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Our dirty questions to Tamer Ruggli

Joshua Bogatin interviews the Swiss-Egyptian director of Back to Alexandria, an impressive melodrama featuring Fanny Ardant and Nadine Labaki; they talk about returning home, childhood memories, Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh, and much more - from the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival

Egyptian-Swiss filmmaker Tamer Ruggli’s debut feature Back to Alexandria is an elegant mother-daughter melodrama that impressed me greatly with its sumptuous visuals. It’s a simple, understated story of a woman, Sussi (Nadine Labaki), returning to her native Egypt to visit her dying mother that has little in the way of explosive dramatics, but much in terms of rich textures and subtle nuances of character. Sussi’s mother is played by French diva Fanny Ardant who gives an extravagant, overly-glamorous performance, providing a rich counterpoint to the withdrawn, stoic work of Labaki.

The film premiered at the Zurich Film Festival back in October and had its Mena premiere at the 3rd Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah. I sat down with Ruggli to talk about the film amidst the splendorous gardens of the Ritz-Carlton in Jeddah which had been taken over by the Red Sea Film Festival as a press office.

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Joshua Bogatin – Can you start by telling me how you started the project and what first interested you about the story?

Tamer Ruggli – I’ve always felt drawn to my Egyptian side of the family, which was the more eccentric or exuberant side compared to the Swiss side, so I wanted to pay homage to them with this film. It also came from many childhood stories my mother would tell me about the conflicted relationship she had with her mother growing up in one of those decadent apartments from the ancient Egyptian aristocracy. So it was inspired by my mother’s journey, but also by my own childhood memories. As a child, people tend to forget that you’re there so they talk in your presence about secrets, family history, and stuff you really shouldn’t pick up. Fortunately, I picked up a lot of those things and they became part of this film. Lastly it also came out of feeling I had growing up in Europe, but confronted with the Arab and shocked by things like the different relationships they have with their domestic help or the class gaps in society for example.

JB – Did the extravagant nature of Fanny Ardant’s character also come from personal memories of your family?

TR – Yes and it was important for me to show a different side of the Arab Egyptian woman because I grew up with very camp figures like her character. They were like Barbie dolls and had to be really pampered up even if they were just staying in. Old Hollywood chic or glam was really the rule. So all the women in my family were very nice, very domineering, but also very beautiful and extravagant.

JB – There is a big contrast between the performances of Fanny Ardant and Nadine Labaki. Labaki is very reserved while Ardant is distinctly larger than life. How did you find that contrast and build it in the performance styles?

TR – It was very important for me that Nadine Labaki had a very naturalistic and interiorized way of acting which comes more from French and European cinema culture. On the other hand the Arab actresses were a mix of theater actors, soap opera actors, etc. It allowed for many different nuances of performing and I was very interested in blending them all together in a way that feels like it has a formal unity to it. Fanny Ardant went to something a little more over the top and maybe this could get on the nerves of the audience, but I really liked the gap between the two of them.

JB – Why did you decide that the boy in the film should be a boy instead of a girl, since in many ways it seems to represent her childhood self?

TR – Growing up my grandmother always wanted a boy and was very jealous of my mom because she was a very beautiful young woman. She cut her hair very short to defeminize her because she didn’t want to have a child who was a challenge to her directly. What’s interesting is that the boy in the movie is played by a girl actress, so there was also this ambiguity of sexes. Logically in the film it’s Sussi’s own inner child, but it’s also the child the mother would have wanted to have instead as well as the child who Sussi would have wanted to be in order to please her mother. Ultimately though it’s really her inner child and he disappears when she doesn’t really need him anymore after she comes to terms with her mom.

JB – Is it also a reflection of queer identity and a sign of some queer subtext in the film?

TR – Well, even if it doesn’t talk about that subject, I think it’s a very camp film and I think it’s very much in queer culture. There are these Almodovar-esque or John Waters-esque references of these over the top women. So it definitely has a place there.

JB – I really appreciated that the many over-the-top elements were mixed with a lot of restraint. It comes across visually as well: the cinematography is very graceful, but also very extravagant. The image is always glimmering and glowing, there’s a lot of soft focus and the desert looks gorgeous in it. Can you talk about where the visual language came from?

TR – I talked with the DoP, Thomas Hardmeier, and we both wanted to have this sense of nostalgia throughout – to make it look like an old movie set nowadays. He used very soft lenses that made the actresses even more beautiful than they already are, which isn’t easy. It has this kind of softness of memory to it. In the Mood For Love [Wong Kar-wai, 2000] was definitely a reference. And Erin Brockovich (Steven Soderbergh, 2000) as well for the sandier, dustier vibes. We wanted to treat the image like a painting and to have a camera that feels fixed in time.

JB – You also have a lot of very graceful, subtle movements throughout.

TR – Yes and we also had to adapt sometimes like in the desert scene, which is the only scene where we used a handheld camera because we wanted to create a sense of movement or distance that simply wasn’t possible in that setting otherwise. Fortunately it also brought a little bit of fresh air to the scene, it was something different.

JB – I appreciated how classical it was and how elegant the movements were because a lot of films at festivals these days overuse handheld so much.

TR – Definitely.

JB – Can you also talk about how you chose to depict Egypt? You incorporate a lot of the iconic iconography of Egypt, but it’s also very restrained. You show us the pyramids, but only from a distance and through trees. You see Alexandria, but you’re not…

TR – In awe.

JB – Exactly. And if you are it’s only very momentary.

TR – I wanted to depict Egypt in a way that I fantasise about it or used to romanticise it during childhood. It feels to me like a country that is visually stuck in time, but in a good way. Every time I go back it feels like it’s exactly where I left it. It has this vibe of old world charm to it in a way. I think you could believe it takes place in the ’60s if there weren’t some references to it actually being nowadays. Also I wanted to show a beautiful side to Egypt without going into the touristy part of it or overselling it.

JB – It was beautifully shot, especially that one shot of Alexandria where she’s looking out from the balcony…

TR – Of the corniche? Yea, I didn’t want to oversell it, but Alexandria always has this nostalgia to it. When people talk about Alexandria they are reminded of their summer childhood holidays and the beach. There is always this flair to it. It’s a city that has changed immensely and not necessarily in a good way.

JB – Can we also talk about the servant characters in the film? You give such tender, affectionate portraits of them compared to the more ambiguous portraits you depict of their masters. How did you develop those characters?

TR – Well, they exist. They are blends of real life characters I met during childhood. I think in Egyptian culture servants can sometimes replace the mother role and they’re very nurturing. You have a more one-to-one relationship with them on a human-basis, without as many issues coming in the way. The aunts can also be mother-replacement figures, but in a much more domineering way that’s more of a love-hate relationship. The servants are the person you run to if your heart is broken and if you have something you can’t share with anybody else. I like that Sussi has a totally different relationship with her servants. She would hug them, but she would never hug her aunt because it would feel weird.

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Tamer Ruggli is pictured at the top of this article. He is pictured alongside Joshua Bogatin in the second image. Pictures by Joshua Bogatin.


By Joshua Bogatin - 11-12-2023

Joshua Bogatin is a freelance film critic, filmmaker, editor, and programmer based in New York City. As a writer he has contributed to Mubi Notebook, Screen Slate, Senses of Cinema, DMovies, and many ...

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