Mariam Abo Ouf on the Director’s Chair

With a peerless instinct for quality and self-respect, Mariam Abo Ouf is a promising young filmmaker, truly an inspiration to upcoming filmmakers. Making films is definitely her passion, but to do it right, she walked her path to success slowly, beginning with short films, advertising, TV and in the upcoming year, she will finally be done with her first feature film ‘Bibo wa Besheer’. A challenging project for Mariam that we can’t wait to watch starring Menna Shalaby and Asser Yassin. We sat down with this aspiring director over coffee, and made sure to find out what she puts in mind before she shouts ‘Action’.

After graduating from the School of Filmmaking in London, where she learned everything from camera works to editing, Mariam received her masters in filmmaking from AUC. She landed a job as the assistant director to Sherif Arafa on his blockbuster ‘Al Gezira’ which was star studded with the likes of Mahmoud Yassin, Ahmed El Sakka, Hend Sabry, Zeina and Asser Yassin. She also lined up with Arafa on several ads and ‘Lahazat Harega’ TV series. One of her award winning ad campaigns was that of Vodafone’s Puppets, that remained the talk of town for a long time.

Your first documentary ‘Taxi’ received many awards and joined some festivals like ADFF, how do you evaluate the status of documentaries today?

I think that documentaries in Egypt became much better than before. I watch documentaries on OTV and Al Jezirah, which provide informative material, but the way I handle documentaries is different as I’m interested in tackling issues of real lives. ‘Taxi’ wasn’t informative, it was the story of a woman who worked as a taxi driver, and I was very curious about her life which attracted me in a very special way.

In today’s digital heat, the road to learn is more paved than it was many years ago, what do you think about that?

AUC has programs for people who want to learn filmmaking including journalism courses and mass communication, so we have more places to learn other than the High Institute for Cinema. But for students who don’t have financial help, they’re lucky today to just get a camera and a laptop and start practicing on their own, some movies are made today through phones.

For women, it’s not always easy when it comes to opportunity, especially in a job that has been always related to pants, did you face any obstacles in the beginning?

Well, I’m like everyone else, when I came back home, I found out that there were people who belonged to the ‘We don’t like working with women’ school! But I think that in our generation, women proved to be better than men in a lot of fields. In lower social classes, you’ll find a lot of women who are handling their men’s jobs. Women want to prove today that they take it seriously. Our society always thinks a working woman might get married and stay home, leaving all her achievements behind. Yes, that does happen, but our generation is starting to change this perception, apart from that the age of getting married has elevated now compared to earlier times. In the TV series ‘Hala Wel Mestakhaby’, people had no idea how I’ll be like on set, but from the first scene I directed, people started getting the fact that I’m no different. Female directors in general are more sensitive when it comes to dealing with actors. I consider Kamla Abu Zekry the best female director in our generation and I call her the best ‘Mokhreg’, Sandra Nashaat is also very good.

Egyptian cinema today lacks well written character roles for women. We can’t recall a role similar to Erin Brockovich, for example, we still see the betrayed wife whose husband is always cheating with his secretary, so haven’t we watched enough?

Well that’s true, but I liked the role of Mona Zaki in ‘Ehky ya Schehrazade’, that was very good. I think we have actresses who could play great characters. The legendary Nadia El Guindy is a workaholic! She works amazingly from the first word of the script to the last. We do have actresses, but the forces of society and the scene of male stars collaborated in minimizing women’s roles. Donia Samir Ghanem is very talented and  Menna Shalaby has great potential. As for the guys, I don’t see many like Asser Yassin or Bassem El Samra. Ahmed Mekky is a very good actor but I always think of him as a director. In the “older” generation, Ahmed Helmy is very smart as well as Ahmed El Sakka. Actually I think it’s like the difference between Nancy Ajram and Sherine, we have a lot of Nancy but very few Sherine.

Are you satisfied with young talents in the scene?

Well I’m not quite satisfied with some of the actors in the scene, but there are a few who are willing to try. Actually we don’t have an industry in the first place. It’s really chaotic out there, we lack systematic procedures and the organizational part doesn’t exist. The younger generation is better; mind you, a movie like ‘Rasayel El Bahr’ is breathtaking of course.

In the industry, almost two out of ten movies reserve artistic quality, but unfortunately, producers don’t expect much out of them, why do you think this is?

In the US a movie that has a major artistic angle doesn’t expect much when it comes to revenue, so it’s not only in Egypt. These movies aren’t made for revenue, but in France, a movie with an artistic angle could make huge revenue. It is fine to have commercial movies, but we could work on improving the taste of our audience and make better commercial films. Seriously, our commercial films aren’t categorized as films, how could a producer spend around 5 million pounds on such films?!

Like the egg and the chicken theory, it’s hard to know in the Egyptian movie industry who comes first, who selects who? Is it the producer who chooses the director like anywhere else in the world or the other way around?

It’s really funny how things work here, from production to directing, there is no systematic process. Producers think they’re just responsible for ‘the money’, which is incorrect. A producer must be the manager of the film, but here, the story goes like this: an actor decides that he wants to do a certain plot, so he gets a writer to work on the script and they both go to find a director! I can’t imagine someone telling me ‘write a film for Julia please’ (laughs). If I was writing a movie and a certain actor crossed my mind for a part it’s ok, but to write specifically for someone, the part will turn to be character based. There are a lot of movies actually that are composed of a cocktail of random Hollywood films that were stolen and combined together to make an Egyptian picture, on the other hand, there are some very talented young filmmakers like Amr Salama, Mohamed Diab, Marwan Hamed and Ahmed Alaa. The older generation had great directors who reserved quality like Khairy Beshara, for example.

How do you get to select between scripts?

Selecting a good script isn’t an easy task like many people might think, it’s an issue of displaying different angles in a filmmaker’s eyes before deciding. I read the script and I would ask myself if it would make me laugh or cry. If I was the one who wrote it, I would ask myself what would make me as an audience watch this movie, that’s before I decide to start working on it. When I read my upcoming movie ‘Bibo wa Bisheer’, I laughed, it has this new idea. It’s a risky endeavor  to the entire cast, as it’s the first movie to be written by Karim Fahmy, Asser Yassin’s first comedy, and of course my first picture, it’s a commercial film, but a decent one.

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