Reem from Egypt, filmmaker
Reem Morsi is an Egyptian filmmaker who studied at the London Film School. She graduated in 2010 and recently released a short film, 'Their Feast', about an Egyptian family preparing for their son's return from prison. (Scroll down to see the trailer!)
Here, Reem talks to us about her passion for film since early childhood, her past career in human rights and her latest challenge – teaching film in Vancouver, Canada, where she now lives part-time.
When did you decide to make film your career?
I worked for ten years in human rights, but I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a child. My father was a film buff so we used to sit and watch Doctor Zhivago, and a lot of Arabic cinema. We used to have intense discussions about films, and I’ve always enjoyed writing stories. But it was expensive and I had financial obligations.
My mum was very into doing good and helping the community – I think that pushed me into human rights and development. I worked with the United Nations and organisations including the British Embassy in Cairo. That was when I heard about the Chevening scholarship programme. I had applied while I was still in college but didn’t get in, so I applied again mid-career – but then I turned it down because I got a job in Thailand, working in child protection.
After ten years it got a little bit depressing, as I always get emotionally attached. After that I was dying to do film. I applied to Chevening again – I submitted it at the last minute before they closed the application! At the time I was working in the Sudan, but I got in, so I applied to the London Film School and it was really a dream come true! I thought, ‘Things are lining up, finally, to make it happen.’
At work: Reem and her cast on set, during the filming of 'Their Feast' (Photo ©Reem Morsi)
What are some of the most important lessons from your master’s degree that you still carry with you today?
Most of the instructors were really supportive and I know I can still write to them and ask them questions. I’m still very good friends with Stefania, who was one of my professors and works in the editing department. She was actually a very strict instructor, but she is extremely sharp.
Usually, students tend to put too much in their films and it is really hard to let go of things: it’s called ‘killing your darlings’. She would say, ‘Listen to me, take this out now!’ At the beginning I was objecting to that, and then I would see the cut she instructed me to consider, and it was better. I really learnt how to cut down to what is important. I still send her my new films and scripts… she has been amazing.
Now that I’m teaching, I know how hard it is to stay in touch with students, because there is so little time. So I really appreciate support. For my graduation project, Their Feast, the London Film School put in a little bit of money (they do for all graduation projects) so they gave me and two other students some funding. They also offered mentorship – where you select a mentor who gives you three session over a year. It was very collaborative.
What’s your advice for students who are still choosing where to study?
I looked at so many film schools before coming, as it was something I wanted to do properly. I wrote to all of them and talked to some of the instructors to see if it was the right school for me.
It was a choice between the London Film School and another course which was only one year and focused on directing. London Film School was very intense – it taught cinematography, editing, writing, everything. I thought this would be really good in case I want to do something else besides directing.
It really was helpful to talk to them, even on the phone or by email if you can’t be in the UK. The best thing is to talk to people, and many of the schools here are very welcoming.
Gaining recognition: Reem at the Arabic film festival Aan Korb in London (Photo ©Reem Morsi)
In Their Feast (right) you work with some remarkable child actors. Did you enjoy directing children?
I always thought I wouldn’t be able to work with children, but actually all my films have some children in them, and I realised I love working with children. They are free to express their ideas and thoughts.
I wanted them to be in their own native setting, so I went to the island [in Egypt] a few weeks before the shoot. After talking to lots of kids, two in particular drew my attention. One was so lovely and intelligent; the other was in the middle of a fight, and the way he was saying things, I could tell he was very smart and intuitive.
Although he can’t read or write at all, he was giving me pointers like, ‘Why are you putting the camera here? It would be better on the other side!’ It was amazing to see that! If I ever come into money I would love to try and send him to school, because he has so much potential.
How does it feel to be teaching film now?
After teaching, I have a completely newfound respect for teachers – it is really tough! I am trying hard to replicate what I saw as a student, because the people who taught me and mentored me really changed my life. If I can impact children, help them see things differently and open their minds, that would be great. I try and show them films from different cultures that challenge their ideas. But I am still really new to it all!
What advice would you give to aspiring young filmmakers?
I would say it is an extremely challenging field. It’s full of rejection. But if you feel that this is a passion, then just go for it.
Everyone is reliant on funding unless they are very rich, and when you are new it is sometimes hard to face all the rejection, because people want more experienced filmmakers. To avoid this, do as many internships as you can – work on sets, even for free, and work on the side for money to pay the rent. Work as much as possible, because then people will notice your efforts and maybe help you get another job, and so on.
It’s all about connections; it isn’t just merit or talent-based. Go out to events and meet people and make connections, connections, connections! And remember, there will be a time when the letter comes that says, ‘We love your idea, we want to produce your idea.’ It is a full-time thing – it will take over your personal life – so you have to love it!
How do you keep learning techniques and growing as a filmmaker?
I do courses as much as possible – I try to take a course every three months – and as many workshops as possible. I volunteer at film festivals sometimes, as it gives you access to the filmmakers and you can ask them questions like, ‘How did you get that shot? How did you get funding? How did you bring that actor on board?’
Sometimes I even volunteer on student productions! Just to see what the kids are doing and what new technology they are using.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love writing. I write my own stories and I just love this process. Sometimes it can be scary; you feel vulnerable and exposed, you might be writing really terrible things, but I love the creative process. It’s thrilling!
I found this out when I started directing. I immediately felt, ‘This is what I was born to do.’ Once I’m on a film set, everything else in my life disappears – I have no worries, no problems, and I feel this is where I should be. It’s an incredible feeling: meeting, working with people that are fun and easygoing, spending time with them and feeling happy on set.
I shot one film and I remember the actors saying, ‘You know, you’re so joyful on the set, even if we aren’t getting paid it’s a wonderful experience!’ It’s not just a job to me – it is a beautiful thing to do and I think that transfers to the people that I work with.
What are your ambitions for the future?
So far, my films are short films, and I really want to make my first feature. I wrote a script and it's a comedy actually, about women’s sexual rights. I’ve done a lot of surveys with women and men from different backgrounds; mainly Egyptians, because I’m Egyptian. It had all kinds of questions about sexual rights, and the answers are very surprising. It really helped me formulate the story on the real attitudes of people.
Most of the scripts I write have human rights issues and advocacy issues engraved in them somewhere. I call myself an ‘advocacy filmmaker’.