Interview with Mohamed Hefzy

Mohamed Hefzy is fighting the good fight for Arab cinema. His company Film Clinic has played a prominent role in the revival of a new wave of Arab Cinema
Mohamed Hefzy - March 2018 cover feature interview with Digital Studio
Mohamed Hefzy - March 2018 cover feature interview with Digital Studio

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Mohamed Hefzy has managed to establish himself as one of the most prominent scriptwriters and producers in the Arab world over the last ten years. In 2005, he founded Film Clinic as a development and production company, and in 10 years, his company has already produced and co-produced over 20 feature films in Egypt, the US, the UK and the Arab world, working mostly with first time directors. In 2013, he was the only Arab to be selected by Screen International magazine as one of the most influential filmmakers in the film production category.

Surprisingly for a leading figure in the renaissance of Arab cinema, Mohamed Hefzy actually has a degree in Metallurgical Engineering from a London university. However it was his time spent in London which exposed him to world cinema and inspired the desire to get into filmmaking. “I always had a desire to write and tell stories. Even in school I was quite good at creative writing. I fell in love with theatre and classic plays so I naturally enrolled in acting courses. And then when I went to London to study at university, I became more drawn to cinema and filmmaking. I began to take an interest in cinema including world cinema.”

“I decided to write a film that I wanted to produce independently and direct the film. My first effort at writing was with the intention of directing the film and I never made the film but that script ended up being the reason I got my first professional job in the industry. I’ve written quite a few films since then, and had good success in scriptwriting before being able to make the transition into production.”
Who were as the regional influences that most inspired his love for telling stories through film? “My inspiration comes from different sources including world cinema and regional cinema,” says Hefzy. “In Egyptian cinema, I’ve always been a fan of directors like Kamal El Shaikh who was one of the great Egyptian directors. In more modern times people like Mohamed khan who I had the pleasure of working with on his last film.” (Before the Summer Crowds in 2015)

Looking back on the early years of his career, Hefzy says that era represents a low point for cinema in Egypt. “Egyptian cinema had a really tough era in the 90s and the decade following the resurgence of the Egyptian industry which happened 10-15 years ago. In the 90s it was quite a bad decade for Egyptian cinema and there was very little work, and so there was a new generation who did not have the guidance and the training from the generation of the old masters of Egyptian cinema.”

In the late 1970s and 1980s, cinema became a more commercial enterprise and the popularity of TV grew, with series produced to be shown over Ramadan becoming the focus for many the studios that previously produced the great films of the 50s and 60s. “Even in the 80s there were some really good talents that did not get fully realized,” says Hefzy. “So there was a gap – That gap was a problem because even though the industry went through a resurgence around 15 years ago but creatively there was still a big gap. There was a hunger for making cinema but the stories that were being told were not necessarily the original stories or good stories. The challenge was how to get more people interested as independent filmmakers and writers and directors, and how to get them support to make that kind of cinema.”

Hefzy feels there is a need for more government support for cinema. “There has been very little government support over the past few years and that is a problem. Because independent filmmakers and young filmmakers who are doing their first or second film, have to rely on their own resources and friends to get those film made and they are making films on a very low budget. And then it becomes almost impossible to make the films that can reach a wide audience.”

FILM CLINIC: THE NEW WAVE

Hefzy is leading the way in bringing about a change to this situation. He is today driving the new resurgence of Arab cinema with Film Clinic, changing the way films are produced and distributed in the region. Hefzy realised that all the audience really needs is creativity and fresh ideas.

Popular Egyptian cinema was stuck in a rut - suffering from a perpetual repetition of the same formulas, each time with less successful results, However no big distributor was going to take the chance with young filmmakers. Hefzy knew if done right, he could create a structured system and bring together the resources that would allow new talent the opportunity to make a name for themselves and build an audience - “even if it’s a small audience
that grows with time.”

Film Clinic was to become the vehicle that would supply talented new filmmakers with that opportunity. The digital age meant that directors had the means to make films without the backing of the big studios – technology had advanced enough that even with small digital cameras or DSLRs, directors like Ibrahim Al Batout and Ahmed Abdalla could make high quality films like ‘Ein Shams’ and ‘Microphone – produced by Hefzy in 2010. These films represented the beginnings of the Egyptian independent cinema new wave, and Film Clinic has gone on be a launching pad for many new directors who have since made their mark in regional and international cinema.

