Lotfy Nathan talks about being an outsider, Sergio Leone influences & 'Harka' in Cannes

The Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker's first narrative feature premiered in Un Certain Regard, the Cannes competition section dedicated to films that possess a "special gaze."
Lotfy Nathan talks about being an outsider, Sergio Leone influences & 'Harka' in Cannes

Lotfy Nathan's first feature film, the documentary 12 O'Clock Boys, received the HBO Emerging Artist Award, and was selected in over 50 international festivals, including SXSW, Sundance LA, the Viennale and Hot Docs. Hailing from the US, with an Egyptian background, Nathan uses his outsider status in his debut narrative project Harka to allow the audience a fly-on-the-wall point of view into the outcome of the Arab Spring.

It is ten years later, and Nathan's lead character Ali (played by the spellbinding Adam Bessa, in a true casting coup) is experiencing all the same struggles that we imagine revolution martyr Mohamed Bouazizi went through. Bouazizi is the Tunisian street vendor whose act of self-immolation became the catalyst for the Arab Spring in 2010.

Sitting down with Nathan after his Cannes premiere proved a highlight, as his generous spirit and insightful answers added an extra layer to an already thought-provoking and deeply moving film. Following is our interview from the terrace of the Palais.

Your film is kind of devastating, but also leaves the viewer wondering as it is told almost as a fairy tale, because of the sister's voiceover. How do you feel about this kind of statement?

I've been thinking about it since last night [the premiere], this "devastating in a good way" thing. I was talking to my brother about it last night, he introduced me to a lot of old movies when we were younger, and telling him some people left feeling the film is pessimistic. You know, just hearing that word, yesterday, from a couple of people. And he was like, "no, pathos in art is important!" And that's actually an important expression in art -- suffering and struggle.

Look at neorealism.


What is your own background?

My parents are both Coptic, Orthodox, Egyptians and they moved to the UK, where I was born. They didn't teach me Arabic. And then I moved to the US with my mother, when I was 10. So that is where I've really grown up.

Why did you want to go to Tunisia to make this film?

I think because of my documentary background, my first interest in the film, in this story was going to be a very close study of Mohamed Bouazizi. That's why it was Tunisia, and we started taking trips to Sidi Bouzid where he lived, where the Arab Spring had begun. This was in 2015, so a while ago. I wasn't really learning too much about the socio political backdrop, because the idea was to make a character story all along. So I was trying to find someone like him, and people like him. I spent a lot of time in that town.

Did the character of Ali remain the same for you?

Actually, his character changed in my mind from the earlier drafts of the script, his personality and his attitude from when it was a pre revolution story to a story with the hindsight of the revolution, and this failed promise. And what I gathered a lot of people felt in the country and probably in the Region as a whole is this, like fatigue, from having had a revolution and the hope, and it's so taxing. And it's a fight to do that. And then what happens after a revolution is often more crisis. But as far as the standard of living, you know, it remains very much the same.

Italian born documentary filmmaker Roberto Minervini makes some of the best films about the state of America in the 21st century. Do you think that being an outsider, of some sort into a culture gives you a clearer view?

That's a good question. I think it really does. Well, not necessarily a clearer view, but just a different view. It's something that at the same time I'm self conscious of and self doubting about, doing a story in a place where I don't belong. But then I think ultimately telling a story is about having a long commitment. You have to get deeper inside things than even someone from the place anyway. On my first trip to Tunisia, to go and research the film, I landed in Tunis. My amazing collaborators there, who became friends over the years, they took me out to dinner. They had this filmmaker friend of theirs come and they mentioned what I was working on. I felt so embarrassed that I was trying to tell the story of this very intimate thing. And they were like "what do you know about this guy?" But also "f*** Mohamed Bouazizi, what has he done for us?"

We then went down to begin the scout, in the South, and the people were completely different from those in the capital, it was a completely different attitude. And it was countryside, it was beautiful. And I actually realized on that first trip that even within the country, some people don't have the same perspective on the place. Even within a city there are people who don't understand their city in the same way.

And in particular with this whole identity politics that you get, particularly in the US, the "who are you to tell this story?" Who are you to do this -- cultural appropriation and all of that stuff. And my last movie, which was also my first movie, the documentary 12 O'Clock Boys that would have been totally challenged if I had made it today.

Your film is shot like a Western. The coloring and the landscape are almost like Sergio Leone Western.

That was really my outsider perspective. I went there, and I live in New York and I thought, oh, this looks like a Western. And it's my sort of superficial view, you know, like, it's me romanticizing the place as a foreigner -- and I love westerns. I was always into the world of Sergio Leone and I got into it towards the end, in post production.

I have this very idealistic view that cinema changes the world. What are your feelings about a statement like that?

I think it does, too. I think all forms of art do that and push in that direction. And I think that is what is amazing with cinema, you get these historical documents of moments in time and certainly eras of struggle for a generation. This is why the Italian neorealist films help in such a beautiful way and they become more than movies. They really become a historical document, a real picture of that time, even just culturally, you know, so I totally agree with that. Although I would add that I don't like it when there is too much of an agenda.

What is next for you?

An exciting new project we just announced today, which is a biblical horror film. It's gonna be in English and it is based on an ancient text that was written around the time of the New Testament. And it's a story that's missing in the Bible of Jesus as a child, his infancy -- and it's a horror film.

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