Welcome home, Mr Badreya
interviews Sayed Badreya, who is back in Egypt with a sack of dreams
Back Home is the title of a documentary made recently by the Egyptian-American director, scriptwriter and actor Sayed Badreya. The film features the journey Badreya took in the late 1980s from his village in Port Said to the United States, and the hopes, thoughts, and frustrations he encountered along the way.
Badreya, now a successful and familiar figure on American movie screens, intended that when I interviewed him in the Al-ahram Weekly office during his short trip to Cairo, it should be included in the documentary, partly as a token of his admiration for his favourite national newspaper.
He grew up, he told me, in a poor alley in Port Said. His father died when he was nine years old. "My mother took the responsibility of raising nine young children on a social pension of only LE7 a month," he told the Weekly. "So after that I had to work in different jobs to help support myself." Yet this austere life did not stop him from watching films in the city's local cinemas. "This was always my passion. I always wanted to be an actor," he added.
After gaining his technical school diploma, Badreya was unable to pursue his dream of studying at the Cinema Institute in Cairo because his family could not afford the fees. Then, years later, his dream found another channel. Emigrating to the United States at last allowed him to fulfil his ambition.
"I was a tough kid because I was raised in harsh economic circumstances, and this is why I want to teach kids that no matter harsh their lives are, they can achieve their goals," he said in a determined tone.
"Back Home is also a way to promote for this journey; besides its attempt to inspire poor people and orphans that their dream can materialise, the film also aims to show the American people the strength of Egyptians, who are so brilliant at achieving their goals using primitive tools.
"I have left Egypt, but Egypt never left me. Now, I consider myself a product of the two best nations on earth, which are in many ways similar culturally as I am trying to show in the film.
"I hope that my coming back at a time when my home town is in such a critical situation, with the people of Port Said are condemned for the massacre at the football stadium on February, will ease the people's tension. The accident, which left more than 70 football fans dead, was a political scheme; the people of Port Said were forced into it. Port Said was always a base for Egyptian fighters against Israel in the 1950s and 60s, and it is famous for its patriotic stories and battles," he says.
The 100-minute documentary Back Home will be subtitled in Arabic and English. The documentary will also include interviews with famous intellectual including the famous director Khaled Youssef and actress Bushra.
After studying at New York University film school, Badreya landed his first job in the film industry as the assistant to actor-director Anthony Perkins, who died in 1992. Soon afterwards, he began working with Oscar winning director James Cameron on the film True Lies (1994) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Badreya has appeared alongside Hollywood A-listers such as Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney. He has also worked with directors Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Jon Favreau and the great European directors Win Wenders and Roland Emmerich, just to name a few.
He has co-directed and co-written several films. The most recent, American East (2011), was shown at the last Cairo and Dubai international film festivals. The film featured the suffering of an Arab American after 9/11, and features the conflict unleashed inside US society after that terrible incident.
I asked Badreya how, as an Arab Moslem immigrant, he estimated the change in US society towards Islam.
"Well, it is getting better, much better actually," he said. "Arabs have always contributed in different professional fields, and they are appreciated for their sincere contribution. However," he added, "I have suffered as an immigrant, and like any other immigrant; every minority suffers until they find their own voice."
Commenting on the 25 January revolution, the historical event he missed being part of, he said, "We, Egyptians have the ability to do great things. I am still wondering how we managed to topple the 30-year old regime in just 18 days. However, now that presidential elections are approaching, every candidate is struggling for his own political party or personal interest, forgetting that Egypt is the ultimate goal of this great revolution.
"The revolution gave everybody a microphone to speak, but everyone forgot that he had two ears to listen with. However, the problem is that since we don't listen we don't think, and since we don't think, we are going to stop having great ideas," he smiles.
Years after he completed his studies, he created his own production company, Zoom In Focus. The company produced the documentary Saving Egyptian Film Classics, which dealt with the harsh consequences of the neglect of old Egyptian films languishing in the storage rooms without proper preservation.
Back Home will be shown at several film festivals by the end of the year. Ahmed El Sayyed and Waater El Bahri, who tackled the photography mission, are two young cinema photographers from Port Said who themselves are the product of a film making workshop organised by Badreya two years ago in his home town.
Badreya has announced that he is planning to open a film centre in Port Said to help young artists to learn filmmaking.
Last April, Badreya premiered his short film Chicago Mirage at the Boston International Film Festival. His next project is Aroeset Al-Nil (Bride of the Nile), a short fiction film on human trafficking. The film features the unveiling of a ring trafficking young Egyptian girls to Gulf States by a relentless Chicago Sun-Times reporter. The film will be shot in Chicago, Cairo, and the Egyptian Western Desert. Directed by Badreya, the film is co-written by Badreya, Asmaa Mashaal and Janice Kaushal.
"I like to tackle female issues; I was brought up in a culture that respects the voice of women. And it is, in a way, a tribute to my mother, my heroine, who brought me and my brothers up under such a harsh situation," he said.