Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Egyptian actor Karim Kassem on his new film and breaking stereotypes

The Egyptian actor tells us why he doesn’t want to be cast as a refugee or a terrorist

Egyptian actor Karim Kassem in a scene from his latest film ‘Sawah’, in which he plays a DJ who makes it to the World Championships. 
Egyptian actor Karim Kassem in a scene from his latest film ‘Sawah’, in which he plays a DJ who makes it to the World Championships. 

It was with some trepidation that Egyptian actor Karim Kassem agreed to be a presenter at the opening of this year’s El Gouna Film Festival. “I was scared I was going to mess up,” he says. It was the first time the star of Ahmad Abdallah’s 2018 festival hit EXT. Night had been asked to present a show. He prepared for the job by doing extensive research, scouring the internet for tips about being an MC. He says the best advice he found was that a show “is not about you, it’s about the event, so don’t make it about you”.

With Kassem making jokes as we talk, it is apparent that playing down his own role doesn’t come naturally to him. The actor, 33, seems programmed to be the centre of attention. It’s partly what makes him such good company.

Before the event he watched recordings of the opening and closing ceremonies of previous El Gouna Film Festivals. He says he’s glad he resisted the impulse to improvise. “I wanted to try to be funny, but it would probably have failed, as many of the audience had flown in that day and were sleepy.

Karim Kassem was the Master of Cermonies at El Gouna Film Festival this year. 
Karim Kassem was the MC at El Gouna Film Festival this year.

It was a good experience and I was offered another job to MC at another festival in Jordan.”

He is unconvinced by the suggestion that presenting could become a regular job. “You have to understand that I’m an actor,” he says. And why would he give up on a profession that is treating him so well? His latest film, Sawah, directed by Egyptian filmmaker Adolf El Assal, is this week playing at the Arab Film Festival in Fameck, France. Kassem plays Samir, an Egyptian DJ performing under the moniker DJ Skaarab, who wins a national mixing contest and a place at the World DJ Championships in Brussels. The plane he is on lands in Luxembourg because of strikes in Belgium. The rest of the journey has to be made by bus, but at the border, Samir is detained by the police, who assume he is a refugee.

Kassem was keen on the role because it plays with the stereotypes of Arabs seen in western movies, rather than adhering to them. “You have this Egyptian guy who is a DJ, educated, speaks good English and he’s fun. He is a citizen of the world in many ways, no different from kids of his generation in the United States or Europe,” explains Kassem. “But you have this stigma and stereotype that gets stuck on him, that he is a refugee, no matter what he says.”

For Kassem, it’s crucial to find these kinds of roles because he feels Arab actors are often typecast as refugees or terrorists in western productions. “It’s depressing,” says the actor, who has appeared in several international productions, including 2017 mini-­series The State, in which he plays a young man recruited online by ISIS to go to Syria.

“I have an English agent and an American manager. These are often the types of roles that I’m being asked to audition for. I don’t want to audition for those characters.” But he says new roles are opening up for Arab actors. “With the likes of Rami Malek breaking the mould, this stereotype is breaking a bit.”

Actor Karim Kassem says that he was eager to play the role because it breaks stereotypes of Arabs seen in Western movies. 
Karim Kassem says that he was eager to play the role because it breaks stereotypes of Arabs seen in Western movies.

It was Kassem’s performance in EXT. Night that brought him to the attention of Sawah director El Assal. “He came to Egypt and met with all the actors in my generation,” recalls Kassem. “We clicked at the meeting and I was asked to audition. Then they saw my leading role in EXT. Night, which they really liked.”

Ext. Night is a fun caper set in Cairo. Kassem plays the dubious anti-hero Moe, who is flippant but charismatic. The film pushes social boundaries, as Moe finds himself on an adventure with a Muslim taxi driver and a prostitute. It was one of several films in which Kassem featured that might now prove more difficult to make in Egypt. “I’m not sure that a film like EXT. Night would be made this year,” he says.

Kassem is from an artistic family. His father studied cinema in France and Germany, before returning to Cairo, where he worked for renowned director Youssef Chahine, who was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dubai Film Festival in 2007. Kassem’s father followed this by opening a production company, doing line production work on foreign films in Egypt.

Exposed to the arts from a young age, Kassem started acting in theatre productions when he was 7. Although he was in a theatre troupe throughout his childhood, he studied engineering at university. “I realised I wasn’t made to have a nine to five job,” he recalls. “I got my first film gig when I was 19, during my first year at university, and I quit the course.”

That film was 2006’s Awqat Faragh (Leisure Time), which tells the story of four male friends going through adolescence and who are forced to confront their own mortality after a member of their group dies. “And guess what? The film became a phenomenon during the summer of 2006, a cult movie for that generation,” Kassem says.

He reveals that there are plans to film a sequel and agrees to outline the premise. “The three teenagers are now in their late twenties and early thirties. They are struggling with financial burdens and all the changes that happened in society,” he says, referencing the Tahrir Square demonstrations. He says the friends are now more world-weary souls. “They have a different view of women and we try to talk about these subjects authentically and truthfully,” he says.

Work continues on the film’s script, with the hope that production will begin early next year. It’s all part of Kassem’s journey.

Updated: October 13, 2019 06:07 PM

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