It took a long journey before Egyptian-Austrian director Abu Bakr Shawky managed to bring his unconventional road movie “Yomeddine,” which is Egypt’s candidate for the foreign-language Oscar, to the big screen.
This ultimately uplifting drama in which a middle-aged man raised in a leper colony embarks with a sidekick and a donkey on a journey across Egypt to try to reconnect with his family was tough to finance and shoot. But Shawky and producer Dina Emam’s efforts paid off handsomely in May when “Yomeddine” world-premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, a rare case of a first feature making the fest’s official competition cut. Shawky, who is an NYU Film School graduate and the recipient of Variety’s MENA Talent of the Year Award, spoke to Variety during the Cairo Film Festival about the impressive progression of his unique labor of love and how he chose, and worked with, it’s non-professional protagonists.
The initial building block of “Yomeddine” is your documentary “The Colony.” How did you intersect with the leper colony?
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I had heard about the colony when I was in high school through charity stuff they were doing. I knew that there was this weird place out there somewhere and I always thought that I wanted to make a film about it. When we got a chance to do that documentary, it ended up being a really short, question and answer interview kind of thing but I heard stories such as: ‘I was left here as a child and I never heard from my family again.’ And I thought: ‘there is a road movie in there somewhere.’
Was Rady Gamal, who is so powerful as the central character in “Yomeddine,” among those you interviewed then?
No, he wasn’t part of the original documentary. I didn’t meet him until later, when I wrote the film. But when I went back again to cast he was the first person I met. I knew he was the right guy, but I was a little worried because you should’t cast the first person that walks through the door. I thought he was amazing, but I kept meeting other people just to make sure that my instinct was right. And I found myself always going back to him because he was such a great presence: he was funny; he understood the story. It was almost as though he had lived the story [which I had written] in real life.
Most of the cast are non professional actors. How was this aspect for you, especially as a first-time director?
It was definitely challenging and a big risk. Being my first film I didn’t have much experience with any type of actors. We had a discussion at one point: ‘what if we hire a professional actor who is a celebrity, put him in makeup? Obviously that could have helped the film in terms of funding and, later, for the release. But when we found Rady, it was clear that wouldn’t work. It would just have been a different film.
Ahmed Abdelhafiz, the young boy who plays the protagonist’s sidekick, is another impressive newcomer.
The same thing with Ahmed. I did some casting for a little boy, but I just couldn’t find anyone [else]. He was the one that I felt: ‘he just has that spirit. So we spent a very long time preparing; getting to know each other. Until we got to a point where I felt this could work. But then, you never really know if it’s going to work or not until you start shooting. Initially the plan was that at the start we just do on-the-road stuff. A lot of B-roll. Like driving a cart, I wanted him to ease into it. But then we had some scheduling issues, and we had to start with the big scenes like the orphanage scene. I was nervous about that because I had not had a chance to ease them into it. That was a make-or-break day for the film. But as soon as we started rolling it was clear it was going to work, because they were just so great!
From a production standpoint, how did you get “Yomeddine” financed and made?
The whole thing took five years. I had the idea 10 years ago, but then I didn’t start writing it until my last year at NYU. Then I moved back to Egypt, and the whole funding process was very long and arduous. There were all these factors: my first film; the producers’ first film; non-actors; Egypt; foreign-language; road movie; leprosy. Even after we shot it, it was still difficult. Because people still couldn’t really “see” it. We found an amazing editor, who did a great job, and then it took us a really long time to find the money for post-production.
Then what happened?
Dina Emam, who is the producer [and also his wife] basically went to [the] El Gouna [film festival] hoping to raise the money for post. We won a small award for post there and [producer] Mohamed Hefzy saw it there. She got to know him, then when were back in Cairo he agreed to finance those and become a part of the project. And he helped with the whole festival thing.
The rest, as they say, is history
Cannes was a huge turning point for us. It breathed life back into the film. Without the help of [Hefzy’s] Film Clinic and Wild Bunch, it would not have happened. After Cannes there was a lot of buzz, but then again people in Egypt are not really interested in festival films, there is a stigma against them. I think people here expected a film about misery that shows Egypt in a bad light and has non-actors, and is probably really dark and really sad. But then I think they were pleasantly surprised, because when we got into theaters at the end of October we were expecting to last a week but we stayed on screens for six or seven weeks. For a film of this size it’s been a great run.
How has all this impacted Rady’s life?
He’s still in the leper colony. He’s still operating his small cafeteria. But he’s more of a celebrity now. Things have changed for him. He’s kind of an iconic face here. People know him. People recognize him. I think what’s changed is people shake his hand. He recently said something to me like: ‘people didn’t use to look at me before; now they actually stop me and shake my hand!’ It feels good that he’s able to be recognized that way. You should have seen him in Tunisia. He was walking down the main street, and people would stop him, take pictures of him, and things like that. It’s interesting. He will also be in Marrakech. Also financially things have changed for him.