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Meet Farida Zahran: Award-Winning Brooklyn-Based Egyptian Filmmaker

May 2, 2021

Farida Zahran is an Egyptian director and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. With awards under her belt including the NYU 2021 Purple List for her screenplay The Leftover Ladies, and a Vimeo Staff Pick for Youth, she is no stranger to the film and TV industry.

I sat down with her to understand her inspirations, her future aspirations, and her current work both in TV as a Staff Writer for Ramy and in film as she develops her own musical and feature.

Tell me about yourself.

I am an Egyptian writer and director based in Brooklyn, New York, I’ve been here for the past five years. I grew up in the Gulf, so I’m what some might call a third culture kid. I graduated from the NYU Grad Film program, and I’ve been making films and writing for the past nine years.

Have you always been interested in Film?

Honestly, the cliche of “I watched Pulp Fiction when I was 10 years old and since then, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker” never felt relatable to me. When you’re younger, and when you grow up in generally Arab countries, you’re not automatically thinking that film is the best career choice, or you don’t even think of it as an option.

In college, I studied communication, it was general enough and I was 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it had a creative element to it. The first year of my undergrad, we had a class where we had to make films and I thought it was cool and fun and an interesting way to express yourself.

Also, I was being challenged and I was working with a lot of overly confident dudes who were pretty condescending at the time. I think part of it came from wanting to prove them wrong when they said “you can’t do this yourself”, so a close friend and I teamed up to do our own thing.

I didn’t go in with the goal of when I grow up, I’m going to be a filmmaker but once I started doing it, I saw some progress. By the time I was graduating, I knew I wanted to work in film, which was ridiculous because I was living in a country that had no film industry, my parents were like “What are you doing?” and I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”

What was the first film you made like?

The funny thing about first films is there’s the first film that you actually make, which is normally garbage and you never show to anyone, and then there’s the first film that succeeds and people see and that goes to festivals and launches your career. There’s probably an eight-year time difference between those two for me.

The first film that I made that’s out there is a film called Youth, and I made it during grad school. It was my first time shooting in Egypt, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry except my friend Enas who was amazing, and so supportive. She was co-producer on the project. We winged the process and somehow made a film. Thankfully, that film premiered at SXSW, and it won an award at Palm Springs. It was a big deal and it actually got seen.

Zahran receives the 2019 Best Live-Action Short Award at the Palm Springs International ShortFest.

It was the first film that I completed all the way to the very end, because we had enough budget for the first time, and I’m thankful for crowdfunding because it creates accountability where you have to finish it because people put money into it, and it’s not just you messing around.

When you’re first starting out, you fixate so much on the process and trying to get things right that you don’t get to the end part where you show it to people and have them react and interact with it, and that’s the whole point of filmmaking. If you’re missing that part, it starts to drive you crazy because you’re not experiencing the full thing. It builds your confidence because you think “I’m able to create an experience and I’m able to do something that lands in the way I wanted to.”

I know you didn’t live in Egypt much in the later years, do you feel like your Egyptian identity contributes to any of your film work?

100 percent. Almost every film I’ve written has been set in Egypt, which is funny because I haven’t lived there in a long time.

When you first start making stuff, your default is to think movies are for Americans, they have people who are white and speak English unless you’re thinking of more traditional mosalsalat (Egyptian series). So, the first few films I made with friends, we would cast the only white people in our class, and they would all be in English. They were set in what we imagined to be the US, that was the default. I think it took a while to shed that because we can only imagine what we see sometimes. I also couldn’t write female characters at the beginning.

Once I shed that, I think my mind would automatically go to Egypt when I was thinking of stories and it felt like there were so many stories to tell that I still hadn’t seen. We have a lot of movies and mosalsalat, but I still feel there’s a big gap and things we have yet to see.

When I made Youth, it was because I hadn’t seen a true coming of age film that was set in Egypt that I really felt connected to, that reflected my experience at the time or that I would have wanted to see when I was that age to feel normal and to feel seen. That’s where that film came from, from my experience of the city and some of the fears or paranoia that I had and dynamics I’ve experienced and internalized.

I’m also working on stuff that’s set both in the US and Egypt, but a lot of my personal work so far has been more set in Egypt, because I feel like there are more gaps there. Your identity also shifts depending on where you are. In the US, I’m this Arab, Muslim woman, and then when I’m in Egypt, I’m Egyptian, but I also have this outsider perspective. I’m grateful because I am connected to different places, but I also have enough distance to maybe also make certain observations.

When did you decide to go to Graduate School for film?

When I applied for grad school, I was living in Qatar and working as a development assistant at a film institute. I enjoyed my job, but I knew I wanted to take the next step.

I just didn’t want to be the best Egyptian filmmaker in Qatar, I wanted to learn from the best people, and compete on an international scale. I was excited to be a small fish in a big pond. There also really isn’t a film industry in Qatar, and though there is obviously a film industry in Egypt, I was in my early 20s and didn’t have a way in there. Grad school provided me with a clearer path to my goals.

