Heliopolis, a city in Egypt on the outskirts of Cairo, was at one time in ancient history referred to as “City of the Sun.” It is ironic then that this city, named after the planet’s light source, would be a dark place of stagnant policy and outdated systems — a place desperately in need of illumination.
Christine Solomon grew up in Egypt and moved to Canada at age 7. She stars in the Ahmad Abdalla’s “Heliopolis,” a film that chronicles five modern Egyptian children over the course of a full day, with each trying to achieve a different goal and struggling to do so. The actress portrays a gothic woman stuck in a hotel in the city of Heliopolis, providing much of the comic relief in the film.
Solomon grew up speaking French and English in Montreal. It wasn’t until she attended the Cairo International Film Festival in 2006 and got her “big break,” that she started to seriously perfect her Arabic and jump feet first into the Middle Eastern film arena.
Five months after attending the festival, Christine moved to Cairo. For a year and a half, she pursued her goals of landing movie roles and gaining fluency in her ethnic language. A determined student, Solomon forced herself to speak only in Arabic. She sought to learn words of emotion and feeling from anyone and anything around her — like hotel concierges and cab drivers. These tactics proved quite successful and now this young actress is frequently invited to interview with Arabic magazines and appear on Arabic television shows.
“Egypt is the Hollywood of the Middle East. If you want to make it (in Middle Eastern film) you have to go there” Solomon said in a recent interview with Blast. While living in Egypt, she renovated and lived in the apartment of her deceased grandmother, a home that had not been occupied in 19 years. “I lived with my Aunt for two months and then decided I wanted to live on my own, it was easier. In Egyptian culture, family likes to be together all the time. I wanted to focus on my work and needed my space.”
Solomon described having difficulties with the culture, even the men renovating her apartment resented a woman giving them orders.
“Heliopolis” (which will be presented during the Toronto International Film Festival running from September 10-19) has a paradoxically Western feel to it, according to the actress. “It has a Woody Allen style to it,” Solomon said, “completely different from other Egyptian films.”
The movie’s setting and storyline introduce the Egyptian cultural and societal systems to the mainstream. “The essential message is that everyone is striving to get to their goals and nothing happens,” Solomon said. “The message is that the system needs to change.”
For a film from which great things were not the least expected, “Heliopolis” shows promise, and you could hear it loud and clear in Solomon’s voice. “Everyone on board just felt there was something special about it,” she said. “I have never seen anything like this in Egypt.”
Solomon said some people around her initially expressed doubt about the film “In the beginning some people told me not to get involved, because it isn’t a box office film, but I felt something special,” she said. “I didn’t care about what people said. I think that is what made it special. All the actors understood this. It’s like Slumdog Millionaire … It has a powerful message.”
A powerful message, a powerful comparison, and only time will tell on the film. But for Solomon, the significance in the film’s message is poignant. There are 80 million people living in Egypt, and most of them live near Cairo. Because of the sheer volume of the masses, as Solomon puts it, “things are really slow.” The hope is for the film to raise awareness among the young Egyptian population.
Born in the Middle East, raised in Canada, and having traveled all over the world, Solomon said her ultimate goal is “serenity and peace.” Being a part of this story is one step in this quest.
“Heliopolis” will premiere at both the 2009 Toronto and Vancouver International Film Festivals. It will release December 1 in Egypt. No American release plans have been announced.