Ashraf Hamdi, who famously was part of the cast of the film, Clash, which was shown in the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, continues to garner new fans everyday with his unique Voice Note video series. Only now, he’s referred to, not as an actor but as an independent director. In the midst of juggling his massive follower count on social media and being busy with commercial gigs, Hamdi took some time to talk to eniGma’s Mariam Nowar. In his most in-depth interview to date, Hamdi discussed his journey through different careers and how he eventually landed on the top seat of the filmmaking echelons.
It all started when Hamdi was just a little kid daydreaming in class, and in his mind, recreating scenarios where he and his sister were the stars. “I attended my first few years of school in Abu Dhabi,” Hamdi says. “I came back to Egypt during the elementary stages to study at an all-boys English school called St. George’s College before I transferred to a mixed school.” he recalls.When he was older he went for the real deal, by starting a hip hop band with DJ Feedo in the early 90s. While his passion for the performing arts remained deep, however, practical considerations led him to study dentistry in university while continuing to pursue his passion on the side. He joined an Italian company that organized musicals at hotels, and he choreographed the numbers himself.
After participating in his first international experimental feature film Wingrave, Hamdi was offered to audition for a live show on OTV before it officially started, and he nailed his first job as presenter on the morning show, Sabahak Sokkar Zeyada. This opportunity was Hamdi’s golden ticket to stardom, and the next thing you know, he is presenting MBC’s The People’s Quiz with star judges Mona Zaki, George Kordahi, and Sara El Dandarawy.
Fast forward to Hamdi’s participation at the Cannes Film Festival. “I remember it was the first time for me to attend Cannes, which is a dream for anyone in show business. And I was there, not as a guest, but with a participating Egyptian motion picture, Clash,” Hamdi recalls. “While I had had a film screening a few years before at the Rome Film Festival with Flowers of Kirkuk, an Italian feature film I took part in, Cannes was very special, of course. It was the highlight of my career.” Hamdi was thrilled to walk the red carpet as part of the amazing team of Clash, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard part of the festival to rave reviews by its jury. He shared the spotlight with the film’s prominent director, Mohamed Diab, the film’s producer, Mohamed Hefzy, and leading stars including Nelly Karim, Hany Adel, Ahmed Malek, and Mai El Gheity.
Hamdi remembers how surprised he had been when he was cast as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the film. “Mohamed Diab assigned me a role that was totally different from my personality and from anything I had done before. It made me do a lot of research and I worked harder on it. The more you work, the more you discover things within yourself,” he admits.
Fast forward once again, and we find Hamdi later creating a one-man platform called A Voice Note, which documents the stories of heartbreak, lost love, and life lessons. Before the project had fully formed in Hamdi’s mind, he would scribble notes on pieces of paper and he also started posting pictures, with quotes, on social media. He later transformed his vision into videos instead.
Apart from trying to make them more memorable, there was no actual philosophy behind the videos except for wanting to make them look like a diary. Each post was given a number, indicating its sequence as an entry in Hamdi’s virtual diary. His big break came with his second and fourth videos, which featured young stars Carmen Bsaibes and Tara Emad respectively. These important collaborations marked triumphant milestones in Hamdi’s A Voice Note documentation and resulted in his Facebook page rapidly amassing over 150 thousand followers.
“The concept behind the fourth Voice Note titled I’m Stronger Now featuring Tara Emad dealt with the experience women go through when they try to contact an ex after separating, Hamdi says. “This Voice Note video demonstrated how strong women are, how a woman can transform pain and a breakup into strength, and how it can change her after one year. I think that’s why it struck a chord in most girls’ hearts, and that’s why it became a massive hit, ”he explains.
Hamdi considers directors like Stanley Kubrich, Christopher Nolan, Joe Wright, Darren Aronofsky, and romantic film director Drake Doremus his mentors throughout his venture into the unknown territory of directing. “They inspire me with their approach towards each project they do so I’m basically learning from these people,” he says
Despite this success, neither Hamdi nor anyone else would predict that his seventh Voice Note video on social media, titled Best Friends, would draw 1.5 million views on Facebook! He recalls, “I didn’t expect it to become that famous.” It was the longest video, and it had a variety of directing styles; its quality was also the most cinematic. It dealt with marriage, with best friends, and with anyone who was too late to say I love you. It had loads of underwater shots; some scenes were black and white, others were vintage. In fact, people advised me that it actually was a proper short film and that I should submit it to international festivals.” Clearly through his Voice Notes, Hamdi had ventured into directing.
In fact, Hamdi takes more pride in directing than in acting, given that it’s the director who controls any set. He recounts that he just finished his latest FIFA World Cup commercial for EgyptAir, featuring Argentinian Coach Hector Cuper, and that he is in the process of wrapping up another series for makeup brand, Maybelline. “I am now planning to take off to travel around a bit, to recharge my energy and to get inspired, he says. “But stay tuned. You might be scrolling through social media only to find a New Voice note popping up!”
*This interview was conducted through Voice Notes.
Photography: Ahmed Najeeb