International actor Khalid Abdalla on filmmaking as activism and the battle over the Arab image in cinema
Ahram Online met with renowned Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla and discussed his varied repertoire as a filmmaker, producer, co-founder of important film initiatives and also as a political activist
Nourhan Tewfik , Saturday 26 Dec 2015
“It was a World War I play. We were in a classroom. All the chairs were moved to the side and there was a square made in the middle. The first character went in. There was nothing there, but he pretended to have made a mess.”
So says Egyptian-British actor, producer, filmmaker and political activist Khalid Abdalla of his first-ever play rehearsal at the age of 15. Abdalla’s English teacher had urged him to audition for the play, to Abdalla’s utter surprise.
“I was the second character to come in, and I remember standing outside feeling an incredible pleasure inside of me, knowing that this space had completely different rules to everything outside it. And from that moment I think I was completely hooked,” says Abdalla, who has thus far starred in major Hollywood productions like United 93, Green Zone and The Kite Runner, in addition to the documentary The Square, which was nominated for an Oscar, and most recently, The Narrow Frame of Midnight, which made its Egypt premiere earlier this month at the 8th Panorama of the European Film.
Abdalla currently has three feature films in post-production phase, including Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El-Said’s first feature length film The Last Days of the City.
Born and raised in the UK, Abdalla lives between Cairo and London. He has also co-founded three important film initiatives: Zero Production, an independent film production company; Mosireen Film Collective; and Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre.
At King’s College school in Wimbledon, another English teacher who owned a successful theatre company further pushed Abdalla in the direction of theatre, allowing Abdalla to direct his first play at the age of 17, and thus making him the “youngest director to get a five-star on the [Edinburgh] Fringe Festival at the time.”
Later, as a student of English Literature at Cambridge University, Abdalla would co-found with British-American actress Rebecca Hall his own theatre company, which also included actress and cinematographer Cressida Trew, who is now Abdalla’s wife. The company presented important theatre productions like Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and secured awards at the university’s student contest as well as the National Student Drama Festival.
Upon graduation, and after making an unsuccessful attempt to turn this theatre company into a professional one, Abdalla headed to Paris, where he studied a one-year theatre course with Philippe Gaulier, a famous clown and renowned French teacher of theatre.
As Abdalla focused on theatre, thinking “film was not a place where I would find myself,” he was approached to audition for United 93, a film about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and which he was “very resistant to in the beginning” before a conversation with director Paul Greengrass revealed the latter’s disinterest in a film steeped in stereotypes.
Abdalla, who played the role of the Lebanese lead hijacker Ziad Jarrah in the film, describes United 93 as “an extraordinary encounter, which besides testing me as an actor, a human being, on the level of language, and also when it comes to improvisation, it also tested me politically.”
“What do I think? What do I believe film can do? [I was also tested] in my encounters subsequently with the families of people who had died, and what my responsibility to them was after and through the film,” he says.
Abdalla would follow United 93 with The Kite Runner and Green Zone, completing what he calls “a war of terror trilogy.”
From color blindness to consciousness of one’s ‘Arab identity’
Abdalla’s early consciousness of his Egyptian identity manifested itself in his decision to spend his gap year in Egypt working at Al-Ahram Weekly and studying classical Arabic, and later when he went on a trip to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Morocco.
Moreover, “the dinner table [at home] was always very political and I’ve always been inspired by my grandfather and father’s acts of conscience,” says Abdalla, whose father Hossam was involved in the 1970s student movement in Egypt, and was jailed under Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat, turning to Iraq and then to the UK. Likewise, Abdalla’s grandfather, Ibrahim Saad El-Din, a renowned economist and staunch leftist, was imprisoned under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
But being brought up in the UK also meant that Abdalla was surrounded by “family friends who were Palestinian, Syrian or from other parts of the Arab world.”
“Also what is happening in Palestine, Libya and Iraq was part of how people would interact with me, or think of me or my family,” which altogether meant that Abdalla’s consciousness transcended the Egyptian component of his identity to incorporate the Arab one.
“I’d say my Arab identity has allowed me to maintain a proximity…I’d always felt that if I were ever to let go of the language, or not feel that I had a real connection with Egypt, then I would also somehow lose my relationship with that sense of justice and what is wrong with the world.”
But despite such profound awareness of his Arab identity, Abdalla, who had acted in an array of productions from Shakespeare all the way to American plays and considered himself to “have a command as an actor over the English language,” had up till United 93 believed in “color blindness as the solution.”
“But through film, I really began to encounter the racism in how we’re seen. I became an Arab actor, and from that came a series of responsibilities.
“Of course I’m up for playing all sorts of different roles, but it’s important to maintain that Arab identity while doing so. [In other words], I think there are challenges in what an Arab identity is, and they need to be owned on an international stage,” he adds.
On experiencing and challenging the infrastructure
In April 2008, Abdalla experienced three encounters, which juxtaposed together orient the next five to seven years of his life.
