Meet Cannes-winning Egyptian film director Omar El-Zohairy

Meet Cannes-winning Egyptian film director Omar El-Zohairy
Omar El-Zohairy accepted the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critic’s Week for his first feature film “Feathers.” (Supplied)
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Updated 21 August 2021

Meet Cannes-winning Egyptian film director Omar El-Zohairy

Meet Cannes-winning Egyptian film director Omar El-Zohairy
  • El-Zohairy’s debut feature ‘Feathers’ won the Grand Prize at the festival’s Critics Week

DUBAI: When Omar El-Zohairy stood on stage at the Cannes Film Festival last month, accepting the Grand Prize at the fest’s Critic’s Week for his first feature film “Feathers,” it was one of the proudest moments in Egyptian cinema’s storied history. In that instant, a singular filmmaker gained the international recognition that the country’s most popular art form has rarely gotten, for a film like no other.

“I was honestly so surprised,” El-Zohairy tells Arab News. “Egyptian cinema never gets big awards like this in Cannes. They’ve always respected Egyptian cinema, but they don’t give us awards. It was really overwhelming for me. It took me time to realize what's happening. It was kind of a dream.”

For El-Zohairy, what allowed that moment to happen was not his years of striving for validation. In fact, it was the opposite. El-Zohairy reached this moment because he finally stopped assessing his entire self-worth by his art, and finally learned to trust his gut.




“Feathers” is a black comedy. (Supplied)

“In the past, I was putting too much pressure on myself. I was trying to use my films as an evidence to myself that if I make a good film, this means I'm a good person. Now I'm the opposite. I have my own personal life, and films are just part of my life. I’m finally ready to express myself freely,” he explains.

This is not the first time that El-Zohairy has caught the eye of the world’s most prestigious film festival. In 2014, his second short film “The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometre 375,” — which he affectionately calls “the one with the long title” — was the first Egyptian film to be selected for the Cinéfondation competition, and while his talent was clear, deep down he did not believe he was yet capable of creating a great feature. He decided the only way to move forward was to stop worrying about whether he could or couldn’t, and instead rely on his instincts like never before. 

“I said to myself, ‘When the first idea comes to my mind that my intuition tells me is a good idea, I will make it work,’” he says.




“Feathers” uses the absurdity of El-Zohairy’s original idea to provide an entry way into the very real suffering of women in rural parts of Egypt. (Supplied)

That idea, when it came, was simple, although he did not completely understand why he was drawn to it. 

“The image that came to my head was of a woman whose husband becomes a chicken. She suffered a lot, and when he comes back, she kills him.”

That’s the basic premise of “Feathers,” a black comedy that uses the absurdity of El-Zohairy’s original idea to provide an entry way into the very real suffering of women in rural parts of Egypt. 




El-Zohairy is part of a generation of Egyptian filmmakers who are building a community and a financial support system that is giving them the courage to find their own voices.(Supplied)

The film has a visual sense all its own, a tone and candor that signal the emergence of a great new stylist, all combined with the dramatic accuracy of cinema verité that only amateur actors can deliver. 

To add to that realism, El-Zohairy didn’t even give his actors a full script. That was partly a deliberate choice by the director, but partly it was down to necessity.

“Some of the actors in the film can’t read,” he explains. “They are not educated. The main actress (Demyana Nassar) doesn't know how to read or write, as she's from a very remote village where they don’t go to school. But this was a choice too, because I didn’t want them to be actors, I wanted them to be themselves.”




The film has a visual sense all its own, a tone and candor that signal the emergence of a great new stylist, all combined with the dramatic accuracy of cinema verité that only amateur actors can deliver. (Supplied)

Like many regional filmmakers, El-Zohairy was first inspired by the films of legendary Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, who died 13 years ago. But El-Zohairy believes that the reason that the filmmakers who followed in his footsteps rarely reached the same heights is that they were not trying to be themselves — they were trying to be Chahine, often to please hypothetical audiences from abroad.

“Chahine had his own identity, but people just tried to copy his identity rather than learn from it,” El-Zohairy says. “We tried to please the West with works that are not original. We were stuck in a place where we were not clear about who we are and what we want to do. It was not cinema.”

