East and West: Director’s Statement
There will always be an attraction between these two parts of the world - a love hate relationship of fascination and misunderstanding full of stereotypes and clichés that travel both ways.
I envisage ROOM TO RENT as a street-wise, offbeat comedy that reflects the paradox between the Arab district of Edgware Road and the indigenous bustle of London.
When I first came to England from Egypt ten years ago, I discovered that my preconceptions of England were all wrong. It was a long time before I understood, or thought I understood, what the British are really like.
My emotional journey in England has been filled with discovery, like a child lost in a fairground. I have learnt a great deal from renting different rooms in various houses in London. By mixing with the British in their own environments and absorbing myself in a different way of life, I have rid myself of all the clichés I had stored up over the years.
My main discovery has been just how individual and eccentric the British are. In Egypt lives are much the same, but the British people inhabit separate worlds. In the different rooms I rented over the years, I met a variety of people who all lived in a different space and time from each other - some were living in the shadow of the 60s or 70s, some were hyperpunk, whilst others were deeply conservative.
These differences between people in Britain often show in the chosen interiors of their houses - the worlds they make for themselves. For me at least, the overall effect has been at times highly coloured and even dreamlike. The production design reflects the desired heightened sense of colour and inner life of the characters and the main character Ali, by taking him through unusual locations in Soho, the East End, the Arab quarter and the gay scene in London.
I wanted to make a film that reflected the experience and showed the impact it had on an Egyptian Moslem man and a writer-director. I think I have discovered more about myself by living here. I have become less judgmental and have learnt to respect all kinds of lifestyles. At the same time though, I get tired of being on the receiving end of a stereotype - of being taken for an exotic man coming from an exotic country full of myth and mystery. It is very hard to prove that whether black, brown or green, you are just a man who has dreams and ambitions like everyone else.
For me the style is similar to the films of Pedro Almodovar - the fast, comedic rhythm, the weird offbeat characters and the heightened sense of reality. I have used a mixture of Western and Arabic music to reflect both the world that our main character has come from, and the seedy nightlife in London that he explores.
Our main character's desperate search for love and the excitement of the new places he visits and lives in, are reflected in the camera work by employing a mixture of steadycam and hand-held, in addition to static camera - ultimately creating a designed, stylised feel. The editing is sharp and rhythmic, reflecting the sense of urgency and desperation our main character Ali experiences - time is running out for Ali, as his visa is about to expire
In ROOM TO RENT I have written a comedy about my journey in England - a journey that has been a search for understanding, for acceptance and for love. I believe that everyone has an empty room in their heart for love and we just need a tenant to occupy that space.
-Khaled El Hagar
Writer/Director Khaled El Hagar came to the UK from Egypt ten years ago and completed a postgraduate course at the National Film School where he met producer Ildiko Kemeny who was also studying there. Says Kemeny: "After we left film school Khaled and I wanted to work together and talked about a few different ideas for scripts. We took our ideas to Ben Gibson, then Head of Production at the BFI who liked them, but was more interested in hearing about Khaled's experiences of starting out in London, which he always presented in a very amusing way - and that's how the idea for ROOM TO RENT was born."
El Hagar started to think about how he could present his experiences in an interesting and entertaining way: "The story could have been a bleak and disturbing exposé of the life of an immigrant in London, but I wanted to tell Ali's story with humour and heart. I believe that an audience might respond better to such a potentially political narrative if it is told in a light, fun style since this is such an important part of life. It is a departure for me, since my previous work has always been challenging in a more direct manner. "
"Coming from Egypt to live in London opened my eyes in a way I never thought possible," continues El Hagar. "The emotion in the film is autobiographical as are various aspects of the narrative. I used to teach bellydancing, my roots are in writing, I have done voiceovers, moved from flat to flat and lived with a variety of interesting and colourful characters. I believe in fate and destiny and that was the inspiration for the Miss Stevenson character. "
El Hagar enjoyed the challenge of putting his life onto paper: "I love the visual feeling that can be created through words and the emotion that comes out of this. I love writing because it grows with me. I feel very privileged that I can constantly analyse myself in this manner and hopefully learn from it. " Adds Kemeny, "Amanda Mackenzie Stuart's (co-writer and co-producer) contribution was also absolutely essential. She was able to take Khaled's ideas and communicate some of the details and nuances about the English way of life. " Adds Mackenzie Stuart: "The film is partly about East meeting West, and the discussions between Khaled and I frequently reflected that. I think he found my Western perspective helpful. I certainly discovered a vast amount about his Eastern one and found his view of London most refreshing. "
Kemeny continues: "Khaled has such a sense of humour and warmth towards his very difficult experiences of trying to make it in this country. He is a brilliant film maker who was determined to make an English language film, and his background has put such a great twist into this story. " El Hagar is very appreciative of Kemeny's support: "Ildiko believed in the project from the beginning and her belief in it always encouraged me to continue. "
The film was financed by the Film Consortium (with money from the lottery and FilmFour) and Canal + in France with IMA Films as the French co-producers.
