After finishing my interview with director Abu Bakr Shawky and producer Dina Emam at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I move to my next scheduled meeting — a group discussion with a Kenyan director about her film, which is screening in the Un Certain Regard competition. Shawky is conducting an interview with a foreign journalist nearby, and I can’t help but overhear their conversation. The reporter asks him about the “political and religious messages” behind his debut feature and Palme d’Or contender, Yomeddine (2018).
Later, when I meet with Shawky again, I ask him to comment on that question. “Wherever there is a good story I will go,” he says. “There is an expectation from Middle Eastern films that they have to be about politics and religion, but I don’t want to do that anymore. Not because they are irrelevant, but I watch films from the United States, Europe and Asia that are not political, and I like them. So why can’t a Middle Eastern film not be political in the traditional sense and still be considered enjoyable and significant?”
There were three other Arabic-language films in Cannes this year; Nadine Labaki’s Cafarnaüm (2018), a Lebanese drama about poor children and migrants in the informal housing areas of Beirut; Gaya Jiji’s My Favourite Fabric (2018), a film that tackles female sexuality and the Syrian revolution (guaranteed to be a hit with Western audiences); and Sofia, Meryem BenMbarek’s story about premarital pregnancy in Morocco. Yomeddine stood out among them as a different narrative that is placed within a specific context, yet is universally appealing and relatable nonetheless.
In Shawky’s film, Beshay, a Coptic garbage collector who has leprosy (played by Rady Gamal, who himself suffered from leprosy), Obama (Ahmed Abdelhafiz), an orphan student of Nubian origin, and a donkey named Harby undertake a journey to Upper Egypt in search of Beshay’s family, who left him at a leprosy colony when he was a child.
It is rare for a director’s first feature to make it to the main competition selection in Cannes, but Shawky had another reason to be proud of his nomination. His film premiered in the same lineup as a feature film directed by his mentor, US director Spike Lee, who taught him during his stint at New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts, where Lee serves as artistic director of the Graduate Film Department. “It made being in Cannes all the more special,” Shawky says. Lee’s latest feature, BlacKkKlansman (2018), was also in the running for the coveted Palme d’Or, and ultimately won the festival’s Grand Prix.
Yomeddine is a mixture of flavors and influences. On one hand, the characters’ quest calls to mind old Arabic folk tales, like Goha’s stories with his donkey, for instance. On the other, Shawky’s film clearly belongs to the road movie genre, traveling to the marginalized parts of Egypt.
“I always wanted to go back to Egypt to show the country in a different way and put it on the international stage. There are so many untapped resources and untold stories that need to be explored,” he says.
The film was not Shawky’s first cinematic take on the issue of leprosy. He made a short documentary about a facility for people with leprosy in Abu Zaabal in 2008. Titled The Colony, the film was his graduation project from Egypt’s High Cinema Institute. “It was a 15-minute sequence of portraits of the people living there,” Shawky recalls. “I had the idea for Yomeddine ever since.”
While the director realized that residents were not in a constant state of misery about their disease — many had come to terms, and learned to live with it — he says he wanted to investigate “the idea of people being shunned and put somewhere, not forcefully, but just because they are not accepted.”
“Leprosy is a medical and social condition, because at a certain stage it can be contagious. Once you are cured, although you don’t have the disease anymore, you have to live with people looking at you in a negative way, because of the scars that it leaves,” Shawky says. “I wanted to show those with leprosy beyond these scars; as regular people.”
Many people with leprosy, after being cured, prefer to keep living in a facility, because they think it offers them a better life than the one they would have outside. However, in the film Beshay decides to hit the road after his wife passes away.
The uniqueness of Shawky’s character highlights the clear influence of the Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan Coen) on his work. Shawky counts the Coens among his “childhood heroes,” particularly because of their knack for making very original films about very specific places, but that are “able to touch a person who lives on the other side of the globe and to make them connect with their characters.”
The Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), for instance, follows three prisoners on the road in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, and is loosely based on the mother of all road stories: Homer’s The Odyssey. In their 2009 film A Serious Man, they portray the crumbling life of a man in the Jewish community on the outskirts of 1960s Minneapolis. Theirs are very particular characters in very particular settings — who are often outcasts or, at best, misunderstood — yet their films have found global success over the years. “To me this is what cinema is supposed to be,” Shawky says. “My goal as a filmmaker is to do, to be, something like that. To make films about a world that people who live outside of it have no connection to, and to be able to create that connection.”
On their journey, Beshay and Obama are ridiculed and rejected by other underdogs they find on the road — detainees in police stations, for example, or other impoverished individuals in a public hospital or a third class train. The chemistry between Beshay, who thinks he is around 40 years old, and the young Obama is not a father-son bond, but more of a camaraderie born out of the discrimination they are both subjected to.
Nevertheless, Shawky manages to give his characters agency, despite their marginalization. Besahy and Obama, although hindered on the road by random arrests, accidents, thievery, and hunger, still have a say in the progression of events. Unlike most cinematic portrayals of poverty-stricken communities or individuals, which are often heavy with with taboos such as drug use or sex work, and where such dire living conditions are often blamed on government policies and the characters are often portrayed as mere victims, here, Beshay and Obama are fleshed out protagonists, who are permitted to make choices and deal with their consequences.
