Mariam Naoum

Narrating Life in Her Own Words

She has the ability to show us life as we don’t know it by shedding the light on all the struggles and difficulties that face different specimens in our community. A drug addict, a rebellious teenager, a prostitute, a prisoner or even a bloody terrorist; she sees all her characters as normal human beings with stories behind stories; humans who deserve to be loved and sympathised with rather than judged blindly. Mariam’s magical power lies in her ability to capture you into her own world and make you want to be a part of it. This is why she is considered one of the icons of the modern Arab drama. (in)sight’s Rania Badr had a chat with the talented scriptwriter, and this is what she told us…

How did studying political science contribute to your career?

It didn’t! First, I studied math because I wanted to be an architect, and then I studied economy, but was more passionate about cinema. I used to skip my lectures and watch movies at the cinema, and I started to focus on this passion by taking courses. Believe it or not, I still don’t know whether I passed my finals or not [laughs]. But studying math helped me have a logical way of thinking and this aided me a lot in my work because I build everything in the story based on the question, “why did this happen?”

Speaking of which, what is your routine when you are working on a new project?

I am very organised when it comes to the writing process. When I am working on a certain project, I build it step-by-step. I start with the idea, then the characters, and finally I begin working on the script. In my daily life, I am not that organised, since I don’t have specific working hours, and meetings can be held anytime during the day. Also I am a mother, so I learnt to work under pressure and in any situation. Before, I used to have a specific work space and certain writing rituals, but that changed after I had my first child.

What did motherhood change in you?

A lot! Now whatever I write that is related to motherhood is based on my own experience. But mostly, it has widened my horizons. I am always eager to learn and understand new things that are related to my son and his life.

What kind of cinema sparked your interest in this career?

Paris has small cinemas that show movies from different countries around the world, and not the commercial type. This helped me realise how cinema can be a real reflection of society. I love literature and used to read a lot when I was young, which ignited my desire to represent society and talk about it. Movies that focus on real day-to-day stories are never forgotten. In 1996, when they were celebrating a hundred years of Arab Cinema in Paris, I watched ‘Ya Mahalabia Yah’ and decided to study cinema since then.

Why is everyone complaining that there is a real problem in finding good scripts?

Lots of people have lots of great ideas, but they lack the craft. Meaning; I can have a good idea in mind, but I don’t have the right skills that qualify me to be a scriptwriter; hence, transform this idea into a scenario. In Egypt, we don’t have the culture of professional specialisation, everyone with a good idea wants to be a scriptwriter rather than share it with a professional who can help transform this idea into the best script possible. The other problem we always face is the shortage of time. We are always in a rush to finish any project we are working on to catch airing time/ Ramadan season, etc.

Your next project is ‘Abu Omar Al Masry’. What sparked your interest to adapt these two novels?

I have been interested in these two novels since 2012. When I first read ‘Abu Omar Al Masry’, I loved it and I immediately called the author and told him I am interested to adapt it, so he suggested reading the first novel ‘Maktal Fakhr El Din’ (The Murder of Fakhr El Din). I read it and became more excited about the idea of merging both novels into one project. I contacted several producers with the idea and three years ago, Tarek El-Ganainy told me he is ready to work on it with me, and so we did. What attracted me to this novel was the total transformation that happened to the main character. He started as an idealistic person who believes in certain values and morals, and turned into a blood-thirsty terrorist who doesn’t believe in what he is doing, yet does it anyway! And this example is present in our life today.

When I was talking with Tarek El- Ganainy about the same topic, he said that while reading the novel, he couldn’t help but imagine Ahmed Ezz as the lead character. Was it the same for you?

Usually, I don’t imagine any actors when I am working on a new project. Contrary to popular belief, my projects with Nelly Karim weren’t written specifically for her except for ‘Sokoot Hor’ (Free Falling). There are certain qualifications by which the actors are chosen that are not related to my part in the project. So I can’t work on the script with a certain actor in mind. However, when Tarek told me Ahmed will play the lead character, I was happy.

Do you usually have an opinion when it comes to choosing the actors?

Yes, but an advisory one. At the end of the day, the final say is the director’s, since he’s the one who is leading the entire project and knows what he can get out of each actor. So I can’t impose my opinion regarding a certain actor, even if I think he is the best for the role.

For those who read the books, what should they expect from this project?

