For the first time in the history of Egyptian cinema, a movie will be filmed in two versions, with one exclusively starring deaf and hearing-impaired actors.
This unique idea came to film director Ahmed Afifi when he found out — and was shocked by — how many Egyptians are hearing-impaired.
"I was really shocked when I found out that there are millions of [hearing-impaired] people in Egypt. Imagine how those people are not represented in or cannot even understand our works," Afifi told Al-Monitor.
There is no recent information about the number of deaf and hearing-impaired people in Egypt, but a 2007 assessment by the World Health Organization estimated that hearing loss is prevalent in 16% of the country's population. They put the number at 13 million people across all age groups.
Afifi decided to do something for them through a film. At first he thought to make a film where a sign language interpreter appears via a box on the screen. But later he discovered that there are many deaf and hearing-impaired Egyptians with a talent for acting.
"I saw their performances and I admired them. I am delighted by their enthusiasm to join the film," Afifi said.
The actors started shooting the film "My Wife's Fiance" after successfully having passed a three-month acting workshop. The film is currently being shot in Egypt and China, and is scheduled to be screened in cinemas across the country in June.
Afifi said all the film's scenes are being shot twice: one with professional actors such as Ahmed Saad, Ihab Fahmi and Reem el-Baroudy, and the second with 30 young, hearing-impaired actors.
"These actors are shooting the same shots and wearing the same clothes as their counterparts, the professional ones," he said.
Afifi said the two versions of the movie will be shown on separate screens, and that a number of movie theaters will be dedicated to showing the hearing-impaired version. Arabic-language subtitles will also be provided in the hearing-impaired version of the film.
"I know the film is a big adventure," Afifi said, "but [the actors] are really talented and they must be given a chance."
Mohamed Tareq, a deaf and hearing-impaired actor with the lead role in the film, told Al-Monitor via a sign language interpreter, "First of all, I cannot describe my happiness that there will be a film with sign language. During my life, I haven't understood any film or TV serial. All I see are mere scenes."
It was Tareq's first experience as a movie actor, and he was initially afraid of the camera and forgot all the scenes that he had memorized.
"I sometimes forgot what I would act while shooting the scenes," he said, smiling. "The director encouraged me to try again and not to fear the camera. Day by day my fear disappeared."
Tareq, 25, is an architectural engineering graduate from a private university in Cairo. He described the film as a great opportunity for him to interact with different people and to live a more normal, less marginalized life.
"The film is based on a light comedy and has romantic scenes. It targets all Egyptians. They will attend and see us," he said.
Tareq said that as a youth he suffered greatly given his hearing loss. Even though many schools specialize in education for the hearing-impaired, most teachers teach their students in spoken language, not sign language.
"Of course we didn't understand anything," Tareq said. "I depend on myself and am always accompanied by a sign language interpreter, even in the university."
Tareq hopes that there will one day be a syndicate for sign language translators. "This would have the interpreters work in governmental institutions and to help people like me," he said.
Last year, Tareq and 12 other hearing-impaired people performed in the play "Perfume."
Audiences praised the play, and the media division of the Egyptian armed forces even produced a song praising the play titled "Viva Egypt." The actors performed the song in sign language in February in front of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The actors said they were delighted to meet the president and learn more about the Egyptian army.
Amar Adel, a freelance sign language interpreter who helped with both the film and the play, told Al-Monitor, "I translated the written scripts of the two works into sign language, which I learned especially for helping them."
Adel has a degree in commerce and likes to spend her time volunteering. During a visit to a charity organization in Cairo, she noticed that the deaf and hearing-impaired people there were isolated and had no goals in life. She was eager to communicate with them, so she learned sign language. Later, she launched the initiative My Hands are Speaking.
"Among [the group's] activities is to teach ordinary people sign language," she said. Adel said that hearing-impaired Egyptians possess a variety of skills, and that many are skilled at crafting handmade products. “There are also soccer players,” Adel added.
"I strongly believe that this film will be a turning point in their life," she said. "It will change the viewers’ minds about them and integrate them into society’s different fields."