A Filmmaker on the Rise
It wasn’t long since Ashraf Hamdi’s exceptional performance in the award-winning film Clash and the hit-making series Tareeqi (My Way) garnered attention, that he made his leap to filmmaking. The young artist’s A Voice Note is an online series written and directed by himself, comprising snapshots of seamlessly strung together footage, which render the backdrop of impassioned voice-note narration. We met the film director, actor, and writer; and with his laid-back demeanour, Hamdi took us from square one, and talked about his new-found international recognition through his independent online project.
You’re an actor and filmmaker even though you studied dentistry…
I always had it planned that once I graduate, I’d just leave dentistry behind me.
So why did you study it?
Because of family. Back then art was viewed as more of a hobby than something you can do for a living. There wasn’t that social media buzz, Facebook wasn’t even a thing until college. But I’ve always been interested in art. Back in my teenage years, I had a hip-hop band with DJ Feedo, and after that I worked for an Italian entertainment company in Hurghada during my summer breaks. Basically, it involved a lot of acting, stage performances, musicals, lip syncing, and sports, so it was where I was kind of breathing art during my free time until I graduated. Then I travelled to Germany for two years, and when I came back, I started from scratch to try to get a hold of how to start my career in acting. I didn’t have film direction in mind at all at the beginning, my focus was acting and I didn’t imagine that one day I’d be a director that makes a name for himself in the field.
Is that when you started your career with your lead role in Wingrave?
Yeah, that was the very first thing I did professionally as an actor.
Do you consider it your breakthrough?
No, not even close. It was an experimental feature film released in the U.S, but it was a breakthrough in the sense that it was my first-ever professional appearance as an actor, and my first-ever credit on IMDB as well. And it taught me a lot of things because it was my first experience on camera, so the director gave me insights on what to do on set. It was an interesting experience. It didn’t do much here, but it did sell.
Has it opened doors?
Yeah, in a very weird way. A magazine wrote about me being the first actor to star in an English-language Egyptian horror film which gets released in the States and sell well. So when OTV was just starting out, someone that I know read the article and asked me to come work with them as a TV presenter. I thought it wasn’t my thing at all, but he persuaded me saying it would be hip and different.
Did you not enjoy it then?
Big time! And I actually boomed as a presenter more than I ever did as an actor.
Would you go back if you had the chance?
No, now I wouldn’t. After working with OTV for three years, and working with MBC, I stopped because I wanted to focus on acting. Back then when an actor took up TV presenting, they wouldn’t be taken very seriously by the media. They’re often referred to as a host rather than a presenter, and this didn’t really interest me. Even people like Amr Youssef and Amir Karara were dubbed hosts, and they stopped because actors naturally want to be taken seriously. After I first started acting and did a couple of roles, I went back to TV hosting because I got this gig for a show called Oxygen which is similar to The Doctors. They they were looking for a young celebrity who has a medical background. They were thinking of me and Karim Fahmy, and they choose me in the end. It was interesting, and I did just one season. I did enjoy it, but I also felt like I was wasting my time. I gradually became a well-earning TV host, and when things are going well for you in a field that isn’t yours, your comfort zone becomes…comfier. You forget the actual goal that you were initially aiming for, which was acting back then. But at the same time, I did take up some roles in TV series, and I was working on my writing with Mohamed Hefzy.
You co-wrote From A to B with Hefzy, correct?
Yeah, he was the first ever person I met in the industry. He had a big influence on where I am now – not the hosting part – but he introduced me to so many things. I met him through Hossam El Hosseiny, the director and rapper. We were friends back in the day, along with Al Fishawy and Feedo. He knew that I wanted to act, and he told me he’s preparing a camera show and wanted me to be one of the actors, and I thought, “yeah, why not?” Hefzy was just a screenwriter back then. The show never happened, but I sat with him one day to tell him about an idea I had for a film. We talked, and he thought I should write it. I said I couldn’t write, so he told me to join his workshop. I attended the workshops, and by time I became the supervisor, and we became friends. We didn’t do much together. We have a couple of scripts that were supposed to be made and didn’t, but the only time we worked professionally together was on From A to B and when I acted in the film Clash.
Let’s talk about A Voice Note. It recently went viral.
The funny thing is, it’s not just viral on the internet. Big networks like the BBC have started talking about it. Sky News Arabia had me on live, and it’s funny that it went viral despite me uploading it on just Facebook. Usually people add their projects to other social media pages so they can trend, but I thought of it as just a Facebook project.
I feel like you want them to remain indie, and have been avoiding going mainstream.
You’re right, but they did go mainstream anyway. You’ll see all kinds of people tagging each other in the comment section, not even the category of audience that are necessarily drawn to them as an art form.
How did you get Tara Emad to star in the Voice Note “I’m Stronger”?
She’s a friend of mine. We were invited to this event in Dubai, so we had to go for three days. I had the camera with me. I told her, “let’s just shoot some random stuff and see what we come up with,” and she was okay with that. Throughout the trip, we shot stuff that I didn’t know what I was going to do with, and when we got back home, I just edited the footage into that Voice Note with some music, and it all just fell in place.