Casting was critical for the role of Ali since the character had to appear vulnerable, but not a victim. El Hagar was working as a voiceover artist on Hideous Kinky (1998) when he discovered 3: "I was watching the film and realised that there was Ali - his look, his movements and an energy which makes you want to follow him and watch his story. "
Says Taghmaoui: "I loved the script, the construction, the energy, the way of thinking, the colour and especially the subject. When I read it I felt that Ali was me, and that I had been through so many of the experiences about which I was reading. In fact, I believed in the project so much that I was able to help secure the French co-producer on the film. " Adds Kemeny: "Saïd introduced us to Marina Gefter at Ima Films who became a crucial partner to the setting up the Anglo-French co-production. "
El Hagar is delighted with Taghmaoui's performance: "I wanted to make Ali sympathetic and lovable so that we are interested in his journey without any sense of bitterness or sadness. When I was starting out in London I never gave up my dreams and I want an audience to feel like that about Ali. Saïd is very much like the character in that he loves life and never gives up although he's very serious about what he wants to achieve. He is also a very sharp and instinctive actor. "
Adds El Hagar: "Ali starts off like a manchild and grows up during the film to become a man by accepting his fate, understanding more about himself through his involvement in other people's lives and accepting that he is a foreigner. In this way he can play with his exoticism and manipulate the way people respond to him in a positive manner. "
Juliette Lewis was very pleased to take on the role of Linda: "I was keen to work in Europe on a comedy, and very excited to play a womanly woman, and you can't get more exaggerated a female than a Marilyn Monroe impersonator. I wanted the essence of Linda to parallel that of Monroe - a vulnerability and an uncomfortableness with oneself. I watched a couple of documentaries on her and some of her movies just to get a sense of her enthusiasm. "
Lewis also enjoyed the challenge of the song and dance routine she had to perform in the film: "I did all the singing myself and choreographed a few steps for Linda to do. I've never had to perform to a live audience and I was a little nervous, but luckily they were very appreciative so my first experience worked out well for me. "
But for Lewis it was the chance to work with El Hagar that made her take the role: "Khaled is a beautiful director. I talked to him on the phone and I knew that we would get on - he believes in magic like I do. He has many different viewpoints and understands people's sensibilities just like in the script. He tells a unique story with such style that I was really enthused to work with him. "
Says El Hagar: "I have personally been very fascinated by Marilyn Monroe since childhood because of her star quality. She has always represented a symbol of Western womanhood and sexuality although she is an illusion. Linda, on the other hand, has a struggle in her own life and takes on this new identity to escape her unresolved issues. By the end of the film, she realises that she can only become a successful actress if she faces up to her life and allows herself to emerge. "
He continues: "Juliette was my first choice and she is a very clever and great technical actress. She liked the aspect of hiding behind Marilyn Monroe and gave the character a very interesting dimension. She's very giving as an actress and played three different performances for each scene - one would be exaggerated, the other more normal and the third very understated. In this way the character could be created more effectively during editing. She is very warm, talented and a pleasure to work with. "
Rupert Graves worked with El Hagar on 'Fortunes of War': "I wrote the part with Rupert in mind. I really enjoy working with him, he's like a breath of fresh air, always happy and modest and an excellent actor", says El Hagar. He adds, "Mark was an important role because I wanted to show that you find your own identity by spending time with people who are unlike yourself. When I first came to England I had confused views regarding different sexualities and lifestyles and I fought to make peace with everybody and not judge people as they might judge me. Ali has to become friends with his own homophobia and his own fears as represented by Mark. "
Graves enjoyed his experience on the film: "Khaled is a great director. He gives the actors a lot of licence to explore and do their own thing. He never imposes his vision onto you, gives you a lot of space to explore and is very intelligent and humane". On working with Taghamaoui he adds, "Saïd did a lot of boxing when he was younger and he comes onto set with the same kind of power. He has a tremendous energy which I find very inspiring and you can spark off him very easily. "
For El Hagar, Miss Stevenson "represents fate. Ali in his previous incarnation ran away from his fate and now he must face it and it will help him to grow. I always saw this character as blind, as a metaphor for her very strong belief that she must wait for her lover to return. She is so steadfast in her resolve that she doesn't want to see any other man. " The Writer/Director felt that there was a special bond between Taghmaoui and Anna Massey: "Anna played the role in a very elegant way and Saïd was always very sweet with her, treating her almost like Miss Stevenson as they laughed and joked together. I felt that they had a very spiritual link. "
Adds Massey: "It's a joy to work with Saïd - he's very alive, full of ideas, fresh, open and spontaneous. It's good for the young and old to act together and he gives so much as an actor. " Massey is also full of praise for El Hagar: "I love the character that Khaled has created - Miss Stevenson is an adorable woman - very brave, serene and full of belief and warmth. Khaled is a delight to work with. He brings an enormous understanding, sympathy and a warm sense of humour to all of his work. "
Says El Hagar: "ROOM TO RENT is the first film by an Arabic film maker about Arabic people living in London. I hope that it will make people aware of all the communities that live side by side in the metropolis. "
The look of the film
ROOM TO RENT was filmed over six weeks on location in London during October and November 1999.
