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Egyptian director Omar Hilal: From rejections to Oscar submission with comedy ‘Voy! Voy! Voy’

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Egyptian director Omar Hilal, whose debut Arabic comedy ‘Voy! Voy! Voy!’ is thecountry’s official nomination for the Oscars 2024, is enjoying the proverbial last laugh.

He recalls a time when established Arab stars rejected the opportunity to be part of his celebrated film — a smartly made comedy centred on illegal immigration and the outlandish lengths to which many will go to migrate to the West in search of a better life.

“There were so many actors who were offered roles, but all said, ‘No, no, no — I won’t play a supporting role, thank you very much’. I think they might be regretting it now,” said Hilal in a video interview with Gulf News from his home in Egypt.

Apart from garnering good reviews, ‘Voy! Voy! Voy!’ is enjoying a good theatrical run for the second week in UAE cinemas and beyond, along with securing a possible berth at the 2024 Academy Awards in the Best International Feature Film category.

Getting a nod from Egypt to represent his native cinema was the ultimate validation for this filmmaker, who wrote and directedthis feature.

“Honestly, I couldn’t thank God more and I couldn’t be happier. It is a reminder that hard work pays off. I aimed for all of what you are talking about … I aimed for my movie to please the critics and the crowds, but I didn’t expect it to be this quick … And what bigger film festival than the Oscars?” he said.

And he has achieved both goals — appeasing the critics and the movie-loving masses — with aplomb.

‘Voy! Voy! Voy!’ starring Muhammad Farrag as the wily and endearing security guard Hassan, tells his wicked life story. Hassan (an on-point Farrag) is fed up with living in Egypt and dreams of living abroad. He comes up with this scheme of enrolling in a blind football tournament in Europe as his passport to a better life. But the hiccup? Hassan isn’t blind and has to pretend to be visually impaired to pull off this con. At one point in the film, Hassan is introduced as a crafty love who’s so desperate to settle in the West that he is even willing to marry an older white woman to nab her passport privileges.

This movie, a collaborative effort between Vox Studios, Film Clinic, and Image Nation Abu Dhabi, is based on a true-life incident that rocked Egypt in 2015. Reports emerged that a team of blind Egyptian athletes were headed to Poland to participate in a goalball [a team sport for the visually impaired] match, but a few players from that team went missing as they reached Europe. Their disappearance made it clear that many had used the match as a smokescreen to illegally enter Poland and begin a life in Europe. As far as wily illegal immigration plans go, this one was a keeper, felt Hilal.

“When I read this piece of news on Facebook, it immediately made me laugh. I was in awe of how cleverly these people had outsmarted everyone. It made me grin, and I immediately knew that this is going to be my first film. It’s got the perfect mix between drama and comedy. It’s about a heavy topic like illegal immigration, but it’s also funny,” said Hilal.

He envisaged this illegal immigration scandal as something that would happen in an ‘Ocean’s 11’ franchise, the glossy star-studded heist blockbuster instalment where outlandish plans are pulled off in the most stylish manner.

“Their plan too had that kind of brilliance. It was a very well put-together plan. But making his career’s first film wasn’t easy and saw its share of challenges.

“There were tough stages of everything. To create a film where there is no real big movie star except Farrag, who has never headlined a film, wasn’t easy. He isn’t an out-and-out film star and is more into television … Plus, I was also the writer, director, and co-producer, so it was tough,” he said. Working on a film as a director, writer, and co-producer made him wonder how Hollywood heavyweights Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson did all of it at one go.

“It was so difficult … Honestly, I had a scene-by-scene panic. There were times when we planned 20 extras in a scene, but ended up with ten so that we could save money and spend it on that extra camera. Every scene had a problem that I had to solve.”

But getting rid of all those stumbling blocks has paid off. This filmmaker, a prominent figure in the advertising world in Egypt, is now reaping its benefits. Stars high up in the food chain are now calling him to express their interest in collaborating with him for a new film.

“That feels brilliant.” He feels equally chuffed that his Arabic comedy, an underdog of a theatrical release, is holding up well.

“We released around the same week as ‘Expend4bles’ and ‘The Creator’ which are gigantic Hollywood movies … But we are doing so well in Egypt, Saudi, and the UAE, and that makes me incredibly happy.”

His movie will also serve as a fitting reminder of how enterprising Egyptians can get if pushed against a wall.

“The message to our international audience is: ‘Look how clever we are as Egyptians’ and for the Egyptians: ‘the grass is not really green on the other side’ … With my comedy, I hope I have opened new roads to Egyptian cinema by breaking all the rules of formulaic filmmaking with ‘Voy! Voy! Voy! … This film is purely Egyptian and pure genius,” he said with a laugh.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Voy! Voy! Voy! is running in UAE cinemas now

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