Abu Dhabi Festival: Egyptian Filmmaker Amr Waked Reflects on Local Film Biz

Egyptian filmmaker Amr Waked is Egypt’s biggest international star, seen most recently in Luc Besson’s “Lucy.” At the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, Waked is wearing two hats: he is the producer of director Ibrahim El Batout’s “El Ott,” an organ-trafficking thriller in which he also plays an Egyptian gangster whose daughter is abducted. Waked spoke to Variety’s Nick Vivarelli about “El Ott” and how it reflects the challenges of making movies in Egypt these days. Excerpts:

Q: “El Ott” sees you team up with El Batout again after making “Winter of Discontent,” a very dark drama about the events that led up to the Tahrir Square uprising. This time, the tone is deliberately lighter. Do you agree?

A: Yes, though they are not entirely dissimilar works. After “Winter of Discontent” I wanted to work with Ibrahim again. Just like that film, at its core, “El Ott” is about basic human values, but this time it’s a thriller narrative that carries the movie. But what I like about Ibrahim is that no matter what the genre is, he’s always very concerned with human values and emotions.

Q: “El Ott” revolves around organ trafficking in Egypt, which I believe is thriving because the country’s political upheavals have left a law enforcement gap.

A: Yes, but poverty is, of course, the main cause. We’ve done a documentary about it and we discovered that there is a district in Cairo where, just on one single street, there were 42 people who had sold their kidneys in order to be able to survive financially. We filmed most of “El Ott” in these Cairo slums. And we also used some of the kids from there as actors.

Q: Yes, it’s a very naturalistic film, while also being a genre movie.

A: This is what Ibrahim does best: He likes to make films that are real, with real people. But in this case, he’s also made a thriller that combines artistic talent with commercial savvy.

Q: How difficult is it to mount a film production and shoot a movie in Egypt these days?

A: It’s very very tough. We filmed in the middle of the protests, again, after doing so for “Winter of Discontent.” But this time we were scared because there were bombs going off, supporters of (deposed president) Mohamed Morsi were killing people on the street. There was a bit of mayhem, so we had to stop the shoot for three months, until things calmed down a bit.

Q: It also looks like it was shot in lots of different places.

A: Absolutely. We’ve got so many layers of Egyptian history in the locations of this film. We’ve got pyramids, we’ve got a synagogue for Egyptian Jews, the Temple of Osiris at Abydos, we’ve got a mosque, a slum. And of course this made it even more difficult to shoot amid the turbulence. Crowd control was especially difficult.

Q: Your career as an actor is booming internationally, most recently with a substantial role in “Lucy.” Yet you also seem very focused on being a producer in Egypt. How challenging is it for you to juggle these two different roles?

Q: It’s certainly quite challenging, especially due to the constraints of the Egyptian market. The Egyptian industry generates roughly 200 million Egyptian pounds ($30 million) a year in box office returns, which is a very small amount for a population of 90 million people. Our movies are too formulaic, and most of them are either romantic comedies or actioners. We don’t make any films about our history anymore. Egypt has not spawned a historical film for the past three decades, for example. But there are also no Egyptian horror films and no local science fiction films. So we are trying to make an impact and change this as much as we can. We are trying to influence and inspire other filmmakers to make different kinds of films.

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