There are many exceptions to that rule — El-Zohairy cites several filmmakers he feels may have deserved the platform he’s currently getting just as much as he does, including Osama Fawzy, an unheralded, iconoclastic filmmaker who died in 2019 at the age of 58. But there is definitely something different about this moment. 




Like many regional filmmakers, El-Zohairy was first inspired by the films of legendary Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, who died 13 years ago. (Supplied)

El-Zohairy is part of a generation of Egyptian filmmakers — bolstered by producers such as Mohamed Hefzy of the Cairo-based production company Film Clinic and platforms such as Cannes — who are building a community and a financial support system that is giving them the courage to find their own voices, perhaps leading Egypt into a new golden age of filmmaking.

These filmmakers, however, are not turning their backs on the past. El-Zohairy is keenly aware that when he is able to let go of his anxieties and rely on his intuition, the voice deep inside himself — the voice he calls his own — is an Egyptian voice, shaped by other powerful Egyptian voices who may not have had the same freedoms he is finding. 

“When I got this award, I said to the audience, ‘Go (see our films),’ because Egyptian cinema deserves to be discovered. I am a product of our cinema, I like our cinema, I have always watched everything I could. I learned the tools in our own film schools. I know this culture, and, my film is really full of Egyptian culture. It’s Egyptian deep down in its bones. But as much as we honor the past, there really is something happening now, in such a good way.”

As El-Zohairy takes the lessons that he’s learned with “Feathers” and applies them to his next feature, which is currently in the planning stages, he’s equally focused on making sure his lessons are learned by others too. What El-Zohairy wants is a generation of Egyptian filmmakers who trust themselves, with as many diverse and varied voices as possible.

“I don't want to help from a technical point of view, because they can learn that stuff on YouTube. What I really want is to influence others so that they can make their own films with the same idea of intuition. I want to give them some hope and say, ‘Guys, you don't need to stress.’ There are a lot of talented people, but they are not ready enough to express their ideas because they are shy, or they are not confident,” he says. “This is what I want to help them overcome, just like I did.”


Grace Kelly's granddaughter appears on horseback for Chanel

Grace Kelly's granddaughter appears on horseback for Chanel
Charlotte Casiraghi, the granddaughter of Princess Grace Kelly, appear atop an actual racing horse. Getty
Updated 27 January 2022

Grace Kelly's granddaughter appears on horseback for Chanel

Grace Kelly's granddaughter appears on horseback for Chanel

PARIS: Huge spinning wheels, “floating” wooden blocks and suspended geometric shapes hovered over a surreal mini golf course Tuesday at Chanel’s remarkable couture show.
Even Pharrell Williams, who is no stranger to elaborate sets, had to take a moment to take stock, before posing beside a white, three-meter (yard) tire.
This sublime, avant-garde decor was the work of Xavier Veilhan and marked the first time in its history that Chanel has entrusted a contemporary artist for staging.
The equestrian photos handed out to guests as they filtered in were a hint of what was to come. But no one quite expected Charlotte Casiraghi, the daughter of Caroline of Monaco and the granddaughter of Princess Grace Kelly, to appear out of nowhere atop an actual racing horse.

Getty Images

The beautiful beast and its VIP rider, in a black Chanel tweed sequined jacket of course, began the show to a symphony of gasps and clopping hooves around the Grand Palais Ephemere’s auditorium as celebrity guests snapped pictures.
The horse seemed to enjoy its 15 minutes of fame, trotting by with ease, snaking in and out of the 1920s and 30s constructivist installations and by sand and imitation grass, before breaking out into a canter around the set.
Virginie Viard, Chanel's designer, said the art backdrop was not just decor, but the collection’s creative starting block.
“These geometric shapes made me want contrasts, a great lightness and a lot of freshness: ethereal dresses that float as if suspended,” she said.
Thus Chanel produced a relatively pared down aesthetic for spring with matching tweeds, minimalist touches, clean curved peplums and lots of white. A split leg on heavy three-quarter length skirts was this season’s big theme, creating a silhouette with lots of swag as the models walked.
A pink tweed jacket with white stripes possessed beautiful loose proportions, which perfectly captured the spirit of pared down femininity. It was the best piece in the show. Yet the 47-look collection at times seemed to fall victim to its own restraint, seeming to lack vibrancy.


