Building on experience: An interview with Dawoud Abdel Sayed

Following the success of his new film "Ras’il el-Bahr" (Messages From the Sea), renowned director Dawoud Abdel Sayed met with Al-Masry Al-Youm to discuss his prolonged absence and the making of his poignant comeback.  
Al-Masry Al-Youm: Your last film "Mowaten wa Mokhber wa Harami" (A Citizen, an Informer and a Thief) came out in 2001, why the long hiatus?
Dawoud Abdel Sayed: I couldn’t find a producer. I spent the time reading, writing, and just living. It was sort of like a jail sentence where time passes slowly.  
Al-Masry: But the script for "Ras’il el-Bahr" was already complete?
El-Sayed: More or less.
Al-Masry: Did you use the time to reflect on and consider how to address the criticism of your previous films?
El-Sayed: It doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes you want to personally assess your career and shortcomings instead of preoccupy yourself with what the critics had to say. Nobody remembers all the criticism–that was never a major concern of mine–but you form a set of convictions. You can identify flaws in your work which may or may not have been mentioned by critics. 
Al-Masry: Assessing your own career, what did you hope to achieve?
El-Sayed: In my career I’ve done what I managed to do, not what I’ve wanted to do. And what I’ve managed to do didn’t always depend on me. Sometimes it depends on the circumstances, or on shortcomings in your talent, or mentality. Sometimes it’s the result of accepting or rejecting certain realities, whether they’re related to film production or politics or economics, and so forth. I had hoped to have made more films by this point in my career–I’ve only made eight films. I’d hoped they would have been better, but you gain experience and try to apply it, directly, the best you can.
Al-Masry: Would you consider any of your films the high point of your career?
El-Sayed: They’re all different experiences, and all incomplete. You strive to overcome that by moving on to new projects which will hopefully be better. The high points in your career depend on what your overall plan was initially. To make artful films that have a vision, a point of view, are aesthetically accomplished, and at the same time commercial–that’s been my project. There’s the separate question of the material you want to present within this framework. The more commercial the film is, if it meets these criteria, the more of a high point it becomes. And, of course, artistic merit also defines your high points. My last two films, "Ard el-Khouf" (Land of Fear) and "Mowaten wa Mokhber wa Harami," I consider some of my best work. You always want to feel that you’re building on your experience and that your last film is better than the one that came before it. 
Al-Masry: Where did the idea for "Rasi’l el-Bahr" come from?
El-Sayed: I don’t remember. You would’ve had to ask me eight years ago for me to remember. And, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important. You probably use elements from your personal experience, but all ideas for scripts, if they’re original, you usually can’t say where they come from. Sometimes you can analyze to discover their origin, but they often stem from activity in your subconscious more than anything else.
Al-Masry: Did the production process run smoothly?
El-Sayed: I spent seven years looking for a producer, because they didn’t make these kinds of films, and mostly still don’t. They were making action films, comedies, and everything else you’ve been watching in the time. The breakthrough came when I received a grant from the culture ministry, and also the support of [head of Al-Arabiya Cinema Production and Distribution] Issad Younes. There was a period when the Good News Group was interest in producing, and we had at least two location-scouting sessions in Alexandria. The locations were finalized with Al-Arabiya. Once production began, which took about four months, there were no major setbacks.
Al-Masry: Audiences were expecting to see the film during the last Eid holiday, was its release delayed?
El-Sayed: There were never any plans to release it during the Eid holiday. I’d always pictured this film being released in the winter. Given the film’s ambiance I’d always felt that was most appropriate, and Issad Younes, who was also the distributor, agreed. I think it came out at the right time.
Al-Masry: Do you have a crew and production team that you always work with?
El-Sayed: There are people you work with that you know you can rely on as support pillars for the film. For me these include Onsi Abu Seif as art director, as well as Mona Rabei as editor and Rageh Dawoud as music composer. There are others that you may not have worked with before, but you were looking for certain ingredients and find them in their previous work. It’s all part of the process, and based on who’s best for the job as well as mutual understanding. Naturally, it’s better when your working with a team that resembles a small family with an already established shorthand, it saves a lot of effort. Ahmed Morsy had worked with me as assistant director of photography in "Ard el-Khouf," and I saw his recent work, which was beautiful and substantial, so we worked together again.
Al-Masry: How did you manage to generate such compelling performances from the actors?
El-Sayed: The casting was perfect, and that’s thanks to the producer and casting director among others. Often you come across roles you can’t fill, but this time we were successful. When I started working on this film, I couldn’t find anyone appropriate. The process required a lot of thought and preparation before it finally came together. Sometimes it’s a process of crystallization; Once we cast Asser Yassin as the lead, we started building around him. You quickly discover which choices will work best. For Samia Assad [in the role Karla], for example, we needed someone who could pass for Italian, looks under 30, and a good actress. She fit the bill and we were pleasantly surprised to discover she was a great actress.
Al-Masry: Do you have a certain process with the actors, do you rehearse?
El-Sayed: No, we don’t rehearse beforehand. There were readings with the actors, and Asser did have to do some research to achieve his character’s stutter. But only certain material requires that kind of preparation, and, as you can tell from the result, ours wasn’t one of those films and what we did was enough. We rehearse the shot on set before the take, which is the standard process, to bring all the elements together — the mise-en-scene, camera movement, composition, lighting and so on. I usually don’t like doing a lot of takes, because they can baffle you in the editing process, but in this film I did. I prefer rehearsing the shot a lot, until it ripens, and do fewer takes.  
Al-Masry: What was your best experience making this film, and what was your worst?
El-Sayed: When I started filming I was terrified. I had great apprehension because I felt I was working with–with the possible exception of Mohamed Lotfy–a cast of amateurs. Asser’s experience was limited, and Basma had quite a bit of experience but had never struck me as a brilliant actress. In fact, I’d always thought she lacked presence. Salah Abdullah had not yet come on board and eventually did the role as a gift, without receiving payment. Mai el-Kassab had a small part, and it’s was Samia’s first time on film.

So I felt I was embarking on a film with amateur actors with difficult roles, especially the two leads. During the work though, I was overjoyed to discover the capabilities of those I was initially skeptical about. After shooting, I was sure that all their performances were great. You discover that Basma is truly a very attractive and feminine actress whose previous roles weren’t doing her justice. And Asser, whose role in "Zay elNaharda" (Like Today) was just too easy, I realized was a wonderful actor. All the performances were pleasant surprises. So the apprehension I’d felt in the beginning and the satisfaction I felt once I saw the performances were my worst and best experience rolled into one.
Al-Masry: Are you satisfied with the film?
El-Sayed: To a great extent. You always feel certain things may have slipped away from you, but I won’t be telling you what. 
Al-Masry: Is there anything in the film you would change?
El-Sayed: If I could I would restore certain choices in the execution of the musical selections. We had already designed them in a certain way at an earlier stage, but faced copyright issues and changes had to be made.
Al-Masry: Are you preparing a new project?
El-Sayed: There are always projects in the pipeline, with more than one collaborator in mind. Whether they’re realized will depend on which producers we’ll be able to secure, if any.

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