Is it really possible to avoid politics in a place like Egypt? A conversation with Mohamed Hefzy
 
 
Mohamed Hefzy
 

It is September, and we’re in Gouna during the second edition of the Red Sea resort’s annual film festival, an anticipated event among film professionals ever since it launched last year. Perfectly nice as always, Mohamed Hefzy — the famous producer and current president of the Cairo International Film Festival — grants me an hour of his busy schedule. I tell him I want to write about him because I find most interviews with him that I’ve read to be unsatisfactory, as his calculated and polished answers can make him seem distant to those who are not personally acquainted with him. He always gives carefully calculated answers, polished to perfection, which makes him seem distant to those who are familiar with his work but not with him. I want a closer portrait of him, I say, and he nods in understanding. He invites me to join him at his table until he finishes his drink, before we move to a separate one, making sure to introduce me to his companions, among whom are Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and Egyptian director Abu Bakr Shawky.

I’ve known Hefzy for years, ever since he produced my first and only feature to date as a screenwriter, Villa 69 (2013). Our relationship wasn’t exactly friendly back then, at least from my side. I was edgy, sensitive and filled with the same sentiments shared by young artists the world over: financiers will surely try to destroy our work, and we must fight for our artistic integrity. This tension reached its peak in an angry message I sent him when I saw the initial blueprints for the film’s poster, which I thought were misleading to viewers. He calmly replied that everything that had to do with the film’s marketing and promotion was a production decision. Later, after years of experience, I came to see things clearly: he had been right, and I had been wrong.

This incident was followed by many small moments here and there: a few chance encounters in the street during the time I lived next to his place in Zamalek, a brief conversation at a random event, sporadic social media messages. One cannot afford to “hate” Mohamed Hefzy, but he is certainly a figure worthy of reflection.

More hours of conversation in Cairo follow that first one in Gouna. When I ask Hefzy if he is aware of the impression most people working in the Egyptian film industry had of him, he answers with a laugh: “Hefzy’s such a good boy.” He is right, but not entirely. He is often referred to — at least in the circles I frequent — as “Hefzy, the decent one,” a phrase that became a pop culture trademark after the success of the 2003 film Sahar al-Layali (Sleepless Nights), directed by Hani Khalifa, where one of the characters, played by Khaled Abul Naga, is dubbed “Ali, the decent one,” by his friends — for obvious reasons. Ali, like Hefzy, is well-groomed and proper, has no enemies or sharp opinions, speaks in mindfully constructed sentences and invites no unnecessary attention.

However, it seems that, as a public figure, Hefzy hasn’t been met with the kind of dilemmas that led to the near-collapse of Ali’s orderly life in the film. Or he simply doesn’t think much of how people view him, of the insult implicit in this nickname. When I draw his attention to the fact that he is one of the few producers in Egypt who come from an urban, white-collar background — following my observation with a question about whether this has led to certain frictions between him and other household names in the industry — he replies in the negative. “Respect is the only thing that matters. As long as people treat one another with respect, everything else will sort itself out.”

Respect is Hefzy’s personal code, not a mere accessory that makes it easier for him to navigate his social circles. It is a notion he internalizes so completely that he thanks the waiter at the Gouna café we’re sitting in three times for bringing him a cup of tea.

He shows some discomfort when I describe his family as “capitalist.” He rushes to correct me, saying that they have been practicing the same craft for years, while capitalists tend to invest their money in several different trades and businesses. Regardless of this dispute over definitions, Hefzy’s family moved to Cairo from Assiut in the beginning of the 20th century, and has worked exclusively in the copper industry ever since. In light of this long, established heritage, Hefzy was being primed to take his natural place in the family cycle. He moved to London to study metal engineering in Brunel University, but his experience in the British capital stirred different desires within him.

“I loved theater ever since I was at school. Drama was my introduction to literature. When I was 16, I began to read different theater works and to take acting classes,” Hefzy recalls. When he went to London in the 1990s, he says, he found himself growing more interested in cinema, as a natural extension to theatre and the performing arts. “Being in London gave me the chance to see the most recent film releases, and also exposed me to the classics — there were always retrospectives of great directors from all around the world playing in different theaters around the city.”

