Critics expect 2008 to be a great a year for Egyptian cinema thanks to a host of star-studded productions including “Leilet El Baby Doll (Baby Doll Night), “Hassan & Morkos as well as Youssri Nasrallah’s “Ginenet El-Asmak (The Fish Garden).
The most intriguing picture of the group is “El Mosafer (The Traveler), starring legendary Egyptian actor Omar Sharif and directed by little-known filmmaker Ahmed Maher.
“El Mosafer marks the return of the Ministry of Culture to film production a after 30-year absence. It is also Sharif’s first Egyptian movie since 1993’s “Dehk We Leab We
Gad We Hob (Laughter, Games, Seriousness and Love). Set in three different time periods, “El Mosafer traces the life of one man over three days in three different years: 1948 in Suez, 1973 in Alexandria and 2001 in Cairo.
Actor Khaled El-Nabawy plays the younger Sharif in the first part of the film while Lebanese newcomer Sereen Abdel Nour plays his love interest. Amr Waked, Basma and Sherif Ramzy are among the cast members.
Unlike the “Doll, “Hassan or “Garden, little is known about “El Mosafer whose genre and themes remain a mystery.
Maher has been reluctant to speak to the media ever since he began preparing for his film a year and a half ago. In a Mohandiseen coffee shop, the director sat down with Daily News Egypt to discuss – for the first time – his career, vision and the path that eventually led him to direct one of the biggest films of the decade.
Dressed in a button-down shirt and jeans, Maher is a passionate, eloquent down to earth film academic who cites Fellini, Chaplin and Gus Van Sant as his favorite filmmakers.
At the age of 23, Maher graduated from the Egyptian Arts Academy in 1991 with a degree in film direction. The next year, he won the Grand Prix de Rome, becoming the first Egyptian to receive the honor. He continued studying film in Italy for three years, earning a PhD.
Shortly after, he began teaching film directing, theory, analysis and acting at several Italian schools and studios.
“My main goal was to direct films after I graduated from the Egyptian Arts Academy, Maher said, “But I felt I wasn’t prepared enough, despite the fact that my first two short projects won a number of international awards. I wanted to learn more, and that’s why I went to Italy.
His work caught the eye of a British director, who offered him the chance to direct a film in the US affiliated with the New York Film Academy. Maher rejected the offer and accepted the scholarship instead.
“I wasn’t ready to go to America, he said. “I wanted to work in Europe. I was quite fond of Italian cinema, of Italian filmmakers like Pasolini, Visconti and, naturally, Fellini.
During his first months in Italy, Maher began to form a tight bond with Fellini. “The hospital Fellini was being treated in was next to my house, Maher recalled, “I used to visit him every day, although I wasn’t able to meet him.
The day Maher succeeded in entering Cinecittà (Rome’s iconic cinema city) was coincidently the day Fellini passed on. Maher went to pay his respects, and Fellini was placed in a glass coffin with Nino Rota’s famous scores echoing from every corner of the studio. At that moment, he decided to study the great filmmaker who became the subject of his dissertation.
“I was influenced by many filmmakers, but I was closely attached to Fellini; his dream worlds, the notion of place in his films and his pure cinematic languageuninfluenced or affected by literature.
In the cinema city, Maher worked as an editor, scriptwriter and production consultant while directing short narrative and documentary features until he established his own production company.Among his subsequent short directorial efforts was a film entitled “Home of the Others, a documentary chronicling the relationship of Europe with Eastern immigrants. The film was shot 10 days after 9/11.
Maher returned to Egypt regularly to direct short films, documentaries and commercials. He was reluctant to settle down permanently either in Egypt or Europe; a decision reflected in the themes of his films.
In Egypt, and by the late 90s, Maher directed two short films that were met with mixed reactions by producers and critics. The first was “Akher El Nahar (End of The Day), a multi-narrative, slow-paced film. The film shows a group of characters whose stories are told from the perspective of an electrician when electricity was still unavailable to many Egyptian households. While it nabbed several awards abroad, the unconventional film did not see success at home.
His second production, “Alamat April (April Signs, 1999), was a different story.
Starring veteran actress Mohsenna Tawfiq and Salwa Khattab, the film is a set on one day in a deserted house of two spinsters. It chronicles the relationship the women develop with a young man – the first person to visit them in years – who takes shelter in their flat during a sandstorm.
In 2000, Maher felt the time had come to direct a full-length feature. For four years, Maher started working on the script of his dream project.
