Omar El Zohairy made history when his absurdist black comedy Feathers won the Grand Prize at Critics' Week in Cannes – the first Egyptian film to win in this segment of the festival. "I'm so grateful for this award," he tells The National.
"It is so bold to give the film the prize. It proves that if you believe in your artistic vision and don't compromise, it can take you to good places. I'm so proud because the film is building on the history of great Egyptian cinema. And this award will help push Egyptian cinema to even greater heights."
Feathers tells the story of a housewife who has to take care of her family after her husband, the authoritarian father figure, is turned into a chicken by magicians at their four-year-old son's birthday party. And they can't turn him into a human again.
The housewife treats the transformation seriously – she takes care of and feeds the chicken as if it were her husband. She also discovers that her husband is behind on their rent and has to go out to work.
"I felt that there would be something original in a story about a woman who believes her husband is a chicken and that this chicken destroys her life," El Zohairy says.
While the premise of the film sounds funny, it wasn't the laughs that El Zohairy, 33, was interested in, but the sympathy it would allow audiences to feel for the housewife. "She has the survivor problem. To survive, she has to face her fears. She is not an intellectual character who is aware of everything; her focus is to protect her kids and home.
"The chicken was a bridge to jump into her character and see the world through her eyes. If I simply told a story about a woman trying to survive, we would think that we've seen it many times, but that's not the case because of the chicken."
There are a lot of bold choices in the film. Another was not to give any of the characters, or the dusty Egyptian town in which they live, a name. "The film is not about a certain country or certain people; there are no labels as I wanted it to be about what it means to be human. We can all relate to the world being more materialistic today than before and the idea that if you have power, you are somehow better than others. There is something magical in human beings that we kill by being too materialistic."
El Zohairy also decided to work with first-time actors. He spent almost two years looking for the right people to inhabit the roles. "I was not looking at how they act. I was looking at how they spoke in real life, and their energy and attitude, and from there, I started believing the film was about them. I didn't give them a script or acting lessons. I filmed them like it was a documentary in some ways."
El Zohairy, who was born in Egypt and lives in Cairo, cites filmmakers Youssef Chahine, Mohamed Khan, Khairy Beshara, Yousry Nasrallah, Oussama Fawzy as his influences. He remembers the moment he decided he wanted to pursue a career in directing. "My mum took me to see Chahine's Destiny in 1998. I was a young boy and I cried at the end of the film. I felt something was amazing about seeing a film and that it could make you cry, and I wanted to be part of this magical thing. At the time, I didn't know whether as an actor or director. I was a lonely kid, I had no brother's and sisters and cinema was a way I could find myself."
In 2007, when he was a student at film school in Cairo, he saw renowned Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah walking down the street. He gave Nasrallah a CD containing his work. "He called me the next day and said you are very talented, you can join my team as an assistant director, and I learnt a lot through working with him."
Now, the student is becoming the master, with an award from Cannes as proof.
But it's not the first time El Zohairy has made history for his country at Cannes. In 2014, his short Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometre 375 was the first Egyptian film to compete in the festival's Cinefondation event, which helps new talents. "What I learnt from this first experience was to follow my intuition and that I had to discover my brand of cinema. When I made my short film, I tried too much to be a perfectionist, and for my feature film, I embraced the chaos a little bit more."
Egyptian cinema is on a hot streak at the moment, it would appear. Last year, Sameh Alaa's I Am Afraid to Forget Your Face won Cannes' Short Film Palme d'Or. El Zohairy says the upturn in the fortunes of his country's films is because "our cinema has become more Egyptian".
"The young generation is more daring about saying how we feel," he says. "So our films are being more accepted internationally."