THIEF, The Little Film That Could

Ayman Samman in THIEFOn Saturday, June 11th, 2011 an American Film Institute (AFI) Graduate Student Short Film named “Thief” won the most prestigious prize in the world that a student film can win! Thief won the Gold Medal Award in the Narrative category from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences aka the Oscars.

Now, I had the honor and the privilege to play one of the main roles in the film. When I took on the project I had no idea how far it will go. I didn’t even know there was a Student Academy award! What I did know is that it had a good story and a very talented director and an amazing cast and crew. I remember showing up to the set in the Acton valley north of Los Angeles and being greeted by Julian Higgins (the director). He had a big smile of pride on his face and he said “let me show you the set!” So we walked through the valley and got to a little house they built in the middle of the desert. The house reminded me of my grandmother’s farmhouse in Egypt. That’s when I knew this was not a typical student film. The filming experience was a lot of fun! Having to learn the Iraqi dialect and just to be acting in Arabic in an American film shooting in Los Angeles made it very surreal.

Fast forward a year later, Thief started to get acknowledged in various film festivals as well as winning the first place drama in College Television Awards aka Student Emmy’s.

After the announcement of the Academy and as I was watching the film on the gigantic screen at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, I had a quick flash back to where I came from and where I am now. The kid that grew up in the alleys of Cairo, playing soccer in the gravely streets (that would be me), his face is now on a big screen between two giant golden Oscar statues. This is nothing short of a miracle! I am very blessed and humbled that when I finally did choose the path of a career that I love regardless of the socio-economic viability of it’s future, the pay off was almost instant and in incredible ways!

So, please, if you have a dream that you feel strongly about don’t let anything or anyone stop you from pursuing it. You are the master of your life and dreams do come true.

 

Actor Ayman Samman Composes a Song Dedicated to the Egyptian Revolution

Los Angeles, CA, March 09, 2011 –(PR.com)– After a successful career as an indie rock singer and a theatre actor in Egypt and Chicago, Ayman Samman is now a working actor in TV and film in Hollywood. He graduated from Helwan University as an Egyptologist and guided tourists throughout the Middle East. His natural storytelling skills and his ability to easily connect with people are ingredients to his recipe for success.

“This song is dedicated to all the Egyptian men and women who gave their lives to free Egypt during the revolution,” said Samman. “I wrote it both in English and Arabic hoping to spread a positive message of hope for a bright future. As an Egyptian-American I felt the need to express to both worlds the impact of the sacrifices that made this happen.” The Egyptian youth revolution that started on January 25th, 2011 and toppled the dictator regime of Hosni Mubarak in 18 days has been the talk of the world. “Egypt is going to be a better stronger place for it. Their lives (the martyrs) are not forgotten and they will forever be a symbol of courage and a reminder that dying for what you believe in is better than pretending to live,” said Samman.

The song is called Bird of The Morning can be found on youtube:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nRgD6mCdjs

A Bird’s Eye View on the Egyptian Revolution Part 4 – The begining

Here’s a link to Part 3 in case you missed it.

My brother heard that the US Embassy is arranging for evacuation flights to American citizens. We called the embassy when we got home and no one was there because it was Sunday? We called the next day and no one answered so I had to push the emergency option which they define by “The death or arrest of an American” nonetheless it was the only way to get a hold of anyone and when we did the answer was brief, just head to Terminal 4 for evacuation assistance. My bother tells us that it’s the VIP terminal locked for VIPs and foreign dignitaries. So shouldn’t be as insane as the other terminal. We wanted to see my sister and my nephews and niece one more time before we left. With curfew restrictions we can’t see them until the next day for a brief few minutes before we head to the airport.

We spend all of Monday with my parents and Tuesday morning my sister arrived and we hung out briefly. We head to the airport with my brother and my brother in law for the second time. We get to terminal 4 as we’re greeted by a “Other side!” from an ex marine like guy. It was generally calmer and less crowded. My brother and my brother in law wanted to stay and wait till we left but at this point things looked promising so I asked them to head home. We stood in line and had to sign an emergency evacuation loan, which surprised me that the American government will be charging us for that. Considering we pay taxes for such services. Anyway, we sign and they put us on a charter flight to Istanbul. Within two hours from being there we board the plane. We stay on the tarmac for another couple of hours till they filled the plane then we were off to Turkey. There was great mix of ethnicities o this all American plane. I guess that’s what makes this country great.

We arrive to Istanbul and we’re directed to purchase an entry visa then on to the American assistance stand. They give some information and then we’re off to KLM’s desk to see if we can change our flights. After a couple of hours in line as the system kept going down we finally managed to adjust our flights to Amsterdam then to Los Angeles. KLM was kind enough not to charge us any extra. Our flight to Amsterdam leaves at 6 AM and it’s almost 9 PM so not enough time to leave the airport and come back at 3 AM to check in. So we decided to get a bite to eat, get some coffee and do some catching up on our Facebook. Lots of emails and a ton of Facebook wall posts from concerned American friends. It was overwhelming touching and humbling to feel all that love.

