There once was a young boy who was mesmerized by puppet theatre. He was brought backstage one day and his infatuation then grew into inspiration. Fast forward to the present day and that young boy is now the grown-up Tamer Mohsen, a successful, much sought after Egyptian TV, film and commercial director.
Much of Mohsen's popularity lies in his ability to tap into the social causes that make for an entertaining watch but also create within the individual watching his work a need to learn more, know more, be more conscious. Great examples of this can be found throughout his prolific resume as a commercial director, creating anti-smoking and anti-drugs campaigns featuring Egyptian football superstar Mohamed Salah and for the foundation established by Egyptian-British surgeon Magdi Yacoub.
Born in Cairo in the early 70's, Mohsen has also directed some socially conscious documentaries, such as the 2009 Political Crime: Assassination of Sadat. His TV work on the 2013 series Bedoon Zekr Asmaa also continued in that vein, focusing on the political and social life in Egypt during the 1980s.
Humble and kind, with piercing blue-grey eyes and an unassuming way about him that betrays a personality quite self assured, yet someone who doesn't need to prove it, we gladly caught up with Mohsen as he spoke to MIME from Cairo about his latest success, the series Newton's Cradle (Le’bet Newton) -- now streaming on Netflix. Originally released during the Holy Month of Ramadan 2021, the 30-episode series stars Mona Zaki alongside Mohamed Mamdouh, with Mohamed Farraj, Sayed Ragab and a wonderful supporting cast. It once again tackles serious issues, such as citizenship, mental health and belonging, but also how relationships always suffer and benefit from our past because each one of us possesses some good and some bad qualities we carry as our baggage, thus delving into the idea of humans being imperfect at best.
Following is the full interview with Tamer Mohsen on Newton's Cradle, why bees are a part of it, and what he would have been if not a filmmaker.
How did you come up with the idea for Newton's Cradle?
It came from a story of a friend. She told me that she has an experience in the USA. She was trying to have her baby there, in hospital alone because there was a problem with her boyfriend. In her story, there was a problem because she had a very bad experience and she didn't want the baby and was feeling depressed. And while she was having her baby in the hospital, she had a nervous breakdown. And a friend in the US told her to be careful, that if they noticed her not being stable, they would take her baby from her. That's the law. So the idea was in my head about the law in the US, and how if the mother can be a danger to a baby, they will protect the baby. That law is unusual in our countries, Arab countries.
I liked that scene, and started writing from that scene -- a mother, trying to force herself, she has a nervous breakdown but she tries to pretend that she's stable, she's OK so they won't take her baby away from her. The whole story came from that scene.
Your casting is amazing, both Mona Zaki and Mohamed Mamdouh are two brilliant actors and they work so well together. How did you decide to cast them?
I like to work with actors I like. I was looking for a star because we needed a star to attract the attention of the audience to our story. We have maybe three or four actresses, megastar actresses in Egypt and I was choosing the most suitable for the role. I needed an Egyptian lady, who is maybe 37 or 38, she's not too young. Mona was perfect and she's a really good actress, plus she's a little bit absent... Meaning, she needed a next step for her career since she hasn't been seen in the past few years. About Mamdouh, I was looking for a tough man, big too, to see the contrast between him and Mona. He also needed to be a little bit rough, I mean, he never touches Hana, he never hit her or anything like that. But he's aggressive. He doesn't give her confidence, he doesn't trust her, or her capabilities. And that's very tough for her character, Hazem always telling her "you can't do it." Mamdouh is also very, very good! And I like the contrast between them.
As you said, the contrast is great between them, she is so lithe and vulnerable and he has this almost dangerous quality, which makes them feed off each other beautifully as performers.
Yes, and she loves her husband while he's a little bit far off from the stereotype of the handsome man.
And yet you understand why they are together!
We imagine that maybe she's looking for something different, like a father figure, or something like that.
I read it that he's a rock for her, she needs him to be overwhelming almost.
Actually, in Newton's Cradle I was trying to tell a story about the problems or the traumas which happened to us, while we are children. A lot of time with those problems, we are paying for them all our lives and give our problems to our kids, etc... In the series, there is a problem between her and her parents and every choice she makes in her life depends on that. And she spends her time trying to prove to him, and to herself that she can do it.
