Nefertiti’s Daughters

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Mark Nickolas

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

I wouldn’t say others have influenced me as much as they’ve inspired me. We all try to develop our own aesthetic, approach, and style, and not mimic what others have done well. But certainly Errol Morris has opened my eyes to what is possible as a documentary filmmaker. More recently, the work of Jehane Noujaim and Laura Poitras have had a great impression as far as how to bring to life current events as they unfold.


Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?

The challenges were numerous, both as far as getting official press credentials from Egyptian authorities to film in the country, as well as the near impossibility of pulling out a camera in public and attempting to shoot any exteriors, despite having an official government representative along with us. Separately, given the growingly repressive climate in the country when we were filming, some of the artists and activists that we approached about participating in the projects declined.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

I want audiences to witness how street art has played a vital role throughout history during times of political transformation and social instability, and how ancient Egyptian history is incorporated directly into the work, appropriating styles from Pharaonic times including the great Queen Nefertiti, whose image becomes a rallying cry for women in the yet-to-be-completed Egyptian revolution. The street art memorializes acts of government brutality, serves as a call-to-arms for women, turns the tables on the male predators, and even makes us all imagine a world where a woman would be permitted to sing the sacred Adhan (the Muslim call for prayer).


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

  1. That the oppression against all opposition voices (artistic or journalistic) have essentially been eliminated since the film was completed in mid-2014.
  2. Despite the international acclaim that her work continues to garner, the main subject of the film (Bahia Shehab) is no longer able to do art in her own country and is forced to travel abroad to continue her efforts.
  3. The Egyptian journalist in the film (Shahira Amin) has been the subject of a harsh government crackdown as an opposition journalist. As I write this, she is awaiting verdict on charges of being “a threat to national security.”


Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Things have deteriorated badly for the artists and activists since we completed filming in May 2014. Following a military coup in June 2013 of the democratically-elected government of President Mohamed Morsi, the military quickly resumed tight control of the country. Barely two months after we finished filming in Cairo, the military general (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) won the election he set and became its new president.
As a result, the crackdown on all opposition voices — be they artistic or journalistic — has been more aggressive than anything under the Mubarak regime. As of writing this, the prominent Egyptian journalist in the film (Shahira Amin) has been tried for being a “threat to national security” simply for truthfully reporting on the government’s crackdown on journalists. She is awaiting the verdict in her case, leaving many of us concerned that she may join her colleagues in prison.
The main artist subject of the film — Bahia Shehab — has been forced to cease all artwork inside her own country (as have her colleagues), and is now required to travel abroad to continue her work.


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

While I would like to say there are outlets for involvement for those who feel strongly about this subject, the sad truth is that the Egyptian government has shown complete disinterest over the objections of the international community — even traditional allies like the United States. Human rights groups have been barred from doing their work and even defense lawyers are being arrested simply for their clientele.
The most important take away for viewers is, simply, to be educated on the subject and talk with others about it.


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):

(film website)


What motivated you to make this film?

The idea for “Nefertiti’s Daughters” grew out of watching the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world and how politically-charged graffiti and street art played such a prominent role as an act of social resistance. As someone who came to filmmaking after years in American politics, I was fascinated by the revolutionary aspect of this form of expression and how, through the simple act of writing on walls, these artists communicated their society’s hopes, dreams and demands.
But as the project evolved, I was drawn to the story of the women — both the courageous artists and activists, as well as the women’s issues that became a focus of some of the most important works of street art.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story. 

The only specific style that was used was in post-production color. The exterior footage was more heavily tinted blue/green, while interior interviews and footage were left more natural. This was done to highlight the contradiction that exists between interior (private) lives that are largely left untouched by the Egyptian government, and the exterior (public) lives that are always under constant surveillance and repression.


Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

The greatest takeaway from making this film is the realization that this American male filmmaker had no understanding what real courage and bravery is. Spending time with this artists and activists, as they told their story with the understanding that their government could imprison for doing so, was a lesson that I will never forget.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

Panasonic AF-100 and AG-160 HD video cameras, and Canon 5D Mark III. Mainly because my cinematographer feels most comfortable with HV video cameras and I’m more comfortable with a DSLR.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

The story evolved from a shorter general focus on revolutionary street art as a communications device, to a longer and more specific one that looks at it through the lens of three prominent women artists whose ages span three decades, and whose work illuminates their perspective of the world, while giving us a window into how each sees the struggles of their country and, often, their gender.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

The most rewarding experience of making this film actually happened after it was completed — it was the incredible reaction that Bahia Shehab (the main subject of the film) received from 500 people inside Wheeler Opera House when she was in attendance, and later on stage, at the film’s World Premiere at Aspen Shortsfest in April 2015.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Since all of these projects are so unique and demand very different approaches and styles, it’s critical to find a sweet spot between having a strong sense of the story you intend to tell while remaining open and flexible to new themes that reveal themselves and force you to re-shape your original narrative.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

Simply, my favorite part of the process is the finished work and our ability as filmmakers to shine a light on an important story that the public may not be aware of that then positively adds to their body of knowledge about the world that they live in.


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

My Canon 5D Mark III camera, so that I’m always ready.



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