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December 21, 2018

From Egypt to SCA and Back Again

By Phenia Hovsepyan

Adam Nazih Makary, who graduated in 2018 with an MFA in Film & Television Production, is now in Cairo, Egypt working on his debut feature film. Makary is adapting the classic novel Beer in the Snooker Club, which is set amidst the turbulent world of 1950s Cairo and is a semi-autobiographical tale by Egyptian author Waguih Ghali. First published in 1964, it is a story of identity, politics, and coming-of-age in the midst of an Egyptian revolution, all themes very close to Makary’s heart. 

Makary is the son of Egyptian immigrants who came to Illinois in the 1970s. His family moved around the East Coast when he was younger, and periodically took Makary to visit relatives in Egypt. “I remember watching old Egyptian movies at my grandmother’s house as a kid and being shocked by the world I saw in the films compared to what was going on outside the apartment,” Makary says about those childhood summers. “I wanted to understand what happened to Egypt.” That curiosity inspired Makary to study political science with a minor in film at the American University in Cairo. After graduating in 2007, Makary, who is fluent in Arabic, stayed in Cairo to work as a journalist. “It was my decision to stay in Egypt. Becoming a journalist answered a lot of the questions I had growing up. It was very enriching and heartbreaking at the same time.”

Makary worked as a reporter for the Daily Star Egypt, the only independent English language newspaper that existed under Hosni Mubarak, the President who was unseated during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. “I realized what sort of power I have in telling stories,” Makary says about his work for the paper. “I think the strength of a journalist is how inquisitive they are, not just as a journalist, but as a person.” He especially sought out the stories of ordinary Egyptians, whose lives weren’t normally featured in media, especially films. “I got to experience the stories of the poor that were left behind by the films I used to watch,” says Makary. 

From the Daily Star Egypt, Makary went on to work as a producer for Al Jazeera English in Cairo. He was among the first to cover the January 2011 protests that lead Mubarak’s ouster. Al Jazeera was awarded a George Foster Peabody Award for coverage of the Arab Spring. “The revolution exposed me to so much struggle, pain, and suffering, along with jubilation and celebration,” he says., 

Makary (in green) also worked as a producer for CNN International and ABC World News in Cairo but began to feel like his artistic passions were not fully actualized. “The revolution left me with so many mixed emotions, and I knew I had to let them out,” he says. “I realized that the voice I had as a journalist was not as powerful as I wanted it to be, because I was working for the network and not the people. I did not like it.” In 2014, he decided to apply to the School of Cinematic Arts. “Being a journalist wanting to make films, I never thought it was a feasible option for me,” he says. “When I heard that I got in, I knew that I had to go.” 

At SCA, Makary encountered a world very different from the one he had left behind in Cairo. “The transition was very jarring for me. I went from teargas and counting dead bodies in the morgue to sunny California. My first semester was one of the hardest transitions of my life, but it also made me want to watch and learn as much as I can,” he says. Looking back, Makary is extremely thankful that USC gave him “the training ground to understand what my message was and what was motivating me to wake up every morning.” He says the program also allowed him to “take everything I had learned as a journalist and translate those skills into film.” And at graduation he got another reminder of why he has chosen SCA. “It was mentioned that there were over 14,000 students who had graduated from SCA. Knowing that I was going to join such an elite group of alumni, after having shared three years with a cohort that I had learned so much from, allowed me to understand how USC is a microcosm of the industry.”  

Makary, who first read Beer in the Snooker Club as a student at the American University in Cairo, says the book immediately resonated with him. “[It defined] how I fit in the world as an Egyptian-American, and it led me to journalism.” For Makary, the book answered some of those questions he had growing up, when he wondered “What happened to Egypt?” He always thought Beer in the Snooker Club would make a great film, and “being told over and over again that the best stories are the personal ones, USC propelled me to the process of securing the rights.” 

Beer in the Snooker Club follows Ram Bey, a privileged, young Coptic Egyptian who spends much of his time drinking beer and engaging in intellectual banter. He lives in a post-revolutionary Cairo where there is an enormous gulf between the haves and the have-nots of Egyptian society. Ram wants to live a life of meaning, but struggles to find fulfillment in an ever-changing world until he meets and falls in love with a woman named Edna. Political circumstances of the time tear them apart, and what follows is a journey from Cairo to London and back in search of self-discovery. “It is about a group of Egyptian youth looking for personal freedoms in a country that can no longer provide them,” Makary said. “It is very healing for me to make this film."

Makary moved back to Cairo after graduating from SCA to develop the film. “I think it will be better suited to write the script from Egypt. I can explore the locations where the story takes place.” He is currently finalizing the first draft of the script, which will be produced by Beacon Pictures. “The writing process has required a lot of research since it's a period film, which has translated into a lot of trips to the microfilm reader and digging up old news articles to give me a better sense of the time. Interviewing writers and historians has also helped, as well as visiting the actual locations from the book itself, and sometimes, writing from them,” Makary says, adding that those journalism years, working, traveling, and reporting all over Egypt, have prepared him for this task. “Thank God I have such great friends in Egypt. Cairo will always welcome me.”

Looking back at his time at USC, Makary says it was instrumental for him to learn how to “trust your instinct and be patient.” He is putting that into practice in Cairo and advises other young filmmakers to do the same: “You are your own best friend and your own worst enemy. Competition is a mirage, because it is all about who you are and what you are ready to do.”