The main goal was to be exposed to as many different types of people and filmmakers as possible. I got really lucky because NYU has a very diverse program and you get to see how different kinds of people interact with film. It’s amazing getting to see how the 30-something students in my class made films in different ways and how they made different mistakes than you and how they succeeded at different things than you did.

Zahran as a guest on the Eye on the Desert TV Show.

Why New York?

It’s such a great place for culture and arts. You walk anywhere, there’s a museum. I love cities in general, that’s why I love Cairo. There are so many people and things happening all the time, you’re constantly absorbing material, that there’s no way for you to not feel inspired. The idea of being able to go to music shows any time, pre-pandemic, even just walking on the street is probably the most inspiring thing or getting on the subway. You’re getting to see many ways of doing life on a daily basis, where there’s no way it’s not going to activate the creative juices in your brain.

You’re working on a musical called Happily Ever After, what’s it about, and how’s it going?

Happily Ever After is a dark comedy musical set in Cairo. The film follows a serial monogamist who questions her hasty decision to elope when she’s faced with the reality of her dysfunctional relationship with her fiery husband.

It was something I started more than two years ago, we were supposed to shoot in April 2020. We actually had a fundraiser a week before lockdown happened for the film. We had to delay everything.

It was inspired by me wanting to make something that’s totally and stylistically very different from my previous film because I feel I have this fear of when people see you’ve made a certain thing, they put you in that box, and they expect you to keep making the same thing your entire career. It was my way of showing I have lots of different types of interests. This is the opposite of what I did last time.

I love musicals, I grew up watching them, but also looking back at a lot of the musicals, both American and Egyptian, a lot of them are problematic in the gender dynamics and the way that these relationships pan out. But, they always ended with a happily ever after, even though this dude just tried to force himself on her. This musical is a reaction to “What if we made a musical in the form that we’re used to, but that actually dealt with the complexities and the darker parts of these relationships?”

With every project, I want to more work with more different types of people. This was an opportunity to work with musicians and with dancers and a choreographer. I think is one of the coolest things about filmmaking. Now I’m working with some really talented musicians in Egypt. It’s really exciting.

You’re also a writer for the uber-successful show Ramy, how did that happen?

I love the show. When I first watched it a couple of years ago, I remember watching and thinking it would be so cool to work on the show one day, and a couple of years later, I eventually met Ramy after one of the screenings of the first season, he saw my short film, and he really liked it.

Eventually, I got offered a position in the writers’ room, and it’s been really great. I feel so lucky that this is my first room because it’s such a great environment. It’s strange because we’ve been on zoom so I don’t know what the rest of anyone’s body looks like, but it’s amazing how still not having met anyone you grow these bonds. When you see people’s faces on a daily basis, for a couple of months, you start to connect.

There’s a lot of comedians in there, so it’s always fun. There are always jokes, and it feels like a space where people can express their thoughts no matter what position you are technically in the hierarchy.

I feel really lucky that this is my first room. It feels like the right type of project to start working in TV on. I’d already been watching the show, and I feel an attachment to these characters, so it’s really great to help them grow and help see their stories through.

It’s also cool to be in a room with more than one Muslim person, or more than one Arab. That’s not common in Hollywood. You can talk about certain things and not feel the need to explain yourself or not feel the need to explain your entire culture or religion so that you can make the point. I think that’s really cool.

I really hope that we get to see more of that, in general, because it’s great that we have Ramy, but we can’t just have our one Muslim show, and then move on. It just opens the door for more stuff like this and I can’t wait to see what other stuff that people make after the show.

What are your future hopes and goals in this industry?

I want to continue staffing on TV for sure, It’s different from film, but I love both processes. And I love that in a writer’s room, you’re getting to bounce ideas off of different people instead of mostly writing on your own with features, which can be really isolating.

I also want to eventually develop my own TV show, but right now, I have my first feature that I’m prepping. I wrote the script this past summer, so now we’re submitting it to different labs and workshops and trying to begin the financing process for it. It’s also a film that is set in Egypt.
It’s called The Leftover Ladies and I was thinking about it for two years before I finally sat down and wrote the script. It’s about a 60-something woman who tries to leave her polygamous husband after he expresses a renewed commitment to their stale relationship.

This is just another thing that we don’t see much of: women in their older age, or past their 40s, having to deal with relationship issues in a way that is grounded, and relatable. Honestly, throughout all of life, we’re coming of age. There’s the sexy version of a coming of age story where you hit puberty, and you’re experimenting with things for the first time and have raging hormones, but in reality, in the messiness of life, we’re always coming of age and we’re never going to arrive and then we’re going to die. Life is the journey, right?

You can keep up with Farida Zahran at her website faridazahran.com and her personal Instagram page @faridazahran_

This article is part of our ongoing initiative, Spotlight Sundays where we hope to celebrate different Egyptians from the community.

If you’d like to be featured or have any other inquiries, please email us at: [email protected]

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