Hala Elkoussy is an Egyptian visual artist from Cairo. She studied Visual Arts in London, and worked with photography and video that was presented in museums and art exhibitions worldwide. As her video art ended up in film festivals, she became interested in feature films. Entirely filmed in Cairo, Cactus Flower is her first feature film.
In addition to writing and directing you also did the art direction and costumes. Was this planned?
I believe the strength in my artwork came from having developed a visual language that was really my own. It would not be very interesting for a designer of good caliber to come on board and do what was then very clear to me.
Further on, I believe there are two different kind of scriptwriters. It is those who are story-driven and those who are image-driven, and I am of the second kind. Therefore, it became somehow obvious that I had to translate this own visual myself.
One of the first things you notice about the movie is how colorful it is. What was your inspiration behind this?
I have a belief that any artwork of any kind has to be reflective of the place it comes from. It’s not just about color as visual color, but also about the complex relationship between forms and people as form and the rhythm of how people talk and how they relate to each other. In my mind, color becomes the only way to carry forward this complexity. It becomes an overflow of a lot of things which is trying to convince the viewer that it is coming from a very complex situation in a complex society. The outlook on life in Egypt is very exuberant and very excessive, and therefore any expression of it needs to look that way.
I really liked how downplayed the sound was. For instance, the city is not noisy at al. What was the purpose of this?
This was about the internal feeling of these three characters in a big city and how they relate to it. You can be in a very busy place and feel rather alone. And, the journey these three people undertake is one where they are pushed to look inside themselves and constantly try to find a way out. That was the driving force behind my choice. The city functions as the background, but it’s not a character.
You do the same with the dialogue having the sound of two voices speaking to each other with the rest of the sound removed.
I went through a big discussion with my sound recorder when it came to the sound design. It’s not so much what the reality is, but how you perceive the reality of a certain moment. We can be in a place that’s noisy, but not hear it because of something that you are going through, and that is what became important to get across in the film. The same logic worked on the dream sequences. They are in the reality, but they are somehow departed from reality into someplace that is only real to the characters experiencing them.
Sometimes the separation between reality, dreams and memories becomes a bit unclear. They blend together making the dreams more real and reality more dreamlike.
Yeah, this was intentional from the moment I decided that the character was an actress, which again builds on a certain notion that we are somehow all actors in life and that we play different roles depending on different situations. But I also believe that in very harsh situations, a dream becomes a form of escape making the reality bearable. What is happening can be so shocking that it will not be very clear if you are dreaming and when you are experiencing reality.
Would you say that the characters decide the image? In how you plan a scene for instance.
I had six months of working with the actors before shooting. This was because I didn’t have much experience with making a film so I thought it best to begin at zero. We didn’t know everything so it becomes a way to grow with each other. At least with the two main characters, which I saw them five days a week. It became a long process of developing the film until we found the answers. When we found those, we stopped. When you realize “it must be this color”, “it has to be this shape” the character is done. Then, it’s no longer the actor that comes through the door and greets you, but the character on the page, ends Elkoussy.