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Can YouTubers give kiss of life to Egyptian cinema?

The casting of a popular YouTube prankster in the title role of the Egyptian remake of "Joker" has started a debate on the future of the Egyptian cinema sector.
Egyptians walk past an advertisement featuring the Egyptian film "Mawlana" ("The Preacher") at a cinema in Cairo, Egypt January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC1CBD0FE750

CAIRO — For budding actors in Egypt, the Hollywood of the Middle East, being discovered no longer means endless auditions or cruising the cafes where they hope to meet a director or producer. In our days, they may try their luck at cyberspace — YouTube or TikTok — hoping that their widely followed clips or prank shows can catch the eye of a producer and land them a cushy film deal.

This is exactly what happened to Ekramy Hagras, a widely followed influencer whose shows on YouTube, Facebook and TikTok attract hundreds of thousands viewers. Hagras' short clips and sarcastic prank shows have about 1.7 million followers on YouTube, and his Facebook account is followed by about 459,000 people.

In January, this fast-talking, widely gesticulating young man was cast in "Global," a political drama that largely resembles “Joker.” He will play the title role, played by Joaquin Phoenix in the original version.

The cast of the film, which is to be produced by Egypt’s Global Media, includes a number of activists and influencers on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, or YouTubers such as Samir Sobhi and Eslam Shendy, a pop singer who has more than 62,000 followers on Facebook.

These “new media stars” are cast to play alongside veteran actors such as Ahmed Seyam, who seems happy enough with the casting.

The presence of the new actors in “Global” will turn this film into a unique experience, Seyam told Al-Monitor, adding, “The production does not rely on well-known film stars, so if it turns out to be a success this will confirm that artistic success depends on a good idea and good actors — not on the huge amounts of cash you pay to stars."

As soon as the trailer of the film was posted online, many fans of Hagras and Shendy wrote enthusiastically about the film on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook. But others criticized the decision of "Global" to cast Hagras in the title role and give prominent parts to other influencers and YouTubers, claiming that one's popularity on YouTube — in online prank shows, sarcastic stand-ups or "musicallies" (lip-synced music videos) — are no indication that these people can act.

“Idiots of TikTok becoming superheroes or what?” Fares Ezz-Eldin commented on the trailer, while Mohamed Abdo wrote, “The silly TikTok guy is starring in a film along with his silly friends.”

Though YouTube and social media clips reach a wide audience, they are often criticized for their racy lyrics, revealing clothes worn by the singers or simply for being shallow, offensive, dangerous or illegal. For example, a controversial YouTube couple — Ahmed Hassan and Zeinab Mohamed — have been facing trial since August 2019 for putting their baby in danger with the sole purpose of improving their ratings. The attention-craving couple posted videos of the newborn crying for long periods without tending to him in order to mock mothers whom they regard as slaves to their babies. Other videos showed the couple trying to test the reactions of the baby in dangerous situations, such as putting him in water or holding him out of the car window on a highway.

Hagras was a partner of Hassan and Mohamed in many of their prank videos over the past year.

Tarek Desouki, a member of the Egyptian Film Critics Association, said that getting non-actors to star in films was not unique to the present or to Egypt. “Many producers and directors have chosen singers, such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in the United States. In Egypt, Abdel Halim Hafez and Farid El-Atrash were initially known as singers,” he told Al-Monitor.

He noted that one never knows whether someone is a good actor unless you put him in front of the camera.

“Many singers such as Muharram Fuad and Mohamed Roushdi were not successful on the big screen. Hafez, on the other hand, became a well-known actor. This is actually what will happen with social media influencers — some of them will succeed and become known as actors and others will face failure several times, until they realize that they are not cut out for cinema,” he said.

The invasion of social influencers into the Egyptian cinema started in the last decade, gaining momentum in 2016. Some, such as Ahmed Amin and Amr Wahba, made a smooth transition to films and TV series.

Others made a start but could not quite reach fame and success. For example, the cinema career of stand-up comedian Shadi Srour began — and swiftly ended — with the Egyptian copycat of the award-winning film "Titanic.” He was never cast in another film again. Another online performer, Mohamed Mekawy, landed a minor role in 2018, but that was it.

According to Nader Adly, a member of the Egyptian Film Critics Association and director of the Alexandria International Film Festival, it is “natural” for activists and influencers of social networks to try their luck at cinema and become film stars. “It is the producers’ mistake to take them on without giving much thought to their abilities as an actor, simply because they think that those social media influencers would make it easier to market the film,” he told Al-Monitor.

The veteran critic explained that casting a singer to star in a film was different. “It is basically attempting to combine two art forms — music and cinema. It is a good choice, particularly if it is a musical or a lyrical film,” he said. “It may even work if the singer is not a particularly good actor. It is also possible to exploit non-actors in specialized acting roles such as choosing an athlete to perform the role of an athlete so he can play the scenes without a double.”

“However, there is no artistic justification for exploiting social media influencers and YouTubers as actors, except to take advantage of their followers and subscribers to market and promote the film,” he concluded.

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