International Prize for Arabic Fiction announces longlist for 2022 award

International Prize for Arabic Fiction announces longlist for 2022 award
Out of the 16 novels, six will be shortlisted with the titles revealed in March. File/Getty
Updated 27 January 2022

International Prize for Arabic Fiction announces longlist for 2022 award

International Prize for Arabic Fiction announces longlist for 2022 award

DUBAI: The International Prize for Arabic Fiction has announced the 16 longlisted authors competing to receive a $50,000 award when the winner is revealed in May.

Among the authors in contention for the 2022 award are Emirati author Reem Alkamali, Egyptian novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, Eritrean writer Hajji Jabir, Nizar Aghri from Syria, Algerian novelist Boumediene Belkebir, Syrian author Yaa’rab Al-Eissa and Egyptian writer Tarek Imam.

Also competing for the prize are authors Bushra Khalfan from Oman, Morocco’s Mohsine Loukili, Khaled Nasrallah from Kuwait, Mohammed Al-Nu’as from Libya and Algerian Rouchdi Redouane.

Rounding out the longlist is Kuwaiti author Mona Al-Shammari, Syrian novelist Dima Al-Shukr and Egyptian writers Mohamed Tawfik and Belal Fadl.

Five judges, which include Tunisian novelist and previous IPAF winner Shukri Mabkhout and Libyan doctor, poet and translator Ashur Etwebi, chose the list from among 122 entries from nine countries across the Arab world.

Out of the 16 novels, six will be shortlisted with the titles revealed in March. All six shortlisted authors will receive $10,000 each.

Jordanian writer Jalal Barjas won the prize last year for his work “Notebooks of the Bookseller,” announced at an online ceremony in May. In addition to the $50,000 prize, the author also received funding toward securing an English translation of his novel.


‘Say Yes to the Dress Arabia’ gets release date

‘Say Yes to the Dress Arabia’ gets release date
Updated 27 January 2022

‘Say Yes to the Dress Arabia’ gets release date

‘Say Yes to the Dress Arabia’ gets release date

DUBAI: The Middle Eastern version of “Say Yes to the Dress” is premiering on Feb. 11 on Starzplay, the streaming service announced on Wednesday. 

The Arab program, which is the 25th spin-off of the popular US series, will feature 20 brides from various cultural backgrounds, ranging in age from 23 to 50, all in search for their dream wedding dress.

The nine-episode show, which is a partnership with US media company Discovery, is hosted by Lebanese celebrity stylist Khalil Zein, who has dressed stars from across the region including Haifa Wehbe, Rahma Riad, Nancy Ajram, Maya Diab and Nadine Nassib Njeim. 

The nine-episode show is hosted by Lebanese celebrity stylist Khalil Zein. (Supplied)

Shot at the Hazar Haute Couture in Dubai, the bridal boutique houses a collection of dresses ranging from $615 to $14,000. 

During a virtual event held on Wednesday, the organizers shared a sneak peak of the show, revealing some of the brides who will be part of the show. 

Among the women spotted is a part-Saudi bride, Sabrin, who appears on the show with her family. 

The series will also feature Egyptian beauty influencer and vitiligo advocate Logina Salah, Dubai-based fitness blogger Amy Fox and Iraqi-Polish radio presenter Eve Jaso. 

Fox and Jaso, who attended the press event, shared some of their favorite highlights from the show. 

The series will also feature Iraqi-Polish radio presenter Eve Jaso. (Supplied)

“(It is) definitely definitely putting the dress that I chose on and just feeling like I can be myself in this dress. It just fitted my whole personality, my whole vibe. I didn’t feel restricted. I felt like I could move . . . It was just the best moment,” Fox said.

For Jaso, her favorite memory of the show was “finding everyone in tears,” she said. “You think that being on a TV show, there is not going to be emotion, there is not going to be feelings, but I walked away from that show feeling like everyone was just crying. It was a shock.”

During the event, Zein expressed his gratitude at being part of the Starzplay original series.

“As everyone knows, your wedding day is one of the most monumental days of your life. So being able to take part in making sure the brides feel their best on their big day really means a lot to me,” he said.  


