It’s hardly fair that actors get most of the spotlight when it comes to making movies, since so much great work is being done by the people behind the cameras. Scriptwriter and producer, Mohamed Hefzy, has been in the film industry for over 15 years and has been a creative force behind so many of our favourite films. Tito, Asmaa, Microphone, and From A to B are only some of the critically acclaimed titles under his belt. And his latest scriptwriting venture with Tamer Habib, Aswar El Amar (Fences of the Moon), is creating waves in the Egyptian box office. When he established Film Clinic in 2006, now a leading production company in the region, it was clear that he had found his true passion in life. It’s a far cry from the engineering degree he received in university and the copper manufacturing family business that he still helps manage. eniGma’s Lina Ashour talked to this mild-mannered and dedicated filmmaker to find out more.
How did the shift from engineering to film happen?
Even when I was still in school and university, I was very interested in writing and filmmaking, especially writing. It started with theatre in school and it became more about film in university; I haven’t stopped working on films ever since.
Did scriptwriting come naturally to you?
If you have the talent, you can definitely teach yourself scriptwriting. So I taught myself. My first script probably wasn’t that good in terms of structure, but it had a voice. It got me noticed by a very established director who told me that it was one of the best scripts he’d seen in a while.
How did you get into production?
I realised that I wanted more control. I saw a lot of films that were badly made. First, I realised that getting the right script was the hardest part, and I started working with other writers to form a network of writers.
I became very strong in this area of development and I felt I had gained the foundation to be a strong producer, so I thought to myself, “why not?”
To have more creative input in a film, wouldn’t it be better to direct rather than do the logistical work of production?
This is a misconception about production. A lot of people don’t understand what producing is. Production is a creative job; you have to make artistic decisions. You have to know a little bit about everything; about editing, scriptwriting, directing, cinematography, special and visual effects, and about distribution and marketing.
You’ve also recently started working in international markets. How would you compare your experience working in Egyptian cinema to that?
There are advantages and disadvantages in working in Egyptian cinema. In Egypt, one can do things very quickly. You can make decisions faster; you can decide to shoot a movie and get it done in six months. In Europe it can take up to three years to raise the financing; it’s so competitive and complicated because it relies on public funding. Unless you have a really good script and a really good director, you have no chance of getting funding for a film.
How has the Egyptian movie industry fared over the years?
If we look at the revenues at the box office, this year has been a bad one so far. Last year was great; we had films like El Gezira 2 (The Island 2), El Harb El Alameya El Talta (World War III), and Al Feel Al Azrak (The Blue Elephant). These films grossed over 30 million EGP each. The films that came out this year only grossed about 5 to 10 million. It’s ok for a movie not to make money. But when it costs a fortune and makes little revenue then it means we have very little knowledge of what the audience wants.
There’s a lot of commentary that Egyptian cinema has been focusing too much on slapstick comedy that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Do you think this is a problem in Egyptian cinema?
That’s a consequence of the level of education and the general taste of the public. People don’t want to think too much. They want entertainment that doesn’t require a lot of thinking or effort. You can also feel that in literature; we haven’t had any literary movements in the past 30 years. But as a producer, it would be arrogant of me to blame it on the audience; I have to adapt to the audience and at the same time, try to elevate the quality of films we make.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on, which is your favourite?
Some projects last longer, and you feel more emotionally connected to them because you’ve spent more time on them. Aswar El Amar and From A to B took years to make, and when they came out we really appreciated the fact that they moved people. It’s always the films that take years of work and effort that really stay with you and they’re the ones closest to my heart. As a producer, I loved the films I made with directors Ahmed Abdallah and Amr Salama.
Tell us about your experience with “From A to B” as a pan Arab production?
It was a great experience, even though it was only released here in three theatres for one week; but it did a bit better in the Gulf. Internationally speaking, it got a lot of praise and great feedback. I just came back from Berlin where I found out that it was picked up for distribution in several European countries. It’s going to be theatrically released in the UK, France, and hopefully Italy. I think one of the reasons it’s doing well there is because it is pan Arab, portraying modern Arabs in a context that is very familiar to Western audiences. It’s a road movie comedy.
You’ve also held some writing workshops, how do you feel about the rising generation of scriptwriters and filmmakers?
If I would give them any advice it would be that they have to be team players; and they have to learn that their first draft is as good as their toilet paper. A first draft is just the beginning not the final product. Then once they start working on a project, the script belongs to everybody, the director, the producer, and the actors. As for production, I wish to see more producers doing what our current producers should be doing.
What was your vision for Film Clinic when you established it?
The vision was to create a community of young talented filmmakers and writers. I wanted that feeling of community to be the basic foundation of this company, and not to have a one-man show revolving around myself. The community is mainly the writers and directors that I work with. I’d like to see this community grow, work with more talent, and continue with the philosophy of discovering new blood.