Saying that you had a penchant for puppetry as a child is a bit of an understatement, isn’t it?
[Laughs] It all started with the art of puppetry and marionettes for me. As a child, I was madly in love with The Muppet Show and El Leila El Kebeera; a famous Egyptian puppet operetta. I will never forget the day I got a backstage pass and actually touched the puppets of El Leila El Kebeera. It was magical. I spent my childhood making puppets and creating shows for them. I was the writer, director and the puppeteer. Gradually my passion turned into making movies.
The next few years saw you graduate from film school but you were in no hurry to get into making feature films or commercials, was funding an issue?
The norm in our industry is that the director often seeks funding and fights for his project to see the light of day. But luckily I’ve never had to do that with any of my projects. Since graduating from the Higher Institute of Cinema, I’ve received many offers to direct but I didn’t like them enough so I turned them down and I went into documentary filmmaking instead.
I wanted to have more freedom, the freedom to work on something I like. I didn’t want, for example, to make a commercial film I didn’t like. Later on with all my TV series or films that followed, truth is I was a lucky man. With the Bedoon Zekr Asmaa series, Waheed Hamed approached me to collaborate on it. And production was ready. The same thing happened with Ott w Far a feature film.
In 2010, for Taht Al Saytara, producer Gamal Eladl contacted me and told me he wanted to make a TV series about addiction. The project, however, was put on hold for a while and I kept getting offers from other parties, but I preferred to go with the project I had already talked about with Gamal.
Then with Haza Al Masaa, producer Mohamed Mashish was looking to collaborate on a project for several years. The excitement to work together was mutual and I told him I had an idea for a TV series. I’m one of the few directors that never had to pitch their project to a production company or a network. And I realise this is exceptional, that’s why I say I’ve been lucky.
Before Bedoon Zekr Asmaa you were known as a documentary specialist, what was the idea behind that?
When I was studying in the Higher Institute of Cinema, I had no idea I would later become a documentary filmmaker. Immediately after I graduated I got an offer to direct a narrative feature film but I didn’t want to rush into things. I didn’t want my first feature to be a commercial film that might put me on a journey I didn’t necessarily want. I leant towards the idea of documentary films which would give me the freedom to create something I like without any interventions.
So I took on the challenge and I don’t regret that choice in the slightest. Making documentary films taught me so much about every aspect in filmmaking. Crews are minimal in documentaries, the director is usually the scriptwriter… you do it all. I learnt everything I needed to know about photography, editing, sound mixing and colour grading. At times it would be just me, a one-man unit. I’d be interviewing and filming at the same time. At the time I wasn’t aware of the experience I was building. Looking back I realise it has been extremely beneficial to my career. I got a chance to grab a camera and shoot in the mountains by myself. Add to that, Arab audiences generally feel documentary films are uninteresting. This gave me added impetus to take on the challenge of creating films that would be educational and exciting.
Would you say you succeeded?
In all honesty I think I succeeded in what I set out to achieve.
Tell us about your debut feature film Ott W Far – what was it like to make the jump to the big screen?
I had already worked with the highly acclaimed screenwriter Waheed Hamed on my first TV series Bedoon Zekr Asmaa. He believed in me as a director and we had mutual trust and understanding. Directing a film written by Waheed Hamed is a dream for any director, and I was lucky it came true.
So you moved from being a documentary filmmaker into the mainstream. Did you feel you had to compromise on your original dream?
Not at all. Contrary to what people think, making documentaries was not my original dream. When I shifted from documentaries to drama and film, I was going back to my original dream. Making documentaries was a phase but cinema has always been my dream.
You latest project — Haza Al Masaa — told a stunning story, or rather posed a simple yet chafing question – ‘Is knowing the truth a blessing or a curse?’ What was your inspiration behind this project?
Let me tell you something about filmmaking and how ideas come to fruition: the life of a filmmaker can be compared to that of a receiving machine. We tend to observe and pick up things with an attention to detail and emphasis on feelings and emotions — in a bid to form an opinion about something.
