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Egyptian Auteur Yousry Nasrallah on Cooking Up a Wedding Comedy With Political Overtones

Variety logo Variety 12/8/2016 Nick Vivarelli
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Yousry Nasrallah is one of Egypt’s most highly regarded filmmakers, know for depicting his country’s social and political complexities in multi-layered movies such as “Gate of the Sun” (2004), “Aquarium” (2008) and “After the Battle” (2012) which was a meditation on the Tahrir Square revolution. His latest, “Brooks, Meadows and Beautiful Faces,” which screens in Dubai’s Arabian Nights section, after launching in Locarno and Toronto, is a comedy about a family of cooks preparing a wedding feast in a small Egyptian village. Nasrallah also heads the fest’s main jury. He spoke to Variety about his transition towards making seemingly lighter fare in what are dark times for Egyptian audiences.

The tagline for this film is: “You don’t need politics to make a political film… Love, pleasure, beauty and food are serious enough.” It’s clearly more than a bucolic culinary romp. 

In 1999 I made a documentary called “On Boys, Girls and the Veil.” The lead character was the actor Bassem Samra [who appears in many of Nasrallah’s films, including in “Brooks”] who then introduced me to his family in the countryside. They fascinated me. They were cooks, they were very lecherous and lots of fun. They had a relationship to life that I liked. So I started writing the script, but it was too political. It was a time [before the revolution] when politics were monopolised by the state and film directors felt compelled to make political films. But it was not my intention to make a political movie, so I put it aside. And every time I finished a film I would pick up the script [for “Brooks”], and then put it aside once again. Then recently I decided to do it precisely because I felt there wasn’t much left to say, politically, about how bad the situation in Egypt is. And that I needed to go back to certain fundamental things. You know the three basic things that mobilised people in the 2011 revolution were: bread, freedom, and dignity. That’s what this film is about!

Tell me about working with Ahmed Abdallah, who is known as a hit-making screenwriter in Egypt.

Yes, he is a very commercial screenwriter. He did a few films which I really liked. One was “Elfarrah” (“The Wedding”). But I don’t think in terms of working with commercial or non commercial writers. It’s about intelligence and talent. He’s good at dealing with a multitude of characters. His contribution to this particular project was basically writing dialogues and discussing the last section of the film with me, which I changed. He’s funny, he has that sense of repartee. It was fun working with him. But most of the script, including the wedding, I wrote myself. I’m a cook, so I know what I’m talking about when I deal with cooks.

For Arab auteurs being able to break out internationally and also have an audience in the Arab world seems to be particularly tough. Has this been an issue with you?

It was tough at the beginning, but I’ve been around for about thirty years now. Still I continue to contend with this. For example my 1993 film “Mercedes” — one of my most difficult works that travelled internationally, and was rejected locally when it came out —has become a cult movie of sorts these days in Egypt among young people, who really understand it. One thing I can tell about being an auteur filmmaker is I would never approach a producer and propose something that I would expect them to lose money on. With this project I pitched the producer, Mohamed Al Sobky [who is known for making commercially successful movies] and he went for it because with a wedding and belly dancing in it, and so on, it looked fun.

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