Listening to Hefzy speak about his time in London, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between his experience and that of the late Mohamed Khan, who Hefzy greatly admires, and whose passion for cinema had blossomed in the same city two decades earlier. It seemed to me that the city was formative to each in a different way, affecting how their careers would later take shape. In his letters to cinematographer and longtime friend Said Shimi in the late 50s and early 60s, Khan recounts the refreshing shock of encountering the French New Wave, and Britain’s Kitchen Sink realism. The political ideas behind such cinematic movements heavily influenced the aesthetic choices of their directors, and Khan was subsequently affected, in his own work, by the films that shaped his love for the art form. It is hard, however, to discern the same trend in Hefzy’s work.

Hefzy during the press conference preceding the launch of CIFF’s 40th edition. - Courtesy: CIFF

Hefzy began his career in film as a screenwriter. His first few films, including Al-Sellem wal Teaban (Snakes and Ladders, 2001) and Tito (2004), both directed by Tarek al-Arian, garnered critical and popular praise, and paved the way for Hefzy as a producer. “The director of my debut feature as a writer was also the producer, and he asked me if I wanted to co-produce the film. My hunch was that he only needed financing, and this is why I didn’t really see myself as a producer on that film, but as co-financier,” he says. It was that experience, however, that prompted Hefzy to start thinking about production. “I wanted to have a bigger impact on how films were made, how scripts were developed — to test the margin of freedom available to writers and directors, and to what extent it can be compromised by the intervention of the film’s stars; I wanted to find out how such intervention affects the production process as a whole.”

Hefzy doesn’t hide his frustration at the inconveniences he experienced back then, many of which persist today in the Egyptian film industry. “I witnessed so many people bow so completely to this star power, and it started dawning on me just how few names were controlling the industry — it was basically one clique, working within its comfort zone, in the same manner with the same people,” he says. “And, in the end, the results weren’t really that great, neither artistically nor even in terms of entertainment.”

Such disillusionment was among the factors that drove Hefzy to found his own company, Film Clinic, in 2005. Originally it was a writers’ lab, encouraging the creation of material that would later find its way to the market, through the company itself as a mediator. “The objective was to enhance the craft of film writing in Egypt and to provide the market with decent scripts, be they for film or TV. So it wasn’t really intended to be a production house in the beginning,” Hefzy explains.

But it wasn’t long before it became one. Commercial savvy and with a keen sense for marketing, Hefzy recognized the demand for his “clinic’s” projects. “I began to understand that the one thing that’s likely to make producers want to sit down with you is not that you have money or the ability to secure stars, but that you have a script that can bring in both the money and the stars. So I realized that I was actually doing the most difficult thing in the production process, and this is when I started to think about producing myself,” he continues.

The turning point was when the Arab Radio and Television network (ART) proposed a joint project with Film Clinic, whereby Hefzy would manage a talent-scouting company and ART would produce a number of films by those new talents. However, ART backed out after financing the first film (also Hefzy’s first as a producer), Wara’et Shafra (A Paper of Code, 2008), and this is when Hefzy decided to take the risk of funding the film’s promotion and distribution himself.

The film became a landmark in Hefzy’s career, and is credited with launching the stardom of the popular trio Ahmed Fahmy, Hesham Maged and Shiko. In the same year, Hefzy produced Amr Salama’s debut feature, Zai Ennaharda (On a Day Like Today), and Film Clinic started to make a name for itself on the Egyptian film scene.

Filmmakers who have worked with Hefzy know that he rarely enters into projects before the filmmaker has already secured part of the required funding, or unless shooting is already well underway. This happened in the case of Villa 69, for instance. It is an understandable preference, given that the market for the type of films Hefzy produces is usually limited, making the funding process long and tedious. Nevertheless, Hefzy makes no mention of such conditions when he lists his criteria for picking a project.

“The most crucial thing to me is to sense that there’s something in the script that makes me want to see this film or TV show, and to feel that it’s going to have an audience, regardless of whether it’s big or small. It’s also important to question whether there’s an added value that I can provide which other producers cannot,” he says. “The director is also a major factor, and my own personal affinity with the project. I’ve rejected many projects that had great commercial potential because I hated the script. I can produce a project that I’m neutral toward in terms of profit, but if I don’t like it at all, I’ll never do it.”

He goes on to elaborate: “There’s a difference between a producer and an executive. The latter puts finance above everything else, but a producer needs to find a balance between the artistic and commercial sides of a project. As the number of projects I’m involved with grows, particularly if I’m financing or distributing, I often find myself needing to act more as an executive, but I try my best not to let that overshadow what I love most about the job: being a creative producer.”

