Based in Cairo and Brussels, Sameh Alaa is the director of the short films, The Bread, Shadow, Yun Yun, and Le Steak de Tante Margaux. His latest film, Fifteen, is the first Egyptian film to make it to the 2017 Toronto International Film (TIFF) Short Cuts Program, which boasted a selection of 84 short films around the world picked out of thousands of submissions. eniGma’s Nanise Mohamed uncovers the story behind Alaa’s unique journey to filmmaking.
Alaa developed his interest in cinema in his teenage years. “It all started when I was 17 years old, when my grandfather introduced me to the Italian movie, La Strada (The Street). It was then that I began to perceive cinema in a different light,” he says.
Alaa went on to major in German language at Cairo University, while taking a number of film making workshops and classes on the side. It wasn’t long before he decided to move to Prague to study directing at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts for a year. Shortly after earning his diploma, he moved to Paris where he pursued a Masters degree at the École Internationale de Création Audiovisuelle et de Réalisation Film School in Paris. “My main focus was to direct movies; this is why I moved to Paris,” he remarks.
Following the completion of his studies, Alaa started to work on a number of commercials and eventually landed a job as an Assistant Director in a feature film. However, it still wasn’t enough for him, and he decided that it was time for him to start making his own movies, “I felt like I wanted to make my own films and learn from my mistakes,” he says.
Alaa says that his short movie Fifteen, was entirely self-produced; funded completely by himself and a family friend. He had no written script for a start! He started out with just a picture in his mind that he followed chronologically and bit by bit, it all started coming together. The picture he imagined was a scene of two young boys riding on a motorbike with a baby, right in the heart of loud Cairo. To Alaa, cinema was never about the plot, anyway. As he puts it, “Pictures are a general feeling, more than a plot. Captivating characters and interesting scenes are the only thing I remember at the end of any movie.” He goes on to explain the process from his viewpoint, saying, “You stay at home writing a script and when you arrive at the set, the actors and the props change it all! I am always open to new things when I’m making a film.”
The ambitious filmmaker worked on his idea that needed to fit perfectly into an 11 minute film. He worked with a diverse crew of fresh faces, such as Ahmed Abdel Razek, who played the main character, and some really experienced professionals, like Ahmed El Sayed, the production manager, Hossam Habib, the director of photography and Adham el Helaly, the production designer. Alaa left a lot of space for creativity and improvisation, and, much to his surprise, the resulting movie ended up competing at the Toronto International Film Festival, among the category of Foreign Short Films.
Of course, Alaa was thrilled to learn that his film was accepted at TIFF and was to be screened three times at the festival. He is grateful that audiences will now experience his film on a much larger scale. According to him, international recognition at the TIFF Short Cuts Program opened many doors for him and for filmmakers of short movies from all around the world. He notes, “Since Toronto, I’ve been getting many offers to screen my film. So many more audiences will get the chance to watch it now, and this is the most important thing for me.”