Ramadan television audiences were glued to screens this year as period crime series “Grand Hotel” unfolded. Social media buzzed with speculation about what would happen to Ward’s twins and the fate of the love story between aristocratic Nazli and poverty-stricken Ali.
But, with good reason, viewers were also raving about the impeccable production values: from rom-com tycoon Tamer Habib’s well-crafted script (adapted from a Spanish television series), through the casting and acting (especially Mohamed Mamdouh’s brilliant turn) to the art direction, camera work and costumes. All this was brought together by director Mohamed Shaker Khodeir.
When you meet Shaker, it’s striking how young he looks for his 33 years, with his dark hair and beach tan. He makes his way across Zamalek’s Left Bank café where we meet, sits down and tells me that he doesn’t do many interviews — he prefers to focus on his work. Indeed, when I searched online for useful references before meeting him, I’d failed to come up with much.
Shaker has an array of markedly diverse directorial projects under his belt. He’s worked in cinema, television and online. He’s tackled revolution-driven projects and political participation videos, but also religious shows, romantic comedies and reality TV. His Ramadan TV hits were both period pieces, but different genres and set in different times — one a musical between the 1960s to 1980s and the other a crime story set in 1950.
Gender-switching romcom Hatouly Ragel (Bring Me a Man, 2013) and musical TV series “Tariqi” (My Way, 2015 — also scripted by Habib), starring popstar Sherine Abdelwahab as a singer struggling to make it big, are a huge contrast with the three seasons he made of religious scholar (and producer of recent film Clash) Moez Massoud’s moralistic soap opera “Khatawat al-Shaitan” (The Devil’s Steps) between 2013 and 2014. He’s made multiple music videos for two of Egypt’s biggest bands, Cairokee and Sharmoofers, not to mention one for Amir Eid and Hany Adel’s popular revolution song Sout al-Horreya (Voice of Freedom), which was filmed during the 18-day sit-in in Tahrir Square. He’s also directed a Ramadan ad for Pepsi.
Perhaps what ties together Shaker’s disparate work is his meticulous attention to detail, which shows in his production decisions. “He’s quietly strict,” veteran actor Ragaa al-Giddawy said recently on privately owned channel CBC. “The first time I saw him, when we were making Hatouly Ragel, I thought he was the director’s son. [But in ‘Grand Hotel’] it was really Shaker who brought these characters from paper to life.”
“Details immerse you in the story, they make you believe it and invest in the characters,” he tells me. “The challenge is in that it has to be done subtly — it can’t be forced.”
Maybe this comes from his educational background: Shaker started out as a dentist, but swiftly retired his drills in his early 20s, becoming a director in 2005 — which may not have been a complete surprise as his father, Shaker Khodeir, was a theater director who staged several plays starring comedy giant Samir Ghanem.
Without any education in the field, Shaker says he has relied on reading books about filmmaking, watching films, and trial and error. “I always thought someone who graduated from the Cinema Institute would be much better than me,” he says, “so it created an internal competition with myself, that I had to learn a lot.”
Shaker also put himself in touch with a group of other young filmmakers, and started working. His inauspicious start was a reality TV show called “Al-Tagroba” (The Experiment), in 2008, in which celebrities did a challenge they’d never done before on camera.
He also made a lot of music videos early on – he loves music and has several indie musician friends. Sout al-Horeyya, his first, became a hit – though everybody volunteered and he considers it a sort of advocacy work rather than his own. “It was made for its time with a specific purpose, and belongs to everyone in a way,” he says.
“One day during the 18 days Amir called and told me that he wanted to film the song in the square. I heard it and loved it,” he says. “I thought of the idea that we get individuals in the square to lip-synch the song – so it comes from the people.”
Laila Omar, Amir Eid’s wife, came up with the idea to also write lyrics on signs people could carry as they lip-synced. Then, while editing the video, Shaker was watching television and caught the popular poet Abdelrahman al-Abnudy make a call on a news segment where he recited one of his poems, so he decided to add that clip too.
“I finished editing, got the Cairokee channel password, uploaded it and went to sleep. I woke up to find 500,000 views,” he says, describing the impact it had on his perception of what his new field was capable of. The video was uploaded the day before former President Hosni Mubarak resigned.
Another project Shaker considers advocacy work is the Vote No video he made under the umbrella of El-Gomhoreya TV (now the Glocal). In it, political and artistic figures explain why they would vote no in the constitutional referendum following the revolution — a vote that eventually went to the yes camp, which was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and old regime members.
Being an unsyndicated filmmaker in Egypt
Shaker has made just one feature film so far. Hatouly Ragel has a young cast and a “what if?” premise: women have figured out a way to be dominant in society. It was marred by gender clichés, and could have been much more dynamic had it dug deeper into how society would look if women actually ran it as opposed to simply taking on male roles. That said, it was pretty well received, and it’s not an unimpressive cinematic debut — especially its amusing satire of Egyptian romcoms that remakes iconic scenes from various films.
“I wanted to put the audience in a position where they see the stereotypes of one gender performed by another, and see whether they’d then be more critical of their own gender’s position,” says Shaker when asked about the clichés.
Now that Shaker has had a few projects under his belt, he’s finally syndicated, but a major challenge he faced with Hatouly Ragel, like many non-syndicated filmmakers, was obtaining the necessary permits from the Cinema Syndicate. The syndicate’s convoluted bureaucracy is difficult enough for members, who are typically film school graduates, but non-syndicated cinema workers must obtain a temporary permit for every project they work on.
“The concept of a syndicate in Egypt is not like any country in the world. The syndicate’s job elsewhere is to defend its members. In Egypt it’s a body that you need to get the approval from for whatever you do,” Shaker explains. “These people have artists they’re responsible for, some of them are retired, unemployed or need healthcare, so it’s always trying to make money to spend on these members – from the non-syndicated filmmakers like us.”
“There is always this idea of asking why people who are not trained as filmmakers are working when they have thousands of filmmakers not doing anything. But how is this my problem? It’s an unfair premise. So you end up paying the syndicate a lot of money to get a permit to make a film.”
“Tamer and I were sceptical about doing another period piece [after ‘Tariqi’],” Shaker says of when ‘Grand Hotel’ was proposed to them. “I started thinking of it as a challenge – how could we do another period piece, but totally differently?”
Shaker decided not to watch the Spanish show it was adapted from, to avoid either trying hard to do it differently or being limited by its aesthetics. He dealt with Habib’s script as an original work, and they both chose 1950 as historical moment because social gaps were extreme — but also because it was just before the military toppled King Farouk in 1952.
“I have a struggle in television, which is how to portray information. Television audiences are very broad – different ages, cultures, intelligence levels, so you’re always not sure how to approach that,” Shaker says. “I can give someone information, but someone else sees it as spoon-feeding. So the term ‘subtle’ in Egypt is very relative. Our story is not political. If there were hints to the political backdrop that some people got, then they took another layer of the story in.”
Asked what next, Shaker tells me he’s afraid of audience expectations after Grand Hotel’s success.
Most producers currently prefer to invest their money in television rather than film because to some extent they can guarantee a return on investment — especially in Ramadan. So to be ambitious in terms of production, television often has more opportunities — while cinema has lower budgets and fewer options, especially for new filmmakers.
“It’s harder to work in television though,” Shaker says. “Its conditions are really made to kill any artistic drive inside of you. The production pressures and the deadlines are extremely hectic.”
“There’s the idea to continue making series because as a director this is where you can dream big. Yet cinema is my passion, so I really want to make films,” he says. “Also, I don’t want to keep working back to back and consume all my energy and ideas.”