In your first episode, two things stand out, the bees, as Hana and Hazem are beekepers. And the music, in particular the song 'En Rah Menek Ya Ain' by Shadia. These two wonderful elements which one doesn't immediately associate with a popular Egyptian TV series. So how important are these details to your work?
Regarding the bees, all the time I'm confused about the bees. I ask myself, are they cute or are they wild? When you see them, the bees are so cute, like butterflies, and they give us honey. At the same time they are so wild, so dangerous, if they sting you it's a problem. I'm afraid of them. So there is contrast in the bees.
About Shadia, I am used to putting songs like that and always I ask myself why I'm using these songs. It's partly nostalgia, which affects me, but I'm never sure if it affects the audience in the same way. Sometimes the nostalgia is something very special to me. Like a perfume, like a song I have heard in my life. Yet, when I try it, all the time there is an effect happening to the audience so it makes me think I'm right. I like that song so much! Maybe I heard it a lot of times in my childhood. And there is a relationship for me between happiness and that song. Maybe because I heard it in my childhood in a happy situation, it's a reminder of a happy moment. When I added it during editing, every time the scene came up I liked it that way.
I don't know if the young generation will get the same effect because that song is in my nostalgia, my memory. The younger generations don't listen to Shadia songs too much. But the power of the melody and the song, it works. I think.
For me, I'd never heard that song before and yet when it came on, the feeling of that scene was so easily explained. Regardless of whether it is in our DNA, or your childhood. It doesn't matter. That's the great thing about a soundtrack, it can help direct the viewer...
I'm happy to hear you say that, and I'm happy you asked me that question.
How important is Netflix as a platform for Newton's Cradle?
Netflix is a very important platform, not only for the Arab countries, for everyone. I recently traveled to the USA and everyone is talking about Netflix. All the Egyptian filmmakers dream of putting their work on Netflix. What I noticed is that Newton's Cradle had success in the Arab countries when it screened on Shahid for Ramadan. I wasn't sure there would be a huge new audience coming with Netflix. The Arab countries had seen Newton's Cradle. Since it's been on Netflix, it was for two months in the top 10 in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and a lot of other countries. So there is always a new audience, there is an audience concentrating on Netflix. They are waiting for movies and TV series on Netflix.
What do you think creates a crossover hit, something that comes from the Arab world and is successful with Western audiences?
I believe that a great story can work everywhere. We are all looking for great stories. Maybe the story feels very close to me as an audience member, I am happy if I can see myself on the screen. It gives me the idea that I'm not alone in this world. Here is someone very far away, dreaming my dreams, and facing the same problems -- I'm not alone. But on the other side of that, I could be watching a very good story about something very far from my own life. And that will work too. The main condition is it has to be something coming from the heart.
If I'm telling a good story, coming from the heart, very close to the audience's story or very far, it will work.
You are working on something based on the 'Cairo Trilogy' by Naguib Mahfouz. What is that going to like and how are you developing it?
Actually, that was a dream. Five novels of Naguib Mahfouz. I'm going to mix the five novels and will tell the story in the present. Currently, there is a problem which we are trying to fix, the production house is changing. Maybe there is good news coming, even though we are freezing work on it now, we will come back to it in six months.
If you hadn't become a filmmaker what would you have done in life?
Before going to the cinema institute in Egypt, I was an architect.
Instead of building dreams you would have been building homes!
If I wasn't a filmmaker or a storyteller, I would be back to architecture. But sometimes I dream to cook, to be a chef, or a pilot, or a psychiatrist, but I like directing the most. Every time I like to change, there is a new challenge every time in filmmaking.
If you had to describe yourself to someone who doesn't know you, what would you say?
Sometimes I say that I'm a lucky man because I switched my life path. I had a dream to be a director. I was lucky that I could do it. I also think that in all my work up to the present day, I didn't explain myself enough. I didn't fulfill my dream enough. That's what I'm trying to work on right now. I have made four TV series, but they have taken me far away from cinema. So I took a decision to stop TV series and go back to my dream, cinema and I'm working on my second movie.
And finally, who have been your cinematic inspiration?
A lot of directors, Mohamed Khan from Egypt, his language and cinema. I like Jim Jarmusch too, but I don't concentrate on any one director, because if I did, I'd be a copy of their work. So I like a lot of different directors.