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Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy talks controversy, ‘Suits Arabia,’ and optimism

DUBAI: No one gets the region talking quite like Egyptian film producer Mohamed Hefzy. Through his company Film Clinic, Hefzy has played a huge role in pushing the Arab film industry forward, providing safe haven to filmmakers with vision and gusto, and ensuring their voices will be heard across the world. Now, as the writer of Ramadan’s most anticipated new series, “Suits Arabia,” the producer is using his own voice to breathe new life into one of the most popular US TV shows of the last decade.

“Let’s be clear — it’s not a straight translation,” Hefzy tells Arab News. “We tried to stick very close to the original show, because it works so well, and if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. But at the same time, it’s got a soul all its own.

“A good adaptation has to stand on its own as a great show. And that’s what we tried to do,” Hefzy continues. “With ‘Suits,’ we had to maintain the core dynamics between the characters, while still feeling culturally specific to Egypt. That was a huge challenge, and needed the right people to pull it off.”

Hefzy is the writer of Ramadan’s most anticipated new series, “Suits Arabia.” (Supplied)

While “Suits Arabia” was only announced recently, its journey to becoming the pièce de résistance of OSN+’s 2022 Ramadan line-up began more than three years ago, when Hefzy was approached to write by Tarek El-Ganainy, CEO of TVision Media Productions.

While Hefzy originally tried to say no, due to his packed schedule as both a prolific producer and then-head of the Cairo International Film Festival, the charm of “Suits,” a show that follows a man who lies his way into a job at a law firm due to his photographic memory and a cutthroat lawyer who becomes his closest ally, proved too much to turn down.

“The show has so many great ideas; it’s so well constructed, full of fast, witty, and truly great dialogue. I knew to do that in Egypt, it would take real skill, while also coming loaded with great characters that I knew would translate across cultures. That’s what ‘Suits’ has that a lot of other shows don’t,’ says Hefzy.

The showrunners ultimately settled on a core cast of Asser Yassin as Harvey and Ahmed Dawoud as Mike. (Supplied)

The show went through a number of false starts behind the scenes, with different major stars signing on and dropping out as development continued, Hefzy reveals. The showrunners ultimately settled on a core cast of Asser Yassin as Harvey, Ahmed Dawoud as Mike, Saba Mubarak as Jessica, Reem Mostafa as Donna, Tara Emad as Rachel, and Mohamed Shahin as Louis — a group that Hefzy believes are a true embodiment of each iconic character — though he himself had to step away from writing for the final run of episodes due to delays, turning the writer’s room he assembled over to Yasser Abdel Mageed.

While he cedes much of the credit to the show’s other voices, Hefzy’s stamp is all over “Suits Arabia” — especially as he had to lay the groundwork to fit the legal particularities of modern Egypt, making sure that a show that is often keenly focused on legal minutiae fits its adopted culture.

“That took so much research, honestly speaking,” says Hefzy.

With so much going on — apart from “Suits Arabia,” Hefzy has a number of TV projects and films in the pipeline, some of which will likely end up at the Cannes Film Festival with others on the world’s biggest streaming platform — the producer rarely has time to reflect on his extraordinary career.

Hefzy produced “Feathers.” (Supplied)

Nevertheless, with a little prodding, Hefzy opened up about how, back in the mid 2000s, his journey as a writer led him down the path to becoming the region’s most important producer — the man behind the most widely-discussed crop of films and series that the region has produced over the last 12 months or so, including “Feathers,” “Amira,” “Huda’s Salon,” “Souad,” the Arabic-language adaptation of “Perfect Strangers,” and MBC’s “Bimbo.” Fittingly, it was because no one wanted to make the sorts of films he now nurtures himself.

“I started getting a little bit bored. By then, even though it was only five years that I’d been writing, I wasn’t interested in just making scripts for stars, creating these vehicles for actors that controlled the entire creative process. The only thing that protected me was working with big directors who had their own personalities,” Hefzy says.

When he founded Film Clinic to help develop the next generation of talent as well as to do consultancy work on existing projects, his reputation grew, and so too did the trust that both filmmakers and key financiers had in him and his team. After a false start as a talent management agency, Hefzy and Film Clinic got directly involved in production, starting a string of ongoing successes.

Mohamed Hefzy attends the Huda’s Salon premiere during the Red Sea International Film Festival. (Getty)

“I’m in a position now where I’m very lucky to be able to work with some of the best talents in Egypt. Film Clinic now is the first port of call — the first place that those talents would come knocking, which is a privileged position,” says Hefzy.

There is, however, a price to pay for making films that challenge the status quo, and empowering the voices of filmmakers who wish to inspire real societal change — and Hefzy has paid it. Especially over the last year, many of the films he has produced have inspired a backlash from some circles in Egypt and across the wider region.

The Wissam Smayra-directed “Perfect Strangers,” for instance, inspired such loud protest from socially conservative leaders and groups that the debate earned write-ups in the Washington Post and New York Times, which rarely cover the Arab film scene. Mohamed Diab’s “Amira” was forced to pull its submission to the Academy Awards. Some Egyptian actors stormed out of a screening of Omar El Zohairy’s “Feathers” due to its stark depiction of rural Egyptian society. To be clear: Controversy is something that Hefzy neither wanted nor intended.

Hefzy produced the Arabic-language adaptation of “Perfect Strangers.” (Supplied)

“I think it’s becoming more difficult for independent filmmakers. It certainly feels like there’s more restrictions,” he says.

The experience has led Hefzy to look closely at the kind of balance he must find in his projects, especially as some of the blowback came to him directly.

“I’ve come to expect that there’s always going to be a lot of conflicting opinions and loud voices in social media and the media in general in Egypt,” he says. “And Egyptian public opinion has become so divided, that it’s impossible to please everybody. But I won’t disregard it; I have to be careful. I have to be cautious. And I have to be able to predict reactions.”

Nevertheless, his commitment to true filmmakers and their voices remains — it’s why he started this journey, and his main motivation for continuing it.

“I know I’m never going to be the kind of filmmaker who is doing what will please everybody else without believing in the core subject matter and the point of view of the filmmaker. And I have so much hope for the future,” Hefzy says. “So, let’s just keep being optimistic.”

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