In her homeland, Egypt, Aida-el-Kashef is known as an independent filmmaker and not an actress. On the streets of Egypt, when she joined protestors at Tahrir Square with a camera in hand to document the proceedings, she was referred to as ‘the lady with the camera’. This week, the Indian film-going audience will see her as an actress in Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, one of the most assured independent films to have come out of India in a long time. As a blind photographer who struggles to come to terms with the loss of spontaneity over her craft once her eyesight is restored, Aida’s is a stirring portrayal.
Being part of Ship of Theseus has been an adventure, she tells us in an interview. “I met Anand Gandhi at a film festival in Hannover in 2008, where we both were screening our respective short films. I came to India in 2009 on a holiday and at that time Anand was working on the casting of the film. I helped him out and by the end of my stay, he suggested I play the role of the female photographer,” says Aida.
Aida trusted Anand’s vision and agreed to be part of the project. “It also meant that I could know India more. It felt like an adventure that I had to accept. Also, good films are exciting no matter where they are made; cinema is universal,” she asserts.
That said, Aida is clear she is primarily a filmmaker and acting is not priority: “I’m not pursuing an acting career, but I keep my mind open. If interesting projects come along my way I would take them up, in India or in Egypt.”
Much is being discussed and written about the slow but definite rise of independent cinema in India. Aida says independent cinema in Egypt is equally vibrant. “We have had four films releasing commercially in the past four years,” she says.
The cast and crew of Ship of Theseus are in awe of Aida as they came to learn about her participation in the protests in Egypt. Neither Anand Gandhi nor Kiran Rao were sure if she would be able to visit India for the film’s promotions. “At the time they asked me to come to India, there was a lot happening in Egypt. We were all part of protests and sit-ins to bring down Mohammed Morsi, the now former-president of Egypt. We didn’t expect to be able to bring him down this fast. As soon as the situation changed, I booked a flight to India,” she says.
During the protests, Aida was witness to aggressive assaults against women. The Facebook page ‘opantish’ (which stands for operation anti-sexual assault) lists videos and documents (with English subtitles) that substantiate the assaults that caught the attention of international media. Aida agrees this has been a turbulent time for the country and its women in particular: “What we have been witnessing is far more aggressive and seems organised,” she says.
Aida participated in the revolution like any other citizen and not as a filmmaker. “Using my camera was only natural as it’s my tool, just like lawyers volunteering to defend activists being detained or tortured, or like field doctors volunteering to aid the injured in the clashes. I did not use my footage in any film or artistic project. I filmed and uploaded them for documentation reasons and sometimes to proof the violence committed from the police or army towards the revolutionaries,” she explains.
Defiant, women continued to venture into Tahrir Square and this, says Aida, gives her hope. “It’s our revolution too, and we won’t get terrorised. We won’t stop participating as this is our present and our future at stake,” she affirms with unmistakeable conviction.