East of Noon: Hala Elkoussy sculpts magical world to depict a clash of generations

5 min read
24 May, 2024

Imaginative, ornamental, and shot on 16 mm analogue stock, East of Noon marks Elkoussy’s second full-length film, which received the Verbeelding Grant in Doha before landing in Cannes.

It stands as one of the two MENA titles in the Director’s Fortnight section this year, alongside Mahdi Fleifel’s To a Land Unknown from Palestine. A surrealist folktale, it juxtaposes immersed, non-corrupted youngsters in the music world with the autocracy of an infantile entertainment boss for whom they work.

Filmed over 22 days in an abandoned wood factory in Helwan, Cairo, and along Egypt's Red Sea Coast, the film spans two distinct environments: a gritty, arid industrial remnant and the Sea, representing fluidity and freedom.

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Director Hala Elkoussy and cameraman Abdelsalam Moussa, both avid enthusiasts with a background in analogue filmmaking, opted for the traditional film stock to bring their vision to life. Elkoussy, who also acted as the production designer, transformed the abandoned factory into a self-sufficient enclave for the film's action.

Living between Cairo and Amsterdam, and working across photography, video, installation, and sculpture, Hala Elkoussy is a multimedia artist and filmmaker whose works have been presented at prestigious venues like the Istanbul Biennial, Tate Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, and Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

As a filmmaker, she completed several shorts before debuting at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2017 with the melancholic yet heartwarming feature Cactus Flower, which follows two Egyptian women suddenly evicted from their home and navigating Cairo's landscape of estranged relatives, friends, and lovers.

East of Noon is equally rich in characters, more flamboyant in visual style, and conceptually driven as it openly discusses a generational clash. Elkoussy acknowledges that since becoming a mother 17 years ago, the presence of youth has profoundly influenced her work.

She explains, “Being close to a growing being invites you to see familiar things with their eyes. The innate life force, the impulsiveness that is not calculated, the emotions that are pure and raw, the sense of curiosity, the desire for exploration and idealism, these are all qualities of youth, that we forgo for wisdom and rationality. This of course brings conflict within a family but also on a societal level.

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"The future belongs to the youth," asserts her character Jalala, who brings relieving stories from the Sea. However, Elkoussy questions to what extent today's youth contribute to shaping their future.

“This opposition for sure is inspirational,” she comments.

Menha El Batraoui, who portrays Jalala, inspired the character herself, Elkoussy confirms. “As female figures, they are similar, but in my eyes, the real-life personality embodies the essence of the screen character, a wide life experience coupled with a youthful spirit,” says Elkoussy. 

Scene from East of Noon [Quinzaine des cinéastes]

Central to the film is Abdo, a young artist inspired by many real-life counterparts Elkoussy has encountered.

Elkoussy says, “I have met and continue to meet many Abdo’s in real life – young people with a burning desire for a better future, with a voice that is looking to be heard, burdened by pent-up anger and disillusionment with the reigning order. My interest in their condition already had its seeds in 2005 when I conducted live interviews with young survivors of the perilous sea journey to Europe.

“In the film, Abdo finds his voice in music, a choice that reflects the historical and current reality where underground music is the freest medium to produce and circulate. 

“More specifically to the Arab context, Abdo borrows part of his biography and the words to his songs from Ahmed Fouad Negm, an uneducated orphan who over forty years opposed power with simple colloquial poetry and whose songs continue to be the voice of revolutionary movements all over the Arab world. Like everyone around him, Abdo is afraid. His subversive music is his saviour from despair,” continues Elkoussy.

Scene from East of Noon [Quinzaine des cinéastes]

The title East of Noon was conceived early in the project to convey a sense of place without specific coordinates, merging time and space into an impossible dimension. "Are we in the East? Yes, we are. It is hot in the East, but no hotter than at noon. There, noon is a state, not a point in time."

Furthermore, in Egyptian folklore, a myth was created to keep children indoors at noon due to the intense heat, warning of demons that come out at noon, explains Elkoussy.

Elkoussy is critical of entertainment – another key theme in the film – and her position as an artist. "What role do I play by continuing to produce and entertain? In the early drafts of the script, the character of the storyteller was all benevolent. As I progressed, I realized what her character utters in the film: 'There are no angels in hell,' but also that everyone perceives that they are doing the 'right thing,' whatever that 'right thing' is."

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Elkoussy’s visual style, characterised by detailed costumes, makeup, and ornamentation, reflects her experience in Cairo — a city rich in size, history, and layers of meaning.

Initially drawn to minimal art, she realised that exuberance and excess better captured her experience. Excess became a strategy to prevent quick conclusions, ensuring that the complexity of her work was fully explored: "I am trying to transpose you as the audience into my world, and my world is complex. If there are clear, quick conclusions to be drawn, I would not have made the work in the first place. Making the work becomes a deep exploration, hence the emphasis on details.”

As a visual artist, Elkoussy’s primary concern is her own vision and how best to deliver it, but engaging with the audience appears to be essential.

"When I moved into the film world, I realised that there is no cinema without an audience. My aim is to stay true to my perspective while managing to keep the viewers interested and entertained. If I don’t succeed in this, then I have failed. I brought this awareness to Cactus Flower and here again to East of Noon. There is no story without melodrama, drama, and crime.

"Melodrama, specifically, is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian psyche. So, while I am aware that there needs to be the right combination between experimentation and convention, otherwise, I would lose the audience," elaborates Elkoussy.

Mariana Hristova is a freelance film critic, cultural journalist, and programmer. She contributes to national and international outlets and has curated programs for Filmoteca De Catalunya, Arxiu Xcèntric, goEast Wiesbaden, etc. Her professional interests include cinema from the European peripheries and archival and amateur films