DISCOVERING NEW TALENT

Hefzy's record of discovering new talent and getting the best out of young film-makers is remarkable. In a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post, Hefzy said, “I’ve been lucky, I get people just knocking on my door that I think are really talented and really good.” But his record of discovering new talent and getting the best of our young filmmakers is remarkable.

How does he evaluate a first time director that he wants to work with? “Obviously, I look at their track record in making short films and I look at their choice of scripts. What script did they bring me? How do they see the script in their mind, and how they plan to make it and use the technology to tell the story in the best way?” “I look at their personality – do they have the traits of a good director, do they have the leadership, the vision and good communication skills. And then the script is so vital - How is it going to be made with the resources available?” continued Hefzy.

In an earlier chat with Insight magazine he remarked, “It’s so important to tell young talents the truth, and not be too complimentary. Push them to always work harder on the script and on choosing their elements and advise them against rushing into production. That’s part of my job as a producer.”

INDEPENDENT ARAB CINEMA

How does he move between working on projects in the independent art-house scene and bigger commercial films? “I work on both,” he says while explaining that, “I think in the Middle East there are very few films that are not independent. If you look at Egypt you have some mini studios that do distribution and own studios. And also UAE which has Image nation which is obviously producing bigger budget films. But in the rest of the Arab world, most of the cinema is independent cinema. So I think that most of Arab cinema is independent cinema – there is very little support in terms of financing and distribution. So I work on both (commercial and independent films) – and I try to support independent filmmakers either by coproduction or distribution or financing whenever it’s possible.”

"When I get into commercial cinema I look at cast director budget and script. It has to be a film that I definitely would want to see in the cinema - something I want to watch. As an audience if I feel like I want to see this on screen – is it worth spending the next 2 years trying to get it made?”
“The project doesn’t have to be an art-house masterpiece, but it has to be interesting and original. And then I think of its marketability – how can we get the funding. These are all factors that I factor in before I decide to green light the production.” 

Hefzy is also expanding his horizons in the larger Arab world. Film Clinic has just announced its collaboration with Fortress Capital Investments in Dubai to establish an Emirati production company named Fortress Film Clinic. This was established in Dubai at the beginning of 2015 and will now collaborate with other production companies to produce, develop and distribute film and TV projects in the Arab and international markets. It will also venture into various media projects and assets.

What advice would he give to someone venturing into production in the region? “Producers always underestimate the challenge of making the film within the budget, and the difficulty of convincing people to do things for little money. So first time producers should not underestimate the challenge of the budget – it’s not easy to convince people to do things for no or little money.”

He continued to explain that if, “you are building your finances and your production plan based on the fact that you can convince everybody to come on board and do you favours, it may not be the most realistic way to start off making a film. Sometimes first time producers have no choice, so you just have to go out and do it at really low budgets but it can be very difficult.”

CHANGING PRODUCTION VALUES

Are the new wave of Arab filmmakers adapting to the changing technology of filmmaking and adopting higher production values? “I’ve seen a change – definitely I have seen some changes in the production values. Technical aspects have improved – we have better quality pictures and the craft has improved in many aspects - the special effects and the action sequences, stunt teams, etc. There is better production value all over the world.”

In terms of storytelling as well, the one thing I would say is that it’s no longer just comedy that works. It used to be just star driven comedies that would work in Egypt. Successful films can be very diverse now in the region, and films with very diverse material subjects can be successful. Romantic films such as Hepta was one of the highest grossing films. So these are changes that have been good.

Hady al-Bagoury's third film, Hepta: The Last Lecture, shocked many people when it made LE10 million in its first week in cinemas. It's not your typical blockbuster with all the requisite action and laughs.

Mohamed Hefzy founded Film Clinic in 2005

“There has been a bunch of changes – mainly relates to obviously production quality and values but at the same time there has been a lot of inflation so budgets required are higher. In terms of filmmaking craft, Egypt is advanced in terms of infrastructure – so we have all the latest camera and accessories and anamorphic lenses and also in terms of lighting and accessories etc, we are quite good. It’s never been a problem in terms of equipment but mainly it has been a problem in terms of creativity and just being able to tell your story in the best way. “

One excellent examples of using technology came in the Film Clinic produced award winning film ‘Clash’. Director Mohamed Diab's second feature, Clash, was a political action thriller set inside a police truck containing two groups of opposing protesters. For the entirety of the film, we're trapped inside the claustrophobic truck with the characters. "That's how [Diab] wanted to shoot the film," said Hefzy in a 2016 interview with ‘no film school’. "That feeling of constraint, tightness, crowded inside a small space."

