Face-to-face: Karim Kassem, actor, Suits

Published: 23 September 2020 - 5:18 p.m.
By: Nikhil Pereira

Karim Kassem is in the prime of his career and has a filmography to boast of ever since he burst on to the scene with Awqat Faragh in 2006.

Nearing 33, Kassem is set to star as Mike Ross in the Arabic remake of the popular drama Suits. A big fan of indie filmmaking techniques The Ditch, Kassem’s debut feature film as a producer, will hit screens in the next few months.

Drawing inspiration from Ahmed Abdallah’s movie Exterior Night, Kassem is hoping to stretch his legs behind the camera in a pursuit to achieve cinematic brilliance.

Following is a transcript of an interview with Kassem.

Tell us about your role in the Arabic re-make of Suits where you play Mike Ross.
It is my third collaboration with producer Tarek El Ganainy, after El byoot Asrar and Kingdom of the Satan (TV series) which is airing now on MBC’s Shahid OTT platform. It’s an important, albeit challenging role, given the success of the original series which has an ever-growing fan base on Netflix. I’m excited about working on this project more so because it’s quite interesting to see how Mohmed hefzy (producer and writer) worked on developing the show to make it relatable to Egyptian audiences.

You’ve got into production yourself with your latest film The Ditch — what made you get on the other side of the camera?
The Ditch, is a full length feature film, has been filmed, we are currently in post-production. I did this because I want to learn and invest in myself as a producer. I’ve wanted to go out there and make a movie with the tools, equipment, location and actors at my disposal. For The Ditch we have gone down the independent film route, which is what I plan on exploring [more on independent cinema in Egypt later on in the interview]. The Ditch has been produced by me, while it’s written and director by Amr Abed

Is that where you see yourself end up, behind the camera in production / direction?
Yes, it always been a long term goal. Having studied film making at University of Southern California. As part of my course I studied directing, editing, production and casting. I also studied directing for theater in American University of Cairo (AUC) and I realised that I loved working with actors. I’ve always dreamed of working behind the camera be it as a director, producer and working on projects of young enthusiastic filmmakers.

I draw a lot inspiration from my time of working on productions in England, Luxemburg and Belgium. I participated as an actor in the series The State and Sawah (film). There I was exposed to a different work ethic, ingenuity and organisation of production. Ever since it’s been my mission to bring those qualities of production to Egypt and combine it with independent filmmaking.

My ultimate goal is to have co-productions between Egypt and European countries, in a bid to increase the presence of Egyptian cinema abroad. While achieving all of this it’s important to have the creative freedom. I don’t want to create content that fits into distribution schedules and stereotypes. For example, in Egypt its common practice for producers to receive funds from a cable company or satellite network to start production on a concept. It’s almost as if its templated, they have certain requirements (cast or story) which leaves them with a narrow choice of topics and actor to work with.

The reason I believe in the potential of independent cinema is because of the perspective that we can create through it. Of course we have less finances to play with but we have more ideas and creative freedom. Youssef Chahine’s films are a great example of critically acclaimed independent cinema. His films would not have gone international without the help of CNC (Centre national de Cinema) and other producers from France. Without their contributions we wouldn’t have seen many of Chahine’s masterpieces, in my opinion.

That’s fascinating, how did it all start for you? Did you always want to get into the film industry?
I participated a fair bit in school plays and was of the school’s theater group for close to a decade. It’s safe to say I was bitten by the showbiz bug and dreamt of being an actor in Egypt and internationally at a young age. My first big break came during my time in AUC, a lot of it has to do a lot with luck. I’ve heard someone say that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I was acting for over 12 years when I was part of the casting call for Awkat Faragh (Leisure Time) in 2006. I was lucky that the movie propelled me into the industry, it was also a success story for two other major names in Egyptian cinema — Amr Abed and Ahmed Hatem. The film helped establish the young duo on the scene.

