Among this year’s Ramadan TV hits, the 15-episode series Says Who?, starring Jamal Suleiman and Ahmed Dash, was also critically acclaimed. It revolves around Sharif (Ahmed Dash), an upper middle class young man who on graduating from secondary school wants to skip a year and embark on a recycling startup. But his father (Jamal Suleiman), a successful professional in the field of medicine, wants him to start studying engineering right away.
“I always feel drawn to the younger generation,” Nadine Khan says. “This has been the most motivating factor for me to work on this series since reading it.” It is written in a language that reflects that generation’s voice. “This generation has broken many taboos, including the way they view education, which is a central issue in the series. The story, the purpose behind it, the way it was written, the way we as a team wanted to present it – all of this has to do with that generation and it was all very encouraging for me as a director.”
This is not Khan’s first TV series. In 2017, she was part of a hugely successful series The Seventh Neighbour, made by three female directors of the same generation: Aiten Amin and Heba Yousri wrote it along with Khan. “In The Seventh Neighbour, there were many characters, interconnected social connections and narratives.” But the process was very different with Says Who?, which is supported by the Sard workshop – founded by well-known screenwriter Maryam Naoum – an initiative that has produced a number of remarkable television dramas. A promising screenwriter, Magdy Amin, came up with the idea, cowriting the script with Mona El Shimi and Abdel Aziz Al Najjar.
Khan says the main preoccupation of the whole team was the character of Sharif, his development and his reactions. “We were putting ourselves in his shoes, thinking if we were in his place, how we might act. And we built everything else around that.” The concern she shared with Amin and Naoum during development meetings was that they would end up thinking like themselves rather than someone who is a teenager in 2022. Presenting the action from the viewpoint of a generation born at the turn of the millennium was agreed on from the start. “So the action could proceed with a logic we agreed with, but not necessarily the logic of our generation. We were aware that there would be a lot of taboo-breaking ideas, but we decided to fully accept and follow the logic of the characters who, even though they’re upper middle class, do not present a barrier to other classes. I think they break the taboo of class as well.”
The series did not face the usual pressures of the Ramadan season, when screenwriters are often still writing well into the screening of a given series. Says Who? was written early on, and filming took place between December and January. “We did not know that the series would be screened in Ramadan, so we worked at a normal pace. Later on MBC, the producer, decided to screen it during Ramadan even though being in a season where competition is so intense was one concern.”
Sharif’s startup plays a pivotal role, and it is a realistic project – so minutely researched many viewers wanted to know where they might buy the products – even though it doesn’t exist on the Egyptian market: to make furniture out of recycled paper, designing it with that in mind. Khan says there was a lot of brainstorming and research. “The main idea was to be consistent with the mindset of this generation, and most of them have standards like environmental awareness at the back of their minds.” Once the decided on the project, they had to find someone who could design and implement it. “We collaborated with Omar and Mazen from RNKL, a group of young people who showed us a set of furniture designs, samples of which we produced. The designs were not unprecedented, but their implementation with recycled paper in Egypt was. The project was highly expressive of the main character and the story.”
Another strong point in Says Who? is the cast, especially Sharif’s circle of friends: young actors, some appearing for the first time, giving a remarkably harmonious and spontaneous performance. In addition to the startup research, casting was the most time-consuming side of preparing for the show in the summer of 2021. “In cooperation with casting director Modi Shaheen, we began searching for young people in many ways: through friends, schools and universities. There were many young people who responded to our call.” But they needed a harmonious group and so, with help from the acting coach Nadim, there were many rehearsals and experiments until the cast was finally decided on. The choice of Dash, however, had already been made: “There aren’t many actors that age that are as good as Dash. I’d worked with him before and I was very familiar with his abilities.”
The plot of Says Who? does not contain the kind of exaggerated emotional conflicts endemic to Egyptian TV. Sharif and his friends face challenges and obstacles, but they are far from melodramatic. Khan believes the series presents an inspiring experience, in which the protagonists are ordinary people who look like us but have the determination to overcome difficulties to achieve their dreams, and convince others of their choices. “This generation shares a lot of ambitions, not necessarily melodramatic or unique, albeit unconventional. What we wanted to say to young people is that you can reach your goal with persistence, patience and to believe in your dream.”
One interesting element in Says Who? is how Sharif relies on a group of young refugees in his startup, which is a distinct gesture. Nadine says that during research, a recurring element was the presence of refugees in young people’s startups. “We loved highlighting that. It was part and parcel of the inspiration the series seeks to give the audience.”
The series discusses education in depth, and – against the belief long established in the middle class that a university degree is the only passport to success – considers paths alternative to university, without underestimating the importance of learning. Many real-life university teachers and students encountered during research and preparations agreed with these ideas, and the professor who supports Sharif’s decision is a nod to them. “The series does not present unrealistic ideas, but rather unconventional ideas derived from reality. Perhaps it sheds light on a new reality that we want people to think about.”
Born in 1979, Khan graduated from the Higher Institute of Cinema in 2001, and has since managed to carve out an outstanding niche on the scene. Her debut feature film Chaos, Disorder (2012) won the Jury Prize at the Dubai International Film Festival, the best film award at the Oran Film Festival, Algeria as well as the Muscat International Film Festival, Oman. One of her four short films, One in a Million (2006), was in the official selection of both the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and was acquired by the ZDF Kultur. Her second feature film Abu Saddam (2021) premiered in the International Competition of the Cairo International Film Festival and won the best actor award (Mohamed Mamdouh).
In addition to directing, she is the lead writer for her film projects, which means that her films express her choices and vision. But she is no less selective in her TV works, although television presents directors with the more constrained platform. Both The Seventh Neighbour and Says Who? have garnered attention and sparked debate. “For me, a director is a director, whether in cinema or television. Films are my very own projects, unlike TV series which I am invited to direct. But I like the work I direct to represent me.” She believes there are more production opportunities now that in the very recent past, and that is important regardless of content. “Diversity and abundance in the long run will automatically lead to sustainability and quality. We have to work on that.” Between 2012 and 2022, after all, she directed only two films and two television series. She feels it is time to embrace more projects and work at a faster pace.
“Undoubtedly have been difficulties along the way, conflicting emotions and all kinds of dramas,” she says. “But now I am looking forward to the future.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.