Tale of the underdog: The Egyptian debut that is shaking up Cannes 2018
CANNES, France - Five months ago, AB Shawky was a struggling filmmaker desperately searching for a launchpad for his feature directorial debut Yomeddine (Judgement Day). Now his film about a middle-aged man raised in a leper colony who embarks across Egypt to try and reconnect with his family has been granted a competition slot at the Cannes film festival.
It's a remarkable reversal of fortune for the 32-year-old Egyptian-Austrian director. Both he and his Egyptian-American producer wife, 32-year-old Dina Emam, had invested heavily in the film's production, even borrowing money from family and friends.
Failure was not an option
- AB Shawky, filmmaker
“It felt like we were begging for money at one point,” Emam told Middle East Eye.
By the end of 2017, the film had already been rejected by three of the world’s biggest festivals in Europe and North America and even after Mohammed Hefzy - the patron of independent cinema in Egypt who was recently appointed president of the Cairo Film Festival - got involved and handed the pair money to complete the sound production of the film, Shawky and Emam had little hope it would land in another important festival. But they refused to throw in the towel.
“Failure was not an option,” Shawky told Middle East Eye. “There’s nothing else I could’ve done had this not worked out. I wouldn’t have been able to do another movie. I would have never been able to set foot in another film set again. I wouldn’t have been able to live with the shame.”
Two months later, and against all odds, Yomeddine was chosen by Cannes for its Un Certain Regard section. Later, it was upgraded to the main competition in the festival’s official selection.
The powerhouse French sales company Wild Bunch believed in the film and pushed for it to be in the competition. It received little resistance from the festival’s committee, and on 12 April, Yomeddine became the first directorial debut by an Egyptian filmmaker to land in the competition of the world’s most famous film festival.
The unexpected triumph of Yomeddine – a picture with a meagre $300,000-plus budget and no stars – has shaken the establishment and has proven how unpredictable post-millennial Arab cinema can be.
'I was never interesting to anyone'
A graduate of both the American University in Cairo, where he majored in political science and history, and Cairo’s Higher Institute of Cinema, Shawky did his graduate studies at New York University in 2010, where he wrote the script for Yomeddine as his graduation project.
“I’ve always been drawn to the marginalised,” Shawky said. “I had to go back to Egypt eventually, and I knew I’d still be a no-name there."
I’ve always been drawn to the marginalised
- AB Shawky, filmmaker
Yomeddine is familiar subject matter for Shawky. The film stems from his short The Colony that chronicled the lives of the residents of the Abu Zaabal leper colony in Egypt and the film's lead Beshay is played by Rady Gamal, a non-professional actor who suffers from leprosy.
"I saw film schools as a place where you actually make bad movies: where you can experiment and don’t necessarily succeed. But that’s not [the] reality of film schools. They’re so competitive, and everyone ventures to do these pitch-perfect shorts that would establish them as emerging filmmakers. But I didn’t do that… I didn’t want to do that," said Shawky.
"Most of the short movies I made were bad. I simply wanted to try out new things. I was always under the radar. I was never interesting to anyone," he added.
Yomeddine is a comic drama that centres on a middle-aged Coptic Christian leper, Beshay, and his orphan Nubian child friend, Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), who lead a quiet life in the north of Egypt.
After Beshay’s wife, who is also a leper, dies, he embarks on a road trip to the upper Egyptian village of Qena with Obama and his donkey, Harby, to search for the family that left him behind at the colony when he was a little boy.
Along the way, he encounters a range of diverse characters: a Salafi, a band of disabled beggars and, ultimately, figures from his fuzzy past. Always greeted with initial revulsion, the systematic cruelty he experiences peter out to give way for startling moments of compassion.
Gradually, Yomeddine reveals itself as a story of acceptance rather than prosecution; a profoundly humane, yet also stark portrait of Egypt, where moments of genuine kindness soften prevalent ignorance and malice. There are no clear-cut villains in the film. Everyone is simply just trying to get by. It’s an underdog story, first and foremost, a theme that has defined Shawky’s life and career.
Still, Shawky is bracing himself for some backlash.
Born and raised in Egypt to an Austrian mother and an Egyptian father, Shawky says he has always been treated like an outsider.
“I’m pretty sure that some people will claim that I don’t know this country after the film is released,” Shawky said. “I’ve seen more of Egypt than most people. I’ve extensively travelled from north to south. I’ve been to small villages most people haven’t even heard of.
"And yet, just because I’m a little privileged, or because I look a little different, people will always regard me as a khawaga (foreigner). Everyone has always struggled to categorise me, and by default, my movie as well.”
The Alexandria-born, New York-raised Emam, who did her masters in film production at Columbia University, was brought in as a co-producer at an early development stage, before taking on the principal producer role shortly afterwards. Yomeddine is Emam’s first film in Egypt and it was a tall order for her to attract funders.
