Cannes festival charmed by feel-good Egyptian film about lepers
‘Road movie’ also features an orphan called Obama and director says he wanted to give a voice to people who normally do not have one
First-time director Abu Bakr Shawky said on Thursday that piecing together financing for a feel-good road film about an Egyptian leper and his orphan friend nicknamed Obama was the least of his troubles getting his film to Cannes.
The newcomer is going toe-to-toe with Spike Lee, his former professor, and Jean-Luc Godard for the coveted Palme d’Or at the world’s premier film festival with his debut feature Yomeddine.
The touching, upbeat picture tells the story of Beshay, who lives in a leper colony north of Cairo, and Obama, who joins him on a cross-country trek after he escapes his overcrowded orphanage.
“It’s my first film so obviously I didn’t have any record to fall back when I go to financiers but also I had non-actors who weren’t able to read and the main actor also had leprosy,” said the Egyptian-Austrian director, who at 32 is the youngest in the competition.
On top of that came Egypt’s notorious red tape – the crew had to wait a month and a half for a permit to film a scene on a train.
Shawky found his lead actor Rady Gamal at the Abu Zaabal Leper Colony, where he made a short documentary in 2008, and said he was taken with the natural charisma behind his heavily scarred face and disfigured limbs.
“When you live in a secluded leper colony, you’re not used to people staring at you all the time and now you have stand in front of a camera and have 60 people (on the crew) staring at you all day,” he said. “But by the end of the shoot he was the star – everybody loved him, he cracks jokes all the time.”
Shawky said advances in treatment of leprosy meant its devastating effects may make his film a historical relic in just a few decades.
“The older generation that contracted the disease before they came up with a cure for it in the 1980s are basically the last of their kind,” he said.
As for the Nubian boy nicknamed Obama, Shawky said he didn’t aim to get into US politics but rather show the global reach of cultural touchstones.
“There’s a scene when they’re on Garbage Mountain (a local rubbish dump) and they see a Newsweek magazine,” he said. “I think a lot of people take it for granted how much these popular things affect people on the other side of the world, so you can have a kid named Obama in Egypt.”
Tragically, Shawky said, European visa problems kept both actors from being able to have their moment in the Cannes limelight.
Despite the film’s depiction of how the most vulnerable members of Egyptian society are treated, Shawky, who is Muslim, said he was not singling out one country.
“I lived in New York for six years – every time I travel I get detained for two hours, just being strip-searched and asked questions that have nothing to do with me,” he said. “It’s not a unique trait to Egypt – what I really want to do is highlight marginalised groups. I wanted to give a voice to people who don’t necessarily have anybody to speak for them.”
Shawky and his producer-wife Dina Emam ended up turning to crowdfunding to scrape together the film’s shoestring budget, and the example of mentors including Lee, who will screen his latest picture BlacKkKlansman in competition next week.
“I talked to him about this film when it was still just an idea,” Shawky said of the veteran filmmaker who taught him at New York University. “I hope I get to see him while we’re here.”
He admitted that his film’s lighter tone might be an anomaly at the world’s most prestigious cinema showcase, known for its gritty fare.
“I think it’s important that people see a movie and not come out of it completely depressed, especially in an age like this,” he said. “Also it would be a lie because the main characters aren’t like that. The real members of a leper colony don’t wallow in self-pity. They know these are the cards they have been dealt and they just live with it.”