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Past meets Present in Egypt

Jamal Suliman as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egyptian documentary drama series Sadik Al-Omr (Courtesy Osman Abu Laban)
Jamal Suliman as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egyptian documentary drama series Sadik Al-Omr. (Courtesy of Osman Abou Laban)

They say that history repeats itself. Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was hailed as a hero after he headed the coup d’état that deposed King Farouk in 1952. He was also the country’s first leader to defy Western colonial powers, thus enabling Egypt to become a secular independent state. While Nasser’s popularity spread across the Arab world—especially because of his efforts to unite the Arab states to combat anti-Arab forces such as Israel—his vision of a socialist, secular Egypt under the ideology of pan-Arab nationalism could not be reconciled with the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was a situation that resembles Egypt’s current political turmoil—up to a point. But the difference is that what remains in the hearts of Egyptians and others across the Arab world today are their memories of the policies of anti-imperialism, national dignity and social equality Nasser also established.

The well-known Egyptian film director Osman Abou Laban is currently making a historical TV drama series that will portray the relationship between Nasser and Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer. The two were involved in forming the Free Officers Movement that instigated the 1952 Egyptian revolution. Amer was one of the most powerful figures in Egyptian politics, and he was like a brother to Nasser in many respects.

Director Osman Abou Laban (right) with Producer Ihab Talaat
Director Osman Abou Laban (right) with Producer Ihab Talaat
The program, called Sadik Al-Omr (Lifelong Friend), is scheduled to air on Arabic television in July, during the holy month of Ramadan. Here, Laban discusses this latest project with The Majalla.

THE MAJALLA: What inspired you to direct this program?

The political situation at the time has links to the current situation. There was a revolution, and a problem between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, and we have the same problem today. Everyone was looking for a hero and leader and found one in Gamal Abdel Nasser, and now everyone is looking to Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in the same way.

Q: Did you direct this program for personal reasons or did you have an audience in mind?

Let’s agree on something. This is show business, so part of it is a show and part is a business. If it’s not good for business then there is no program; if it’s not a good show then it’s a failure. We are trying show our audience from all the Arab countries a historic event in Egypt that is connected with Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and Jordan—so it’s uniting Arab countries over what happened in Egypt at that time. For me it’s a great project to get into politically and artistically; it’s a big challenge to do something historical, a big risk and responsibility, but I love this kind of pressure and work.

Q: Do you think that this program will create political conflict in Egypt once it is aired?

Of course. And not only in Egypt, because the destiny of Egypt is to be at the heart of the Arab world. It’s in the middle of the region; it connects the old and new countries together. It’s between Asia, Africa and Europe. I believe it will create big conflicts in the way the system works.

Q: How do you compare this project to your previous work? Does it feel any different?

Everything is different. I started my career as a photographer then moved into directing music videos and TV adverts and then started to do films. I also directed the show Al Mowaten X. It was translated into Italian, French and Spanish. I also directed [the film of] a novel called Vertigo, which has also been translated into a few languages. It is partially political. I like this type of challenge. It’s human and it’s political, just like Sadik Al-Omr, which is about two friends who lived their whole life together and at the end one died because of a political situation for which the other was responsible. They were both responsible for the defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war, although I wouldn’t say Egypt alone was defeated as a group of states were involved in that war.

Q: How did you get the idea for this show?

Mamdoh El-Leithy [a renowned Egyptian screenwriter who died earlier this month] wrote Al-Raees Wal-Moushir (The President and the Field Marshal), from which we got most of the ideas. This book has been around for seven years, yet so far no one has had the guts to grab it and produce it. I have a great producer, Ehab Talaat. We got together and decided to go ahead. It’s a great political story and the timing is perfect. We sat with the scriptwriter and went through the project. We are preparing to film next month, for it to be aired during Ramadan.

Q: When did you get into directing and what was it that motivated you to do so?

As a photographer I love creating a good picture and story. Every time I took a photo I wanted to express something, it wouldn’t be just a beautiful girl standing still. I wanted to create some kind of magic around the photo. This need steered me towards advertising, as it allowed me to do this. My ideas are out-of-the-box, which really helped my career to progress. I met a producer, Talib El-Kashef, and he needed an idea for a video clip and told me to go ahead and direct it. I had no experience before, so this was a big responsibility. I didn’t know anything about directing. It got to number two in the hits at the time. I realized after this that I had to study directing. I studied filmmaking, producing and directing at the American Film Institute in the US. I came back to Egypt to do music videos for Mustafa Amar, Asala, Amer Mounib, Ehab Tawfik and a few other artists. So far, I’ve directed 35 to 40 video clips—but my videos were different and original, I had new ideas.

I wanted to take a step forward and it came with directing the movie Ahlam Omrena and a few others. Then I started Al Mowaton X and now Sadik Al-Omr.

Q: Do you prefer to make movies or TV series?

There is nothing like a movie, people have to pay money to get out of their homes and stay on a chair for two hours and watch my work. This is different to their watching from home where they can always change the channel; it has a different “taste.” Both are interesting but I love cinema more.

Q: Who is your favorite actor or musician to work with?

Every time I work with an actor or musician I consider them my hero. I am responsible for them, so they have my whole heart. I can’t prefer one over the other; I consider them my children. Every time I work with one of them I present them with a new story from my soul, so I can’t really choose one over the other.

Q: Have you had any restrictions in the past when it comes to filming?

There are always lines that you should not cross and borders you have to keep within. If you are honest and not playing any games you can cross the lines without hurting anyone. It’s all a matter of hurting yourself; you have to think really hard about how you will execute your work . . . how it will be seen and felt by your audience. It’s better to set your own limits. That’s what I do—it’s about self-control.

Q: What advice can you give to future filmmakers?

Learn and keep on learning, as you cannot learn enough. I still take courses and go to workshops. And do what you really feel and need to do . . . get it out and express yourself. The audience wants you to make them laugh or cry; they want you to make them feel something and not just to see. This is how I approach every film, music video and program I direct.

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Mina Al-Droubi
Mina Al-Droubi is a researcher and contributor to The Majalla. Mina, an Iraqi–British journalist, graduated in International Politics from City University and received her master’s degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

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