On 22 October, Tamer Ezzat’s second narrative feature When We’re Born was released in 24 cinemas in Cairo and 16 others across the country. It had had its world premiere at El Gouna Film Festival (19-27 September) and was screened at the Carthage Film Festival (26 October-2 November).
Co-written by Ezzat, When We’re Born was the last screenplay by the late Nadine Shams, who passed away in 2014, have cowritten Ezzat’s debut documentary feature The Place I Call Home (2006), which ties in with the present work. Interweaving the hopes and dreams of three representative Egyptian characters – a son who wants to pursue a singing career against his father’s will, a Christian woman in love with a Muslim man, and a newly-wed personal trainer who must compromise his principles for the chance to own a gym – the film generates its title from the sentence, “When we’re born, we each have a life path, which is then influenced by how we are raised and the beliefs ingrained in us.”
Written in 2007, the film took over 10 years to make, partly because it was hard to find a producer ready to back it without changing its core idea, partly because the script had to be re-developed a number of times following the 2011 revolution and its aftermath. “It is a film about the challenges facing people in their late twenties who are surrounded by questions regarding their future careers, relationships, and so on. It’s an age when people are still trying to choose which steps to take knowing the kind of social control to which they are subject, that is why it was important to update and connect it to the changes taking place in society.”
In a way the film is based on The Place I Call Home (2006), which explores the idea of belonging through young people of the same age. “The feedback was very impressive which made me feel the subject needed further treatment.” Shams agreed, and when she passed away in 2014, “the responsibility was even greater because it became her last script”.
Producers wanted either comedy or action, however, not social drama segueing into musical with the character of the singer (Amir Eid, the frontman of the popular band Cairokee) commenting on the action through songs. They all suggested capitalising on the humorous line in the film to turn it into a comedy, while some of them suggested casting much older stars in the role of people in their twenties. The fact that there are three stories of equal weight went against the grain of a single hero. “All in all it was not an easy film for a producer with a conventional vision.”
In 2017 Ezzat decided to co-produce the film with Team One Productions founder Moataz Abdel-Wahab, who had appeared in The Place I Call Home. “Abdel-Wahab was very enthusiastic about the idea as it was. He had produced documentaries and he was eager to produce a narrative film, and we resolved to take the risk and invest our own money to implement our vision in narration and casting paying no attention to market pressure. A narrative film requires a bigger budget than a documentary, and so it took two whole years to make the film.”
Twelve years separated the original script from actual filming but one remarkable fact, Ezzat says, is that the challenges faced by young people have remained the same. The difference is technology, with social media for example becoming an aspect of people’s lives. That is why, while the structure of the script needed adjustment, the topics themselves didn’t need to change.
Casting, by contrast, was its own challenge. Eid was chosen for his musical abilities – Ezzat wanted someone able to write his own music and lyrics and to sing and play the guitar in the film – but, despite having a strong popularity base among the young, he had never acted before. “His words and sensibility are very close to the lifestyle of the main characters.”
The gym trainer from the poor suburbs is played by Amr Abed, who rose to prominence at the age of 20 with his role in Mohamed Moustafa’s Leisure Times (2006), another film about the dilemmas of the young, and who spent six months training hard to attain the required physique. “Abed rooted himself in his generation’s awareness as someone who represents their dreams and challenges,” Ezzat says, citing equally powerful performances by Ibtihal El Serety, Salma Hassan, and Mohamed Hatem. “I couldn’t be more proud of the casting, each of them captured the spirit of the character as freshly as it should be.”
When We’re Born reflects Ezzat’s vision for his career. “Since my beginning as a director, after working for several years as a film editor, I am more interested in the things that I care deeply about”. In The Place I Call Home (2006), his debut feature-length documentary, he had just returned from the US, where he was studying film.
“I came back very eager to stay in Egypt and start my film career but what I found was that everyone, all my family and friends had either left the country or was longing to leave. My pressing question was, Is it the solution? Do people really belong to a home? I was in the USA during 9/11, and the few years that followed recorded the highest rates of immigration requests from Egyptians. This made me think why people are so eager to leave to countries where they can be sure they will be treated badly? And why did I want to go back to my country? That is how the first film was born and that is how it helped in making the current film.”
Belonging is a recurrent theme: “It is definitely not deliberate but that is what I’ve noticed in my films.” In his short documentary Everything Is Gonna Be Alright! (2003) he turns his camera on himself and fellow Egyptians in New York City after 9/11. In his first narrative feature The Ring Road (2010) he explores the inner conflicts of an investigative journalist trying to expose a medical mogul whose corruption caused dozens of deaths with impunity. Should he become corrupt himself to save his ties to the context he belongs to or should he get rid of those ties and sacrifice everything?
