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Beyond the underdog
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 10 - 2018

Yomeddine (meaning Judgement Day) is an amateur-cast road movie about a Coptic leper who leaves the leper colony where he was abandoned long ago and goes in search of his family. It manages to bring almost every oppressed minority in Egypt into the fold of the story somehow. When it was selected for Cannes's official competition, almost overnight A.B. (Abu Bakr) Shawky became an important name in cinematic circles. Hitherto unknown, Shawky turns out to be half Austrian and based abroad, though he did study at the High Cinema Institute in Cairo.
“I was an undergraduate at the High Cinema Institute studying filmmaking in the morning while I did political science and history at the American University in Cairo in the afternoon,” the 32-year-old director explains. “Later I was accepted at the New York University Tisch School of Arts, one of the leading film schools in the world and one of the best for filmmakers. And I thought it was a very good opportunity for me to hold the craft a little bit, receiving a masters degree. Yomeddine was actually my graduation project, my thesis for NYU.”
“My passion for cinema started at an early age with the influence of my [Austrian] mother, she would always take me to watch films that were not mainstream and she watched a lot of Iranian and independent French cinema and she got me interested in that and she also made sure I was very well read and had very good knowledge of film. I grew up with a very small amount of video tapes of films and I just kept watching them over and over again till I started memorising them, that's how my passion for cinema started. Also, I was very interested in writing when I was young. I wanted to be a writer, as a child I wanted to write books, but then when I got a little older I felt that it was even more interesting to do it visually, to express whatever you wanted to say in a visual way.”
Shawky's first short film, set in a leper colony here in Egypt, was on the same topic: “I was interested in that specific issue after hearing a lot about the leper colony as a child. My school, the German School in Cairo, did a lot of charity work with the leper colony though I'd never been there, but I just heard they did charity with the leper colony.”
“For me it was an interesting place that people go to and are just there in order to be cured from leprosy and stay there and for me it's such a fascinating concept that still exists like this mediaeval disease that still exists in our time and the fact that we still have leper colonies itself. I was very interested in that issue. So I went there as a student at the High Cinema Institute in Cairo to do a documentary on the issue and I just found so many interesting stories, so many interesting faces, so many interesting people that I talked to and I felt that there was a film in there, there was a bigger film too, a film that people could watch in the cinema and not just a short documentary. I've been hearing stories about people abandoned by their families and never hearing from them again. Wouldn't it be a great idea to do a road movie about a guy who goes in search of his family?”
Shawky chose to work with non-professional actors, and he does not regret it. “It was more of a risk,” he says, “but a risk worth taking.” He goes on to describe his first filmmaking experience with Rady Gamal playing lead, Beshay:
“It wasn't easy, but it was a pleasure to do. I think I thrive or I work easier when the challenges are big. When the stakes are high, when you work with your back to the wall, it makes you work harder. My experience with Rady was great, I knew he was the right choice as soon as I saw him, he's a great person and he was very funny and he understood the story very well, there was some kind of overlap between his real life and the story. It wasn't easy to direct him but we spent four months just meeting to get to know each other personally and then I started slowly training him and introducing him to the world of film and preparing him for what it is like to stand in front of a camera to be shot and expose him to all these things.”
The screenplay had developed out of an idea he had when he did the documentary 10 years before. “I wrote down a short synopsis then. But I didn't start working on it till five years ago when I was studying in NYU and it was my last year and we were writing a feature script and I was supposed to graduate. I decided to choose this idea because it was the closest to my heart and I knew the issue very well, I knew that world very well. It was fascinating and I wanted this to be my first feature. And it took me an entire semester to write the screenplay.”
He had no concerns over the film turning out to be too harsh, with so much topical misery, he says, because of his faith in the actors: “I knew that this film was different, the circumstances could be regarded as depressing or harsh, but the people themselves have a lot of dignity and they aren't suffering from these things, they're living with them, accepting them. This is a very important distinction. Rady in real life, too, is not suffering from leprosy, he's living with leprosy, he has learned to live with it. The disabled man has learned to live with it. The man without legs.
“And I wanted to make an uplifting movie. I didn't want to make a movie that is depressing or miserable or one where people leave the movie theatre with no hope in life. Because it's not true of the real characters, the real characters are not like that. They don't wallow in self-pity, they don't cry all day about fate, they live with it, they've learned to live with it and even joke about it. So, no, I wasn't worried about that because I knew very well that the tone and the message of the film were going to be uplifting, it's a feel-good road movie.”
The main obstacle, rather, was production: “There were a lot of problems mainly because it was a small production by my production company that I started specifically for this film. This experience is a first in everything; it's a first in filmmaker and producer, and the actors are non-actors, with an unusual subject. Also, we were filming in very far locations and new locations and it was very difficult to get the money for the film, though we had support from NYU and they really helped us. Also, the film was facing not having big star names and that was one of the obstacles.”
But did he expect the film to go to Cannes? “Well, you know, one always dreams. We made this film, we really didn't make it for anything other than the fact that we wanted to make the best possible film with the tools we had, I wanted to tell a story I was convinced would work. I wanted to make a film I wanted to see screened in theatres and I think this is the right formula for a film, because once you start thinking about making a film for a specific festival or a specific award, then it becomes only about that and becomes something else and you lose something genuine. And that wasn't what we were trying to do. We wanted to do something that is real and new and hoping for the best that people would pick it up.
“The next step is we're trying to place the film in theatres to make sure people see it, make sure people don't think this is a festival film or feel they need not see it because it has no stars. I want Egyptians to know that there is another way to do this. There are other films out there and they can go see them in the theatres. I want Egyptians to go see this movie in the theatre and see that there are uplifting movies that don't have to follow the same formula.
“I normally like films about the underdog,” Shawky concludes. “I like films about underdogs who are trying to make it, people who are facing tough conditions and trying to live in a world that doesn't accept them, I get a lot of inspiration from filmmakers like the Coen brothers who since I was a child were making amazing films. I get a lot of inspiration from films about the human struggle. A film for me that works if it is from a different country, a different language that I don't understand, a different culture and religious background. If that film still works for me, then it's exactly what the role of cinema is and I think if I can watch a film from eastern Europe or from Japan and feel for it and feel for the characters, then this is exactly what cinema is supposed to do and I hope we can do the same with our film. I hope it can transcend the local scene. It has a universal message for people from across the world who don't understand the language or don't understand the country or the culture or the religious background.”
The first commercial screening of the film took place in Minya, the real home of the main character, on 23 September, three days prior to its release. Yomeddine was chosen to represent Egypt at the Academy Awards 2019 competing for Best Foreign Language film.


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