‘Dubai Hologram Universe’ launches with show dedicated to Egyptian star Abdel Halim Hafez

‘Dubai Hologram Universe’ launches with show dedicated to Egyptian star Abdel Halim Hafez
Updated 27 January 2022

‘Dubai Hologram Universe’ launches with show dedicated to Egyptian star Abdel Halim Hafez

‘Dubai Hologram Universe’ launches with show dedicated to Egyptian star Abdel Halim Hafez

DUBAI: It is never too late to attend a concert by legendary Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez — thanks to hologram technology — and organizers are marking the launch of the “Dubai Hologram Universe” at the Al Habtoor City Theatre with a show dedicated toward the late artist on Jan. 30.

“Dubai Hologram Universe” is a joint venture by the Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment (DFRE) in collaboration with New Dimension Productions (NDP) and will feature state-of-the-art hologram concerts by legendary singers and musicians twice a week at the Al Habtoor City venue.

The tribute concert, titled “Sawwah,” saw media guests enjoy a hologram of Hafez singing some of his most famous songs. (Supplied)

Arab News attended a press preview that took place earlier this week.  

The tribute concert, titled “Sawwah,” saw media guests enjoy a hologram of Hafez – who died in 1977 aged just 47 – singing some of his most famous songs. 

The 90-minute concert featured six backing vocalists who got a chance to sing alongside the star years after his passing. (Supplied)

With live musicians performing behind Hafez, the show kicked off with the star’s hit “Awel Marra,” which he sang in his 1957 movie “El-Wesada El-Khalya.” 

As ardent fans admired Hafez’s hologram figure, which replicated his body movements and facial expressions, a group of dancers joined the show for an immersive visual experience. 

With live musicians performing behind Hafez, the show kicked off with the star’s hit “Awel Marra.” (Supplied)

One song after the other, the eight performers wowed the audience with contemporary dance moves that hit every beat of Hafez’s music. 

The theater’s various special effects, ranging from water falls to haze, gave a modern twist to the music sensation’s show.  

The 90-minute concert featured six backing vocalists who got a chance to sing alongside the star years after his passing. 

One song after the other, the eight performers wowed the audience with contemporary dance moves that hit every beat of Hafez’s music. (Supplied)

Music fans also watched the celebrated singer, nicknamed the “Nightingale,” perform “Betlomooni Leh,” “Asmar Ya Asmarani,” “Balash Etab,” “Gana El-Hawa,” “Bahebek” and more. 

The show ended with a rendition of “Sawwah,” which he released in 1972.

The theater’s various special effects, ranging from water falls to haze, gave a modern twist to the music sensation’s show. (Supplied)

During his career, Hafez, who was also an actor, conductor, businessman, music teacher and movie producer, appeared in 15 films and produced more than 200 songs.

In 2019, fans of the singer were able to watch a similar light show in Jeddah.

Music fans also watched the celebrated singer perform “Betlomooni Leh,” “Asmar Ya Asmarani” and “Balash Etab.” (Supplied)

He is not the only late star who fans have been able to enjoy on stage. The late Egyptian songstress Umm Kulthum also appeared in 2019 at the Winter at Tantora festival and at the Dubai Opera in 2020. 

“Dubai Hologram Universe,” which, according to organizers is the world’s first regular hologram series to focus on immersive digital entertainment, will feature future concerts by holograms of Umm Kulthum, Warda Al-Jazairia and more.


Gig guide: Diriyah E-Prix 2022 entertainment preview

Gig guide: Diriyah E-Prix 2022 entertainment preview
Updated 27 January 2022

Gig guide: Diriyah E-Prix 2022 entertainment preview

Gig guide: Diriyah E-Prix 2022 entertainment preview
  • The lowdown on the lineup for this weekend’s post-race concerts

Craig David presents TS5

Who: Multi-talented British pop star from Southampton who rose to fame when he was still a teenager. His first album “Born to Do It,” released in 2000, was the fastest-selling debut album by a British male solo artist. His decline in popularity was equally swift — aided in part by becoming an object of ridicule on the TV show “Bo’ Selecta!” After a string of mediocre albums that sold increasingly poorly, it seemed like he was doomed to obscurity. However, now aged 40, David — a singer-songwriter, DJ, rapper and producer, has regained much of the credibility that he lost. TS5 is an alter-ego that David first revealed in 2012 when DJing at pre-parties he hosted in his Miami penthouse (TS5 is the apartment number). It has since developed into a project that combines several of his passions — DJing, rapping, singing and sometimes performing with a live band. He has a new album due out this year.

