When the Cannes Film Festival committee announced the contenders for this year's Palme d'Or, Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker Abu Bakr Shawky's inbox was awash with praise – his first feature-length film, Yomeddine, was in the running for the top prize.
It was a triumphant moment for independent cinema in Egypt, Yomeddine was the first full-length indie film from the country to be nominated. The film is about a recovered leper who journeys across across Egypt with his apprentice in search of his family.
While the nomination is notable enough, what is perhaps more extraordinary about this level of recognition is that Yomeddine was born out of a graduate project during Shawky's time at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the Big Apple.
Following his own path
Prior to this time Shawky spent four years shuttling between the Higher Institute of Cinema and the American University in Cairo. In the mornings he would attend film seminars, and in the evenings he’d analyse history and political theory.
"Everyone thought I was a drug addict," he says with a laugh. "I would disappear and they wouldn't know where I went off to."
By 2010, Shawky was ready for work, but because he had been juggling two degrees for some years prior, he didn't travel the trainee-on-a-movie-set path like his film institute classmates. He says this has left him on something of an outer with the film establishment. "I am kind of a no-name in the middle," he says of his Palm d'Or nomination. "Even in Egypt, most people are like, 'who the hell is this guy?'"
It was Shawky's erudite mother, who moved from Austria to Egypt more than three decades ago, that helped him develop an interest in foreign-language films. "When I was a little kid, she'd drag me to all these movies, mostly independent [ones]. She showed me everything from Iranian new wave to Hitchcock," he says.
As he grew older, Shawky dreamt of becoming a writer, but the now 32-year-old instead developed a penchant for the moving image, embarking on a career that eventually combined both.
Shawky wrote Yomeddine between 2012 and 2013 after moving to New York. The idea behind it was conceived in 2008, on the back of a short documentary Shawky directed during his stint at the Higher Institute of Cinema.
Finding inspiration for his film
The Colony, a short film featuring residents of Abu Zaabal, Egypt's infamous leper colony, was the result of his "fascination with being an outsider" and a growing empathy toward those whose battles often went unnoticed, those who were not "completely understood".
When I first watched The Colony nine years ago I asked Shawky what had been most challenging about this kind of storytelling. He admitted that the process of filming the story of the main character, Bada'a, who made her money selling what she could find in a landfill, was perhaps the most unsettling part.
“It was very difficult to hold a camera and conduct an interview while the woman you are interviewing is digging through the ground with extreme difficulty while talking about her children’s future,” he said. “It takes away from your own dignity by not helping her at this moment.”
Shawky made the leap from The Colony, a 15-minute film, to Yomeddine, one hour and 37 minutes, but with a similar resolve, in which he was gripped by a desire to tell a "joyous" story about a character who also just happens to be a leper.
In dealing with a disease once treated with complete, state-sanctioned quarantines, and in exploring stigmas and their companions, Shawky says he wanted to steer clear of portraying a people, or a country, tottering in despair. Instead he approached the story the same way Rady Gamal, who plays Beshay, the film’s protagonist and a resident of the colony, approaches life. “These are the cards he was dealt, he’s not crying about it,” the filmmaker says. “He’s more like, ‘this is my life and this is how I am going to live it’. I didn’t want to make poverty important.”
Shawky admits it was difficult finding a leper to play the lead role, so he went ahead and worked with Gamal for four months prior to shooting. He chose to present Beshay as a Copt, so as to shine a light on the history of leper colonies, which he says have been chiefly supported by Roman Catholic nuns.
Ahmed Abdel Hafiz, who plays Obama, the young boy who accompanies Beshay across Egypt in an attempt to reconnect with his family, is a first-time actor too.
Cementing his directorial approach
The recurring story of lepers being left behind by their families was the catalyst for the feature-film-length story of Beshay.
"[While shooting The Colony] I started to hear stories about people being dropped off at the colony and having no one come back for them – I had a choice to either sit them down for an interview, without interfering in their story, and listen to what happened, risking that we would never find out what actually happened ... or [opt for] a different genre."
Yomeddine, a work of fiction, is filmed mostly using a handheld camera, and demonstrates the centrality of Shawky's repertoire of short documentaries in his first attempt at a narrative film. Prior to this stand-out offering, Shawky also directed The Return (2009), his graduation project from Cairo's Higher Institute of Cinema; Martyr Friday (2011), a short film about the day Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power; and Things I Heard on Wednesdays (2012), a reflective, minimalistic chronicle of archived footage, combining, albeit unintentionally, personal and political milestones of the Shawky family.
Cinematically, it was through Things I Heard on Wednesdays that Shawky began to cement his directorial approach, delivering empathetic explorations of realities that are as temporal as they are personal.
Yomeddine was described by Cannes' artistic director Thierry Fremaux in an interview with Variety magazine as "a unique and poetic work of art. And as many films do, it enlightens us by pondering on who we are, who are the others, what the world is like".
'This is a very personal project to me'
Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian critic and programmer, says the film is "the biggest curiosity" at the festival this year. Yomeddine is produced by Highway Desert Pictures, which Shawky co-founded with his sister in 2014 in an attempt to bypass the bureaucracy that surrounds filmmaking in his country.
“I didn’t want another company to come in and completely take over, and for me to become just the director. This is a very personal project to me, I didn’t want to just give it away to an entity when I wasn’t very sure what it would do with it,” says Shawky, who heads the company with his wife and the film’s producer, Dina Emam.
In December, Mohamed Hefzy's Film Clinic, known for allying with filmmakers who are pegged as experimental or independent, jumped on board as co-producer.
If Highway Desert Pictures has helped a little-known Shawky preserve intellectual rights over Yomeddine, Film Clinic is his doorway to the market. Shawky is a first-time feature film director, working with a first-time producer, and using non-actors, one of whom is a leper.
None of these are easily marketable in Egypt’s tight-knit circle of production tycoons and voracious cinema owners. For years, this has meant new and unknown filmmakers, who are already hard-pressed to compete against their commercial counterparts, have slim chances of finding producers eager to endorse them, or cinemas willing to take a chance on their work.
Aside from personal capital, financing for the film came from a number of grants secured with help from NYU, an investment from an Egyptian business acquaintance, a Kickstarter campaign, and El Gouna Film Festival. According to Shawky, Yomeddine was rejected by all the big guns for funding, with many saying "make it first and then come back".
Unless the makers of a film are well known, there is no guarantee of box-office success. But with a nod from the most popular film fete and a solid plan for regional and local distribution, the next few months may hold pleasant, well-earned surprises for Shawky and the industry underdogs behind Yomeddine.
Shawky is competing with the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Lee and two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi for this year’s prize. The Palme d’Or winner will be announced on Saturday, May 19, at the conclusion of this year’s festival.
For more on the Cannes Film Festival action, from the red carpet to the film screenings, go to https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/film