“The aim was to make a film about minorities trying to make it through a life that is not hard for them only, but hard in general. I just wanted to give them a voice,” Shawky elaborates. “In that sense, it is not a film about leprosy, but more of a film about a person trying to get by and trying to find an answer to a question.”
The name Yomeddine, which translates to Judgment Day, is reflective of a central element Shawky encountered throughout his experience interacting with people with leprosy in Egypt. “People in the colony are religious, whether they are Muslim or Christian. They get through life’s difficulties by believing in a Judgement Day, when they believe people will not be questioned for their appearance but for their personality. This was a profound idea for me. None of them ever seemed to ask, ‘Why me?’”
This sense is clearly manifested in Shawky’s lead actor. The director says that Rady, who plays Beshay, is a good-spirited individual. “Usually when people with leprosy meet you for the first time, they don’t extend their hand for you to shake, as they are afraid that you will be too repelled to do it. But the first thing Rady did when we met was give me his hand.”
Through a four-month workshop, Shawky established a solid relationship with Rady, preparing him for his first time on a film set and in front of a camera. The main role in the film was initially written for a woman, but she died before shooting began, and the role passed to Rady.
However, Rady was a first-time actor and illiterate, so memorizing dialogue posed a challenge. To avoid actors missing their marks, or going outside the frame Shawky and his crew decided to set rules aside and film guerrilla style. To make up for the actors’ lack of experience, they adapted the camera to the movement of the actors rather than vice versa. “Instead of putting the camera on a tripod and having them work for us, we had to work for them in a way,” he says. “They directed us.”
In addition to capturing the ups and downs of the road trip, and the changes it inspires in the characters, Shawky — aided by the brilliant cinematography of Federico Cesca — provides visually rich landscapes of a sprawling Egypt that mingles concrete roads with yellow desert alleys; lush greenery with piles of rubbish. His use of locations, Shawky is clearly inspired by Wim Wenders, a master of road movies (Alice in the Cities, 1974 and Paris, Texas, 1984), as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild, a 2012 American drama directed, co-written, and co-scored by Benh Zeitlin. “I feel that Egypt, as a backdrop, almost has its own character,” Shawky says.
Another influence is David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). In one scene that takes place on a third class train to Qena, where Beshay’s family supposedly is, he explodes in anger at some passengers who harass him. “I am a human being!” he yells, paying homage to an iconic scene in Lynch’s film.
Although Shawky had entertained the idea of Yomeddine ever since he made The Colony, he started the actual writing in 2013, basing his NYU Graduate Film thesis on the project. Producer Dina Emam, who is also Shawky’s wife, was involved with the film from the very beginning.
Emam and Shawky secured the first grant from NYU’s Richard Vague Film Production Fund, which constituted a big chunk of their budget, but they didn’t get any funds from festivals or grants in the US, Europe or the Middle East. “Nobody wanted to give us money, so we launched a kickstarter campaign for crowdfunding. We got help from friends and family, too, and, of course, put some of our own savings into the project as a last resort,” Emam says.
She adds that on the journey to produce the film, both she and Shawky were working on US TV mini-series The Looming Tower (2018), which provided them with some money they could use to produce Yomeddine.
Shawky and Emam had to put the film on hold, however, until they could get some more money to finance post-production. “We didn’t feel it would be okay to ask people for money again three years after they’d already given us some, you know?” Emam explains.
“It didn’t help, of course, that we were nobodies in the industry,” she adds. “We were first-time filmmakers with neither a big production company nor any big stars involved in our project, so obviously this made it difficult for us to get things done, from securing funds to obtaining shooting permits, to being taken seriously at all.”
Last year, Emam was in Cannes, networking with the hope of making connections that would facilitate the film’s post-production process. There, she met Mohamed Hefzy, the head of Egyptian production house and distributor Film Clinic, and the new president of the Cairo International Film Festival.
According to Shawky, Hefzy knew about the film, but it was only when he saw the first 20 minutes of it in the CineGouna Platform presentations during the first edition of the Gouna Film Festival, where the film won a US$5,000 post-production grant, that he decided to jump on board as the film’s co-producer and Middle East distributor.
Yomeddine survived the criticism of the politically conservative and pro-state Egyptian critics who usually attend the Cannes Film Festival, but it is yet to be seen whether it will be received well upon its release in Egypt, especially as much of the film deals with underprivileged segments of Egyptian society and takes place in impoverished areas. Two years ago, when Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Diab’s second directorial feature, Eshtebak (Clash, 2016) made it to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition, he came under fire by several media figures, who accused him of “presenting a deformed image of Egyptian society” in most of his work, particularly his earlier film 678 (2010), which tackled the issue of sexual harassment in Cairo.
Responding to the possibility of similar criticism, Shawky says, “I would tell them one thing. I was in Cannes, with my debut in the main competition, which is a very rare occurrence, and nobody called it ‘the film that makes Egypt look bad.’ Everyone would simply say: ‘the Egyptian film.’”
“We used real locations whenever possible,” Emam adds. “So if anyone says we’re presenting a distorted picture of reality, then they are not looking around themselves.”