All this ‘receiving’ fills my subconscious with different feelings and emotions. Thereafter something simple triggers and a realisation comes to fore. In a way all the worlds of Haza Al Masaa were inside of me already. I’ve been receiving and accumulating feelings and information. But the main idea hadn’t become crystal clear yet. In the case of Haza Al Masaa a friend of mine told me about an incident where a husband was spying on his wife by tracking her phone and came across something that happened in the past but his curiosity eventually opened the gates to hell. This little incident suddenly created a sparkle in my eyes and I had a eureka moment. Worlds and characters were suddenly created in my imagination. This is how it usually works. You spend a lot of time receiving, saturating, and building up things inside and you wait for that spark.
What are you currently working on for the Ramadan 2020 season?
It’s social drama about a miscalculated adventure that turns a married couple’s life upside down. Some of the events take place in the USA, we’re heading there next month to shoot. I’ve not only written the story but I will be directing and co-producing it as well. I’ve had the idea for about four years and now is the right time to follow through on it. The same thing happened in this case I was just talking about earlier in the previous question happened. I was just making conversation with someone and the spark happened. Just a simple sentence out of thousands of sentences you hear every day but it triggers something in your mind, time stops, and you feel like it resonates with you. And everything becomes much clearer. 2019 was the right time for this idea to come to light and so we started working on it.
The controversy that surrounded Netflix series Jinn threw up an interesting conversation about cultural appropriation in the Arab world — being controversial for the sake of it. Do we have the freedom to tell the kind of stories we want to in the Arab region?
There are many limitations and controls in the Arab world with issues surrounding traditions, customs, religion, politics, and much more. I don’t think you can compare an artist working in the Arab world with an artist working elsewhere with all the freedom they desire. They say whatever they want in whatever way they desire. While we face a more difficult situation here. We’re trying to express ourselves but at the same time be considerate to highly sensitive matters in the society. It’s a sensitive situation that limits the artist. I wish people understood more about art, its value, and its role. For this to happen, children in school have to learn about art and how it affects us.
There is a huge push from other Arab countries to establish a film production culture in their own markets — UAE is a great example with Image Nation Abu Dhabi, and Saudi has opened up too. Does this impetus pose a challenge to traditional film hubs such as Egypt?
When it comes to ‘fair play’ in the Arab film industry, at first glance it might look like competition will affect the industry in Egypt, and this might be true. In my view, owever, it’s a limited approach of things. The industry in Egypt flourishes whenever there is strong competition. Any industry with no competition eventually falls apart. You have to have competition to thrive and move forward.
Egypt has always been a pioneer in this industry across the Arab world. It’s safe to say that it’s the strongest and most influential [regionally]. The curve might have ups and downs but a bounce back is imminent. Prosperity across the region will benefit the industry, no doubt. In a year or two industry professionals will feel like they have less to do but I believe competition is the only way to ensure strong production. Any competition whether from the Gulf, Jordan, Lebanon, or North Africa will be good for the Egyptian film industry.
Is ‘visually compelling’ taking over the art of a good story and the manner in which it is told in the Arab world?
Sometimes perhaps… A few people tend to do so. But it shouldn’t be that way. To be honest it shouldn’t be this way or another. You’re supposed to have a complete work of art — visuals, colours, music, actors, and the story itself. Every aspect should work together for the impact we’re aiming for when it comes to the viewers’ feelings. Sometimes good visuals do that, sometimes bad visuals do that too. So we’re basically looking for an impact and how to best achieve it. If a viewer is impacted, and feels something, the film will find favour with the audiences. If they watch something that has good visuals but feel nothing, the film will not succeed. A good filmmaker will be successful in creating that impact, in making people feel things.
It’s been an absolute education talking to you, in closing tell us what trends you would like to see change in the Arab film industry?
I’d like to see many things change to be honest. What matters the most to me right now is that I’d like everyone to be reminded that we’re creating a product of art which is also a product of intellect, meaning we have to put our minds to work, which means we have to take our time doing so.
You’re not supposed to rush someone into thinking. This affects the final result you see on screen. And this doesn’t make sense to me. One can make an arguement that we need to reduce expenses, for instance. But I don’t accept we need to reduce the time for someone to think or be creative. You cannot tell a painter to finish an illustration in two days when he wants 10 days to complete it. This is insane and it bothers me to say the least. So I’d like to see that change for sure.