As a child he would hear stories of the place, and they would balloon in his imagination. “I never went there, I’d just heard of it. So in my mind, it was this mythical place that was far away out in the desert, where people go and are just banished and, you know, punished. And for me, as a kid, that was always a really fascinating idea; that people are somehow put away in a kind of prison.”
The place he heard of as a young child was a leper colony outside of Cairo, and that same child who heard these stories grew up to become Abu Bakr Shawky, an acclaimed Egyptian director, whose first feature film would tackle the issue of leprosy in his country head on, and would make global waves for its endearing and honest portrayal of the struggles of the leper community. It would, in effect, become a project that dispelled these various morphed myths he himself had envisioned as a child.
it was this mythical place that was far away out in the desert, where people go and are just banished
“After I grew up, I discovered that the leper colony is not a place where they’re punished; it’s just a place where they go to get cured,” Shawky explains. “And most of the time, after they get cured, they decide to stay there, just because this is where everyone accepts them. That’s how I got the idea for the film.”
And the idea for the film is this: a leper, his donkey, and his child companion, an orphan named Obama, go on a road trip. The film, titled Yomeddine, premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it was competing for the Palm d’Or and was announced as Egypt’s official submission for the 2019 Oscars in the Foreign Language category. It is, in essence a quest for self-discovery, as Beshay, the main character goes on a journey to find the family who abandoned him at a colony as a child.
And it has been, more than anything, a labour of love, to bring the film to fruition. 10 years ago, Shawky made a documentary about a leper colony in Egypt. The idea stayed with him until 2013 when the masters graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts wrote the script for a feature film based on that experience – it was his graduation project. He brought on board producer Dina Emam, a graduate of Columbia’s Master’s Program in Film and Media Studies and who also happens to be his wife, and the two embarked on the arduous journey to get it made.
Influenza is contagious, leprosy isn’t. I want people to know that.
“Every aspect of getting it made was tough,” says Shawky with a laugh. As two relative unknowns in a very cliquey industry, making an undeniably eccentric film whose reception and box office success would also be relatively unknown, the struggle was – for lack of a less millennial term – real. “We had such a small budget, and small names rather than celebrities. So getting funding wasn’t easy,” explains Emam. “We were taking it one day at a time to be honest. We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to finish the movie. But I came on board despite this because I wanted to make an Egyptian movie that’s different than the rest and that’s actually about real Egyptians. Something humane.”
Director Abu Bakr Shawky, and producer Dina Emam, at 2018 Cannes Film Festival
The film’s cast and crew are about as unorthodox as the plotline. None of its main characters are actors; Rady Gamal who plays the lead, Beshay, grew up as a leper in a colony, is unable to read or write, and was managing a small kiosk in his community when Shawky asked him to act in his film. “I used to think to myself, who would agree to have me act in their movie?” says Gamal. “And then someone introduced me to him [Shawky]. He told me he wants to make a film. I said ‘okay, let’s make a film’.”
We were taking it one day at a time to be honest. We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to finish the movie.
Ahmed Abdel Hafez, who portrays Beshay’s orphaned friend, nicknamed ‘Obama’ is a 9th grader who helps out at a pharmacy after school. His eventual inclusion in the film was almost serendipitous in and of itself. “I found out that Ahmed El Fishawy and Shereen Reda were filming a movie in the building near where I work,” says the 15 year old. “From then on, every time they’d be shooting a nice scene, I’d go interrupt and ring the bell, then I’d hide. And then one of the times, they got someone to sit on the staircase and I didn’t notice the person so he grabbed me.”
I don’t know how to read so they [Shawky and Emam] used to come to the house and we’d sit together for 2 to 3 hours every day so I could understand and memorise the script
At the same time, Shawky was seeking – rather unsuccessfully – someone for the role of the feisty young sidekick. “I’d been looking for someone for the role for quite a while and I even went to Aswan to try and find someone suitable but I didn’t find anyone. Afterwards, I heard by coincidence that there was someone, this kid, in this building here next to us. They were filming a movie. So I went and I met him,” he recalls. “And he was the perfect person to cast. From the beginning, I felt he had the same spirit and energy as that of the character.”
It would be a disservice to make it a depressing film that’s just about misery
The director and producer then spent months simply getting their two stars to learn the script, spending days on end teaching the lead actors their lines. “I don’t know how to read so they [Shawky and Emam] used to come to the house and we’d sit together for 2 to 3 hours every day so I could understand and memorise the script,” says Gamal.
Together, the unusual crew travelled the length of Egypt, filming wherever they could obtain permits, and challenging archaic perceptions every step of the way, not unlike the story mirrored in the movie. “Influenza is contagious, leprosy isn’t,” says Gamal, “I want people to know that.”
