A version of this story about “Yomeddine” first appeared in the Foreign Language Issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
A rare debut film to be accepted into the Cannes Film Festival’s main competition, A.B. Shawky’s road movie “Yomeddine” follows a man searching for the family who left him in a leper colony decades ago, and the young boy who accompanies him on his trip.
The film is Egypt’s entry in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race, and this interview is one in a series of conversations TheWrap had with directors of the foreign contenders.
This film began as a short documentary that you made in film school, right?
A. B. SHAWKY: Yes, I made it 10 years ago at undergraduate film school in Cairo. I’d heard about leper colonies when I was a kid, even though I’d never been there. I visited and thought, “This is a great short film.” I heard all these stories of people who were left by their families as children, and I thought, “There’s a good road movie in there.” But it wasn’t until my last year in grad school at NYU that I remembered the story and thought I should do it.
And you always envisioned it as a road movie?
A couple of people told me they would like to see their families again, and I thought that would be a good story to tell.
Raising the money must have been difficult.
It was. All the usual things that make investors click weren’t really there. I was a first-time filmmaker, I wasn’t a star student, I didn’t have short films that did really well at festivals, the producer was a first-timer, too, there were no stars, it’s set in Egypt in a foreign language… There were things that didn’t make investors jump on board.
I wrote the screenplay in graduate school at NYU, and they gave me a stipend and helped me get a $100,000 private grant, and then I did Kickstarter and approached a lot of private investors, people who weren’t in film at all. I made a business plan, said, “This is what I’m trying to do,” and showed them that I was able to do it.
How did you work with two main actors who were non-professionals?
The main character is an actual resident of the leper colony — he still lives there and had never been in front of a camera before. And neither had the boy.
It took us four months. I workshopped them a lot, spent a lot of time preparing them about what it’s like to act and to stand in front of the camera. Especially the main character — he’s used to people staring at him, but I had to make him comfortable in front of a camera, not feel exploited. And he doesn’t read and write.
So we did a lot of rehearsing, and as much memorizing as they could do. For the boy, we recorded a lot of the scenes and he just listened to them. For the main character, it took longer to shoot with him, but we were able to get it to where he was comfortable and was saying the lines the way he would say them.
Given the film’s genesis, it must have come as a surprise when you were accepted into the main competition at Cannes.
It came as a surprise mainly because we’d gotten so many rejections before that. It seemed impossible — there was no buzz about it, we didn’t have big names or leverage points or anything. And Egypt has a big industry, but it’s also very commercial. There is an independent scene, but we weren’t part of that, we weren’t known. So when the Cannes announcement was made, people were like, “Who the hell are these guys?”
To read more of TheWrap’s Foreign Language Issue, click here.