Filmmaker Abouamin: If truth be told

Local filmmaker and NSCAD teacher is named the Atlantic Film Cooperative's first filmmaker in residence.

"I'm working, but it looks like I'm praying to the gods of light." -Tarek Abouamin. Photo: Holly Crooks.

The heavy scent of incense and tulips hung thick. Sunshine melted through a wall of windows at one end of the studio. Tarek Abouamin sat on a think blonde wood bench, a steaming mug of tea in front of him, and to his right, a glass vase rioted with yellow and white tulips.

"You know, it's incredible," said Abouamin, suddenly. "With the light that moved in, that tulip ..." He pointed to a butter yellow one at the edge of the bunch, " ... that tulip was slouched over. And now it's propped up again. And that's just in the span of 45 minutes!"

It's characteristic that Abouamin would spend the time admiring the small details of his surroundings, and the power that light has over them. He works in light, seeks it out, and moulds it with his lens. Abouamin is a filmmaker, photographer, cinematographer and teacher. He is a herald of honesty and dignity, on a search for truth.

Abouamin is a professor of cinematography and foundation film at NSCAD, and has recently become the first Filmmaker in Residence for the Atlantic Film Co-operative. The program allows a filmmaker to create, while sharing the process of filmmaking with the surrounding community.

Abouamin's residency project is a 10-minute film titled GAWAB, using photos that he's been taking of his family since he was 11 years old. Fifty of these pictures appeared in an exhibit in October last year, at the Cairo Opera House. It was well received by the Cairo artistic community, and a very moving experience for his family. GAWAB was the next step after the success of that show.

The film is in part Abouamin's attempt to define himself. It is a representation of a letter to his family and friends. It serves as a vessel by which his Egyptian peers might understand his life in Nova Scotia, and his friends here might better understand who he is abroad.

It's taken many years for Abouamin to gather the courage to make this film. "Looking at oneself can sometime be a very painful experience, because you might not like what you see," he said. "I can't say that I like what I've found."

The courage

Abouamin grew up spending three quarters of the year in Alexandria, Egypt. The rest of the time was spent in Germany as a toddler, and then Kuwait for the rest of his childhood. Later on in life, he came to realize how confused he had become by moving around so much.

"It was because we were raised to be good consumers...To admire American culture and American products. But yet we weren't American." Abouamin and his brother went to an American community school in Kuwait. There, they found themselves defined as Egyptian without knowing what "Egyptian" really meant.

"Both my brother and I, in a way we refused our Egyptian culture. We found it embarrassing because it wasn't as cool as American. Being Egyptian wasn't 'in.'"

Abouamin said he was lucky enough to spend his last three years of high school in Alexandria. "That's when I woke up. I stopped being a consumer and became closer to my roots." Things started to fall in place after that.

The search

Abouamin started building the tools to tell his story when he was 15 years old, when he took he his first photography class in high school. Filmmaking didn't catch Abouamin's eye until two years in to his degree (mostly made up of theatre classes) at Dalhousie University. It started with an interview at CKDU, Dalhousie's radio station. On a trip to Cairo on Jan. 2, 1996, Abouamin sat down to talk with Youssef Shahin, an Egyptian film master and director.

"Little did I know that that 20-minute interview would change my life."

What struck him most about Shahin was, "Honesty. Just honesty." There's a line in one of his films Abouamin says he'll never forget, "'A prince or a noble one is the one who searches for the light
of knowledge.' So it's a search for truth. That was the beginning for me. That search for truth."

In 1997 he joined what was then the King's Independent Filmmakers Society. By the year 2000, he had photographed at least a dozen films, "And I haven't stopped since."

The garden

Abouamin became a teacher because it was "part and parcel" of being a filmmaker. "I love teaching," said Abouamin. "It's like tending a garden. I like to watch things grow."

What he asks most of his students is to be honest. "I smell right away if they're not. That's what I first demand of them; leave the ego at the door."

Sahar Yousefi was a student of Abouamin's class of "Everything you need to know about shooting film." It was the first film class she had ever taken, and because of it, she's become a filmmaker herself. "He inspired me to be creative and to understand film in a different light. He made it simple (even though it really isn't), something more accessible that everyone could do."

The heart

Abouamin's most recent project was as director of photography in Rohan Fernando's film "Snow." It was on this film that Abouamin says he's taken his life's biggest risk. He pushed boundaries working with light and colour, creating a distinct palette drenched in reds, blues, yellows and oranges.

As far as Abouamin is concerned, he makes films because he has to. "It's the only thing I know how to do."

But if he wants to keep at it, he needs money badly. Right now he's waiting on some grant applications submitted to the Canada Council for the Arts as well as to the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage.

The situation for documentary filmmakers in Canada is grim - "It's a nightmare right now...a major crisis. There's just not enough money," he says, adding that commercial theatres don't provide an outlet for these films.

"I wish I had become a lawyer," said Abouamin with a chuckle.


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