Q&A: Amr Salama, Director of ‘Excuse My French’

Director Amr Salama (wearing red cap) with actor and West El Balad band member Hany Adel. Courtesy of Khaled Kamel
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Director Amr Salama (wearing red cap) with actor and West El Balad band member Hany Adel. Courtesy of Khaled Kamel
Director Amr Salama (wearing red cap) with actor and West El Balad band member Hany Adel.
Courtesy of Khaled Kamel

Judging by his friendly demeanor, up and coming director and script writer Amr Salama could easily be taken for that friendly boy next door. Be warned that looks can be deceiving, because behind this laid back exterior is a passionate artist with an impending urge to break stereotypes and revolutionize the film industry one film at a time.

Aiming to unravel the mystery of the four year battle with the censorship office, Scoop Empire sat down with Salama to get you all the inside scoop.

A few minutes into the interview, the confined structure of a professional interview perished and our interview rapidly evolved into a chat between two film lovers.

 

Students standing in line in the school yard. Courtesy of Osama Gebril.
Students standing in line in the school yard. Courtesy of Osama Gebril.

On the Film’s Eruption…

Upon returning to Egypt from Saudi Arabia as young boy ready to start middle school, my parents enrolled me at a public school next to our house. Back then, it was common belief that the level of education at public schools was far better than at private schools. I was enrolled at this school for three years, which were hell to say the least. Most of the ideas showcased in the film were based on my own experience.

Anytime I would relay any of my experiences at that school to my friends, they would laugh and encourage me to turn into a film […] Walking past some random school one day, I saw the paintings on its wall and felt nostalgic. It was there and then that I decided that I would start working on a film that tackled the problem of public schools in Egypt.

 

Feature vs. Short

When I first started writing it in 2009, it was meant to be a short film. It was after I finished writing the script for the short that I decided that it would better fit the story to have it turned into a feature instead […] During the writing process, I opted to make my protagonist [the little boy] Christian. I thought that it would shed stronger light on the message I was trying to highlight: Attempting to integrate into a place or an environment that isn’t his.

Child star Ahmed El Dash before the shooting one of the school scenes. Courtesy of Aly El Banna.
Child star Ahmed El Dash before the shooting one of the school scenes. Courtesy of Aly El Banna.

 

Battling It Out with the Censorship Office

When the script was wrapped up, my producer and I were ready to present it to the censorship office. We had no doubt that it would pass their scrutiny with minimal to little damage, yet little did we know. The film was rejected entirely.

Following the Revolution, I thought I’d give it another shot, thinking that maybe things have changed, but I was greatly disappointed. Not wanting to give up on the film, I tried to submit it for a third time in 2012, only to have the film rejected again. Shortly after, I enrolled the script in a competition organized by the Ministry of Culture, which did not require an approval from the censorship office. I won and was given a grant to turn into a feature, nonetheless, the censorship office rejected it for a fourth time.

 

Five Times a Charm… Maybe…

After my fourth attempt, a few prominent members of the filmmaking industry set up a meeting with the then Minister of Culture, Osama El Araby. After quite a fight, he agreed to let the film out, my happiness was short lived as he was removed from his office before we could get the ball rolling.

I, then, submitted a much toned and muted down version to the newly appointed minister, originally a director. Not sure what to expect anymore, the film was finally given the minister’s approval, despite the disapproval of the members of the censorship office.

 

On the Industry’s Wavering Standards…

I think that it all goes back to how ambiguous the law actually is. At the end of the day, it is a personal assessment. The person in charge has to ask him or herself this: Does this film pose a threat to the nation’s security and safety or not? And the answer to that question differs from one person to another. For two months, I was a nervous wreck […] During our private discussions, they would say we are rejecting it because of the Muslim – Christian issue, but out in the public, their reason became that the film is tarnishing the image of education in Egypt.

 

Amr Salama with Moemen, one of the three main child actors. Courtesy of Osama Gebril.
Amr Salama with Moemen, one of the three main child actors. Courtesy of Osama Gebril.

On the Hunt for the Cast…

It was six months of hell. We saw thousands of children until we finally found the three we were looking for. I called up schools, we went on a nation online and offline hunt.

 

In the Director’s Chair

The challenge was creating a film for kids, not with kids. We weren’t just using them to dance and joke around. I remained very loyal to my own experience. I was very loyal to myself as I child. I wanted to make a film in the way that I would like to see it when I was a kid. That’s why I injected the fantasy parts; the flying, the zombies. I was looking it at things from a kid’s perspective. I wasn’t making the film from present day Amr’s perspective, but from that of Amr, the kid.

Another thing I struggled a bit with was stylizing it; comedy films are the hardest genre to be stylized. It some research and experimenting to decide on a good visual style for this film. The visual theme of this film is the “Bubble”. The kid living in a bubble that will soon burst and he will be forced to live in the real world. And this had to be showcased via the visual style, the colors. Inside the house, I wanted everything to be picture perfect, which is why I opted to make it seem like a TV ad. In addition to making sure that this neat, perfectly framed composition does not clash with the very different school scenes. I didn’t want people to think that they were watching two entirely different films.

 

Jumping Fences

The main three obstacles I faced while working on this film were: My problems with the censorship office, the casting process and controlling the kids. Controlling the kids was a real nightmare. Imagine having to shoot for ten days in a class of 50 students and five days in a school yard. When we were shooting out in the yard, I used to always say that we will never be able to finish this film; we couldn’t even get them to stand in line […] If I ever decide not to have kids, it will be because of this film.

 

Behind the Scenes Trivia

The headmaster’s speech about religious unity was taken mostly from what the people at the censorship office used to tell me.

 

Last Words…

People, go to the cinema.

 

WE SAID THIS: Don’t miss our review of Excuse My French here.

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