AB Shawky Is Egyptian Cinema’s Dark Horse
Abu Bakr Shawky glides into a trendy café in the leafy Cairo suburb that was once a colonial enclave for British residents. It might be the last chance the 33-year-old gets to unwind for a while.
The soft-spoken director has struck it big with his film Yomeddine, netting a prestigious Palme d’Or nomination at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Shawky is in Cairo for a few days before taking the film on the road to screen it at a litany of other festivals. (The film has also been selected as Egypt’s official entry for next year’s Oscars.)
Yomeddine is something of an unlikely road trip movie, centering on a Coptic leper named Beshay and his young sidekick dubbed Obama, a Nubian orphan. It has resonated with audiences for its deeply humanistic plot revolving around the itinerant search for family and identity. A charming motley crew from Islamists to amputees meet Beshay and Obama as they crisscross Egypt by donkey cart, trucks and trains, rounding-out a cast with no major Egyptian or foreign actors.
“We got into Cannes having been rejected by everyone before that. When the film was released in theatres in Egypt, people thought we were going to make 300 EGP ($16) all up in the box office – it’s been a very humbling experience,” says Shawky.
Humbling is an apt word: it’s been a grind for the Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker to realise his directorial dream. Stunted by a lack of post-production funding, Yomeddine took around four years to complete – Shawky was also working on the Hulu mini-series The Looming Tower at the same time.
The genesis for the improbable plot came a decade ago when Shawky shot a short documentary about Abu Zaabal, the largest leper colony in Egypt, located some 30 kilometres away on the north-eastern outskirts of Cairo. Established in 1933, lepers were cast aside from other Egyptians because of the rampant belief that they were contagious.
The film lays bare these stereotypes laced in religious overtones when several characters first set sight upon Beshay (Rady Gamal) and recite the hadith verse “flee from the leper as one flees from a lion”. It is an effective dialogic device that is broken by the end of the film as Beshay rips off a meshed beekeeper’s hat that Obama made for him, revealing the pride in his appearance.
Shawky’s decision to cast amateur actors stems from the belief that the grueling travails of an outcast can be shown on screen both beautifully and in a way that is not didactic or preachy.
“The fact that you have someone who actually lived that experience can give you the small details, the things we take for granted, like how he smokes a cigarette, how will he pick up a fry or how he takes out the phone out of his pocket. I wouldn’t have gotten a better performance for this role from a professional actor.”
In early 2016, Shawky went on a road trip from Cairo down to Sudan’s border as part of research for the writing of the film, which was a novel concept for people he encountered.
“We got arrested once every day and they (the authorities) just didn’t know what we were doing there,” he says. But he maintains that the enormity of Egypt’s lush nature has not been depicted on screen enough.
Inspired by David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and the Coen brothers’ films, Shakwy through crisp cinematography of gorgeous landscapes crafts an even-paced melancholic film that straddles a tragi-comic sensibility.
“We live in a country of extremes, from riches to poverty living side-by-side. Out of that comes this extreme humour and extreme sadness at the same time. It’s a trait we are used to. Even in the most dire circumstances we crack jokes – it’s who we are in a way.”
He hopes that Yommedine will usher a fresh type of storytelling that is absent from mainstream Egyptian and Arab films. Egypt has traditionally been the cultural powerhouse of cinema in the region but has shied away from screening marginalised narratives that expose societal schisms.
“I want to tell universal stories. I want people to watch my films in different countries and languages that don’t understand our background but still understand the film and feel for the characters – stories that resonate with everyone.”