The premise of Voy! Voy! Voy! is based on a true incident that Egyptian media labelled a “scandal”.
Warning: the following review contains spoilers
In 2015, a team of blind Egyptian athletes travelled to Poland to take part in a tournament for goalball, a sport specifically designed for the visually impaired. However, as the team arrived in Poland, a number of its players vanished. It soon became clear that they had merely used the goalball tournament as a way of making their way to Europe. More shockingly, it turned out they weren’t even visually impaired.
From this story comes the inspiration for the protagonist of Voy! Voy! Voy!, which was released in the UAE on Thursday.
Hassan (Muhammad Farrag) is an ambitious yet destitute young man, who works as a car park security guard. Right from the onset of the film, it becomes clear that he is willing to do anything to escape the daily life he feels mired in. He manipulates an elderly rich British woman and just as they are discussing marriage, she dies, and his plans are buckled.
Hassan returns to his friends and tries, with them, to concoct a new plan to make their way abroad. They consider crossing the Mediterranean to Italy, where they will feign to be Syrian refugees who are unable to return to their country. The plan is dangerous and replete with uncertainties. They could drown. They could be discovered by guard dogs. They could be attacked by others trying to make their way from Africa to Europe. Even if they beat all odds and make their way to Italy, authorities could discover they are in fact Egyptian and send them back to the country. The winding and perilous journey would have been for nothing.
That’s when Hassan comes across a newspaper article featuring a team of blind footballers who are scheduled to take part in an international competition in Poland. A new plan takes shape and with it the film is propelled into the outrageous and unexpected. Although the film naturally leans towards the comedic, it is its treatment of the dramatic undertones that give it depth. The motives and consequences of Hassan’s actions easily evoke laughter but then, as you least expect it, the anvil of their implications drops, and underscores the gravity of the situation the characters find themselves in.
In a press conference ahead of the film’s UAE premiere on Monday at Vox Cinemas in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai, director Omar Hilal said he knew he wanted to turn the story into a film, ever since encountering news reports about the incident online.
"Why? Because as much as it has drama, it has comedy. It's a perfect blend of both," he said.
“[The story] is typically Egyptian. We are a people that knows how to solve its problems somehow. I am keen on making films that have social overtones, not just for entertainment or drama for the sake of drama. I think this film succeeds in doing both. It is comedic and entertaining but has a lot of drama.”
Hilal’s debut feature, Voy! Voy! Voy! benefits from the trifecta of being well-written, well-directed and having a flock of well-established actors who bring a sensitivity and compassion to each role, even the morally ambiguous ones.
Among these is Farag, who takes on the role of Hassan in the film. The Egyptian actor, famous for his roles in The Black Box and The Passage, ensures the character is not pigeonholed merely as a beaming, sweet-talking swindler. Hassan, after all, represents a very real demographic within Egypt. His decisions are driven by his impoverishment and circumstance. He is bitter at the life he finds himself in and imagines that better things wait for him across the sea.
At the press conference, Farag said he was keen to take part in Voy! Voy! Voy! as soon as he read the script. The actor said he was curious as to what kind of person would steep so low as to feign visual impairment to make their way to Europe.
“I love challenges,” he said. “I could fail, or I could succeed. I felt a great passion towards this film when I was reading it. You feel the characters are real, people you see every day on the street. The challenge for me was playing a character that sees but deceits people to think that you don’t see. I couldn’t imagine how someone could do this. Is your heart dead to this extent? That made me want to explore the character.”
Voy! Voy! Voy! also stars Taha Desouky, Amgad Al Haggar, and Bayoumi Fouad, who delivers a layered performance as Captain Adel.
Among the film’s biggest stars, however, is Nelly Karim, who takes on the role of the journalist assigned to report on the football team as they prepare for the tournament in Poland. The Egyptian actress has appeared in more than two dozen films and series. Yet, she said Voy! Voy! Voy! was a distinct experience in her oeuvre.
“It’s one of the first times that the entire crew loves what they are doing,” she said. Having worked with Farag on a handful of other projects, including the 2015 television series Under Control, Karim said she has the utmost respect for Farag on a personal and professional level, and appreciates the challenges that came with his role.
“As I was watching backstage, I told him this film would be one of the most important projects of his career,” she said. “He has a great character. He has a director who is paying attention to every detail, and having wrote the script himself, feels for every character. It is the wish of every actor to work on a film with a complete script, a capable director who knows the film from beginning to end.”
Mohamed Hefzy, one of the most prolific producers in the region, also said that he was drawn to the film immediately after reading the script. Hefzy said he knew Voy! Voy! Voy! would require a generous set of resources to give the script its due on screen. Having known Hilal’s work as a director for commercials, Hefzy said he knew what the director was aiming to do with the film.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” he said. “The film would need a team, both behind and in front of the camera, to turn out well.”
Hefazy and Hilal then set out to find collaborators to help bring Voy! Voy! Voy! to reality, eventually partnering with Vox Studios as well as Image Nation. Although the film is Hilal's first feature, you'd never think so looking at the final product. Thoughtfully composed and paced, the film gracefully pulls and slacks suspense as absurdities pile and the dire nature of the characters' lives are revealed.
With Voy! Voy! Voy!, Hilal has managed to accomplish what he set out to do, and that is making a comedy-drama that underscores an important social reality within Egypt. The film injects humanity in an incident that seems, on the face of it, morally delirious and hard-hearted, becoming an easy highlight in the corpus of contemporary Egyptian cinema.