Amr Waked: from Tahrir Square to the big screen

Life and cinema are one and the same for the Egyptian actor, reports Le Monde's magazine

Industry, Events and Festivals, Egypt

Amr Waked: from Tahrir Square to the big screen

With his boxer's nose and blue eyes, he could pass for an oriental Sean Penn, writes Christope Ayad in Le Monde's magazine. Yet beyond the physical resemblance, it's also Amr Waked's political commitment that makes the comparison with his American counterpart so poignant.

Waked was down in the streets from January 25, 2011, the very first day of the revolution that led to Hosni Mubarak's downfall. He was there again on Sunday, June 30among the tide of protestors calling for the resignation of Mubarak's successor, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi. The latter is also accused of being authoritarian and of managing the affairs poorly.

These events prevented Waked from travelling to Paris on June 29 for the French premiere of Winter of Discontent at the Institute of the Arab World as part of the Imag'IMA festival [and with the support of Euromed Audiovisual]. It's the first feature-length film that Waked has produced and in which he also stars. Screened at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, the film, directed by Ibrahim El Batout, is a strange, glacial, anguishing, silent object with a glimmer of hope only towards the very end.

It tells the story of three characters during the eighteen days of terror and uncertainty that culminated in the president's downfall in January and February 2011. Contrary to fact, Waked plays a man unable to leave his house and join the crowd at Tahrir Square, traumatised by his detention within the premises of Egypt's terrifying State Security, where he was tortured for having participated in protests in support of the Palestinians during the Gaza war.

In real life, it is actually Waked's brother Mohamed who was abducted by the intelligence services during the revolution for the fifth and last time. Since then the two brothers have been inseparable. They are both founding members of the National Front for Justice and Democracy, a social-democratic party.

For 40-year-old Amr Waked, life and cinema are one and the same. Similarly, art cannot be distinguished from political commitment. 

"Winter of Discontent isn't a blockbuster film," he explained on the phone from Cairo. "I am very proud to have participated in this collective adventure which shows the most significant episode in our lives. Like birth itself, it was both a painful and extremely hopeful time."

They decided to film Winter of Discontent two days before the fall of Mubarak, on Tahrir Square in less than an hour. Former war cameraman turned film director Ibrahim El Batout's approach to filming without script or plot immediately pleased the actor.

"For a long time Amr Waked wanted to produce something similar, with Zad, his production company [a member of the Mediterranean Distributors Network MEDIS]," recounts Daniel Ziskind, a French friend who also gives him advice on his career. "I told him, 'Go ahead, it's time.'"

The two men have already started working on a second film: "It's about street children and organ trafficking by the mafia," disclosed the actor-producer.

Even if he doesn't follow in the footsteps of his glorious elders who, such as Omar Sharif, refused to become involved in politics, Waked has no illusions about his power to influence the public.

"It's the quality of an actor's work that is important," he explained. "The public doesn't care about who you vote for, as long as you are a good actor."

The actor has also started to make his international breakthrough: alongside George Clooney in Syriana, in Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, and in the series Engrenages broadcast by Canal +. This series has made him a familiar face in France, a country to which he travels regularly. He is also married to a French woman and speaks fluent French. The French public will soon be able to see him in Arte series L'Odysee, in Colt 45 with Gérard Lanvin and Joey Starr, and in Le Vol des cigognes, a series by Jan Kounen.

Waked, who is also a UNICEF ambassador for the fight against AIDS, refuses to play stereotypical Arab roles. One exception was in Syriana, because he liked its script denouncing the Bush administration's diabolical calculations.

A committed professional polyglot without complexes, Amr Waked is a face of this new Egypt, that of the youth in Tahrir Square: one open to the world and proud of itself, not ready to give anything up and eager to enjoy everything immediately.

This is why Amr Waked has once again taken to the streets.


Source and photo: M le magazine du Monde

Translation: Nasima Akaloo

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