There are some differences, of course. At the end of the day, I am not narrating the protagonist’s story as read in the books. I only took some parts from different chapters, and chose certain phases in the lead character’s life with my input and vision. So the series will be different from the two books.

Are you satisfied with the outcome of Wahet El Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis) as a project?

I didn’t watch it until now because I was overwhelmed with all the problems that happened. But of course, I’m going to watch it one day. I can’t really say whether I am happy or not with the outcome right now. On the other hand, I have an absolute trust in Kamla that no argument can change.

What is different when you are doing an adaptation from a novel?

Nothing really. For me the novel is just like the treatment; it’s my foundation to build the story and the script. However, it differs from one project to the other. Sometimes, I am committed to the novel as is, and other times I tend to add my own inputs, but I never depend on the novel as the only source on which I build the project.

But for some reason adapted projects are always more controversial…

Because the viewers tend to compare between the project and the source of adaptation, which is wrong. Professionals who work in the business and understand this profession know that the novel is just a source of inspiration. Even when they compare, they wouldn’t judge the writer for choosing certain parts from the novel and using them as the foundation of the project. Naguib Mahfouz has said that he is the novel owner, and the script writers are the movie owners, and as such have the right to do whatever they want with the script.

You have the ability to transform the piece of fiction you are working on into a real life story with realistic characters, and that’s why the audience always reacts and interacts with your projects, and sometimes even feel they are part of this world. How do you manage to do that?

What you are saying is a mutual effort between the scriptwriter and the director. This is my style of narration; the director can take it as is and succeed to translate this to the audience, or choose to focus on certain details and skip others. In the end, details are a very important layer in the storyline without which you can understand the story, but with which the story is more relatable. How is this layer created? Lots and lots of studying from the scriptwriter. For instance, in ‘Segn El Nesa’ (Women’s Prison) I used to visit prisons constantly. In ‘Sunset Oasis’, I travelled to Siwa, met the people in the country, and searched for references and details in books and so on. So in order to achieve this layer, you need to study a lot for each project and most importantly love the characters you are working on, and sympathise with them as if they are characters in flesh and blood. By doing so, you succeed to translate the work of fiction to the audience as a real life story that can happen to any of us.

Why haven’t you done any movies after ‘1-0’?

Only because I got carried away with all the TV projects I worked on. It’s not like I make series my first priority and movies my second. Cinema will remain my true love and passion. I deal with most of the series I have worked on as a 17-hour-long movie, thus I feel like I have done lots of movies that people have watched, lived with and loved. And above all, they satisfied me as a scriptwriter. I was lucky enough to work on projects I loved and write about certain ideas that intrigue me with huge names in the field. People know me and love what I do, so there is nothing else I could ask for, really.

But based on your experience, what makes a script suitable to be a movie or a series?

The sub plots and characters, of course. For example ‘Zat’ (A Girl Named Zat) could not be adapted into a movie. Narrating 60 years in a single movie wasn’t possible with all the additions we made to the story. On the other hand, my plan for ‘Sunset Oasis’ was to turn it into a movie but with the cinema situation nowadays, it was not possible. ‘Women’s Prison’ wouldn’t have been as successful if it were made into a movie. People wouldn’t have been as attached to the main and secondary characters as they are with the way it is.

How do you evaluate the scene now?

I think that cinema has witnessed a leap because of the new genres of movies we are seeing today. There are many movies that got nominated to festivals. So on the artistic level, there is a different vision that is appealing to the audience, which is good. What we are truly missing is an artistic movie with commercial criteria like Sherif Arafa’s movies. A movie you can enjoy, yet one that respects your mind as part of a valuable audience. It goes without saying that we have witnessed a leap in content, ideas and techniques of today’s TV series. I consider myself lucky for working during a period when filmmakers have decided to focus on TV projects. However, I think we need to be aware that we are facing some problems like budget increase and censorship.

Other than working outside Ramadan season, what else do they need to do?

It is a great solution, but somehow these series are treated as a B category. No A-list star would participate in these series, since the budget is not as huge. I think what we need to focus on is producing short series that are fast paced, and suitable with our lives today.

How do you evaluate your journey so far?

I feel so lucky for doing projects I am happy and satisfied with in general. Even if I feel that way with some less than the others, it is always good to have ups and downs in your life. This will give you the needed push to focus and work harder.
I am happy with what I have achieved so far, yet I have a lot of projects in mind that I still aim to work on.