It’s been a long summer of waiting for Voy! Voy! Voy! writer and director Omar Hilal.
Following a successful two-decade career directing ads and television shows across the globe, his debut feature film was finally set to land in cinemas following Eid on July 6, a momentous day he says he has dreamt of “since I was 12.”
This, of course, is the movie industry and the Voy! Voy! Voy! release was delayed. Then a second release for August 23 was pushed back too.
The darkly comic tale of Hassan, a poor Egyptian man who feigns blindness so he can join a visually impaired football team and escape to Europe during a tournament there, arrives on screens across the Arab world on Thursday.
Hilal perhaps has good reason to be really rather pleased with the delay.
Thanks to the extra time, the director was able to team up with superstar Egyptian rapper Wegz to create a music video for the film’s theme tune Helwa Manak. Released on September 7, the video has more than 800,000 views and has helped the film become the talk of the Middle East without even needing to go near a cinema.
“I'm pleased we pushed it back because it gave us chance to make the Wegz video, and that’s been great publicity,” Hilal tells The National. “It's trending worldwide, it’s number one in Egypt. There’s an Egyptian saying that there's something good attached to every delay, and I honestly believe it now.”
In fact, the director insists that had the scheduling been left up to him, he’d have chosen a later release date all along: “The summer was packed with Egyptian movies with giant stars attached and out-and-out slapstick comedy, and we’re not your typical summer blockbuster,” he says.
“It's not that I'm scared – and I definitely feel my film competes – but we were supposed to come out in summer with all that, and then there was Barbenheimer. When that struck it was like 'you're not going to be able to fight that.' I swear, I always wanted September.”
Voy! Voy! Voy!’s cast features big names such as Mohamed Farag in the lead role as the devious-not-blind footballer, Bayoumi Fouad as his coach, and Nelly Karim as the journalist following the team’s glorious path to the finals in Europe.
While it may be easy to go for a comic interpretation of the situation, Hilal delivers an altogether more nuanced affair. “It's a dark comedy, a drama, and I wanted that balance,” he says. “No one needs to have any worries of jokes about being blind. Right at the start I said ‘guys, we're not making jokes about blind people. This is a film about con artists, not about blind people.’”
Indeed, the film is about many things that you might not expect. From the abject poverty frequently faced by Egyptian families, to the hope-turned-disappointment of the Egyptian Revolution – still fresh in the minds of the film’s 2013 setting, to the plight of the thousands who attempt to flee the Northern coast of the Maghreb for Europe in unsafe boats, and the destabilising effects of recreational drug use on Egyptian society – there’s a lot more going on here than your average sports comedy.
Perhaps even more remarkably, the film is inspired by true events. “It was 2016 when the story broke, and a few friends posted it on social media from various sources,” Hilal recalls. “I was like ‘Oh, wow. A bunch of Egyptians play blind football, and escape and flee to Poland, and they're not found?’ I was in a bus with my crew on the way to a shoot. I read it and laughed, and immediately I looked at my friend and said: 'I just found the film that I'm going to make.’”
Hilal admits that, having lived a somewhat nomadic life himself, he is naturally drawn to stories about people who travel – or in Hassan’s case – flee. The director grew up in Saudi Arabia, was educated between Canada and Egypt, has spent time living in Italy directing television, and has frequently visited the UK where some of his family have lived for decades.
The director shies away from the well-worn cliche of being a “citizen of the world,” but admits that he may be prone to some of the traits of such a description.
“I'm interested in these topics because I grew up, literally, ‘around’. Egypt is my country, but it's not exactly my home,” he explains. “I came back here but I'm everywhere in a way. These topics of living outside of your shell, outside of Egypt, and having to live outside because opportunity is not that abundant in Egypt, it’s in my DNA.”
For all his own – and his protagonist's – desire to spread their wings, however, Hilal says that what Voy! Voy! Voy! is ultimately about is his homeland.
“I think that this film encapsulates what a lot of Egyptians are about,” he says. “There’s a lot we’ve managed to survive, you know? I mean we're really clever. We know how to twist anything in our favour to survive, and it's really a story of that – that almost nothing is too difficult for an Egyptian.”
Hilal pauses in his thoughts for a moment. “It's a film about genius,” comes his big reveal. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a genius that is somewhat flawed, and maybe immoral, but definitely genius.”
Voy! Voy! Voy! is in UAE cinemas on Thursday