Road movies have been done throughout the age of cinema every which way possible in film. And yet, the formula is so perfect that hardly I've found a dissonant note when it comes to taking a story on the road, on the big screen.
In A. B. Shawky's 'Yomeddine', which screened in Competition at this year's Festival de Cannes, the central idea remains that of a journey across the land but the Austro-Egyptian filmmaker -- yes Shawky's mom is Austrian, his father Egyptian and he grew up there -- substitutes the usual characters with two wonderful outcasts who charm their way into our hearts, slowly but surely, and manage to take up home there. Beshay is a small, disfigured man from a leper colony and the Pancho Villa to his Don Quixote is a little orphan boy named Obama. Both Rady Gamal, who plays Beshay and Ahmed Abdelhafiz who plays Obama are on their first acting roles in 'Yomeddine' and their freshness in experience is only paralleled by their awesome talent. Whenever the film could have played on our emotions too heavily, because of its intense subject matter, Gamal and Abdelhafiz find it within themselves to carry us through to the other side, and inspire, fill us with hope in the process.
The word 'Yomeddine' means "day of judgement" in Arabic and the idea that we will all be equal in the face of our creator is a powerful message that Shawky slips in there, and leaves us pondering about for days to come. Though religion doesn't really factor in this beautifully shot film from the heart, the idea of spirituality does -- and those of us aiming for more enlightenment do gather a strong message from 'Yomeddine', an all-inclusive, ever accepting feeling to be kinder to that ever present "the Other".
I caught up with A. B. Shawky inside the Palais and found before me a kind, intelligent man with a wisdom well beyond his young years. 'Yomeddine' is co produced by Mohamed Hefzy's Film Clinic.
How are you coping with being the only first time director in Competition here in Cannes?
A. B. Shawky: There is a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation but I'm trying to deal with it in a way that whatever happens, happens. I made a film, we got a lot of rejection throughout the year and the expectation was never to be in Competition in Cannes. We made the best film that we could with the resources that we had, with the cards we were dealt.
The film has such a unique concept, how did you discover your talent?
Shawky: Ten years ago I made a short documentary about the Leper colony in Egypt and I got the idea while I was there. Some would tell me stories about how people dropped off children, never heard from their parents again and I wanted to make a film about that. It stayed with me for a few years, until in 2013 I wrote the script for it and started the long journey to get the funding and the road to make it was very difficult. My wife, who is the producer on the film, and I were under the radar, no name filmmakers, no big actors attached so it was a much longer process.
I heard somewhere that you haven't gotten approval to screen the film in Egypt, is that true?
Shawky: No, actually it's not possible to shoot in Egypt without approval of the censorship. Just in terms of how the process works, you have to get approval from the Censorship [board] with the script in order to get a permit to shoot. Without permit to shoot we wouldn't have been able to put a camera down. It was more difficult because it was a difficult subject.
How did you choose your main actor and convince him to play the part of Beshay?
Shawky: The part was originally written for a woman, who was the main subject of my documentary but she became too ill to shoot throughout the years and right now she's not able to move because of her feet. So I had to start looking for someone else and the first person I met was this guy Rady and he was just a magnificent guy. The moment I met him I knew he was the one because he had a lot of positive energy and he understood the story and he felt a close connection to it. And he's a really funny guy too.
The film has the structure of a classic road movie. Any road movie that inspired you?
Shawky: Oh definitely. Anything that Wim Wenders does that's a road movie, but there is also this very underrated road movie titled 'The Sixth Day' an Egyptian film by Youssef Chahine, kind of a road movie it takes place on a boat that goes across the Nile, but it has the same concept. And that was very inspirational to me. I think road movies have a very specific charm to them because you are also able to show your country and turn it into a character of its own.
It's very bold of you to make your leading man someone who is quite difficult to look at in the beginning. It's painful sometimes...
Shawky: That was one of the reasons it was very difficult to get funding at the beginning because most of the people don't look beyond the fact that I'm a first time [feature] filmmaker and I don't have a long list of things that people could look at and say "OK, he's going to be able to do this." You know the subject was very different and very unusual but for me I really believed that there was a story there. I really believed that it was possible to do this despite what people thought of it.
Yeah, it's bold but I think people should be more bold.