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UNT professor brings awareness to injustices in Egypt through her award-winning film ‘489 Days’

UNT professor brings awareness to injustices in Egypt through her award-winning film ‘489 Days’

UNT professor brings awareness to injustices in Egypt through her award-winning film ‘489 Days’
April 10
12:00 2020

From March 25-29, Denton held its annual Thin Line Festival, an event for musicians, filmmakers and photographers from all over the globe. Due to the effects of the coronavirus, the music portion of the festival was canceled with the filmmakers and photographers moving their hard work to an all-digital format.

One of the films streamed online for the festival was the Denton documentary “489 Days,” a film by Rania Elmalky, a UNT adjunct professor in the Department of Media Arts and former journalist.

The film chronicles the incarceration of Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan, who survived 16 months of hunger strike in an Egyptian prison. Emalky, who was previously a journalist working in Egypt, recently interviewed Soltan after he visited UNT.

“The public uprising in Egypt was the height of my journalistic career,” Elmalky said. “I wrote for Daily News Egypt, which was a publishing partner of the now New York Times.”

Along with Soltan’s story, the film also documents the 60,000 political prisoners who remain incarcerated today, whom Emalky said were jailed for doing something as simple as speaking their mind.

“Politically, it was a difficult time to be a journalist,” Elmalky said. “It was exhausting. I had a child, too.”

After her publication shut down, Elmalky stepped aside and started teaching at the American University in Cairo. She also worked a corporate job for a little bit before eventually pursuing her true passion for filmmaking.

“That was when I decided to transition to something that I would want to do for the rest of my life,” Elmalky said. “I did a lot of soul-searching around this time. I found documentary filmmaking at the university and I dropped everything to pursue it. I quit my job, everything.”

Elmalky said she decided if she was going to pursue this, she was going to do it right. She transitioned to UNT for her MFA program and has now been teaching documentary filmmaking for three semesters.

Elmalky recruited Denton artist Randall M. Good to help with the artistic process of the film. After getting Soltan to come to UNT and do a green screen interview, Elmalky decided rotoscoping would be the best animation technique to use. She explained that rotoscoping still keeps the animations attached to reality and also doesn’t completely leave the interview to the imagination of the filmmaker.

“The pieces I did were rapidly depicted scenes of some of the more horrific, symbolic or poignant moments,” Good said. “It was a conscious decision to make everything depicted in shades of black, white, greys and reds and in a style that was rapid, sketchy and visceral.”

Elmalky had taken care of the rotoscoping, which was mostly used in the depictions of Solton’s face during the interview. She said she had a vision in mind from the start of the film, with Good being a valuable asset to the illustrative aspects of the film.

“Overall, the style evokes a feeling that these images are like renderings from the frontline,” Good said. “They read like nightmares, or memories, or even cathartic exercises from post-trauma therapy.”

Along with illustrations, the film had an original score reminiscent of Egyptian scales and harmonies, but also maintained a Western influence. The score came from Kirsten Broberg, a composer and associate professor of composition at UNT.

“I have always dreamt of composing for film, as I am extremely passionate about films and film music,” Broberg said. “I discovered an Egyptian scale that had the same pitches as a popular Western scale, but they simply had different tonics, so I composed themes from that harmonic perspective.”

Broberg decided to utilize a string trio of violin, viola and cello for the minimalistic sounds of the score. She also added percussion, she said, for a bit of drama and flavor.

“The most challenging part was the timeline,” Broberg said. “I had about a day to write the music, once I received the film, and we were recording it the next day.”

The film won Best Denton Documentary at the end of Thin Line Festival, and received a cash sponsorship.

“This award means so much to me,” Elmalky said. “I received an email from my subject, and he told me how proud he was of me and how much he loved it.”

Elmalky said she wanted her passion for shedding light on the turmoil in Egypt and other dictated countries to present itself through the film, along with her other collaborators.

“It was a true Denton documentary, a collaboration between many talented artists in Denton,” Elmalky said. “It really did emerge from the city.”

Featured image: Courtesy Rania Elmalky

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Nick Lawrence

Nick Lawrence

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