Evolving identities: filmmaker Adolf El Assal talks about 'Sawah', a reflection on his own journey

Ati Metwaly , Friday 17 Jun 2016

Adolf El Assal talks about his new semi-autobiographical film scheduled to be released in 2017, a production which will include Ahmed El Fishawy and musician Mohamed Mounir

Adolf El Assal
Adolf El Assal (photo: Nikos Welter / Wady Films)

“A wanderer, walking between countries” is the opening lyric of Abdel Halim Hafez’s song Sawah (or Sawwah, 'Wanderer' in Arabic). The title has been borrowed by Egyptian filmmaker Adolf El Assal for his new film, Sawah, scheduled to be released in 2017. 

In many ways, this ambitious semi-autobiographical film will reflect the director’s life, the multiculturalism within him and his multilingual existence (he speaks fluent Arabic, French, German, Luxembourgish and English). The film touches on topics such as “displacement, identity, immigration, integration as well as travelling,” El Assal explains, underlining the strong meanings that Abdel Halim Hafez’s song has for him. “I always considered myself a sawah, a traveller or someone who’s somehow lost.”

Born in Alexandria, Adolf El Assal was still a small child when his family moved to Luxemburg, “by mistake,” as the filmmaker calls it. Since then, he has also lived in the UAE, France and the UK, where he received his MA in filmmaking from Kingston University. The constant move through countries, cultures and languages has definitely created an important imprint on the young man’s identity.

El Assal points to his name as the first curious combination of cultures, “an unusual western first name with an Egyptian last name. Did you know that Adolf was one of the first Grand Dukes in Luxembourg?” El Assal asks, explaining that Luxembourg has at least one street in every city and one of the world’s most beautiful bridges named after Adolf. “So, I guess my parents were visionaries and knew that one day they would start a new life in this tiny country,” he laughs.

“Basically, I have had the issue of identity since my birth. Since a young age, I had many experiences that have made me what I am today. In school, for example, I was always the only ‘Arab’ in class (even in the UAE) and I had to mix myself with the other pupils. It wasn’t an easy task but thanks to those experiences, I have learnt to accept other cultures more easily and to adapt myself.”

In his cinematic career, El Assal has produced several films, mostly shorts, directing a few. An element of identity, displacement, immigration, integration, languages and constant journeying is the underlying trigger of his work. His 2010 short Mano de Dios, the story of an Argentinean who lives illegally in Luxembourg, is based on his Palestinian friend, who went through the same experiences in the UK. El Assal’s first feature, The Notorious Guys, is a comedy about a bunch of guys from different backgrounds who go on a school trip to Portugal. The leader of the group is a proud Portuguese who has never seen his country before.

The Notorious Guys
(Photo: still from El Assal’s first feature, The Notorious Guys)

On the other hand, among El Assal’s significant achievements as a producer is his feature Divizionz, created with the collective Yes! That’s Us. The film talks about four aspiring young musicians who come from four different regions in Uganda, and meet in Kampala’s Zone B4. Each character carries the personality traits characteristic to the region he represents. The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008 and moved to many renowned festivals, winning several major awards at Kuala Lumpur International Film Festival (2008) among other recognitions.

Music plays an important part in El Assal’s life and, even before turning to movies, he used to DJ in Luxembourg’s clubs and dreamt of playing in the NBA. “When I was a teenager, basketball and music were my only gateways to express myself. I always had the feeling that my mixes were the only tool that could bring people together. I have since then stopped seeing barriers between people.” He adds that the strong presence of a multi-lingual society in Luxembourg helps to fuse linguistic and cultural divides, a community that El Assal feels lucky and proud to be part of.