According to Tamer Ezzat, making a film is a very difficult thing. “So I discovered that I like to work in films that I like with people that I like.” But on the other hand the market is not usually interested in you if you are not really interested in the market. That is why when he found someone willing to share the responsibility of a film it encouraged him to put in the effort as co-producer himself. This experience left him with an awareness that a film director who wants to make his dream films without being subject to market dynamics must be part of the production process. Still, one important quality Ezzat believes should always exist in a film regardless of production circumstances is that it should be entertaining and enjoyable. “That what I myself like in the films I watch”.
He is also suspicious of the film fund initiatives of most film festivals. Although important, he says, they are more like a lottery than a fair selection process. “You never know how and why this or that project becomes eligible for the fund. It depends on all kinds of things which are not necessarily the project itself. One is the fact that there are many projects while the selection committee consists of only a few people.” But even those lottery funding opportunities in the region are few and fare between compared to 10 years ago. Arab filmmakers are not financially secure, and this points to the importance of state film fund initiatives which according to Ezzat are essential.
He is proud that there are more film festivals in Egypt and the region to showcase films that do not have equal opportunities in the movie theatres. “It was very important for me to premiere my film at El Gouna Film Festival. I wish I could also screen my film at the Cairo International Film Festival but Mohamed Hefzy, the president of the festival, is part of my film as he is its distributer.”
Distributers, Ezzat feels, should take a second look at the film production map and not be limited by what they used to distribute because of what they think is appealing to the audience. “Business -wise the local distributers are losing important opportunities in the market by ignoring the many films they think are not appealing. If only they changed the way they perceive things the local film industry may change for the better.”
Amr Abed has appeared in numerous films and TV dramas, but he is still best remembered for his debut, Leisure Times (2006), and he believes that Ezzat’s film is his rebirth as an actor. “It has been so long since I found such a challenging role that stimulates my talents, and one for which I had to train at the gym four to five days a week for six months.” Ezzat created a safe space to experiment and explore, what is more: “He made us all feel that this is our own film. I had missed this feeling for a very long time. One thing every actor dreams of along his career is not to be taken for granted and to be introduced to new and challenging roles...”
The film is easy to take in, Abed says, but its stories and characters are complex. It is not a straightforward romantic comedy, and to have premiered at El Gouna Film Festival is no doubt important. But the real challenge is the response of the audience, who have few opportunities to see such films in the movie theatres. He feels that independent films like Ahmed Abdallah’s award-winning Exterior Night (2018), in which he participated, are not treated equally in the movie theatres. Lack of advertising, for example, is a major issue.
“I believe both parties, the filmmakers and the distributers, share the responsibility: the filmmakers with their limited budget and priorities, and the distributers with their limited expectations for a film without mega stars. Marketing is a fundamental part of filmmaking, that is just the way it is.”
According to Abed filmmaking is very expensive, and everyone is concerned with how to retrieve the money they’ve invested. The safest way is to follow in the footsteps of those who went before, to become part of the mainstream. That is why there are so few adventurers or risk takers. “The concern is valid but the solution is not. Filmmakers should think of new methods to market their films while insisting on their choices, and challenging traditional choices. We should make the films we want to make and find ways to market them. It takes longer but we should think about results as well.”
One thing that makes him hopeful for the future is that Egyptian movies have become part of most prestigious international festivals. “And now we need to improve our films and to improve their opportunities.”
As for his own journey, Abed feels that, in the 13 years since his debut, he has learned to be more kinder to himself, giving himself space as an artist. “If you ask me what has changed, well, first of all I am getting older, but I have never stopped learning. It was a learning journey in all aspects of filmmaking. In the coming years I want to do new things as a filmmaker, I want to direct a film, to edit a film, to write a film, to act in a film. In the next 13 years I want to try everything.”
According to Abed part of his dilemma is that he has not realised himself as a film star since the great success of his debut in 2006, which was not followed by a comparable role. “I kept asking myself, why I was not finding a commercial position that could satisfy me.” What changed is that he learned that everyone has their own different journey.
“What makes people unsatisfied is when they compare themselves to others. I learned not to compare myself to the others because I simply don’t like to act in films that I don’t like. I tried that but I did not feel satisfied. My choices led me to where I am now. I like to do what I like to do. Some results could not be reached with certain choices and I belong to my choices.”
However, Abed does not like to be described as an actor who belongs to the independent scene. “I say no to many independent films as well as many mainstream films. It is not about mainstream or independent, it is about how much I like the film.” That is why he believes that in the coming years he would like to experience directing, to be at the other end of the equation.
At the moment his is working on the first film script that he wrote and plans to direct. He is also preparing to act in the second part of Leisure Times which will track the life journeys of all the main characters of the first part over 13 years. “It is a sort of reunion of all the cast and crew. We already signed the contracts and the new script is in the process of being written.”
Coming back from the Carthage Film Festival where When We’re Born has its screening, Abed is hopeful for the Egyptian audience’s feedback in the movie theaters. “At least love stories always win”, he says.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.