So they’re created in reverse?
All the Voice Notes are created in reverse. That’s the beauty of them. That’s what makes this project unique. Except this one I’m working on these days that I’m shooting in order. That’s the only one though, everything else is just footage I shoot and edit into a story. The one with Tara – I finished writing the script, and I sent it to her on WhatsApp, asking her to record them for me. Her first trial was done nicely, but not what I wanted. She hadn’t even seen the video yet. I asked her to tweak them, and she did it perfectly the second time, and that was it. I think this was the turning point of the project, that was when it really boomed. There were three before that one, but they became viral with Tara. I think it’s because it was very female-related, and digital projects succeed if they attract women.
Why do you think so?
I think woman-based projects just bloom because women can watch something over and over again, but that’s not to belittle the male audience. I actually feel honoured when a man comes up to me and tells me one of my Voice Notes moved him, because you know it’s going to move a woman anyway. I think women just have more intense emotions…I’ve come to notice that I’m kind of an indirect feminist. Most of my projects have a female lead.
An indirect feminist?
Yeah, I support about women’s needs, equal rights…my crew has more women than men. I feel like I trust the work of women more than that of men. Maybe because they’re more organised, and more responsible, and possibly because I was brought up in a house full of women with my mum, sister and grandmother. My dad was always travelling, so I was surrounded by women. I don’t label myself as a feminist, but I support gender equality and I believe it’s women who can push men further.
Why do you avoid the label, then?
I don’t like the activist scene, and I’m not crazy about the term either. This applies to other kinds of loud activism as well, like veganism. I feel like what surfaces on top of the scene is just harsh attacks, and a lot of realistic aspects are left out. A lot of activists in general don’t seem to listen, they claim to support equality, and yet a lot of them act holier-than-thou. So I just avoid terms. I’ll support it, and I’ll act it, but I won’t stick a label on it. But if you look at my art, it’s always woman-driven.
When did you realise film direction was what you wanted to do?
It was sort of coincidental…yet I’m sure deep inside it was there all along. I was an actor and a writer, the third logical missing piece was film direction, but I didn’t know how to start despite knowing that I was good at telling stories.
Are you aware that your films look like you have been doing this for years, despite this being something you recently took up?
[Laughs] I think I’d surprise you if I show you the very first film I made when I first touched a camera. I remember Mahmoud Kamel, the director of El Seham El Mariqa (Rogue Arrows), was in the same sound design studio for this short film I did. He saw my work and said, “Is this like, your 10th project?” I told him it was my first, and he initially couldn’t believe me, but then assured me I’d have a future in this field. I didn’t even understand cameras or how they worked, I just grabbed one and started shooting. I was helping a friend of mine, it was her graduation project and she didn’t know anything to do with film, so she asked me for help because I’m an actor and in the business. I thought I could get help from a videographer, and I ended up making the film myself. At that moment, I realised I was a filmmaker. The way I was sitting in the editing unit, and the way I shot it as a first-timer gave me the sign that I was waiting for. Before that, I would just be dreaming of the ideal story and film that I’d star in…where I had the story and the script. Once I became a director, my interest in acting declined. Why act when I can make my own movies?
What kind of reactions did you get when you took up directing?
I think in Egypt, people consider acting more important than directing, even though that’s farthest from the truth. Actors in the end change, they come and go, they die – and they do whatever directors tell them, but directors live forever through their works. When people ask me why I stopped acting, and how that’s a shame, I’m always bewildered. I became a director, that’s an upgrade! Now I’m the one creating the world, not someone playing a part in a world. And it doesn’t mean I will drop acting altogether. I don’t mind acting in one of my works, or in films like Clash.
Is that why we don’t see you on television as often anymore?
I haven’t received as many offers since I became a director. Perhaps some people don’t like the fact that I boomed this fast as a director, others may assume if they cast you, you’ll end up interfering with their ways, and some assume I stopped acting. I was with Ahmed Al Morsy, the cinematographer of Torab El Mass (Diamond Dust) and El Fil El Azrak (The Blue Elephant), a few days ago and when I said I’d love to audition for something, he pointed out how people in the business probably think I don’t act anymore.
Do you have any regrets in the field?
No regrets, but I feel like I wasted my time with some gigs. Like my role as Ramzi in the Laila Eloui series Hekayat We Benaesha (Tales We’re Living) by director Mariam Abu Ouf. Thankfully though, it was in Ramadan and at the same I had a big role in Yousra’s series. I realised later that my role was just bullshit and smaller than it initially seemed to be. Other than that, any other role I took up benefited me. Looking back, my roles were very diverse. I was an Iraqi in Flowers of Kirkuk, a big Italian film released in Europe. In Clash, I played a member of the Muslim brotherhood, which is completely different from any of the other roles that get offered to me. I’m not even into politics, so I had to do lots of research.
