Mariam Naoum

Up Close with Egypt's Top Screenwriter

Her passion and skill at telling stories about women have made Mariam Naoum a symbol of women’s empowerment and one of the most sought after screenwriters in Egypt today. She is a trailblazer who is not afraid to delve into controversial issues that other filmmakers mostly avoid; and her name on the credits of any film or TV series makes it a sure success. At 43, Naoum already has a slew of blockbusters under her belt, including landmark TV shows, like Bent Esmaha Zaat (A Girl Named Zaat), Taht El Saytara (Under Control), and Segn El Nesa (Women’s Prison). eniGma’s Chairman Samia Farid Shihata sat down with the successful screenwriter for a fascinating discussion on her biggest hits and what her fans can expect from her in the period ahead. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

What made you change your college major to cinema?

After the first semester at university in France studying Economics, I decided to come back to Egypt and study cinema. I found out that this is what I truly wanted.

What was your first work?

My first movie ever was Wahed Sefr (One/Zero) with director Kamla Abu Zekry, in 2009. After that I worked mostly on TV series. I actually love working on series because they give you more space to narrate a story and more time to develop the characters. Of course, I also love working on movies too. It’s a big thing to have a movie with your name attached to it, but I’ve never felt that TV series are of lesser importance.

Your first work with Kamla Abu Zekry was the first of other great collaborations. You are now a power duo. How did it all begin?

It started when my late father, the novelist Nabil Naoum, introduced us to each other. She asked me about my plans and I explained that I wanted to do a movie about four girls living in Cairo.We talked a lot, and it took us four years of preparation to make the movie, Wahed Sefr.

What do you prefer to work on, a screenplay from scratch or one that is based on a novel?

I love working on something like a classic novel,that already exists and people admire. I love the challenge to create some- thing new out of it. And I also like the other option, writing a script starting from scratch with my own thoughts. Writing my own script gives me more room for imagination.

Do you choose to always work on women’s topics?

You seem to enjoy these types of projects… Well, honestly this is something I discovered along the way. It was not something I intend- ed to do when I started. I love highlighting women’s lives, how women are pressured by society and how that turns them into really strong characters.

Tell me more about Bent Esmaha Zaat Was it your initiative to write the screenplay for this novel by Sonallah Ibrahim, or did someone ask you to do it?

Actually the producer, Gaby Khoury, called me and told me that he was working on Bent Esmaha Zaat and that he wanted me to work with him on it. Knowing that it would need a lot of preparations I told him I would read it again and get back to him. At that time,I was working on something else that I was very interested in. When I called him back I told him, “If you agree that I can integrate my own work in the novel, I can join you and start working immediately.” While the story in the novel starts in the 80s, I wanted to narrate developments in Egypt starting with the 50s. I’ve always wanted to work on that era, on everything that happened at that time. So the series starts from the
50s till 2011.

Nelly Karim has been part of more than one work with you.

Yes, we first worked together on Wahed Sefr. It was the three of us actually, Nelly Karim, Kamla Abu Zekry and me. Bent Esmaha Zaat was my second work with Nelly. We did a lot of other things scratch together with my after-wards. Taht El Saytara and Segn El Nesa were with Nelly Karim.

Did you have to do a lot of research for your TV series Taht el Saytara, which is about drug addiction and starred Nelly Karim as well?

Yes, of course. Prior to that, I could not relate to the characters portrayed, and did not understand what they go through. I had to do a lot of research to really grasp how drug addicts think and what makes them do this. It was eye opening for me, and for the audiences too. To understand cases of deep addiction and to empathise with the characters in the story, was wonderful. The actors also worked very hard and studied their roles extremely well. The whole crew worked so well together to come out with this result.

Did you face challenges in this field because of your gender?

Surprisingly, I have not. This field requires a lot of effort, commitment and dedication, in general. Every challenge along the way was because of how competitive the field is, not because I’m a woman.

Do you ever get projects that you reject?

Yes, it happens sometimes. Some topics or issues don’t seem exciting or interesting enough for me to work on. I have to love the story and topic we are addressing, so that I can really work on it with all my heart and give it all my energy.

Would you think about writing a different genre, a comedy perhaps? And have you ever thought of directing?

Sooner or later, it is going to happen. We are currently working on both a comedy and a horror project in my workshop with young writers. Actually, we try as much as possible to work on different genres. As for directing, I never thought of doing that. I don’t see myself in that role.

Let us talk about your recent TV series, Leh Laa? (Why Not?), which is different from anything we’ve watched from you before. How did this project come about?

In this series we wanted to address the question, ‘why cant girls be independent and live on their own?’ Why do they always have to go from being dependent on their parents to being dependent on their husbands? Why can’t they live alone, as mature and free persons, if they want to do so?

What was people’s reaction to Leh Laa?

There were a lot of reactions and comments. People were arguing both for and against what they saw in the series. Some people were very supportive of the idea of discussing these issues; believing that it was time that young women get to decide what they want to do with their lives. Others were very much against this idea and they thought we were pushing women in a wrong direction. The thing is, it was not our intention to tell women, ‘you have to go and live alone.’ We just want them to feel that they have the freedom of choice. If you want to stay with your parents, that is perfectly fine; and if you want to leave, you can also choose that direction in life. Maybe the series was so successful be- cause Amina Khalil has become a role model for many young women recently, and that made many people pose the question, ‘why not?’

Is the format of short series, like Leh Laa, better than having the usual 30-epsiode series?

Each story dictates the suitable length of the period of narration. In the past, we did not have this luxury; every series had to have 30 episodes, if not more. This was not right. Sometimes the story can be fully narrated and developed in 10 or 15 episodes only, and stretching it over 30 episodes would make it boring somehow.

What work do you have in progress now?

We are working on Season two of Leh Laa?, It is a whole different story, with different actors and cast, but it also deals with the concept of, Why Not? It will be aired only online this time too. I think being online is better for the times we are living in. People can choose to watch the episode whenever they are free, without any ads. However, I don’t think that online is ever going to overtake television. Every plat- form will remain, with its own viewership and its audience. They are not competing with each other.

We hear you are working on a new project about Cairo. Can you tell us about it?

This has been my dream project as far back as I can remember. I’ve wanted to work on this since 2010, and I’m finally doing it. We’ve decided on the director and the producer, so now we have the major three elements of any project and will be starting very soon. It is a TV series that integrates five different characters from different novels. Every three episodes make up a story, and we integrate the characters into these stories. It is a really interesting and new idea.

Have you decided on the cast yet?

Not yet. Actually, the director is the one who gets to choose the cast after I finish writing the whole thing.

Finally, after having so many successes, what would you say is the formula for a successful movie or series?

For a successful movie or series you really need a lot of dedication and effort from the whole crew working on it. Everyone in the process needs to do a lot of research and study his part really well. Also, it is crucial that the director and screenwriter complement each other and align perfectly together.