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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Filmmaker wants to put Egypt and Luxembourg on the global cinema map

Adolf El Assal aims to shine a light on Egyptian and Luxembourgeois cinema with his upcoming semi-autobiographical film, Sawah.
Director Adolf El Assal is promoting his upcoming film, Sawah, at the Cannes Film Festival. Sean Gallup / Getty Images for DTFF
Director Adolf El Assal is promoting his upcoming film, Sawah, at the Cannes Film Festival. Sean Gallup / Getty Images for DTFF

They are the third-­largest nomadic group in Europe, yet the Yenish people are not particularly familiar to the general public.

Director Adolf El Assal, who was born in Egypt and now lives in Luxembourg, might to change that with his upcoming film, Sawah.

It tells the semi-autobiographical tale of a vegetarian, pacifist Egyptian DJ who leaves Alexandria at the outset of the Egyptian revolution to find fame and fortune in Europe. He loses his passport and finds himself stranded in Luxembourg, where the Yenish are among the many people he upsets.

El Assal was born in Alexandria himself, and spent his childhood living in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah before his parents “mistakenly” settled in Luxembourg during a trip around Europe.

“They thought it was Brussels,” El Assal says. “They’d never heard of Luxembourg, but my mum loved it so much we just stayed there. It’s a super-­nice place, so my parents – a doctor and a pharmacist – gave everything up and started a new life there.”

With such an unusual background, it is not surprising to find that El Assal’s latest film, which is about to go into production and which he is publicising at the Cannes Film Festival, is a little out of the ordinary, too.

“The film is about an Egyptian DJ, who is given the opportunity to play in Berlin,” he says. “It’s the techno capital of the world, so of course he wants to go, but then his bus stops in Luxembourg. He gets out to use the bathroom, misses the bus and loses all his belongings – so he’s completely stuck.

“He gets caught by the border police, who assume he’s a refugee, and it goes on from there.”

El Assal reveals that he, too, DJ’ed in some of Luxembourg’s biggest clubs before he was old enough to enter them, as well as running an underground record label, but “fell into film” when he grew tired of the clubbing scene.

Clearly El Assal, like the Yenish, has experience of ­displacement.

“In Luxembourg, we speak so many different languages,” he says. “We’re stuck right in the middle of Europe, between two big powers: Germany and France. We have Belgium on one side, the other big people aren’t far away – the UK one hour by plane, Russia nearby, we’re stuck there and we have to deal with it.

“I speak five languages fluently. English, Arabic, French, German and Luxembourgish. The Yenish people actually speak the old Luxembourgish, from 500 years ago. They’re like the Quebecois with French, but they’re not integrated into society. It’s very hard for them to travel – they have no proper papers.

“No one knows where to fit them, and I find that so interesting with my own background.

“One of the main issues in the film is identity. The main ­character is Egyptian, but he doesn’t know how to fit into his own country. No one likes his music, he’s playing at weird weddings and he has this dream to reach the stars – and gets stuck in Luxembourg.”

The movie will star Egyptian actor Ahmed Al Fishawy and musical legend Mohamed Mounir (whom El Assal describes as “the Arabic Michael Jackson”), as well as Désirée Nosbusch, a member of Luxembourg’s movie royalty and a former Eurovision presenter, along with well-known actors from China, France and Portugal.

“If I ask you how many Luxembourgeois films you ever heard of, how many would you name?” says El Assal. “I’m trying to use this opportunity as an Egyptian/Luxembourg filmmaker to put both on the map and break ­stereotypes.

“There are stereotypes in this film – but I promise you I’m going to break them in what I hope is a very clever way.”

cnewbould@thenational.ae