Big mission statements like “raising awareness” and “promoting collaboration” sound good, but how do they apply on a personal level? With his camera, Egyptian-American filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha joins 12 musicians from seven countries along the Nile and watches them unite and collaborate in real life under the pressure of circumstance. Rehearsals and greenrooms, exhausting bus rides and smoking breaks, backstage drama and reconciliation on stage - a hectic 100-day tour across the USA before the COVID-19 pandemic is compressed into 99 minutes in an engaging and inspiring documentary, Far From the Nile.
The tour uniting musicians from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda was initiated by The Nile Project, a charitable organisation which aims to “inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river” through an innovative approach. The documentary however goes beyond the purpose of a promotional video about Africa’s growing water issue and touches upon things relevant to any viewer: finding a common language in a team, handling egos, adjusting to a work culture different from your own. By becoming a member of the band with his camera, Elkatsha captures raw emotion, spontaneous humour and joy of creativity as an insider.
And, of course, the film is full of music. The musicians were never united as a band before this tour, so we witness how they create an exciting common repertoire in front of us by fusing folk tunes and traditional rhythms of different cultures, developing fresh ideas and meeting the demands of the project.
The film is produced by Katsha films in association with the American vicarious, The Drosos Foundation and Gwaertler Stiftung Fund. The 44th Cairo International Film Festival hosted the film’s world premiere under the Horizons of Arab Cinema category.
Far From the Nile features the Nile Project musicians: Mohamed Abozekry, Asia Madani, Selamnesh Zemene, Michael Bazibu, Nader Elshaer, Ibrahim Fanous, Saleeb Fawzy, Adel Mekha, Kasiva Mutua, Ahmed Omar, Dave Otieno and Steven Sogo.
Q: How did you get involved with The Nile Project, was it an invitation or your own initiative?
Sherief Elkatsha (SK): I went to help a friend with a photoshoot. I wasn’t involved with the project at the time, but when I met the musicians and saw the mission statement of The Nile Project I fell in love with it. So when I heard they were going to be touring around the United States, I thought this is the perfect way to look at the project through a very finite tour. I approached the CEO, Mina Girgis, and said I wanted to come in.
Q: Did you have artistic freedom in your work, or were you fulfilling the vision of The Nile Project?
SK: I was for the most part free. We had certain rules, like I was not going to use their recorded music, only the music that I recorded live. Certain characters didn’t want me to film them due to cultural convictions. I also showed the film to Mina Girgis to make sure that there was nothing in the film that could be considered damaging for the project. But I try as much as possible to pull away from the organisation and focus on the people.
Q: What is your relation with music?
SK: Music is one of my passions, though I don’t play anything. I use music heavily in all of my films, but this time I was actually making a film about musicians, which was new for me.
Q: What was the most exciting thing about working on Far From the Nile?
SK: I’ve never been on a music tour, so that was just exciting. I think the biggest surprise for me was that for 100 days I was listening to the same music and never got bored of it. There is something very immediate and beautiful about their art form, they stand up on stage, they perform and they feel their audience’s energy.
Q: What was the most difficult part?
SK: Everything, but the most difficult was being a one man band and always feeling like I’m not capturing. I knew that normally a music video would have like six cameras on stage and swooping, but I didn’t have that, and I knew that to make it look interesting and dynamic - at least the musical performances - it would have to be some really smart editing. And I hope we managed to do that.
Q: You focus more on some of the band members in the film and the others are hardly seen. How did you make your selection?
SK: There were too many people, 12 musicians is a lot to focus on, and I think that naturally some people were more interested in being filmed than others. With some, like Selamnesh Zemene from Ethiopia for example, language was an issue, there was a barrier between her and me, but I hope when the audience watches the film they will get a sense of her.
I believe that if I wanted to do a film about any one of these musicians, I could. Each person had such an immense story behind them. With the 400 hours of footage I had I’m sure there were 400 different films I could have made. But again, I didn’t want it to be Asia Madani’s or Mohamed Abozekry’s experience. My interest was a group as a whole, and the dynamics of how they can work together.
Q: Do you expect the film to make an actual impact on the Nile water issues?
SK: I think the impact is very hard to judge. We are all so used to immediate impact. I would love for this film to speak to a larger subject which is working together towards any common goal with people that are not at all similar to ourselves. In that I find The Nile Project very symbolic. The CIFF was going on at the same time as COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, which in my mind is very similar to what I’ve documented.
Q: Did the tour have any impact on the musicians themselves?
SK: I definitely think it had a huge impact on all of their lives. The experience of working together on The Nile Project certainly taught them how to collaborate and they continue to do so, even if not necessarily under the umbrella of The Nile Project.
Q: What are you currently working on? Will you continue with music?
SK: I am currently beginning preproduction on my next film. I am planning on moving back to Cairo in January and taking a break from New York, so the film has something to do with Egypt and my return. I think I would like to look at my country from the standpoint of tourism as we are now coming through a heyday with Egyptology and archeology in Egypt, 100 years since Carter’s discovery of King Tut and the new Grand Egyptian Museum opening. I somehow feel that with my return to Cairo there is a story somewhere in there.
This article was originally published in the daily Bulletin of the Cairo International Film Festival (13-22 November).