El Hagar had never made a comedy before and wanted to create a rich setting which fused Western and Eastern culture and colour. He spent time in Soho embracing a colourful side to London living, and read a lot of books, being particularly inspired by the work of French artists Pierre & Gilles. He says: "I wanted to use kitsch and cliché in an artistic way and make it fun. Egypt is vibrant in its colours and there is an element of this in London too. I had no desire to portray the gloomy side of London that is so often seen in film but rather the vivacity that it also possesses. London is an exciting place and I wanted to celebrate its life and colours. "
Romain Winding, the Director of Photography, Eli Bø, the Production Designer and Janice Rider, the Costume Designer helped El Hagar to achieve his desired look: "I did not want Romain, Eli and Janice to be intimidated by colour but to use it to create an exotic melting pot between Western and Eastern cultures. Romain is fantastic and a pleasure to work with and Eli really understood what I wanted to achieve. The fact that Romain is French and Eli is Norwegian with an African background helped to influence the colour and culture of the piece. In fact, the crew came from so many different nationalities that the set became like the film - a cultural fusion. "
Adds Winding: "When I initially met Khaled the first thing we talked about was colour. The film had to be bright but never aggressive. We wanted to surround the colour with gold, almost like fauvist painting in a golden frame. I think that the colours blend together in a very impressionistic way. Khaled is the kind of director who has a real point of view on visuals and that's why working with him was an absolute pleasure. "
Eli Bø's work was inspired by "the enormous variety of people that populate London who all have different outlooks. It was very important to present this in a heightened, colourful way that was realistic but not entirely naturalistic - a sort of fairytale. I wanted to present the city through the eyes of Ali, this naïve, excited, energetic visitor, and create a London that was exotic as seen through his eyes. "
Janice Rider is a costume designer and fine artist of twenty years standing. Married to El Hagar, she wanted to explore "the themes of cultural diversity and the foreigner's experience in exile, which fascinate me. Having spent some time in Egypt I was able to directly reference hues and shapes found in contemporary Egyptian life, as well as referring back to ancient traditions and Orientalism, and the way in which eastern and western culture is often misinterpreted or reinterpreted by the other. "
The film was shot in a variety of locations around central London. Says Kemeny: "Whilst it was a challenge to shoot on location, especially in Soho and the Edgware Road, it was definitely worth it. I love our title sequence. It's a wonderful display of exotic colours, people and Arabic signs which make you feel that you must be in an Arabic city. Suddenly a red double decker bus cuts through the action and you realise that you must be in London. It's fantastic for Londoners to have access to all these different cultures. "
Music in the film
El Hagar was keen to use a mixture of Arabic and Western music in the film. "I am delighted that Safy Boutella has composed the score for the film. He has created such varied work which can appeal to everybody and enhance the cultural melting pot, which is seen on the screen. "
Kemeny was also delighted with Boutella's collaboration: "A Moroccan, living in Paris, Safy has brought another dimension to the film with his fantastic brand of RAI music." Adds El Hagar: "In addition the West is becoming more and more familiar with Arabic music since it is easy to listen to and has an interesting exoticism about it. As people become more aware of different types of music, their life is enriched through these new experiences. "
Starring Saïd Taghmaoui, Juliette Lewis, Rupert Graves and Anna Massey, ROOM TO RENT is written and directed by Khaled El Hagar and co-written by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart. Ildiko Kemeny produces the film through Renegade Films, with Marina Gefter and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart as co-producers.