“El Mosafer was the product of several novels I read, several movies I watched and the culmination of several ideas, he said. “A short story by [Colombian novelist] Gabriel García Márquez, in particular, was a major source of influence during the writing process.
The main concept behind “El Mosfaer is death: the end of man’s life, aging, estrangement and the search for the unknown.
“I had to deconstruct all these ideas to come up with something new, he said. “I wasn’t sure where my story was heading. The process of filmmaking is a journey for finding answers to hidden questions, revealed [only] after watching the final film. I can’t articulate the specific subjects or messages of my story, because I’m honestly not certain of what they are.
Maher describes his main character as an anti-hero; a defeated man with no purpose or will. “He doesn’t represent a particular man, yet, at the same time, represents all men.
“Men, from the day they’re born, are told not to reveal their emotions in eastern and western societies.It’s a heavy burden. I think that’s the engine that drove my story.
“Those three days of the protagonist’s life are essentially the only significant days of a rather empty life, full of failures, Maher added. “The stories are connected through one woman and the repercussions of his social and sexual activities. All end in celebrations, are connected by the presence of water and revolve around the concept of lineage and identity.
After finishing his screenplay, it took Maher three years to find financing for his film.
Egyptian production companies admired his script, yet none of them was willing to finance it. “Egyptian producers told me what a great script it was, but that it’s not commercial and too costly to produce.
Issad Younis, head of the Arabiya production company, compared his script to Shadi Abdel Salam’s masterpiece “The Mummy.
“She said she can’t produce a film with little commercial potential like ‘The Mummy,’ he smiled. “I totally understand where Ms. Younis was coming from. But I’m convinced now that there’s no such thing as commercial or non-commercial movies.
Many films, fronted by big stars flop and vice versa. Critics Samir Farid and Ali Abou Shadi were spellbound with Maher’s script and presented it to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, who was looking for a good script to produce. Abou Shadi insisted that Hosni read the script himself. Hosni loved Maher’s work and set up a committee to evaluate a number of scripts vying to win a ministry grant.
The committee unanimously chose Maher’s script and a week later, production began on “El Mosafar.
Getting Sharif on board was no easy task. “We had no idea where he was, Maher laughed.
When the ministry reached Sharif, it took him time to warm up to the idea of coming back to Egyptian cinema. “He later told me that he only agreed to read the script so he could have sufficient reasons to reject it.
That idea evaporated midway through the script. “He told
me it’s the best script he’s ever read, Maher recalls.
Sharif postponed a French film he was about to star and turned down other projects in order to return to Egypt and focus on “El Mosafer.
Pre-production took nearly six months, during which a massive ship, central to the events of the film, was constructed in Tarek Nour’s newly established movie studio.
More than 2,000 actors auditioned for parts in the movie. Maher was also lucky in persuading award-winning cinematographer Marco Onorato to work on his film.
Approximately 400 extras from 14 countries were hired. “Egyptian casting agencies chiefly use Russians to play any foreign role, Maher said. “They told me it would be impossible to assemble this large, diverse group of extras.
“The most infuriating thing about this country is how everyone puts you down. I was told it would be impossible to finance the film, to build the large-scale set I had in mind, to get Omar Sharif. The constant pressure can eventually get to you if you don’t know how to fend it off.
It is hard to estimate the movie’s precise budget. “Since the film is produced by the Ministry of Culture, we received free access to shoot in various locations, which saved us thousands of pounds.
But Maher is uncertain about how Egyptian audiences will receive his film. “I think they’ll like it, he said. “The philosophical ideas are the subtext of the film. They lie on a different level. On the surface though, the story is an ironic, sarcastic melodrama, populated with rapid, successive events, told via a simple form of narration.
“The cinematic language of the film might be a bit untraditional to Egyptian viewers who are accustomed to the classical, Hollywood film structure. Essentially, the film is an Egyptian story with Egyptian characters and an Egyptian atmosphere.
Editing of “El Mosafer is slated or completion around the beginning of summer, hopefully in time to participate in August’s Venice Film Festival. Maher predicts it will be released by the end of the year.
These days, Maher is toying with a script about the challenges facing Egyptians trying to understand and accept the world as it is now open to them after the technological revolution.
“It’s a story about the violence and scorn embedded within Egyptian society, Maher said. “Christians and Muslims, the only two factions in Egyptian society, can’t deal or accept each other.. If that’s the case, how are we supposed to interact with worlds completely different from ours?