While the filmmaker rehearsed with a wooden truck, the production design team started building the truck itself. "We built [it] so that it could be opened up from all sides with hydraulic systems," said Hefzy. "It was a very sophisticated construction." However the hydraulic system ended up hardly getting used thanks to the availability of the Alexa Mini. Hefzy was able to procure for the film crew, a newly-released Alexa Mini from Germany. "The Alexa Mini was key to making the film successfully, because without it, we would have had to use a bigger camera. It would have been impossible to get some of the film's best shots with a bigger camera," Hefzy said.

Even though the Alexa Mini could remain inside the 20-foot truck, the production itself was immense in scope. Scenes involving 500 extras and fireworks, tear gas, bullets, fighting, and water cannons needed to be shot on the streets of Cairo. "It was tough being able to control some of the action scenes shot on real streets in busy neighborhoods, where there a lot of locals and a lot of traffic," said Hefzy. "The fact that we had a good line producer on the team made it easier. We survived it, but it wasn't easy."


'The Clash' had most scenes filmed inside a truck

THE STATE OF ARAB CINEMA

What factors does Hefzy account for the popularity of Egyptian films in the Middle East? “Well it goes back to decades of Egypt being the oldest and most dominant cinema industry and TV industry in the Arab world," he says. "Egyptian stars are known and recognised throughout the Arab world and also the dialect is easily understood by Arabs around the MENA region. We never have a problem to be understood in terms of dialect.”

However he has started to see other countries making huge strides in Arab cinema. “It is changing frankly, I can say that Egypt is not as dominant now as 20 or 30 years ago. There are new industries emerging. Saudi Arabia is starting to create an industry of its own. I can’t say that it’s already a significant industry, but it will be. In fact I think it’s going to be one of the bigger industries in the region. In a couple of year in terms of cinema exhibition, it will actually be the biggest with the Vision 2030 initiative calling for so many cinemas rolling out in the coming years. It will be very impactful in the region, and also for Egyptian cinema because it also creates a big new market for our films.”

Talking about film producing initiatives from organisations like Image Nation, he thinks, “they have made a difference for Emirati cinema, because there have been 2-3 Emirati directors that have emerged out of films produced by Image Nation, and others that are coming out either last year or this year. It has made an impact because they produce relatively big budget productions and there are a lot of people that figure in big budget productions like that.”

However, Hefzy adds a note of caution - local audiences will ultimately show the success of these initiatives. “The problem is these films haven’t found a market – they haven’t found success at the local box office yet. The directors have emerged but these films and directors haven’t found an audience yet. I would say still the big budget Egyptian action and comedy films generate many times more money than Emirati films.”

As a regular in the international film festival circuit, has he seen a change in the way Arabic language films are perceived and is there now more interest from international studios and distributors? “I’ve seen that happen,” Hefzy says.

“Thanks to Palestinian and Lebanese filmmakers and some Egyptian as well, they have been terrific in having a presence in major festivals. So yeah there is more interest in Arab cinema. Also the political situation helps because of the Arab spring, Syrian crisis etc. - for political reasons as well there is more interest from programmers in such films. But also there is really good quality coming out of the Arab world. I would like to see more, but it’s a good start.”

BUSINESS OF FINANCING FILMS

“In terms of getting co-production deals, it’s a bit difficult because Egypt is not traditionally an industry which produces with Europe except for Youssef Chahine. We have a treaty with France but we need to use it. Lebanon and Palestine, these countries have a tradition of going to the film festivals. So these countries are able to access European money.”

Looking at the lack of financing options, how has he managed to find investors for his projects? “It’s partly from private money. I’ve been lucky to have a relationship with Rotana for almost ten years now - this allows me to sell most of the films produced and then get financing for new films and so on. So these relationships have helped me finance the films. Unless you’re a big company with a big wallet, it’s pretty hard to keep churning out films because the cycle of recoupment is so slow.”

