You’re widely known for filming the legendary documentary, ‘Les Petit Chats’. What was your inspiration?
When I was 14, I used to look at the old photo albums of Wagdi Francis, my god father and the founder of the band, Les Petit Chats. I had always thought that these were photos for a famous foreign band; however, all of the members looked Egyptian and it puzzled me. I was told that this is Wagdi’s old band. So, Wagdi began to narrate how he started the band whose members have become successful cultural pillars such as Omar Khairat, Omar Khorshid, Hany Shenouda, Sobhi Bedair, Ezzat Abu Ouf, Talaat Zein and others. It amazed me how a band that didn’t sing in Arabic could be so iconic and important in Egypt. I had, ever since, waited for something that motivated me to film that documentary, perhaps an exciting plot. When I became a filmmaker, I heard from Wagdi that the band will have a re-union. I figured that this will be my chance to make this film; I didn’t want to only document events with a nostalgic atmosphere with just a narrator and some photos. I wanted to film live shoots and events, and I found that this re-union would be the backbone of the film. I was wondering; can they play together with the same harmony after a 40-years hiatus? Another aspect I was wondering about was “romance”, as every time I tell anyone of their generation about Les Petits Chats, they always have this glow on their faces. My main focus in the film was for them to tell their true story of Egypt in the era of romance.
How did you contact them and what was their first reaction when they knew the idea?
I knew most of the members of the band as close friends. They were quite happy with the idea. You could say that I studied everything about the band and about their songs by filming them practice, as the whole film was initially going to show them performing on the stage, along with a display of some photos of the Egyptian romantic era between each song, but then I decided to film the preparation for their concert, instead. The material I shot at the rehearsal studio was more dramatic than any traditional concert. They were very comfortable and felt like home, which is what gave the film its ethos. It’s hard to find a documentary with such intimacy and, knowing it all happened by coincidence; the film was not initially meant to be based on these scenes.
How long did it take to film and how far did you enjoy filming?
It took me about six years to make that film. The filming was interrupted many times during the revolution, and I had to put the project on hold for two years. After severeal years, I started to work on it again for to finally be launched in 2015; the film landed its world premiere in Washington, DC at the Arabian Sights Film Festival.
How were the reactions of the audience in Washington?
They were magnificent! They all knew the songs played in the film, but it was another thing to watch Egyptians performing them with this style and spirit. I shot some videos from the theatre showing the audience, in different ages, dancing during the film. It was the first time for me to see such a sight. I couldn’t believe my eyes! The spirit of Rock and Roll grabbed their attention and made them happy because they’re watching something different from what they normally hear about the Middle East – different from terrorism and the revolution. I wanted to give people hope not only in the future Egyptian culture, but also for their ambitions and dreams to come true. Creating a legendary band cannot happen overnight; members of Les Petits Chats suffered a lot. It was very hard to start a band that sings English songs to the Egyptian audience at a time where Egypt was at the verge of war.
Can you tell us about the editing phase? Especially about the footages and scenes you didn’t use.
I was the one who edited the entire film. There were a lot of scenes that I didn’t use. The first cut of the film was about 150 minutes, and after editing it became only 80 minutes.
How did the members of Les Petits Chats change the history of Egyptian music?
You have Omar Khorshid, who performed with the salient singers Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kulthum. There’s Omar Khairat, who is famous in the MENA region; Hany Shenouda, who changed the style of commercial Arabic songs into songs with foreign and modern structure like his work with Amr Diab and Mohamed Monir through Sawt Al Delta that was founded by Les Petits Chats’ bassist Teymour Kouta. Les Petits Chats’ saxophonist Lukas George was the exclusive distributor for Roland in Egypt. The former Director of Cairo Opera House Orchestra, Sobhi Bidair won many competitions organized by Pavarotti, Talaat Zein has unmatched talent and of course, Wagdi Francis who never stopped his singing career and never gave up on his music genre; it is because of him that now Les Petits Chats are as big as they are today.
Did you face any challenges in collecting the footage and archival photos of Egypt from that era? What were the most difficult data to collect?
The challenge was to find a high quality material shoot taken by high resolution cameras, as no one used 16mm cameras back then. But in the, I found enough material from various sources that allowed me to portray the spirit and essence that I had in mind.
Did you like ‘Les Petits Chats’ in your childhood? How did it feel to see them after all these years?
I hadn’t attended any concert for the band during my childhood. The first time I heard them play was in the studio in preparation for their reunion concert, so you could imagine how excited I was! This is also what gives the film an extra edge because you’re seeing their story through the eyes of someone who was only knew them as a legend. This was my chance to prove they were not an obscure legend. Shortly after their concert, the revolution broke out and ‘Les Petits Chats’ didn’t play again until I gathered them to watch the film in three years after the revolution. They had no idea how emotional and motivating it was and it encouraged them to re-unite once more.
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