It is in Sawah, however, that El Assal’s gives cinematic voice to his life. He co-wrote the film with Dennis Foon and Sirvan Marogy as well as directing. He summarises Sawah saying that it tells the story of an Egyptian DJ who is tired of playing at weddings all the time and wants to find his luck in Europe. “His mixes and music are so special and revolutionary (a mixtures between Hip Hop and electronic) that he gets an opportunity to have a gig with his crew in Berlin. But on the way, he gets stuck in Luxembourg after losing all of his belongings. At the same time, the 2011 revolution happens in Egypt while he has to deal with various issues in this new country he’s never heard of in order to find his way back.”

Most of the storyline is based on the director’s own experiences as an artist, his travels and encounters with many peoples and cultures. “The film will show my frustration as an artist as well as the impact art can have on people and how it can change the world,” he adds.

The film is being produced by Wekas Gaba, Wady Films and Hani Osama from  The Producers and will feature an international cast including the distinguished Luxemburg-born television presenter and actress Désirée Nosbusch. Sawah will also star renowned Egyptian film and music figures: actor Ahmed El Fishawy (as Samir) and musician Mohamed Mounir (as Ibrahim).

El Assal explains that he has always wanted to have well-known artists in his films. He met El Fishawy in Sweden and “from the first meeting I knew I had found my main character. He has the charm, the looks as well as the talent I was looking for for such a challenging role. Plus, he understood from day one what I wanted to achieve.”

The Notorious Road
(Photo: still from El Assal's film The Notorious Road)

El Assal then tells of his “surreal experience” with Mohamed Mounir, an encounter which eventually led to casting this well-known musician, whose career spans several decades. “With Mohamed Mounir, it’s another story: I got his contact through some friends from Revolution Records in Alexandria and he called me. At first, I thought that it was a joke but no one could re-create his amazing voice. While I was on the phone I was quite shocked and Mounir insisted that we should meet in Germany during his tour last summer. We met in Munich and when I pitched the story to him, Mounir told me that Sawah is his last name and that he’s in, no matter what. I will never forget that – I can’t wait to start working with him.”

Sawah is not only El Assal’s reflection on his own journey reshaped in cinematic format, it is also a first step in what he hopes to be a much bigger project through which he can reconnect to his Egyptian roots. “I have so many Egypt-related stories to tell from my point of view and this is just the beginning. Sawah is actually the first part of a trilogy that I have in mind. The entire trilogy will be three major steps in life: arriving by mistake in an unknown country, moving to another one as a teenager and a family road trip around Europe before coming back to that unknown country. As an Egyptian who has spent most of his life outside Egypt, I was lucky that my parents spoke Arabic with us at home and we grew up watching and listening to Egyptian films and music. I’m really grateful for my heritage. We have such an incredible history and Egypt has always been the centre of attention in the Arab world, especially through films and music.”

Though physically separated from Egypt, El Assal has been following the artistic endeavours of his colleagues. He mentions names such as filmmaker Mohamed Diab whose recent film Clash was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and other accomplished young creators including Ahmad Abdalla or Ayten Amin as artists who represent the new wave of directors he follows and respects. “They are able to bring a fresh breeze into the local film scene and to tell stories that can be shown outside of the Arab world, especially on the festival circuit. I consider myself a part of this new generation but my stories will always focus on the themes that I know best. I know that I am a bit disconnected from Egypt but Egypt will always be a part of me.”

Because of the international scale of the film, El Assal hopes to give it a strong world premiere, at one of the renowned film festivals before screening it in Egypt and Luxembourg with the entire cast and crew. Equally, he places his bet on the partners to take the film to a wide release across the Arab world. (Mad Solutions is the film's distribution partner in the Middle East)

“I’m simply too excited about Sawah and how it will be received in Egypt and the Arab world. I try to tell stories that attract big audiences (films are expensive to make) whether it’s the festival-art house circuit or multiplexes. Film is a strong and universal medium that can have an impact on people’s lives no matter where they’re from or what their social status is. The pictures tell the stories by themselves. At the same time, I try to stay true to myself as an artist and a human being. Let’s see how it all develops. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few years time because stories are just like identities. They always evolve over time.” 

Mano de Dios
(Photo: still from El Assal's Mano de Dios)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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