'Far from the Nile': Sherief Elkatsha talks about his world-changing documentary in Cairo

The film world premiered at the 44th Cairo International Film Festival and instantly became a must-watch for any and all, providing a road map for finding the way to bring together our ultra divided, hyper chaotic world.
'Far from the Nile': Sherief Elkatsha talks about his world-changing documentary in Cairo

Nearly ten years after his third feature doc Cairo Drive -- where the filmmaker rode through the congested streets of the Egyptian capital meeting up with a collection of diverse and fascinating characters, while in the process telling the true story of his country of origin -- Sherief Elkatsha takes us on another remarkable journey. This time around, it is a film that is as much a musical road movie featuring a cast of musicians from countries touched by the Nile river, as it is a roadmap to the only means we possess as humans to save our world.

It sounds lofty but it's not. Elkatsha is never that and the musicians of The Nile Project, the group featured in his latest documentary Far from the Nile, are a captivating, funny, smart and beautiful group of people hailing from Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Sudan, Burundi, Uganda and Kenya. This is a film that doesn't preach, prophesies or attempts to teach. What Far from the Nile does instead is entertain us, in a toe tapping, laughing and at times even tearing up sort of way. But a magical thing happens on the way out of the theater, after watching it -- the world around us seems a less scary place. And communicating with everyone in our proximity becomes a basic need. Think of Elkatsha's film as a cinematic Rosetta stone, able to decode the world for us and providing the necessary tools to find a solution to our divisive problems.

One hundred days on the road, 12 musicians from 7 countries embark on a tour through America's heartland. They live together, eat together, move equipment around together and play together -- long sound checks at the end of even longer car rides, rehearsals and of course, the performances themselves. That is the basic premise of Far from the Nile and throughout the 100 days, Elkatsha rides along with them, doing everything they do, from lugging suitcases around to attending the early morning/late night sound checks. With that he shows us the good, the bad, the funny, the sad, the moments of joy and those that challenge the idea that 12 artists from different countries, speaking different languages and playing their own genre of music can actually get along.

Yet somehow, in the end they do manage it -- and that's where Far from the Nile turns into a true masterpiece, in the possibilities for a peaceful understanding between cultures it presents. And how it manages to show that in order to come together as different civilizations, we don't need to give up our identity, rather strengthen it and reinforce all that makes us unique.

I caught up with Sherief Elkatsha in Cairo, after the film's world premiere and following is what he had to say about his extraordinary film.

So of course, people are going to draw comparisons with a film like Buena Vista Social Club. How much of an inspiration were musical documentaries like that, which still possessed a very sort of cinematic viewpoint?

Sherief Elkatsha: I'm not sure if it's the smartest thing but when I'm making a film and people say, “Oh my God, you should see…” I tend to not watch any of that because I instantly get very discouraged and depressed and sort of think, oh, well, it's already been done. How can I make it? When I was making this film, at the time, the Beatles documentary came out. Six hours! It's amazing. But it's the Beatles. I mean, it's pretty easy when it's music that everyone knows and I think that's maybe the biggest difference. I’ve seen Buena Vista and thought it was a fine film, but the music was definitely already an internationally successful album.

So I think it’s — I don't want to say less challenging — but it's just different challenges when you're making a film about a group such as The Nile Project that no one has necessarily heard of, and certainly music that no one knows. And each song was 19 minutes long and switched styles and languages. So all of these things I found were quite a challenge, in the editing room.

In the editing room… Because you filmed nonstop and followed the group everywhere on their tour, right?

Elkatsha: Everywhere, and I actually kept filming much after the tour ended and it wasn't until my editor and I were sitting in the editing room that we just decided it ends with the tour. We can't keep going because then it becomes endless. And I'm happy that we managed to sneak a little bit of when I went to Sudan, which was definitely after the tour, but managed to weave in a few things. 

During the Q&A after your premiere here in Cairo people wondered if you'd scripted some of the dialogue, because it is so cinematic. But how did you manage to achieve this sort of "fly on the wall" effect with your subjects?

Elkatsha: I love hearing that. 

I mean, you’ve got women in an environment where a man is filming them in their bedroom, right? Talking as if you're not there. And even while we watch it, we forget that it's you filming this, an actual person there with them. 

Elkatsha: It has always been my style to never pick up a camera right from the get-go. It was much more important for me to develop relationships with these people, which maybe wasn't the smartest thing because I didn't have people sign release forms until a month or six weeks into filming. I think two things worked to my advantage on tour — everyone was just hyper exhausted and we were all kind of in each other's face. And then I think it was just about people understanding who I am, and really I don't think anyone looked at me as a cameraman. I don't think they ever thought this film could be made.

I just think that they looked at me as another band member. And of course, this was four years ago. So as each year went by, they were like, “You didn't release anything, not even on YouTube?” But that’s what is so amazing, last night, for them to actually see the culmination of it.

When I first met the group in Aswan, there was another documentary crew that was trying to do something with them. But I remember just thinking, everyone's scared of them. They don't even know who they are. This crew is all Spanish, they don't speak their language. There were three cameras, there were booms and it was like there's no way you're ever gonna get a real moment with that kind of a crew.

Initially I thought I wanted to travel with someone doing audio, but doing everything myself was also a key to being able to find intimate moments and I feel, when I watched it, there are moments where Kasiva [Mutua, one of the musicians from Kenya], I just feel like she's talking to a friend and not being filmed.

And once in a while someone mentions your name, which is kind of cool because it breaks down the fourth wall.

Elkatsha: I'm definitely a character in this film. And people are definitely sometimes reacting to me, or not. I didn't have my own schedule, I ate with them, carried bags with them, went to sound checks with them. I had their schedule. So it was like I was a musician.

So you mentioned the Spanish crew before, which brings me seamlessly into the next question. You have a foot planted in Egyptian culture, your other foot planted in America, you live in Brooklyn. Do you think that this sort of natural bridge building that you create by just being you really, helps you to make a film like this?

Elkatsha: I hope so. When I heard that they were coming to the United States, The Nile Project, I thought it was the perfect situation. I thought I could be a cultural go-between — maybe it's less of a bridge and more that I'm interested in this fusion.

That is what is also interesting about your film, it tackles the issue of being able to maintain your cultural identity within this group that is making something beautiful together. Here are all these diverse cultures who have to come together in order to make the collective music but who also have to retain their language, their culture, their musical genre…

Elkatsha: ... their religion....

Do you think a film like this needs to be seen, to teach us how to inhabit this ever increasingly more diverse world of ours?

Elkatsha: I’m always trying to get to bigger subjects while staying very much on the ground. That’s always been the goal but it’s a fine line because I want this to be much bigger than the microcosm of The Nile Project. And to me it is. Here we have Cop27 going on in Egypt at the same time as the festival — and it’s the same bloody thing!

Music is a beautiful language to connect people. And to me, any problem this earth faces is only going to be solved by people that are very different, coming together and trying to work together and create some sort of harmony. 

I kept saying “if 12 musicians have a hard time being on the same page, how can you expect 11 countries to come together.” We had an anchor that centered us, the only thing these 11 countries share is the Nile river. 

It was very hard not to make a propaganda film, as The Nile Project does a lot of amazing work, they give public lectures and inform people about the situations surrounding their river. But I wanted to make a film that wasn’t 100 percent about the Project, instead found within it a great background, the perfect vehicle for looking at the fusion of cultures coming together for a greater cause. 

In the end, the Nile river doesn’t care what countries it crosses, it is a body of water -- and it just keeps moving. 

For more information, check out Sherief Elkatsha's website.

Header photo by Laila Yasser, used with permission.

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