Nadine Khan talks 'Abu Saddam' and cinematic legacies

Skillfully weaving the audience through a road trip movie with a twist, Nadine Khan shows off her great cinematic DNA and in the process, creates a perfect film.
Nadine Khan talks 'Abu Saddam' and cinematic legacies

Road movies are always fascinating. The way characters find themselves while trying to make their way on the open plains is a feeling that makes even the most basic project with that premise succeed. But to make a great road movie, one that remains memorable and feels new to the viewer -- now that's a whole other feat of talent altogether.

Nadine Khan's latest Abu Saddam is that rare, great road movie. The film stars beloved Egyptian thespian Mohamed Mamdouh, who won the Best Actor Award for the role at the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival, and young TV and film actor Ahmed Dash as the trucker Abu Saddam and his cab helper Hassan respectively. But apart from a journey shared by two men in different times of their lives, with disparate goals, conflicting emotions and separate ambitions, Abu Saddam quickly turns into a voyage into the depth of anger, and the many moments of personal impotence that can bring a man to the edge of road rage. The thing is, we've all seen it or experienced it in our own lives, that moment when a person loses self control and gives into the most basic of instincts, that which separates man from beast. In Abu Saddam, we watch it unravel on the screen, and while we know where the final destination may lead us, we still want to see this trip through to the end -- only to be surprised by Khan's lack of judgement for her imperfect characters.

If it sounds great, it is. Abu Saddam is one of my personal favourite films on the year. And the dialogues, which Khan co-wrote with Mahmoud Ezzat never disappoint.

Following is my chat with Nadine Khan, where we talked about the seed of her idea, what she's learned from her late, great father director Mohamed Khan and how she cast her perfect actors.

How did you come up with the idea for this film?

The idea started first visually. A long time ago I saw an accident on the North Coast Mediterranean highway. And it was a very bloody accident and I passed it just happened. As I passed it I saw all the cars wrecked and people hurt ,and then after a while I found this truck just coming from a side road really fast, and the back of the truck was totally crushed. And I never forgot the visual, that image. It always stayed with me the image of the truck more than anything else -- the aggression. I also had another incident with a truck driver who was intimidated because I was a girl looking young and so forth. And I don't know, it all just started cooking in my mind through years actually. I was always thinking about who must have been driving the truck that I saw at the first accident, who is that person? In the beginning I had a lot of different ideas and thoughts about who is that person. And then when I started working with Mahmoud as the screen writer, and when we talked first what I said is I'm sure that person is a very violent, angry person. That's the first word we said. And from then we developed our character.

What's brilliant about your film is that it doesn't just give the image of a violent man who is born that way. But it is a building up of things and, and abuses that he's also received and things that he like the scratch on his truck, which is something that he keeps going to and it's something really important for him. While most of us won't notice.  How how much of that do you notice in everyday life and and once you've noticed it how how much more prevalent is it? Let's say in Egyptian society, the sort of constant pulling down of an individual that builds up that kind of rage.

I think in the Egyptian society, we are living it daily -- all of us. In all classes, all genders and in everything you are struggling on a daily basis to actually survive the day. In different ways and very honestly even if you're privileged it's in all aspects. Through years, cultures and generations and you know, it's been building up for a long, long, long time, and it was never actually addressed or sold or worked on to make people's lives easier. It still hasn't happened, until this moment. Maybe later on, I don't know, but it hasn't happened. And yes, I see those different kinds of abuses in all characters -- in myself and the people I see in the streets and the people I deal with and work in the supermarket. It's there, there is a charged environment, you know what I mean? It's charged with a lot of emotions, a lot of stresses, a lot of abuse, and you cannot deny it. In our culture we tend to deal with those things in like, "oh this is life" or "no we deal with things we have good days, we Egyptians have a good sense of humor haha" -- you know what I mean? Those kinds of getaways, but it's there. And I'm sure everyone sees it and feels it, whether they if they express it or not. I don't think people are blind or stupid at all. I know that everyone sees it and feels it. But they they choose either to actually deal with it or not. This is something different.

Because the story comes from observations that you made. Were you ever tempted to write write it from the side of the girl in the car?

