Venice entry sponsored by Egyptian culture body

Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Maher breathed a huge sigh of relief when his debut feature “El-Mosafer” (The Traveler) was selected in this year’s main competition at Venice.

As the first film to be produced by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in over 30 years, “The Traveler” drew its entire E4 million ($5.6 million) budget from the org. But that means a lot is riding on 40-year-old Maher’s shoulders, with Egyptian minister of culture Farouk Hosni hailing the project as a return to the golden age of Egyptian cinema.

“Venice was always our goal,” Maher claims. “The international market will hopefully become more interested in Egyptian cinema, and this could encourage the Culture Ministry to continue their participation in Egyptian filmmaking.”

Maher’s film also marks the return of Omar Sharif to Venice, after his 2003 best actor win for Francois Dupeyron’s “Monsieur Ibrahim.” Sharif stars as an 80-year-old man who has a chance encounter with a woman he fell in love with years before.

“It’s very different from any of the films I have done or even seen anywhere else,” the actor observes. Whereas movie protagonists are typically bright or heroic, Sharif says, ” ‘The Traveler’ depicts someone without any exceptional talent, a person who lives a simple life, so in that respect, it’s a very humanitarian film.”

Maher, who has directed several short films and documentaries — including 2001’s “Beit-Al-Akhar” (The Other’s Home), the first docu in the Arab world to take a look at the events of 9/11 — spent four years writing the screenplay for “The Traveler.” The plot, partly inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story, covers three days in a man’s life separated by many years, with different actors playing the character at each stage.

After writing the screenplay, Maher spent three years fruitlessly seeking financing before his script found its way into the hands of two Egyptian critics, Samir Farid and Ali Abou Shadi, who passed it along to Hosni knowing he was seeking the right project to produce.

“The Culture Ministry liked my script because it wasn’t the kind of commercial screenplay associated with private production companies,” Maher says. “They saw that the kind of film I wanted to make might have a chance of participating at big film festivals as an artistic product, not as a commercial product.”

After Maher received the greenlight from the Ministry of Culture, he spent one year prepping “The Traveler,” one year shooting it and another year in post-production in Rome, where he still spends much of his time.

“I don’t think my film could have been made without the Ministry of Culture, not so much because of the budget — although it’s high by Egyptian standards — but because of the time I spent making it,” says Maher, who shot scenes in Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo and utilized more than 400 extras from 14 different countries.

The director (who received free access to shoot in Egypt at various locations from the Ministry of Culture, substantially reducing the film’s budget) was also at liberty to choose technicians not just from Egypt but also from Europe, something quite rare for a uniquely Egyptian film production.

“I was able to decide every aspect of the movie, including working with the Italian director of photography Marco Onorato, whose style of work on ‘Gomorrah’ I appreciated,” Maher says. “At no point did I feel imposed upon on by the Ministry of Culture. In fact, I’ve rarely worked with such freedom.”

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