Filming El Ott: a kite, a curfew, and dates from Mr Fishawy's garden

In September 2013, we visited the set of Ibrahim el Batout's new thriller El Ott

Industry, Egypt

Filming El Ott: a kite, a curfew, and dates from Mr Fishawy's garden

The sun is high in the sky above the pyramids, on the sand plateau just outside the Cairo metropolis. Technicians huddle in the sparse shade of the equipment vans. A camera trolley has been set up over the sand, and someone has carefully rubbed coffee into a wooden bench to make it look old.  

But the actors to sit on the bench are nowhere to be seen. And the director, not looking a bit of his almost 50 years in a purple t-shirt, khaki shorts and stylish white and red sunglasses, is busy flying a kite. 

The kite soars up high then glides down in a perfect figure of eight. "I can also do looping," the director suggests to his young cinematographer Tarek Hefny (Microphone, Rags and Tatters and, more recently, Decor) "-- if you guys want."

Up here, on the southern edge of the Egyptian capital, where the ancient Egyptians built tombs for their pharoahs, we are on set of Egyptian director Ibrahim el Batout's latest feature film El Ott (previously Cat). It's an action thriller starring Amr Waked (who recently kissed Scarlett Johansson in Lucy), in which he plays a smalltime gangster nicknamed El Ott, or "the Cat", who decides to bring down a gang that kidnaps children to harvest their body parts, whose head is played by Salah el Hanafy. A mysterious character, played by Farouq el-Fishawy, watches over it all.

After a career as a cameraman in war zones, in early 2004, Batout refused another assignment in Iraq and turned instead to feature films. Between 2004 and 2009, he made Ithaki, Eye of the Sun (awarded in Taormina)and Hawi outside the mainstream film industry, often without budget, filming permissions or full script, instead relying on the help of fellow artists and the community in filming locations.

Today, he has inspired a whole generation of filmmakers to follow suit in making the films they want, beyond the mainstream film industry, even on a low to zero budget. His young crew on Hawi, for example, went on to make The Mice Room without a budget and took it to Dubai in 2013.

In 2011, when the protests against Mubarak broke out, Batout shot part of Winter of Discontent amid real-life protesters in Tahrir Square. The film, his first to be produced by Amr Waked and Salah el-Hanafy's company Zad, painted a grim portrait of state-sponsored torture under Mubarak. It received a standing ovation in Venice, awards in Montpellier, and was put forward as Egypt's 2014 contender for an Oscar. El Ott is Zad's second feature film, and again features both actors.

At the pyramids on the set for El Ott, Batout and Hefny wrap the shots of the kite, and soon Amr Waked and Farouq el-Fishawy take their place on the bench. "Action!" shouts the director, and the crew falls silent as Hefny and his camera are pushed across the sand.

Towards the end of the afternoon, policemen turn up behind the equipment vans and argue loudly with production about the crew leaving the sand plateau before dark. It is not yet dark, and they are making it almost impossible to film in the last moments of decent daylight. But Batout keeps his cool and manages to capture the last takes.

The crew piles into minibuses, and we're off to the next and last location for the day, a water bus stop on the Nile, 15 kilometers across Cairo's traffic. It's September 2013 and Egypt is under military-imposed curfew, so all members of the crew need to be home by 11 pm. But as dusk descends, the minibus becomes stuck in at a crossroads on the main road from the Pyramids to the Nile. As the director's brother Mahmoud, a sound engineer and his long-term partner in filmmaking, takes the wheel, Batout jumps out to direct traffic himself. 

A few hours later, filming at the second location is underway. On the floating platform for water buses by the Nile, actor Amr Waked, slim and athletic, bounces to the sound of mahragan music booming from a nearby boat, loosens his shoulders, and moves his head from side to side.

"Action!" calls out Batout. "Action!" repeat a gaggle of giggling girls, peering over the railing of a boat nearby. "It's Ibrahim el Abyad!" teenage boys in tight t-shirts whisper excitedly, from the street above, referring to a cult Egyptian film in which Waked acts, although not as its hero.

In character, as El Ott, Waked slowly walks down the landing dock, as a water bus pulls up to drop off its passengers. He leaps into the boat. A young female extra steps out and looks straight into the camera. "Cut!" shouts the director. The girl is embarrassed, as they have to do another take. A young man from production design teases her from afar.

Just a few hours before curfew sets in, the director and crew hover on the taxi boat's stern preparing for the last shot. On the dock, someone is doing the rounds with a tray piled high with fresh dates.

"Dates, anybody?" he asks members of the crew. "They're from Mister Fishawy's garden."

After making its world premiere in Abu Dhabi, El Ott is due out in Egyptian cinemas this January. To find out more about filming the thriller, watch our making-of.


Alice Hackman

Image: Ibrahim el Batout's El Ott


Ibrahim el Batout's El Ott -- trailer:

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