Advertising Vet Omar Hilal Talks Foreign Oscar Nom in Marrakech For Debut Feature Voy!Voy!Voy!

VERDICT: Hilal’s comedy opened in Egypt in September holding the number one spot at the box office for two months

By Liza Foreman

It was by way of growing up in Saudi Arabia and Canada, then working in Italy as a television director and photographer, that Omar Hilal returned in his early 20s to his home country Egypt. 

Years later in Cairo, with a couple of decades of directing in the advertising world under his belt, Hilal directed his first feature film after reading an intriguing BBC article about a bizarre escape.

That story, based on news reports, outlined how a group of cunning Egyptians posed as a football team of blind players to escape to Europe. The “team” was successful and has never been heard of nor seen again since. 

The resulting film is Hilal’s comedy “Voy!Voy!Voy!” 

“Fifty percent of Egyptians live below the poverty line, so for many, there is a desire to leave,” Hilal said during a recent sit-down with The Film Verdict. Hilal related how many people attempt legal avenues to emigrate and when those fail, resort to illegal emigration. “There are some incredible stories out there of Egyptians trying to leave for a better life.”

Hilal’s comedy opened in Egypt in September holding the number one spot at the box office for two months. Playing at this week’s Marrakech International Film Festival, and now at the Red Sea Festival, it is currently rolling out across the Arab world.

Hilal has also been touring with the film for screenings with Academy voters. “There has been so much love shown to me and the film from people I don’t even know,” he said.

The film became so successful that Egypt’s Oscar selection committee had originally decided on another title to submit for the Oscars, but changed their minds, after the opening of his film. 

“This is a poignant story told with a lot of humor,” he says. “Egyptians love to laugh. We love comedy. It’s how we deal with our misery.”

Because there was little information in the press regarding the original story, Hilal created and expanded aspects of the story for his film. 

“In the real story, they were all faking being blind. Not just one player as portrayed in my film. I changed everything else. The reality is an entire football team played being blind and got to Europe. I had to make up a lot,” he said.

Hilal reiterated that what eventually happened to the team remains unknown. 

“The story resurfaces every few years in the press. But there is nothing.” Hilas said it’s been difficult to track the men down, but because they aren’t real criminals, they’ve probably ended up in quiet jobs living under the radar. “They aren’t running drug cartels,” he said. “I would like to think they are happy. But it’s been impossible to try to find them.”

Making his feature directorial debut has been a long-time coming for Hilal who has 20 years’ experience as a successful advertising director.

“I always wanted to make films and advertising was a means to an end,” he said. Hilal said his advertising art always had a human side in it. “People pigeonholed me as directing ads with comedy and humanity.”  He said the road to directing feature films has been too long. “It just took what it took to get to film. Marriage. Divorce. Having a child.”

Hilal said that to finally make the leap into film he’s had “to slum it and wear many hats.”

Unlike advertising films that have a lot of budget and people bringing whatever is needed, Hilal said his film was made on a low budget. “That is why I ended up producing and doing everything. I’m ready to make ‘Transformers 5’ now,” he said ironically. “Throw anything at me. I will get it done. I wrote, produced and directed.”

“Voy!Voy!Voy!” is currently doing the rounds at international festivals, and the Oscar campaign continues. 

“I’m pleased and honored by this,” he said. “Our cinema is a great cinema. If I was to put my top films of all time, two to three would be Egyptian. A lot of what I am is influenced by this.” Hilal has lived between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Italy. He said that in Saudi in the 1980s, there were only American films. “But we have got drama in Egypt. It’s a country of drama. That lends itself to film,” he said, adding that the story he portrays in his movie “is a perfect story for film.” Hilal pointed to how Egypt is a massive country with a millennial history. It has been invaded and occupied by so many nations and cultures. From the Ottomans to the French and British in more recent history. It has been influenced by a variety of religions Coptic, Roman Catholic and others. “So it has this range of characteristics,” he said. “And I think it is wide-scale poverty over the last 70 years that adds to this situation: We are dramatic.”

Hilal has a second feature film in mind: A historical war epic, he said. But for now he’s keeping further details under wraps.

Hilal reflected on how his career started overseas. “But,” he said, “I was always going to come home. “I started university in Egypt. Before that I lived in Saudi Arabia, Canada and then Italy. I started as a TV director in Italy, but I insisted on coming back to Cairo. We were living the life in Italy, but I believed that if there was any talent in me, I was going to give it to my country.”

This interview was organized by the Marrakech International Film Festival.

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