Intense, brooding and belonging to a generation that has forever changed Egypt, Asser Yassin talks politics, possibilities and post-revolution cinema with eniGma’s James Purtill.
We find Asser Yassin shirtless in our photographer’s studio. The flashbulbs of the big Studiotechnik are popping away. One wall of the studio is painted white, and the shadowless corners have been rounded like a skate ramp. Yassin lunges at the camera and stops short. Lunges again, then grins and stands arm-on-shoulder with the photographer to review the digital photos. Radiohead plays at full volume.
This impression of restless excitement continues during the interview. Yassin is excited when he talks about politics or the possibility of directing his own short film, and restless when he talks about the kind of movie he will make next. His latest, Beebo we Besheer, was released this Eid, and he has not yet begun a new project. The young star is feeling his way forward; perhaps unwilling to return to the relatively big-budget movies that made his name. Instead, he has recently become more famous for joining the Tahrir Square protests last January. He may be growing into a new kind of politically-engaged Egyptian movie star: a ‘Star 2.0’ for the ‘Revolution 2.0’ era.
Back in 2003, Yassin graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the American University in Cairo and began working as a teaching assistant. There was just one problem: he wanted to be an actor. And ever since a fellow student hauled him cross-campus to audition for a one-line theatre part, he caught the acting bug; big-time. For two years after his graduation, he moonlighted on the university stage, earning his acting chops, and finding small roles in TV series such as Qalb Habiba (Habiba’s Heart), and movies like Omaret Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building) and Haleem.
Like many parents of aspiring actors before them, his mum and dad worried he would exhaust his youth treading the boards. They also wondered where his new acting obsession had come from. As a child he wanted to be a Formula One mechanic. His mum sold her jewellery to pay his AUC tuition fees and he competed for Taekwondo scholarships. Yet now, suddenly he wanted to be an actor.
“For the generations above us, it had always been about choosing the guaranteed path and graduating with a certificate. After a while you get married, after a while you have kids, and that’s it. Yet I couldn’t be happy with that myself. My parents raised me to believe if you want something you’ll find it, and so I challenged them from their perspective, not mine.”
While Yassin auditioned for what became his breakthrough role of Mo the drug addict in Zay El Naharda (On a Day Like Today), others of his generation were also struggling against the status quo and shearing off into unexpected professions. Change was in the air. He was from a generation of educated soon to be ‘professionals’, flouting the suit and tie, the desk jobs and socially-revered jobs to become writers, musicians, photographers and movie-makers. But it was hard going. Each day Yassin would catch a taxi from the AUC Greek campus to the Falaki campus, passing through congested neighbourhoods around Tahrir. His privileged pursuit of acting seemed irrelevant to those selling watermelon seeds to survive. “And inside AUC I was alienated as well. It was a hell of a mess.”
But his acting career advanced: he scored a lead role in Al Waad (The Promise), and another in Rasayel El Bahr (Messages from the Sea). Both films did well at the box office and the Minister of Culture decided Rasayel El Bahr would represent Egypt for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Oscars. Like the other recent Eid releases, Beebo we Besheer was produced before the revolution. It was hard to ignore the sense that such films, good as they were, had been made irrelevant by politics. The country had changed but the movies hadn’t. And besides, what could possibly be more cinematic than the sea of red, black and white of the Egyptian flag in Tahrir?
Eight years after graduating, now 30 years old, Yassin finds himself at the peak of an industry liberated from censorship for the first time in a half-century. This takes some getting used to. “We need to grasp the situation before we talk again and start doing things,” he says. “Everything in cinema is going through a huge change. How can we even go about picking and choosing scripts given everything that’s happened? Can you imagine being a producer at this time? Where do you even start?”
The political revolution on its own will not save Egyptian cinema. Years of censorship of sensitive issues like police harassment and Christian-Muslim relations bled the studios of ambition, as well as of some of their best talent; producing a series of simple-minded popcorn flicks. This perceived industry-wide lassitude during Mubarak’s regime could explain some of the reported dark mutterings that occurred when high-profile actors joined the protests in Tahrir. But the industry had already shown its potential to be an advocate for Yassin’s generation. Low-budget, independent short films like Heliopolis (2009) and Microphone (2010) which won the Golden Tulip at the Istanbul International Film Festival, tackled themes of national decline and frustrated youth.
By coincidence, Microphone opened in Egypt on January 25, 2011. “It was brilliant in its timing,” says Yassin. “It proves something was going to happen for sure. The generation that advocated for a revolution started pushing for change sometime ago.” As if to illustrate the point, Yassin tells a story. His family’s electrician, of his parent’s generation, was dying ten years ago. Yet he recovered and became Yassin’s assistant. He recently even made his big screen debut, met with famous actors, and has seen, done and experienced things he never imagined possible. Years ago, the Egyptian silver screen seemed to be an impermeable barrier; yet today in the New Egypt, anything is possible.
How would you describe your style?
Minimalist, practical, travel-ready and nomadic. I wear colours that suit my mood. Sometimes I wear black and white, sometimes I just like to wear clothes that have a story or a special memory associated with them. Whatever has been difficult to find, or that a friend has given me as a gift.
What are your favourite fashion items?
Jeans and shoes. I often wear black Caterpillar shoes. I can become quite attached to a good pair of shoes. I like shoes that suit a purpose. With jeans, there are so many kinds of cuts and it can be hard to get a cut that suits your body. But when you do, they last for ever. Otherwise, I also like sunglasses and I have a very nice necklace collection from Sinai.
What annoys you about today’s men’s style?
The skinny jeans that some men are wearing. They’re too tight, uncomfortable and constrictive!
What is one thing you will never be caught dead wearing?
Aside from skinny jeans, I wouldn’t wear those high-cut punk t-shirts that show your stomach.
What do you find sexy about a woman’s style?
Personality, character and intelligence are the things I find most attractive. So I find any styles that match a woman’s character sexy. Anything that she would feel comfortable in. It’s like wearing a perfume or cologne – you wear one for a certain time and it becomes a part of your character.
What would you wear on a first date?
I’d go with a slim, sharp, edgy, smart look. Probably jeans, tucked-in shirt, a belt. Just a neat look.
As an Egyptian celebrity, how do you think the way you dress affects your image?
I don’t think it does. You wear what you wear, and people accept that. I’m not trying to impress anyone, I’m just being myself.
Do you feel pressure to dress a certain way because you’re an actor?
Not at all. If I were an actor for the fame I would care about what people saw me wearing, but I’m not doing it for that. I’m not trying to pretend I am a better or bigger actor than I am.