When Ahmed Malek was chosen to be one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Rising Stars back in 2018, the young Egyptian knew it was a big moment. “Being a local actor in the Middle East, you won’t have this access to the international market,” he explains. From this, he got an agent and access to auditions, even if it meant self-taping in his parents’ basement in Cairo. “My young brother would help me and I would shout, ‘Mum, stay quiet! Don’t cook now!’”
Even before Toronto, Malek had starred in Clash, Mohamed Diab's powder-keg drama that opened the Un Certain Regard strand of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. But this all rather shows the difficulties facing Mena actors looking to further their careers abroad. Sometimes, it takes a stroke of dumb luck. Take The Furnace, Malek's first English-speaking role, which has just premiered in Venice and is now set to play at El Gouna Film Festival.
An Australian drama from talented first-timer Roderick MacKay, it sheds light on the long-forgotten history of Australia's cameleers during the gold rush of the late 1800s. When the director started casting, "Rod very naively typed in Google, 'Middle Eastern actors'," says Malek. "And then he found me – I don't know where – and saw me in a scene that I did on Egyptian TV. And he liked it so much."
There’s something quite amusing about this fumbled method of discovery. “It sounds like a totally token ‘white guy’ thing to do,” admits MacKay, sheepishly. “I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying because it was all in Arabic, but I was glued to this guy. He struck me as a very emotionally generous actor.” He sent the clip to his producers, who readily agreed and set up a Skype session with Malek.
See photos from 'The Furnace' screening at the 2020 El Gouna Film Festival:
No doubt, Malek's magnetism is striking in The Furnace. He plays Hanif, a young Afghan cameleer who befriends a bushman (David Wenham) on the run with some stolen gold. Like The Proposition crossed with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "It's definitely a western," says Malek. "But it's a very unique western. It's western with Muslim cameleers, which you usually don't see, which would make it a one-of-a-kind western."
Malek knew very little about the history of the Muslim cameleers – predominantly Muslim and Sikh men from India, Afghanistan, and Persia. Transporting goods across the harsh Australian Outback, these men helped lay the nation’s infrastructure – railroads and telegraph lines. And then? “For pure racial, colonial reasons, they got kicked out after they’d done their work,” says Malek. “They weren’t permitted to come back.”
Tragically, these men had built lives in Australia, he adds. “This was what makes me sad, knowing the stories about how these men contributed so much. And then they were kicked out and left behind. It just makes you sad and reminds me of what’s going on nowadays, of the disaster that’s happening now between cultures. Everyone just clings to his culture, thinking that it’s superior.”
Sitting opposite me in a hotel garden on Venice's Lido, dressed in a natty green corduroy suit, the 25-year-old Malek speaks confidently in English. It's just one of four languages he had to use in The Furnace, alongside Dari, Pashto and Badimaya, an endangered tongue spoken by indigenous people in Western Australia. Linguistic difficulties were just one of the many things Malek had to overcome.
Shot in a remote part of Western Australia, with temperatures pushing 50°C, air-conditioned trailers and hotel rooms were just a distant dream. “We were living in a cabin and next to my cabin … I had a sign that said ‘Beware of snakes’. I saw animals that I had never seen before in my whole life. Kangaroos, I’d never seen. So huge. I’d never seen koalas. I’d never seen dingos. I’d never seen tiger snakes.”
With swarms of flies constantly buzzing around the cast, it was a draining experience. “It was so hard to be honest. But I would say it helped me. The reality for me as an actor – feeling the toughness the heat, feeling the flies and the temperature – would also be the reality of the character. So it served me somehow.” Unsurprisingly, he spent a week recovering on a beach in Sydney afterwards.
Fortunately, Malek – who has been performing since he was 12 years old – is no newcomer to the business. "I come from a working class family. One of my family members saw me perform when I was a kid and he decided to take me to this casting agency and it started from there." In 2010, he got his big break starring as the young Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, in the hit Egyptian television series El-Gama'a (The Brotherhood).
After attending the CCDC (Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre), a performing arts school that gave him a good grounding in movement and drama, Malek has worked steadily ever since. Believing the Egyptian film and TV industry is in good health, it’s vital that he and other homegrown actors get opportunities to “showcase our voices”, he adds, “to show the world that we are not only numbers dying on the news. We are humans, and we do art as well. And we are sensitive. We don’t only have wars.”
Since The Furnace, he's been back in Egypt filming several local projects – including multi-love story The Moon's Neighbor. But does he want to further his international career? "I am looking to make English films," he nods. "I'm just taking it step by step. If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen." While he tells me Joaquin Phoenix is his favourite performer, he's evidently not been swayed by Hollywood glitz.
"Either it's on a small stage in my hometown, or on the big screen in Venice, acting is my passion … I would act anywhere," he says. "Of course, we all have dreams. And of course, you always want to hit a break. But I'm trying as much as possible to take it slowly. To take every opportunity and give it my best." After The Furnace, he may find his name is being Googled an awful lot more.
'The Furnace' plays at El Gouna Film Festival, which runs from October 23 to 31