TIFF 2019: ‘Certified Mail’ Director Hisham Saqr On Attitudes Towards Mental Health In Egypt

Hisham Saqr is an Egyptian filmmaker who has worked as an editor on films such as Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter Of Discontent and Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone.

In his directorial debut, Certified Mail, Saqr tells the story of a new mother as she struggles with parenthood, adjusting to life with an imprisoned husband, and her own mental health. Certified Mail will have its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on 6 September.

Q: What is the attitude towards mental health in Egyptian society? Is there support for people like Hala?

A: There exist grave misconceptions towards those with mental illnesses in Egypt, especially for women.

Generally, there is little to no education regarding the definition of mental illnesses and how to deal with those who suffer from them. This ultimately leads to the underestimation and dismissal of individuals suffering with postpartum depression, and depression in general. In some cases there’s support from families and friends, but this support doesn’t come without flaws and generalisations. 

Q: Has mental health impacted your life in any way?

A: Anxiety and depression have been unwelcome companions for me for years. I have invested a lot of time in researching and creating coping mechanisms in order to understand and live with them, and then ultimately build a fictional world where I can make sense of them.

Q: Can you tell us more about the film’s lead character – Hala – and the struggles she faces in the film?

A: Hala is a typical middle-class new mother who’s suffering from postnatal depression and fear of abandonment after losing her beloved father.

While in this state, her husband suddenly leaves her due to uncontrollable circumstances and she finds herself having to cope with and face her mental issue, responsibilities and life on her own.

Q: What interested you about having a female central character?

My choice to have a female central character has nothing to do with ideology and everything to do with biology.

Since I was a teenager I have felt that every human being has a feminine and a masculine side. While it is more acceptable for women to embrace their inner male, it is entirely unacceptable for men to embrace their female side. I wanted to explore my feminine side and express feelings that we normally are programmed by society to repress. 

‘Certified Mail’

Q: How did you work with Basma (who plays Hala) to understand this character and capture the mental health issues she is battling?

A: Basma is an extremely talented, smart and lovable personality. The main challenge was that she has never experienced what Hala is going through, which was shocking to me because I had never really imagined that there were people that have never experienced anxiety.

We worked on her character for over a year and Basma exceeded my expectations tremendously. I feel she captured the spirit of the character in a genuine and deep manner. 

Q: You’ve worked on numerous films as an editor, but this is your debut feature. How did it feel to be directing? Did you enjoy the process?

A: I’ve always felt that I had stories inside of me that I wanted to tell.

My first foray into filmmaking was through editing and I took every opportunity that came my way to learn and hone my skills as a storyteller. When I felt I was ready and had the skills to tell my story, I decided to write Certified Mail and proceed to bring it to life. I wholly enjoyed the process and learned a great deal about myself, filmmaking and life.

Q: ‘Certified Mail’ will have its world premiere at TIFF 2019. What are your thoughts heading into the festival?

A: It’s a great opportunity to share the film with an audience, especially the TIFF audience which I’ve always heard is one of the best audiences in the world. This opportunity makes the hell of challenges I faced while making Certified Mail totally worth it. 

Q: What impact do you hope this film has both in Egypt and internationally?

A: I hope audiences in Egypt and internationally can connect with the film and feel less lonely while watching Hala’s narrative of finding hope and inner strength to face life’s difficulties.  

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