He said the TV rights are a crucial part of this cycle of recoupment, “because that seems to be the biggest source of our revenue, even more than theatrical revenue.” While the likes of Netflix were present at the last Dubai Film Festival, Hefzy thinks the impact on the business is not yet significant, “because they only acquired very few films, and when they do we cannot sell TV rights for a certain number of years and so it conflicts with other revenue sources. With Netflix and the new funders, so far there has been very little influence and reach into the region. We rely on TV for making money and if we have to give it exclusively to the likes of Netflix that pretty much defeats the purpose.”

Film Clinic is now also producing TV series and he is encouraged by the experience. “Honestly it’s a much bigger market – you have a lot more buyers than films, and we have a much bigger budget for the productions. Bigger productions and more exposure because TV obviously has much more viewership – you have a lot more people that watch the main TV channels than digital and films. One of our objectives is to grow in that sector and keep producing more TV shows.”

'Shiekh Jackson' was Egypt's entry to the Oscars Best Foreign Film

BRIDGING CULTURES

As a producer, Hefzy is prominent in leading the charge in bridging the boundaries with the international film world. What does he feel has been the impact of regional events like the Dubai Film Festival (DIFF)?

“The Dubai Film Festival (DIFF) is continuing to prove itself as the leading festival of the region. El Gouna is the new player which will take some time in terms of the atmosphere and experience for international filmmakers. DIFF is comparable to the major festivals in its impact. It is one of the stops of the international film industry. It is I would say, one of the top 15 film festivals in the world." 

"If you want to go to the Middle East and work with filmmakers and buy films – Dubai is the place to be.”

His advice for filmmakers trying to make an impact internationally? Hefzy says to build a strong local industry, the Arab world needs investment in theatres and distribution and production but above all, “we must not forget to make entertaining local films that entertain audiences.” “Keep making local films – hopefully your films can work locally and if you do them really well, they will work globally. Trying to cater to the international community without first being true to your local audience is not the way to go.”

"When you make the best film that is honest and presents your culture then it bridges culture and makes people relate to you. So that is in a way crossing bridges and crossing cultures."

Speaking of the opening of cinemas in Saudi Arabia and the budding industry in the kingdom, Hefzy thinks the impact will be felt soon. “Absolutely it’s going to be a big driver in the region. I hope it’s the point of no turning back. I just see it going forward and will hopefully not go back to how it was before.” In terms of attracting film productions to the regions, he says, “I think Jordan is doing great, Morocco was always doing great and Jordan is really catching up. UAE of course are a lot more active with Abu Dhabi and Twofour54.”

During the Dubai Film Festival, Hefzy said in a panel discussion on what it takes to be a great producer, “You need to keep a balance between how to work with the creative elements while dealing with the stress and responsibility of delivering the film on budget. If I had to choose one quality, it would be the ability to work with the director.”

What part of the process of film making does he enjoy the most? “I enjoy the production that has to do with the creative development. I like to work with the writers and have that creative relationship and produce the best work with the filmmaker and the best part is working with the creative talent.“

Arab Film Institute and Arab Film Awards

The Arab Film Institute was an initiative that came up in a conversation with Paul Baboudjian and myself. Paul Baboudjian who conceptualized the idea of creating an Arab Film Institute and is the Executive Director, co-produced Emirati filmmaker Ali F. Mostafa’s second film “From A to B” with Hefzy.
Hefzy says he liked the idea behind it. “I encouraged and said I was happy to be part of it. He invited several of the board members to come on board and many of them were already the leading figures in the cinema industry.”

The idea was to create an organisation for Arab cinema similar to what the American academy or European film academy or the BAFTA have done to promote cinema in their regions. “It’s a very interesting initiative and the idea behind it is not just to create an awards show, but to also try to gather co-professionals with the aim of supporting each other and younger filmmakers with the aim of honoring each other’s work and training younger professionals.”

Does he think it can raise the profile of Arabic films and help them be noticed around the world? “Eventually – it’s been a slow start. We have about 270 members and I would like to see that grow over the years and reach around 2000 members. Then I think it will be a considerable force in the Arab film industry.” Paul has been very active in trying to get support for the AFI and trying to create the first Arab film awards and so far he has done a great job and the awards have been getting a lot of interest.”

The first Arab Film Awards will be held on March 16th, 2018 in El Gouna town on the Red Sea, Egypt.

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