As a creative producer, Hefzy takes most projects he works on through a hands-on development process. “I give feedback on every draft of the script, particularly if the director is new. We also resort to script labs or script consultants sometimes — we worked with a consultant from France on Sheikh Jackson [dir. Amr Salama, 2017], for instance,” he says. “Every project has its own circumstances—a commercial film for which you hire a director after it’s already been written is different from an auteur film, of course, but both need time to be developed.”

Hefzy addresses the audience during the opening ceremony of CIFF’s 40th edition

Hefzy’s name has become synonymous with “independent cinema,” a term he, unlike many others working in the industry, has a clear definition for. “Independent films are films that are made without the support of the large companies monopolizing the Egyptian film market. They may not be many, and some of them — such as El Sobky or New Century — are not exactly institutional, because they’re dependent entirely on one person, but they are still there, and they are powerful: they don’t just produce films, they also finance, distribute, promote and exhibit them,” he says. “Anything that happens outside this system I consider independent, even if it is artistically subpar. Independent does not mean a film is necessarily of high artistic quality, it simply means it was made away from the hegemony of all the big names.”

This classic definition of independent cinema, perhaps more applicable to the US film market, with its giant studios that retain control of all production and distribution outlets — doesn’t really fit with the modest state of the Egyptian industry. This is why, I think, Hefzy adds, “Independence also mean the freedom to make your film the way you want to — capital doesn’t control your film; you do.”

This freedom, however, is put to the test during the stages of development and execution that Hefzy often supervises as a creative producer, during which, he admits, arguments do take place. “I do intervene in certain choices, sometimes, if I feel the director is making the wrong decision. Sometimes each element on its own works well, but combining them doesn’t make for a good outcome, for instance,” he says. “I also interfere with budgetary allocations — sometimes I’ll tell a director that it isn’t wise to spend on a certain element because this money could go toward something else that I think is more important. These decisions are not merely financial, they’re inherent to the creative process.”

Hefzy also says he’s often had disagreements with filmmakers concerning the best way to promote a film, even though sometimes, he admits, the filmmaker is right about certain promotional material being superficial or unreflective of what the film is about. “Sometimes I do give in to the demands of the market, but I would never put out a promotional campaign without showing it to the director first and discussing it with them,” he says. “I wouldn’t allow for my role as a producer and distributor to be canceled out, though. If you’re making a film with your own money, you can do whatever you want — but if you’re making it with other people’s money, you need to understand that a certain amount of revenue needs to be generated. There has to be mutual trust, and respect for where the director’s role ends and the producer’s begins.”

Hefzy generally prefers straightforward genre films to arthouse works, a fact evident from the titles he’s written himself. However, the films he’s produced — with a few obvious exceptions such as Samir, Shahir and Bahir (2010) and Hepta (2016) — aren’t as readily categorizable, nor as popular in the Egyptian box office. He finds plenty to be gained from each project, though, even those that aren’t super successful in terms of ticket sales. “I consider Yomeddine (2018), for instance, one of the most profitable projects I’ve ever worked on, when comparing its performance in Egypt, the region and the world against the investment I made in its production,” he illustrates. “Other films cost much more, and make much more in the box office, but at the end of the day you find that you’ve barely broken even.”

There is a hidden standard according to which Hefzy chooses his films, a certain form and quality they never deviate from. This may or may not have something to do with who he is and how he looks, a neat, soft-spoken bourgeois man from a well-off family living in Zamalek. In all cases, he is constantly mindful of the Film Clinic “brand.” He has produced radical films, such as Rags and Tatters (Ahmad Abdalla, 2013), which he says he is very proud of, and others that appeal to more conservative tastes, such as Clash (Mohamed Diab, 2016). He has also supported works with remarkably austere modes of storytelling, such as Withered Green (Mohamed Hammad, 2017) and others that follow traditional Hollywood narrative formulas, such as Yomeddine. Such films may seem different, but they all reflect the image Hefzy wants to promote of his work and his company.

“Many films I produced haven’t made a lot of money, but they have proved that they’re important works that will last, and I think this will eventually be translated into some kind of financial return, perhaps by contributing to the brand that I’m building,” he says. “I believe that you don’t necessarily feel the result of your choices straight away. I tell myself it’s a cumulative process; you are sure to reap the rewards at some point.”