Both of us did not do the kind of movies that go to a gazillion film festivals
- Dina Emam, producer
“Yomeddine does not fall in line with the kind of stories funders get from the Middle East,” Emam said. “I was a first-time producer, doing a movie by a first-time director. Both of us did not have the kind of aura or buzz needed to push projects forward; both of us had no track records. Both of us did not do the kind of movies that go to a gazillion film festivals. But we were not looking for big film festivals. We were not looking for recognition. We defied what our respective schools were preparing us to be.”
A dose of realism
Shawky wanted from the get-go to cast a real leper in the role of Beshay. In pre-production, a famous Egyptian actor auditioned for the role. The director asked him to carry a cardboard box using his palms and not his fingers, just like Gamal does.
“It didn’t work at all,” Shawky said. “Had we gotten an actor and put him in make-up, it would never have felt believable. He would have never had the naturalism of Rady who brings great details that are impossible to manufacture.”
“Abu [Bakr] gave Rady the space to create,” Emam added. “And he knew when exactly to turn the camera on him and when to cut. I think that’s his strength as a director: he knows how to identify cinematic moments as they come up, organically.”
There’s an intentional, self-aware amateurish quality to the acting that goes hand in hand with the occasional, and equally intentional, lapse in logic. The shadow of Forough Farrokhzad’s poetic Iranian documentary short, The House Is Black (1963), with its groundbreaking treatment of leprosy, looms large over the film.
Unlike most of the Cairo-centric movies, Yomeddine shows an Egypt rarely seen on the big screen. The villages scattered from north to south are devoid of the hustle and bustle of the capital - a dystopia-like wasteland forgotten and abandoned by the ruling elite. In this wilderness, Beshay sticks out like a sore thumb. His forsaking family thus become a metaphor for an entire society that has chosen to turn a blind eye on its estranged children.
Shawky’s sympathies are clearly aligned with his protagonist, and yet there is not one hint of pity or victimisation in the story. Shawky maintains a lighthearted tone throughout, refusing to descend into the kind of poverty porn that informs numerous films from third world cinemas. Beshay doesn’t see himself as a victim. Shawky depicts Beshay and his surroundings with a quiet grace, finding beauty in the simplicity and sparseness of a world that feels at once distant yet familiar.
I was a first-time producer, doing a movie by a first-time director
- Dina Emam, producer
Shawky cites Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger as a major influence on his work. Like Shawky, the films of the deceased Austrian brilliantly aestheticise some of the most unwelcoming terrains on earth, painting these hostile environments with a bright brushstroke that challenges conceptions of traditional beauty.
Beauty in resilience
“When Glawogger was asked about why he was fixated on such horrible environments, his answer was: ‘But what is horrible?’ For him, horror is driving through a suburb and coming face to face [with] this widespread conformity,” said Shawky. “I’m not saying there’s inherent beauty in all this poverty, but the people who lead such lives do not wallow in self-pity. They cry, they laugh and they just live like everyone else. There’s beauty in that, in this resilience, and that’s what I wanted to capture.”
One of the most notable aspects of the script is how Beshay’s religion is underplayed. Taking a leaf from the movies of Egyptian filmmakers Youssef Chahine and Yousry Nasrallah (both Christians), Beshay’s religious beliefs do not define him.
Shawky says he does not attempt to whitewash or undermine religious discrimination in Egypt. For instance, Beshay is mocked in one scene by a group of thugs and on a couple of occasions, he pretends to be a Muslim, simply to avoid possible annoyance.
And yet, in his day-to-day life, religion figures in little in his relationships with other people, and how he sees life at large. Even the repeated question of judgement day, which preoccupies most characters in the film, seems secondary to him.
Everyone always struggled to categorise me, and by default, my movie as well
- AB Shawky, filmmaker
“I honestly don’t care whether Beshay is Christian or not,” Shawky said. “He just happens to be Christian, just like Obama happens to be Nubian. Chahine and Nasrallah’s movies aside, in most Egyptian movies that had Coptic central characters, religion was the main theme. Representation of minorities was certainly on mind, of giving them different narratives and voices, but I didn’t want their religion to take centre stage.”
The Cannes selection has certainly vindicated the risk Shawky and Emam took with Yomeddine. For any filmmaker, the Cannes honour is immense, yet the pair are more grounded than one might presume.
“It’s still a shock till this day. I was convinced we had to walk through fire to get this done,” Emam said. “I knew we were going to come through on the other side, but I didn’t know what we were going to find. I wasn’t sure if the film was going to Cannes or not, but I was confident that wherever the film was going to land, then that’s where it’s supposed to be.”
Yomeddine premieres at the Cannes Film Festival on 9 May.