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Blind Ambition

Hassan Khan is one of those Egyptians we get all excited about because his name crops up in foreign lands. With his critically acclaimed movie Blind Ambition showing at the D-CAF festival we caught up with him for an intellectual chat (sort of)...

An acclaimed artist, writer and musician, Hassan Khan's works have appeared in festivals and exhibitions across the world. He is published in both Arabic and English, has performed in the most eccelectic of venues (including the Louvre) and his best-selling album tabla dubb is available on on the 100copies label. His latest work - the nine-part movie Blind Ambition (shot using only two mobile phone cameras) - takes an in-depth look at the complex issues surrounding class in Cairo, before and after the revolution. So when Khan strolled into the D-Caf press-centre, where CairoScene has set up camp for the duration of the festival, we immediately jumped at the chance to pick his creative brains. In hindsight, we ought to have been a little more prepared...

Do you like us?

I don't mind the press because I like talking about my work.

So as a film director...

I am not a film director. I am contemporary artist. I work in physical existing objects, sound, images, videos, and text. My work is so diverse. My expression started with music and image, but over the years it has changed. Part of contemporary culture has become so undefined that it is hard to say what exactly I do. I use film but I am not film.

So how did you become a crictially acclaimed artist? Tell us a little bit about your journey...

I got into university - the AUC - when I was 15 years-old. There was a natural university subculture that I became a part of. That period was formative for me because everything got jumbled up. Things like William Blake and Jimmy Hendrix got jumbled up and there was no hierarchy to them... there were no labels. Out of that, all of this came out, but music first.

You tend to avoid the traditional route when filming, like using a Samsung Galaxy mobile to film Blind Ambition. Are you being weird on purpose? 

It is not a search for the unconventional. The cell phone was very useful because it was practical and flexible as everything was done in the streets. We had an invisible film crew. Also the relationship between the actor and the cell phone is interesting. If the actor doesn't respect the cell phone, the result may not be so great. I actually had to sell the cell phone idea to my actors as PR people do. The relationship between the actor and the phone is much less formal, I will admit.

You treat every actor as if, and we quote, "they embody humanity". What does that mean? 

In the process of working with actors, I don't want to tell them what to be. I try to find out what each actor is. They embody the fears or victories of humanity in some way. If I imagine that in my head, then I can tap into these emotions. It is not magnifying human emotions. You are treating an individual not as a cultural object but as something much bigger...an embodiment of humanity. Whether it is true does not interest me, but it is a useful tool. It is a technique that I use.

How do you let "humanity happen" in your work?

There were 27 total actors that I worked with in-depth to develop characters and relationships with each other. I come at it with an idea of what the situation will be like, but much of the development occurs during the shooting in these public spaces. The actors are let free as if I discovered them or came across them in a public space.

In Blind Ambition, there multiple scenes about public space. Is Cairo a character in the film, you know, kind of like New York is a character in Sex & the City?

No Cairo is not a character. I am not trying to make Cairo human. Cairo happens to be the place where the people are. It is the framework because everything is happening there. There are no establishing shots where you see the area. The film is involved with people, engaging with people and the audience. We don't need to make statements about Cairo specifically.

What piece of work is your favourite?

It is so hard as they are very different. It's easier to say what I dislike rather than what I like the best.

What are your must-haves when creating?

It is not fixed. The work I do is demanding at different levels. Sometimes I am jotting down notes. Sometimes I am working with actors, or creating an object. It changes.

If you could only pick one medium what would it be?

Music is one of the things that I have the most fun with. I played at D-CAF last year. In the past, I gave a solo performance at the Louvre.

Did the Mona Lisa enjoy it?

No, I could tell she hated it.

As an Egyptian artist have you ever foud yourself in the position where you need to self-censor? 

The way I see it is you should do whatever you want to do, and if something happens you fight back. You should never self-censor. It creates poor art when you do things against censorship.

Any words of wisdom?

I don't believe in giving words of wisdom.

Watch Hassan Khan’s Blind Ambition followed by a talk with the director on April 14th at Radio Cinema, Downtown.