This particular grace that sets Hefzy apart, in addition to his personal code of respect, has sometimes prompted him to take what can be described as political actions in response to certain issues he finds upsetting, such as working hours and wage structures within the film industry. He believes the Chamber of Cinema Industry, the Cinema Syndicate and other concerned parties have not done enough to establish a solid system of production in Egypt, one that protects crew members and safeguards their rights. “This has led to people physically collapsing, sometimes even dying. There must be regulations in place, and, when those are violated, someone needs to be held accountable by a monitoring entity,” he goes on. “I tried to make this happen and presented a proposal with several suggested reforms to both the chamber and the syndicate, but nobody cared.”

Hefzy had always seemed like an apolitical person to me. Even during the revolution’s heyday, from 2011 to mid-2013 — and although he produced and co-produced films like Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (2011) and Rags and Tatters — he never made any statements that could be construed as being for or against any of the conflicting political factions in Egypt back then. He views things differently. “Your allegiances come through in your work,” he says. “At times like these, one must work harder to be able to do something worthwhile.”

He expresses himself more openly later. “My family has always steered clear of politics. I never believed in revolutionary change — reform, constitutional amendments, elections, yes, but not revolution,” he says. “Until I witnessed [the events of] January 28. It made me question my former ideas, and I started to believe in what was happening. Right now, though, I would definitely say the entire thing has failed. Big time.”

However, Hefzy’s appointment as president of the Cairo International Film Festival in its 40th edition, poses an urgent, more practical question: Can someone of Mohamed Hefzy’s stature really avoid politics in a country like Egypt?

Hefzy’s speech at the opening ceremony of CIFF’s 40th edition

Many believe that the choice of Hefzy to head CIFF is an attempt to salvage what’s left of the festival’s prestige, which has been largely compromised in recent years, particularly in light of how the state-sponsored event has been flagrantly used as a tool for soft power, and to bolster the country’s reputation abroad. Hefzy, meanwhile, insists that his selection came free of any political motives, and was driven only by his CV, as he puts it. He is, after all — in addition to his illustrious career in writing and production — the former director of the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts.

As for why he accepted the position, he lists a range of reasons, mostly to do with the festival’s unfulfilled potential and what it could offer the Egyptian film industry, in which Hefzy himself is a major actor. “It annoyed me that a festival with such a long history was unable to compete with a newcomer like GFF, and that it was reduced to some sort of local show instead of connecting with the outside world,” he says. “Last year in particular, I felt that all organizers cared about was to cater to public opinion, to assure people that they were able to create a ‘fashionable’ event and bring in international stars — this has nothing to do with cinema.”

He continues, “I want CIFF to offer more to the city of Cairo and her people and to Egyptian and Arab cinema — it shouldn’t be just another festival screening films; it should empower filmmakers,” he says.

The main measure of a festival’s success is where the international film industry stands from, he goes on to explain. “The question is are filmmakers from other countries eager to screen their films here, to come and meet film professionals from the region — or would they prefer to go to Marrakech or Carthage? We want to be the region’s foremost film festival, the one stop in the Middle East where filmmakers from all over the world head to exhibit their films and explore the local scene.”

Hefzy also cites the audience as a crucial factor in making a festival successful. “The festival had lost its following,” he says, referring to the record-low attendance in recent years. He states that the only exception was the 36th edition, presided over by late film critic Samir Farid in 2014, because of its remarkable lineup and surrounding events. “This leaves us with a very difficult task, which is offering Egyptians something different from what they’re used to, something that will motivate them to buy a ticket and go see a film. We need to show people that there’s more to cinema than Egyptian films and Hollywood films — there are other places we need to shed light on and see what filmmakers there are up to; there is a rapidly growing, ever-changing world cinema, and we need to keep up,” he says.

Hefzy’s participation in the second World Youth Forum — namely in a panel on “the role of art and cinema in shaping communities” — held in Sharm El Sheikh in early November, led me to reflect on the sort of commitments that high-ranking positions like the one he currently holds often come with. Although he wishes to implement a number of reforms as president of CIFF (which, he predicts, might take him up to three editions), he says he has no desire to maintain his position any longer than necessary, and therefore doesn’t feel pressured to take part in such events against his will to please certain people. However, he doesn’t see any problem with being involved in the event, which is organized by the National Academy for Youth Training and Empowerment, an entity founded by president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2017.

“If I’d found anything that compelled me not to participate in the forum I simply wouldn’t have participated. This doesn’t mean I think we’re living in the age of freedom. I know we aren’t,” he says. “But it’s always good to have an opportunity to speak your mind and hear what others have to say, to have a voice — even when you know some bad things are happening.”