There are hundreds of young actors, filmmakers, directors in the Arab world today, how would you advise them to go about following their dreams?
Absolutely, there are hundreds of actors, filmmakers and directors in the Arab World today. I’m in no position to advise any of them on what to do since I’m still figuring it my place in the industry. But I can give myself some advice which might also help them: Learn every aspect of the industry. If you are interested in filmmaking you should know other crafts such as photography, production, writing and acting. If you don’t know it like the back of your hand, you should at least have sound knowledge of them. It’s fine to fall in love with one aspect of filmmaking and eventually find yourself making a career out of another aspect. The more we mature the more we discover what we really love.

Speaking about the wider landscape, do you think Egyptian cinema still holds the top spot in the region? And is enough being done to maintain its status as the ‘Hollywood of the Middle East’?

It’s tricky for someone like me to analyse the entire film industry. But having been part of it for 14 years I would say we could do with assistance in funding from the government. This would definitely benefit young and independent filmmakers. You see this with certain countries such Morocco, Tunisia or Dubai which have big government budgets to encourage their independent filmmakers even though their industry isn’t as old as ours. We are now witnessing a new wave of Moroccan, Tunisian and Middle Eastern films and filmmakers that compete in international festivals and win accolades. Government funding, or any sort of assistance for that matter, will go a long way towards encouraging storytellers from the Egypt and the Middle East. We need to find an alternative way of producing films rather than going through big production companies and getting completely destroyed by the big fish. At times we tend to lose creativity in an attempt to fit into the entertainment business.

What challenges are Arabic films and the cinema industry facing today?
The emergence of multiple platforms is definitely one of the challenges. Audiences are turning towards watching series and movies at home, rather than going to cinemas. That shift is happening slowly in the Arab world, but it’s happening for sure. Our challenge is to make movies that would draw audiences to the cinema and for that theatrical experience they will simply never experience at home. Up until today Hollywood produces blockbusters, yes they have financial resources, but I believe there is still room for theatrical success. Another challenge, which I’ve touched on throughout this interview, is to keep independent cinema alive not just in Egypt but thought the Middle East. Hopefully, OTT platforms can present new opportunities. It’s a case of six of this, half a dozen of the other. At the end of the day, we have to adapt to the shifting trends and find our niche.

One of your noteworthy projects last year, Sawah, premiered at four different European countries and won more than 10 awards.
I was delighted that Sawah screened at over 36 prestigious film festivals around the world and won 12 awards. It was also released on OSN, Netflix and inflight entertainment on airplanes. I’m happy that so many people got to see it and render their feedback. It gives a sense of joy and pride but I’m not planning on celebrating just yet. For now I prefer looking ahead and move onto what’s next. there is great saying that I use as my moto for years now ... الحركة بركة (movement is a bliss).

Coming to Covid-19 and the disruption it has caused us all; you were one of the first Arab celebrities to bring attention to it in an Instagram video that went viral. You not only contracted the virus but overcome it as well, what was the experience like?

I’m different after that experience. The stress of fearing death and being sick and helpless for a long time took its toll on me. In the aftermath my perspective of things that matter has changed. I’m very grateful and appreciative of the biggest blessing we have as humans, our heath.

In your opinion, what impact has Covid-19 had on the Egyptian and Arab film industry?
In general Covid-19 has impacted the Egyptian industry like many others in the world. Personally, I found it quite stressful to finish production of Lama Kona So’yreen (When We Are Young) while taking into account social distancing measures and precautions having in excess of 180 people on set.

In a post-Covid world producers are also seeing the financial and health benefits of working with smaller crews, so that’s a positive change. The cinema industry has been drastically impacted the box office as most multiplexes and cinemas have been closed for months.

On the other hand it created opportunities for content on platforms like Netflix, Shahid and Watch it as we might have seen lately with the presence of new shows.

It’s been an absolute education chatting with you, what hidden gems we can look forward to from you?

As of now I’m looking forward to working on the Egyptian format of Suits. Over the next year we will continue to submit
our work for festivals. Here’s hoping to a new production in 2021 after we put the finishing touches on The Ditch.

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