In a country where superstition is rife, stigmas are passed down from generation to generation, and a large percentage of the population suffers from a lack of education, unfounded and mistaken belief systems become something of a vicious cycle, and breaking them is not easy. The reason parents send their children off to leper colonies is the same reason people fear and withdraw from them. “In Egypt there’s this element of shame,” explains the director, “A lot of families are ashamed if their son or daughter has leprosy and they send them to these colonies and they think that they’re better off there. They try to hide them and they don’t speak of them again.”
A lot of families are ashamed if their son or daughter has leprosy and they send them to these colonies and they think that they’re better off there. They try to hide them and they don’t speak of them again.
At the end of the film, Beshay finds his father and confronts him about why he abandoned him at the colony and his father’s response is not cruel, does not stem from hatred, but rather from a place of ignorance – a collective societal ignorance, not merely his. “You would never have been accepted in our society – you would always feel like an outcast. I thought this would be the closest to a normal life you could have,” he tells his son.
There was this guy we came across while filming who poked fun at the whole thing saying, 'This Rady Gamal, what does he think is going to happen, that he'll become some kind of superstar?'" recalls Shawky. "And I remember at that point kind of promising myself that not only are we going to finish this movie but that it’s going to show in Minya and that Rady will go back to his hometown with his head held high and that he’d be able to show the movie to everyone and come out of it as an actor who acted in an actual movie.
Shawky and Emam’s first obstacle was to deal with these ingrained notions within their own crew, and then re-address them everywhere they filmed. “A lot of people [in Egypt] don’t know about leprosy and the ones that do know, are misinformed,” explains Emam. “Obviously in the very beginning, there were some questions from our crew; is this contagious? Am I going to get sick? But we had spent months and months with him [Rady] before and we showed ourselves as proof that it was perfectly fine to be around him. Eventually it was just something that didn’t exist. It wasn’t an elephant in the room. He was just like everyone else. Maybe some people that would come on the set for the first time would feel a little uneasy. But the crew, the cast, everyone made sure to inform them that there’s actually absolutely nothing to worry about.”
“Rady is also a very feisty personality,” adds Shawky with a smile, “So whenever, he notices people staring at him for too long, he wouldn’t be ashamed of it. He would immediately ask them ‘do you have a problem?’”
From right to left: Dina Emam, Rady Gamal, Abu Bakr Shawky, and Ahmed Abdel Hafez at the 2018 Gouna Film Festival
As part of their mission to shatter the traditional perceptions of leprosy, and the stigma and ostracisation surrounding it, Shawky and Emam decided that as their final act, they would ensure the first screening of the movie in Egypt would take place in lead actor Rady Gamal's hometown of Minya, a small rural governorate in Egypt with no cinematic history, as opposed to Cairo, the capital where essentially any movie worth its salt premieres. "There was this guy we came across while filming who poked fun at the whole thing saying, 'This Rady Gamal, what does he think is going to happen, that he'll become some kind of superstar?'" recalls Shawky. "And I remember at that point kind of promising myself that not only are we going to finish this movie but that it’s going to show in Minya and that Rady will go back to his hometown with his head held high and that he’d be able to show the movie to everyone and come out of it as an actor who acted in an actual movie." That move was as much an act of defiance against doubters as it was an urge to decentralise cinema from its traditional core in the capital.
A lot of people [in Egypt] don’t know about leprosy and the ones that do know, are misinformed
"There are governorates in Egypt whose people actually want to watch movies but maybe it’s too far for them. So I think it’s our turn as cinematographers, to go to them," argues Emam. "And I’m happy that our first showing of the movie in Egypt was in Minya, the place Rady is actually from. And this is may not be something production-wise that makes sense but at the end of the day, we’re artists and we want to share our art with as many people as possible."
for him, he’s living with leprosy, he’s not suffering from leprosy
Aside from the perceived shame of leprosy, is the basic biology that many people don’t understand. “We call them lepers but most of them aren’t lepers anymore,” clarifies Shawky. “They used to be lepers. They used to have leprosy but they’re cured now. They still have the scars on their faces, on their hands and so we consider them lepers, but they’re not.”
Though the scars remain, the disfigurement is permanent, they are not sick – they simply look different to what we as a society have been conditioned to understand as ‘normal’. And that was a large part of why Shawky refused to allow the movie to be a study in the maudlin. His deliberate intention was that it be moving but not morbid, heartfelt, but essentially, a feel-good film, not one which wallowed in the fathoms of self-pity and sadness. “It would be a disservice to make it a depressing film that’s just about misery,” says Shawky firmly. “Rady himself is a very funny, independent, feisty, self-sufficient person. If you make a film about how miserable everything is and how difficult everything is for him, that would not be the real story of him. Because for him, he’s living with leprosy, he’s not suffering from leprosy.”