Generally, it seems that Hefzy isn’t concerned with — or isn’t really aware of — the underpinnings of the state’s PR campaigns, designed to whitewash the image of the regime abroad. He seems to take the whole thing rather lightly: “I’m not against making the country look better abroad. I also can’t stand for anyone being unjustly imprisoned — perhaps this happens, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do something positive.”

Yet the complex legacy of CIFF and the demands of an official position within it might present Hefzy with a new set of challenges, much bigger than those he’s ignored or evaded over the years. After all, he comes in the picture after two CIFF editions that have been fraught with political controversy. In 2016, the festival’s management reversed its decision to include Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City in the official competition one month after it had announced its participation, resulting in a massive backlash in Egyptian film circles and an international petition signed by over a thousand Egyptian, Arab and international cinema personalities, including film legends such as Hungarian director Bela Tarr.

Meanwhile, last year’s festival was a feast of nationalist propaganda, officially sponsored by the intelligence-owned DMC, and with its opening and closing ceremonies at the military-owned Manara International Conference Center instead of the traditional location of the Cairo Opera House. I can’t help but wonder if similar incidents could desecrate the persona Hefzy had worked hard to build for more than a decade, undermining his unfaltering grace and his prized personal code of respect.

Hefzy with fellow festival organizers on the red carpet at CIFF. - Courtesy: Hasan Amin

Hefzy, however, believes he is prudent and perceptive enough to make sure this never happens. Although he criticizes the festival management’s handling of the In the Last Days of the City incident, he did not resign his position on the festival’s advisory board in 2016, nor did he sign the petition. “I would never enter a battle I know I can’t win. That would make me rash and stupid. What I can do is try to push the ceiling a bit higher, so that the the rest of the festival team and I have enough freedom to program the films that reflect our view of world cinema,” he says. “If I know I can’t raise the ceiling — and I’m not saying I think it’s low — I wouldn’t put myself in that position to begin with.”

Yet security objections are sometimes unpredictable; after all, nobody thought anything in Said’s film would warrant a ban. Moreover, according to Hefzy, all films screening at Egyptian film festivals are approved by the Censorship Board before being officially selected — so what happens when a film has already been selected, and management is subjected to external pressures to exclude it? Hefzy seems adamant on maintaining his mellow tone. “I could’ve found a better way to deal with the In the Last Days of the City issue. Perhaps what I would have done wouldn’t have been to the benefit of the festival — or, actually, it would have been to its benefit, but in the long-run. It’s embarrassing to make a decision and then go back on your word,” he says. “Take, for instance, the whole Claude Lelouch thing. I refused to cancel his tribute even though we were up against a lot of pressure. He is the one who decided not to come after he became aware of the situation, but I simply couldn’t revoke the decision after I’d announced it.”

Hefzy seems to have great confidence in the way he handles interactions with state institutions, a skill he believes is the reason why he’s managed to persist in the market. “I know how to get films past the censors because I’m practical — I know when to hold on to something, and when to let go,” he says. “Of course, I hate it when I have to tell a director that we need to remove certain bits from a film, but sometimes I have to accept that there will be losses.”

Conservative and quite non-confrontational, Hefzy does not wholly condemn censorship. “Censors claim they are protecting artists from society, but the truth is they’re protecting themselves, because they take a lot of heat from extremists. They often find themselves cornered, having to defend themselves and the films they allow to pass — sometimes they’re even sued,” he says. “I do wish I could be left to interact with audiences without mediators, of course, but I do not demand the elimination of the board.”

At the end of our interview, Hefzy asked me again about the platform on which it was going to be published. He was not familiar with Mada Masr, and when I told him it’s a blocked website he looked fleetingly worried, but then brushed past the moment with a joke. Mohamed Hefzy, after all, is not inclined to make anyone angry, and this is perhaps the magic ingredient that’s ensured his continued stature in the Egyptian film industry, producing films whose value is easily discerned among the body of work being released in Egypt and the region at present.

Yet with his recent appointment as president of CIFF, can Hefzy travel much further using this same formula? Will his tangible success as a producer alone enable him to maintain his position and accomplish his vision of how a festival should serve the cinematic industry in a country like Egypt? There are no clear answers, but time — and the turbulent political climate — will surely tell.

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Muhammad El-Hajj