Reading the synopsis of At Titi’s Balcony, I was very intrigued by the idea of having an Egyptian from Iskra, the country’s very first Communist movement in the 20th century, to reflect on the country’s current affairs, and I hoped for an alternative attempt to historicise this poorly documented era of Egyptian history. With such an objective in mind, after watching it, I was disappointed; but, on the other hand, I was pleased with the very sincere and rich personal documentary by director Yasmina Benari on her subject: the Jewish-Egyptian Communist Albert Arie, otherwise known as Titi.
Benari’s “experience” with Titi, as she prefers to call it, comes from her effort to discover her past, heritage, and the history of her family.
“I first came to Egypt in 2001 with an obsession of finding my family heritage, because my father and whole family never received the nationality,” Benari said. Her father was an Egyptian Jew from Mizrahi origins who left Egypt before she was born. The artist-director’s vision was “to repair their loss, and to understand what the reality was then, and what their life was”.
The film centres in Titi’s cosmopolitan, high-ceiling flat in Cairo’s cosmopolitan downtown on Al-Bustan street. The flat, which overlooks Tahrir Square, has been owned by Titi’s family since the 1930s—he still lives there.
Benari documented this encounter in her film. Coming from an artistic background that included sculpture, photography, film, and other media, the film showed the director leaning towards installations and video art. That is why the film should be seen as more of a video installation, “where you can invite some to a space and create an experience for that person intellectual, physical, and emotional”.
And Benari did very well in making this experience a rich one. Her usage of Titi’s personal photos and his family’s in their balcony narrates the history, progress, and losses the family went through. Several of the scenes are filmed in and from the balcony. To the extent that it becomes our eye to the outside world, outside Titi’s flat. We see protesters coming, leaving, and chanting at Tahrir Square.
This footage of the balcony merged with Titi’s reflections on the first communist movement, his family history, the uprisings in Egypt, the naivety of the current Egyptian youth, and how they were overrun and deceived by the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a Marxist by heart.
One of my favourite scenes shows protesters from the balcony chanting against the Ministry of Interior. And the following shot shows Titi holding his metal shackles that he wore for years when he was imprisoned. He shakes them, and asks Benari to imagine the symphonic sound that might be produced when hundreds of detainees are moving with such shackles.
In addition, more than 90% of the film was shot in close-up. Titi appears from the eyes of Benari, enhancing the personal experience between the two.
For orthodox and old school documentary filmmakers and fans, At Titi’s Balcony can be accused of being weak work with several holes in the middle, as a result of the director’s lack of vision. However, the documentary in my opinion was not made to either document Titi’s life as a Jewish Egyptian man who hasn’t migrated, from a nationalist cosmopolitan approach, or as a communist who participated in the movement’s first activities and lived to see the later movements.
“I don’t have rules when it comes to film. I like to be free. And that is why it was hard to edit it. To move from the year 1941 to the 1977 uprising, to Titi, to the action in Tahrir,” Benari explained, expressing the difficulty of the editing process.
As far as Benari knows, her father’s life could have been similar to that to Titi’s had he stayed in Cairo. The film captures the encounters between someone who is looking to investigate the past and someone who interestingly reflects and compares between both the past and the present. “He opened my eyes to many things, and I opened his eyes to many things,” she added.
In the film, she tries to relate to her identity as an Egyptian—an identity that she is proud of. After months of roaming through Egypt’s bureaucratic buildings to extract a national Egyptian ID, she says: “Passport and papers are not important. I know who I am. I love this country even more that my own. I have Egyptian blood. Part of me is Egyptian.”