11/02/2014

Amr Salama's Excuse My French tops the Egyptian box office

Commercial success for the social-media-savvy director's light comedy about a schoolboy trying to fit in

Industry, Egypt

Amr Salama's Excuse My French tops the Egyptian box office

After its world premiere in Luxor last month, Egyptian director Amr Salama's school-set family comedy Excuse My French (La Moakhaza) is enjoying commercial success in local cinemas. It climbed straight to the top of the Egyptian box office in the first week after its release by El Massa in 31 cinemas on January 22, according to elcinema.com, and remained the best-selling Egyptian film in its second week.

Produced by Film Clinic and co-produced by The Producers, Excuse My French follows 12-year-old Hany, played by newcomer Ahmed Dash, as he tries to fit in at his new governmental school, after his banker father suddenly drops dead, leaving his mother in debt and unable to afford his former private education. With his longer hair and chocolate spread sandwiches, not only is Hany clearly from a more privileged background than the sons of the plumbers and barbers in his new class, but he is also the only Christian in a room full of Muslims.

After Hany is mistaken for a Muslim, he decides to play along, seeking his classmates' acceptance by excelling in science, memorising the Quran, scoring at football and singing the latest mahragan tune. He almost succeeds, until one day he is beaten up by the class bully and his mother drags him to the principal's office. As if that were not embarrassing enough, all his classmates then spot the cross around her neck, and Hany is unmasked as a Christian.

Narrated by the very popular Ahmed Helmy and set to an upbeat soundtrack by Hany Adel, who also briefly plays Hany's father, Excuse My French touches on social discrimination, whether negative or positive, but it does so with humour, mainly focusing on a young boy's determined quest to fit in, heavily based on Salama's own experiences switching from private school to state school aged 12 -- but with the added layer that Hany is Christian, while his creator is Muslim. 

"There is not a single character not based on a character I met in real life," he says. "I made a plane, I sang in front of the kids... I was beaten by the bully, and then avoided because my mother came in to school... I lived all that!" Similarly, students really did sexually harass his science teacher, Miss Theresa. When he recently attended a press conference for the film, a journalist in the crowd said that he had been at the same school and remembered her.

"Excuse My French did way better than we expected," says the director, who struggled for over three years to have its script accepted by Egypt's censorship board, notably because it might "damage the image of public education".

In fact, despite the difficult timing, with bombs in Cairo two days after the film's release, Excuse My French did much better in its first week than his last film Asmaa did in all its time in theatres, he says. A drama about a woman who stands up to a society that stigmatises Aids, Asmaa was released in December 2011 just before clashes outside Cairo's cabinet left over a dozen protesters dead. No doubt few Egyptians were in the mood to see a drama, but Salama was also hesitant to promote the film on social media, despite his huge following, "because people were dying on the street." 

Excuse My French also came out during a heated time, he says, but perhaps a comedy is more accessible. And, with over 245,000 followers on Facebook, 450,000 on Twitter and another 700,000 on Google+ at the time of writing, Salama had already been creating an online buzz about his third feature long before its release, regularly posting photos from the film set for example. 

In early January, during the final stages of editing, even if popular felt-and-yarn puppet Abla Fahita did not make the film's final cut, still he celebrated her participation in his film, posting the deleted scene on Facebook: "The scene was deleted for purely artistic reasons," he noted, just a few weeks after the puppet made international headlines for being accused of terrorism.

"I try to be interactive," says the director. During scriptwriting, he tweeted scene extracts and asked his followers what might happen next. Just this week, he called on his followers to share their school memories in video form, then edited together the 10 responses to promote his film. 

But two weeks into Excuse My French's theatrical release, and less than three weeks since he wrapped post-production on it for its world premiere, Salama is already working on his next film: a comedy called Made in China to be produced by Ahmed Helmy. He is also looking for funding for a graphic novel, the first step in a long-term project to make a futuristic film, a "dystopia about a religious state", that would be produced abroad. 

Meanwhile, Salama will not be directing large groups of school children again any time soon, he says, laughing. "It's very hectic." There is one girl to be cast in his next comedy, he says, but that should be manageable.

 

Alice Hackman

 

Excuse My French - teaser:

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