How did you land your role in Clash. You said you and Hefzy were friends…
I didn’t get the role through Hefzy! We even laughed about that on set. I got it straight from Mohamed Diab, he called and offered it to me. I’ve known Diab for a long time, since he was a writer. He called, and asked me what I think of the script without telling me which role he’s offering me. I read it and said the film was a make-it-or-break-it. It has the potential to be the best film made in the last 30 years, only if you just do it right. He agreed, and asked me what I think of the role of Talaat [later changed to Amr], a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party. I thought it was interesting, but I was surprised because I assumed he was giving me the cliché role that I always get in every TV series in Egypt – the spoiled mama’s boy. I just felt like, “finally!” And I took it. I didn’t know much about politics, and Diab asked me to get in depth. I had lots of friends who supported this side of the political spectrum, so I started talking to many people. My role was not your average brotherhood guy, it was the educated kind, and I personally knew many, so that helped.
Was it as difficult as it seemed to be?
It took a while to prepare. Eight months of preparation. We were supposed to shoot in the summer, so we started rehearsing in February, but then it got postponed. When we signed contracts, it said we weren’t allowed to take any Ramadan offers, and we were cool with it because we all believed in the project. I personally knew that this film was taking us to Cannes. When it got delayed, they allowed us to take any offers, and most of us had already missed our chances. But by luck I got a call for the My Way role. I shaved my beard because it was set in the ‘80s, and I had to look neat. This role gave me a huge boost as an actor
because people loved my character, and it was one of those series that really succeeded that year. When I was done, I went back to rehearsals again, and we wrapped up by September or October.
Do you consider yourself picky when it comes to choosing roles?
I’m definitely picky, and that’s why I don’t work a lot. But at the beginning, I needed to get myself out there first. I was lucky that even then, there were roles that people liked, even when it was an air-headed character like the one I did in Ezaet Hobb (Love Station) with Menna Shalaby. Until today, people tell me how much they loved that role, even though I thought it was one of the most ridiculous ones I’ve done. I loved the film and the experience; and I intended to do it ridiculously because the character was very comical, like someone you’d see on the show Friends.
Do you ever feel like it’s challenging to get into character?
No. But maybe that’s because I was taught well by my acting coach in London. The acting I learnt was back there, not here.
Did you have any coaching there in directing as well?
I’m self-taught when it comes to directing – a hundred percent. I learned through films that I watched and some books, though not many. It helped more that I taught myself editing, so when I direct I usually edit in my mind, and that makes me fast. I know when I have the right shot.
What do you think is your most underrated work or role?
My role in Flowers of Kirkuk. It wasn’t seen here, so it’s really underrated. I did hard work acing the language, and the experience was amazing. This one and Classified, the MBC web series, which received a lot of attention in Dubai and they actually sold a lot of cars because of it. Same goes for From A to B, it succeeded in Dubai but not here.
You’re a traveller. How has that shaped you as a director?
I think it’s the number one reason why I produce art. Before I became a traveller, I don’t think I’ve had this open mind to colours, cultures, and art. I didn’t know a lot about art galleries. The first time I went to one, I became a regular. My first viral video called The Search of Beauty was shot when I was travelling. When you travel, you film as much as you can without any restrictions. There’s always a view, and it’s easy to film.
What are you working on right now?
I have a couple of commercials happening in the coming months. I’m also working on a couple of Voice Notes, and I’m trying to finish one of the future films I’m writing because I want to make something that goes big. I have a certified cinematography workshop that I’m attending in London soon…not to become a cinematographer, I just need to master it for my own progress.
Do you think film making takes inherent talent or can it be acquired?
No, definitely inherent. But I believe you have to work on acquiring it as well. By time, you become better, but if you attempt to acquire it without having at least a percentage of natural-born talent, no matter how many films you make, they’ll all turn the same. And you see that a lot here…people making hundreds of films, and they’re all equally bad. They’re just good at business and have connections, so you see their productions a lot.
Do you want to extend your career abroad?
I do, but to do that I think I need to make a great film here that makes it to film festivals so it can be my ticket. I think I have a good CV so far, including commercials with big names, but I know I still have to make a good film. Abroad, the ceiling is very high. You can create whatever films that you want. It upsets me that now in Egypt, the standard taste in art has become really low. And you see that in the kinds of trends that get appreciated online. I feel like the Egyptian scene is starting to appreciate just about anything that gets thrown at them. You see an “influencer” with a million followers, but they just take selfies.
You said all kinds of films. What do you mean?
There’s a lot I want to discuss that doesn’t have an audience here. I want to write some sci-fi, post-apocalyptic and horror stories, but those kinds would be challenging to make appealing to an Egyptian audience. There’s a lot of topics that don’t suit the Middle East. I want to explore more.
What inspires you?
If I’m in love, the one I’m with inspires me the most, but that hardly ever happens. Otherwise, travelling and good films do it for me.
What’s on your playlist?
It’s always changing. I’m very moody and have phases. These days you’ll see 6lack, Cannons and Tender on repeat. I enjoy indie rock, and indie pop. That’s my favourite kind of music.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
I deal with it a lot, that’s why there’s a gap between one Voice Note and the next. I just wait it out.