Two Pittsburgh filmmakers are drawing on their own experiences to help spark some of those conversations. In their new short film The Sailor, Ahmed Ragheb and Lily Ekimian have provided an immigrant’s view of the city, centering on an Egyptian person living in Pittsburgh.
The film was chosen to screen at the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, now happening in Minnesota until Sept. 29, and was also selected for the upcoming Muslim Film Festival in Australia.
With no on-screen characters, the film uses poetic images and abstract observations, and is described in a press release as a “cinematic postcard that explores the contradictory nature of the immigrant experience: at once lonely, frightening, and exhilarating.”
These feelings are fully realized in the film’s short 10-minute runtime, seeming to draw on the real lives of Ragheb and Ekimian.
“It’s hard to say what exactly from both my life experience and Lily’s left its mark on the film, but we both know what it’s like to question our cultural identity,” says Ragheb, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, where he and Ekimian met while attending school. “We both lived in Egypt, and we both live in Pittsburgh, but obviously our experiences in both places differ vastly. Perhaps our film exists in the space between those differences.”
That space in between is represented through the conflicted narrator. He speaks in sentences that all begin with the same few phrases, including “The houses here are” or “The neighborhood I live in is.” The rest of each sentence conveys confusion and contradictions, expressing joy at his new surroundings as well as profound loneliness.
“The film is essentially comprised of six sentences, spoken in Egyptian Arabic, shown as separate chapters,” says Ekimian. “Within each chapter, our character phrases, re-phrases, then rewrites his observations and statements until finally comfortable with the structure and presentation of his sentence. With each rephrasing, he reveals something new, some truth about his situation and his feelings towards himself and, not only his new home but the one he left behind.”
This unique and dreamlike representation of Pittsburgh gives new life to familiar places and objects in the city.
“Visually, we tried to capture the city in a fragmented fashion,” Ekimian says. “The Pittsburgh of The Sailor is one that is empty; the people are hidden from view, even our character. Though, even without people, there are signs of life.”
The two filmmakers call the film a truly international production, with filming taking place in Pittsburgh, music production in Chicago, and translation and voice-over acting in Cairo. The poster even features a detail of a painting by Ragheb’s grandfather, Egyptian poster artist, painter, and photographer Mohamed Ragheb.
The Sailor is the latest effort from Ragheb and Ekimian, who co-founded and run The Pittsburgher, an online arts and culture magazine, and a film production platform called Dog Door Films. Previously, they produced and directed music videos for Daniel Knox and The Handsome Family, as well as a series of short films. They also completed their feature debut, Portrait, defined as an experimental documentary.
While the Pittsburgh film scene has grown, mostly thanks to incoming big-budget studio projects, it needs to better represent the array of voices, cultures, and experiences that make up the city, something Ragheb and Ekimian are doing with The Sailor.
“We’ve been so heartened by the fact that the film has been accepted all over the world because the ideas behind the film are universal”, says Ekimian. “Most people know what it’s like to feel out of place, whether they’re physically dislocated or not.”