"33 and Me"

in Egypt

 

From October 25 to January 8 we were in Egypt for “33 and Me.”  75 days!  This is the longest we’ve spent in any one country during “33 and Me.”  And as such, it was unlike any other “33 and Me” experience we’ve had:  we traveled more ground than previous episodes and we delved even deeper into the history, in this case dating back 5,000+ years!  I had no idea I’d become so obsessed with and fascinated by Ancient Egypt!  

Written by Stephanie Gardner

We began in Hurghada on the Red Sea, and then visited Luxor, Aswan, Giza, Alexandria, Siwa and Cairo.  We returned to  Hurghada, where my mother joined us for the Christmas holidays and then revisited Luxor.  We spent Christmas in Hurghada, on the Red Sea, and New Years in Luxor where we took her to our favorite temples.  She was a regular Indiana Jones!  It was the first “33 and Me” trip that she’s joined us on and what a delight to have her!

I was drawn to the fact that our filmmakers’ ancient Egyptian ancestors were some of the world’s first writers and thus have a long tradition of storytelling.  While staring in awe at the walls of the many, many temples and tombs we visited, I couldn’t help but notice how history repeats itself.  The Pharaohs of thousands of  years ago are living through similar story arcs as we are today — issues of power and status, claiming legitimacy to rule, battling good to overcome evil, love and sex, it’s all there on those walls.  Even “fake news” isn’t a new concept, it's only been exasperated by social media!

 

The “33 and Me” Egypt episode will explore how the art of storytelling evolved overtime; how the various leaders of the country used storytelling to reshape history and rewrite the narrative of Egypt to suit each new regime and to reshape how Egyptians view themselves, and how the filmmakers of today’s Egypt relate to this multi-layered and millennia-long heritage. 

 

Our main filmmaker is Mina Nabil, a 32-year-old from Alexandria, Egypt; a highly accomplished and much sought-after Director of Photography, with a strong body of work as a writer-director.  He is currently in post-production of a passion piece, a feature documentary he directed, “I Am A Script Girl” about the life and career of Sylvette Baudrot, a legendary script supervisor who’s credits spans 70 years from Laurel and Hardy to recent Roman Polanski films.  She was the “script girl” for Alan Resnais on “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”  She’s worked with Hitchcock and her stories, according to Mina, are endless.  By talking to Mina, I felt like I knew Sylvette and I can’t wait to see his film!

Mina describes “I Am A Script Girl”:  “In a male-dominated industry, she was the ultimate career woman. “I Am a Script Girl” is a close-up and personal examination of the life, challenges, and career of the unstoppable Sylvette Baudrot. She’s a spunky 90-year-old woman, who has worked for 70 years in the film industry.”

We also enjoyed getting to know Wael Omar, a filmmaker in Cairo, who showed us around the Maadi district, today a hub for foreign diplomats and once a former barracks for the British army.  Maadi is where Wael grew up and his studio remains.  

 

I absolutely love Wael’s film, “In Search of Oil and Sand,” a documentary about the last days of the Egyptian monarchy.  Before the King was overthrown in the 1952 coup d’tat, a group of royals made a film, in fact, they were still making it as the Egyptian army was closing in on their King.  They titled this film, “Oil and Sand,” and it has a plot which eerily predicts future events.  Wael, incidentally, shot his documentary, “In Search of Oil and Sand” which depicts the story of trying to piece this lost film back together, during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, and the metaphorical parallels one can draw looking back at both events is mind-blowing.  Wael, who refers to himself as a “socialist filmmaker,” participated in the Tahrir Square protests to liberate Egypt from Murabak’s rule, and we discussed how the 2011 revolution reshaped filmmaking in Egypt.

Historically, perhaps the most widely know filmmaker from Egypt was Youssef Chahine (1926 - 2008), born in Alexandria, who’s long and prolific career of over 40 feature films, can be viewed as a wonderful time-capsule of Egyptian society and its change throughout the decades.  He’s most known for “Cairo Station” (1958), “Saladin” (1963) and “Alexandria…Why?” (1979).

 

What I love about Chahine’s films is that he shows you slices of Egyptian society and no two films are the same.  Watching Chahine’s repertoire of films from earliest to latest feels like you’re taking a tour of Egypt; through different landscapes of both Upper and Lower Egypt, to different time periods.  As Egypt grew, so too did Chahine as a filmmaker and storyteller.  He is both proud of and critical of his homeland and both of these elements subtly shines through his films.

 

The first Chahine film I watched was “The Blazing Sun” from 1954 and it was love at first sight.  This was Egyptian born Omar Sharif’s breakout film (followed up by a stellar performance in Chahine’s 1956 “Dark Waters”), where he plays the young, hunky Ahmed, the over-achieving son of peasant farmers who manages to successfully grow the #1 sugar cane crop of the season, beating out his father’s boss, the “Pasha.”  This means, that for the first time ever, the company will buy their crop from the peasants rather than from the rich governor of the land, or Pasha.  

This film, shot in gorgeous black and white, compellingly deals with Egyptian class-struggles head on.  After all, at the time of release, we’re two years into the new monarchy-free Egypt, where the Nasser government initiated land redistribution and agricultural reform policies.  


All of the action in “The Blazing Sun” takes place near Luxor and several scenes were filmed in Karnak Temple, Luxor Temple and at the Valley of the Kings.  This film first inspired me to visit these temples, and since then many films have been shot in and around Luxor, including James Bond’s “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) and “Death on the Nile” (1978 and 2021).

While in Egypt, we intentionally did not post on social media; a decision I made at the start of the trip in order to be extra cautious as we have read horror stories about people being detained and jailed in Egypt based on social media posts.  Good thing, too, because while we were in Egypt, several instances happened.  Young girls were arrested for posting videos of dancing on TikTok.  An “instagram model” was arrested for being disrespectful to the ancient Egyptians by posing in front of the pyramids in somewhat revealing “Pharonic” wardrobe.  Though these incidences are connected to Egyptian women on social media, I wasn't about to take any unnecessary risks. 

 

In the end, I'm glad I didn’t leave a social media presence in Egypt, because when it came time to fly out to our next destination, we ended up getting temporarily detained at the airport because of our camera equipment, especially due to the amount of external harddrives we have (which store all of the backups for "33 and Me.”)  The fact that we had posted nothing on social media about our time in  Egypt comforted me in those moments when we did not know how this interaction with border patrol would turn out.  What ultimately "saved us" (as we walked out with all our footage and gear in tact), funny enough, was my newfound obsession with Ancient Egypt and a bit of colloquial Arabic I’d picked up.

It was in fact a book I was carrying about Ancient Egypt, which saved me… But you can read all about this in my "33 and Me" book, once it's published.  :)

So much happened in our home country while we were in Egypt, and it was interesting and surreal to view the dramatic events from abroad.  Tizzz and I like to watch different news stations from around the world reporting on what's happening in America (well, like might be strong word!)  From BBC, to China News, to French News, To Russian News, to Al Jazeera, to CNN International to German news stations, you get an idea of how the rest of the world views what's going on in America, and the combination of all that gives one a unique perspective.

While we were in Egypt, the U.S. presidential elections took place and all the fallout; of course the pandemic continues to rage worldwide and the fact that the US has the highest number of cases and deaths in the world has not gone unnoticed internationally; the first vaccines were approved and given out; the attack on the US capital; the second impeachment and the inauguration… Now we are in Kotor, Montenegro.  Continuing to isolate, edit, write, and prep for the next “33 and Me” episode.