, psychological or physical, and managing to get past the Syndicate, the Censorship Bureau and the ordeal of obtaining the necessary paperwork, Atif and her intrepid crew managed to craft a beautifully cinematic reimagining of one of the Middle East’s most melancholic tales, earning them a spot on Cannes (viewable on their video library from the 14th of May to the 19th) as well as competing in the Luxor African Film Festival, where it will be screening on the 21st of March at 6PM.
You might know Sharine Atif’s work from her influential short film video series, A Way Out; the most well-known (and pretty goddamn awesome) of which was His Cucumber screening at the UN commission on the status of women in 2017 as well as at a bunch of film festivals. For a full rundown on her story, head on over to her Facebook page, and maybe check out her Vimeo profile for more of her gorgeous work.