No, never.

And when did you decide to work with your screenwriter Mahmoud Ezzat, because his voice must be in there, in a lot of the dialogue and what's going on between what is mainly a story about one person who's a man but also two men sitting in the cab of a truck, from the beginning of the idea?

At the very beginning I started developing the idea with another artist, who is actually not a scriptwriter but an artist. We brainstormed a little bit in the beginning and then we had to leave, traveled, and then I already had another screenplay with my Mahmoud but still, we didn't shoot it. So I started working with Mahmoud again on this and it took us three years to write -- we had we wrote nine drafts. Yeah. And we built it straight away. There was a flow about the characters, a flow that both of us understood totally.

And how did you cast your two leads?

Mohamed Mamdouh is a known actor in the Egyptian film industry, a very talented actor. And I always wanted my character to have a certain physique but also have a sexy attraction for women. And he has that. And the producer, when he first read the script, the first name he said was Mohamed Mamdouh, and we totally agreed on it. Also with Ahmed Dash in that age, we don't have a lot of actors. We only have two or three actors. So I wasn't picking between a lot of actors, especially since my producer wants to go into the cinemas, he didn't want to work with new faces in the main roles. And I worked with Dash before on a TV series. I know how talented he is and how smart he is. So, actually the casting was easy. And it just fit.

When was this filmed, Nadine?

I started filming at the end of July and I filmed four days. The night shoots, the wedding and everything, we filmed it in Cairo. And then we stopped for almost three months. We were building the car rig and because what I shot in Cairo was mostly the wedding and when they were sitting on the truck, mostly on the grounds, not the driving. We were waiting for permits for shooting on the main highway that I wanted to shoot on. So it took us around three months and then we filmed a week on the main road that I wanted to shoot on, then we came back and then we had two more days in Cairo. All in the summer of 2021.

The committee of Cairo International Film Festival saw the film three weeks before the festival. So the first cut three weeks before the festival so we had to work like crazy to try to finish it up before the festival.

It doesn't look like a rushed film! It looks like a film that you've had a lot of time to work on, also because I find your editing very tight and there's not a moment that you think, Oh, I could have done without this part. So how is the editing process in such a rush?

It was the first time for me to work with Baher Rasheed the editor and when I filmed the first four days we worked on them in our own pace. So we found our rhythm and our style and everything easily. And then the rest was like, we have feeling, you know what I mean? We know what we want. So it went well. But of course we took our time in the beginning.

And what was the biggest challenge of filming on that highway? Did they have to close it off? 

It was a tough shoot. A very tough shoot, but we actually all enjoyed it. But it was hard shoot. They blocked the highway, especially when the real actor was driving, not the camera car. And the idea of filming all the time on a truck is not easy at all -- physically and mentally. You're always bouncing all day. To do another take was a big hassle because you need to turn around and go to your first position with this whole truck and crew. It wasn't that easy. There are a lot of scenes that I only did one take. I couldn't take another but I think what made this whole thing easier were the actors to be honest. Because they were so focused.

They knew how difficult the technique is, so they were very focused. They were putting all the continuity in that truck. They were doing everything. So I think I was lucky to work with such professional actors. If I did I didn't have actors as professional as them, it would have been a big problem for the shoot.

Were you inspired by other road movies?

I didn't have one specific film, but I watch a lot of movies. So yes, of course there are things that I'm inspired by but not consciously. For the character, I was inspired slightly by American Psycho. For the character that's for sure. But as a road movie I don't have something specific in mind that inspired me.

What are plans for the film after CIFF?

We have applied to other festivals and the producer is planning for a release in Egyptian cinemas soon.

And finally, how much of your father's legacy is in your own filmmaking and how do you recognize what he left as a legacy, particularly to you?

I think I realized this after he passed away to be honest. Not before. He did leave me a lot. He left me discipline, that's for sure, discipline towards the film not towards anything else towards the idea of the drama itself. And he left me an eye for details, that's for sure. I never thought about that before. But now when I think about it, I remember when we were kids. He always played games with us to notice things in the streets and I think he gave me an eye for details. 

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