The first encounter unfolds in Palestine, where Abdalla goes for a week with the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), accompanying novelist and PalFest founder Ahdaf Soueif, PalFest producer and writer Omar Hamilton and others who would become collaborators with him over the next few years. The second encounter takes place in London, where he meets with Moroccan-Iraqi filmmaker Tala Hadid for the first time, and is told by Hadid that he has not “suffered enough” to take on the lead role of Zacaria in her then-budding film project The Narrow Frame of Midnight.
Before meeting Tala in London, Abdalla lands in Cairo for a week, meets Tamer El-Said, Hala Lotfy and Ibrahim El-Batoot in Zero Production, as well as other filmmakers who are “the foundation of this wave of alternative independent cinema in Egypt.”
“In a cinematic sense, I fall in love. This is what I want to do, these are the people I want to work with, and there’s this beautiful film that we want to do,” says Abdalla, referring to El-Said’s film project In the Last Days of the City, which was introduced to Abdalla as early as 2007, but which he could not pursue then due to his involvement in Green Zone. El-Said, who ended up not finding the film’s lead actor, traveled to London later in 2007 where he met Abdalla and they had an important conversation that revealed the “possibility of an extraordinary collaboration.”
This time around in Cairo, Abdalla, who was done filming Green Zone, decided to pursue the film and both Abdalla and El-Said began shooting “with none of the money in place, thinking that somehow just by ourselves, we’d be able to carry it.”
But an array of production challenges quickly brought Abdalla face to face with “the infrastructure that lies underneath filmmaking” and “why it’s so difficult to make that kind of film in Egypt and in this region.”
“I think it’s often very easy to think of film-making or image production just through its final product, but there are infrastructure reasons why some stories get told and others don’t. And when we talk about infrastructure, we’re fundamentally talking about politics. Who benefits from certain stories being told? Who is willing to be criticised and who isn’t?”
As Abdalla and El-Said proceeded to respond to those production challenges, which ranged from “locations falling apart, to actors dropping out, to having to change the script. And how the level of the quality of the image that you produce demands extraordinary preparation, which requires people who have the experience and the skill to do that,” Zero Production became a “hub where people would hang out, talk and edit.”
Then, Abdalla explains, came the idea of also “using the film as a method to try and build an infrastructure which can support more films being made” by setting up Cimatheque, a hub to support alternative cinema which itself becomes “part of that regional battle over our image in cinema.”
At the heart of this battle are questions like, “how can we have a stronger cinema? How can we alter the future of this incredibly detrimental image that we have?”
The Narrow Frame of Midnight: On hybridity and the Egyptian revolution
By 2010, and as Abdalla approaches the end of The last Days of the City’s two-year shoot, Tala Hadid watches Green Zone and sees him “completely transformed into someone different.” As such, Hadid decides that she wants Abdalla to be Zacaria in The Narrow Frame of Midnight.
The importance of the film, Abdalla explains, lies in how Hadid, who with a hybrid identity herself, presents a script, which instead of employing the typical nostalgic framework of a refugee wanting to go back, or pushing towards colour blindness, “owns this hybridity, and asks what it is opening up for the world.”
This, Abdalla adds, is especially relevant today when a huge portion of our Arab region is currently displaced, thus rendering the attempt to “draw the lines between where a decolonised identity starts and where a postcolonial identity begins and ends.”
But Zacaria also had something in him as a character which was “a real challenge” for Abdalla, particularly the fears that cripple his ability to do what he aspires, but which nevertheless eventually push him towards pursuing it.
“This takes him on a journey, following his brother, which ends in Baghdad. And this is extremely meaningful because in a way what happens subsequent to that moment is a slightly parallel journey for me,” Abdalla asserts; this parallel journey being the 25th of January Revolution.
“Because the narrow frame of midnight means this period of very clearly the end of something and very clearly the beginning of something else. The question therefore becomes how do you live in the narrow frame of midnight when you’re stuck in a place that is in between, and everything you thought you knew is brought into question?”
Abdalla would respond to this historical juncture, interacting with the revolution from a filmmaking perspective through co-founding Mosireen and also by starring in Jehane Noujaim’s The Square.
“It’s an entire film-related experience of what that intervention means with a political moment of the scale,” Abdalla asserts.
But the same philosophy is also true of Abdalla’s entire filmography, as well as his different film initiatives, from Zero Production to Cimatheque.
Each element of Abdalla’s repertoire functions as a manifestation of his profound understanding of his Arab identity, an awareness of the infrastructure that underpins the Arab image in cinema, a dismissal of colour blindness and rejection of stereotypes in cinema, as well as an audacious commitment to alter such stereotypes.
“This is why the hardest question for me to answer in one word is ‘what do you do?’ Because for me, it’s what draws all of these things together. In order to fight that battle, sometimes I need to work in Hollywood, other times in the region. Sometimes I need to act, direct, write or work as a producer. Other times I need to work in culture production, open spaces, build an archive, and sometimes I need to do all of those things at the same time.”