Genre: R&B, dance-pop.

Best known for: 1999’s “Re-Rewind,” a collaboration with the Artful Dodger which became one of the most recognized UK garage tracks and helped push garage music into the mainstream.

In his own words: “My songs are a time stamp for a lot of people’s lives.”

James Blunt

Who: English singer-songwriter beloved by people for whom Coldplay might be “a bit edgy.” The former soldier had a meteoric rise to fame with his debut album, 2004’s “Back to Bedlam,” which sold more than 11 million copies around the world. He became a divisive figure — ridiculed by many for what they saw as bland, wishy-washy music best suited for background noise at posh dinner parties, but championed by just as many for penning some easy-listening classics. He is now hugely popular on social media for his self-deprecating humor, which has forced many to re-evaluate their opinion of him. Expect to hear plenty of examples of his wit onstage in Diriyah.

Genre: Pop-rock.

Best known for: 2005’s “You’re Beautiful,” which seemed to be in constant rotation at radio stations around the world for the following 10 years.

In his own words: “Proof that one song is all you need.”

Wyclef Jean

Who: Haitian rapper, multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, actor and three-time Grammy winner who first gained attention as a member of the seminal US alt-hip-hop band Fugees (with his cousin Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill), whose second album, 1996’s “The Score” became one of the best-selling LPs of all time. When they split up, Jean went on to have a successful solo career, with 13 studio albums under his belt and some hugely popular collaborations with Mary J. Blige, Lil Wayne, Destiny’s Child and Shakira, among others. He also garnered headlines in 2010, when he announced his intention to run in the Haitian presidential elections. He was eventually ruled ineligible because he had not been a resident for the requisite amount of time.

Genre: Hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul.

Best known for: “Gone till November,” released in 1997, from his debut solo album “The Carnival.” This earworm had orchestral accompaniment provided by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

In his own words: “I’d say music resonates if you base your stories on real events.”

Two Door Cinema Club

Who: The most left-field selection from this year’s Diriyah E-Prix lineup, this Irish trio — frontman Alex Trimble, lead guitarist Sam Halliday, and bassist and keyboardist Kevin Baird — are UK festival alumni who formed while still at high school (as Life Without Rory) and recorded their debut, self-recorded EP, in 2008. “Four Words to Stand On” gained an online following (it wasn’t officially released until 2018) and the band began to generate buzz through their live shows. Their debut studio album, “Tourist History,” demonstrated Two Door Cinema Club’s knack for blending catchy, angular indie-pop music with literary lyricism and earned comparisons with Editors, Bloc Party and Futureheads. After an acrimonious not-quite-split around 2014, when Trimble was, he has said, “depressed and stressed,” the band overcame their differences and have continued to perform together.

Genre: Indie-rock, post-punk.

Best known for: “What You Know,” which was released in 2011 — the fifth single from “Tourist History.” It didn’t sell particularly well, but was picked up by Microsoft for online ads for Outlook.

In their own words: “There’s a lot of very safe music out there. We wanted to have some fun and do something that was truly interesting.”

The Script

Who: Another Irish trio (lead vocalist Danny O’Donoghue, lead guitarist Mark Sheehan, and drummer Glen Power), The Script formed in 2007 and were quickly signed to Sony imprint Photogenic. Their self-titled debut album, released in 2008, spawned three successful singles and hit number one in both Ireland and the UK (as did their next three LPs). Their radio-friendly lighter-waving anthems have been featured in numerous TV shows and The Script have sold more than 20 million albums to date. Initially met with skepticism by rock fans (thanks in no small part to the fact that O’Donoghue and Sheehan were formerly part of a boy band called Mytown), they have since earned respect (perhaps grudgingly at first) for their undeniably catchy songwriting (they wrote for Britney Spears and Boyz II Men, among others, before becoming famous) and musicianship.

Genre: Pop-rock.

Best known for: Their second single, 2008’s anthemic stadium singalong “The Man Who Can’t Be Moved.” Or maybe 2010’s anthemic stadium singalong “Breakeven,” their first US single, which sold more than 1 million copies in the States.

In their own words: “I think a lot of musicians would turn around and say, if you’re trying to (fit in), you’ve got it wrong. Personally, I think they’re idiots. If you’re not using the tools in order for you to make a great record that sits on radio, you’re not doing your job.”