We then find a comfortable spot in the airport and stretch on a couple of chairs. I completely crashed but my wife had a hard time sleeping, as there were a couple of drunk guys bantering loudly from across the way. We wake up check into our next flight and off we go to Amsterdam. We see some familiar faces from the evacuation flight. The whole journey is very surreal if you factor in the stress and sleep deprivation. After a short layover in Amsterdam we catch our 11 hour flight to Los Angeles. Our friend who house sat for us came to pick us up and it was such a mixed emotion to be back to LA. In one hand it was good to be home on the other I was quite torn to leave the way I did and knowing that my family are still dealing with it all.

Since we’ve gotten back I’ve been calling my family everyday. I can’t tell you how much relief I felt when Mubarak finally stepped down. I was worried that things might escalate to a terrible situation. The revolution accomplished a lot for the Egyptian people. It changed world’s history and regained a sense of belonging back to all Egyptians. We still have ways to go but the snowball is rolling and it’s unstoppable. It’s time to rebuild and cleanup. Egypt is a better country for its people and Egyptians are tasting freedom for the first time in over 5000 years! I’m grateful to have lived to see this day and to have been there when the whole thing started. For the first time I can really mean it when I say, I’m proud to be an Egyptian!

A Bird’s Eye View on the Egyptian Revolution Part 3 – Dude, is that a tank?!

Here’s a link to Part 2 in case you missed it.

So, no cell phones and no Internet. Only landlines and TV. Government controlled channels continue to say that the protesters are merely a few thousand while other channels say they are in the 100s of thousands. Violence is rising from the police forces through the use of teargas, high-pressure water and rubber bullets. Victims fall down but the protesters are not backing down. There are no reporters on the ground so we mainly get high-level video transmissions from near by hotels. The tension is rising and everyone feels it even far from the square. In my parents neighborhood we hear some noise outside we run to the balcony to see some people scurrying around after a few kids made some screaming noises and everyone is out in their balconies freaking out. Things calm down but the tension rises.

Now the government starts to realize they can’t stop the movement. They don’t have the manpower needed as the numbers of protesters increase. So, on to the next diabolical plan. Tyrants always rule by the use of fear so it only made sense for them to use it at this critical time. The police disappears all of the sudden. Next thing you know, government TV is warning from the prison breaks and the thugs that are roaming the neighborhoods vandalizing, terrorizing and stealing anything they can.

Mubarak still thinking he can manipulate the situation instates the Army. Panicked callers calling government TV to send army troupes to their area as the “thugs” are wreaking havoc. People sitting at their homes in a state of utter fear. Young men take to the streets with sticks, knives and any household item that can be used as weapon to defend their areas. They build blockades at entrances and check points to make sure no “thugs” go in. I believe the whole idea was to scare the protesters enough to leave the square and go home to defend their families. Aside from the methodical TV panicky calls the government ensured that people hear automatic weapons sounds at early hours of the morning to instill the horror and fear of chaos.

Of course now hindsight is 20/20 but at the time these things were happening you couldn’t help but believe there were thugs with machines guns roaming Cairo in the absence of Police. I couldn’t sleep and was mainly glued to the TV as much as possible, which really didn’t help. The government did their utmost to eliminate all other channels but their own so they can feed you what they wanted. From attacking press folks to confiscating cameras and office equipment of Aljazeerah to completely killing their satellite transmissions.

Ironically every attempt from the government back fired ten folds and caused more people to participate in the protests. On Saturday I started thinking it maybe a good idea to try and change our airline tickets and leave a week earlier. You can’t get a hold of the airline because their office is in the square and there’s no Internet so they can’t do much for you anyway. The only option is to head to the airport and try to change the tickets there. My brother and my brother in law take my wife and I in a cab. First time out of the house after getting back from Alexandria. We saw locals guarding the checkpoints holding sticks and machetes. Around the corner from my parent’s building there’s military tank! A freaking military tank in our neighborhood! Mind you I served in the military and seen tanks but never thought I’d see one around the corner from parent’s house, parked right in front of the little coffee shop. Not too far from it a burnt police truck. The whole journey to the airport was surreal with tanks, military police and local checkpoints.

We get to the airport and it was quite the sight. Hundreds of people from different nationalities with massive amounts of luggage some with reservations and most without. All attempting to get on a plane like we are. Flights are restricted to fly only during non curfew hours which is from 7 AM to 3 PM. We managed to make our way to KLM counter thinking we could upgrade or pay a little extra to get on the plane but after seeing the long lines of people that already had reservations that idea began to fade. The airline rep takes our passports and puts us on “stand by” which the more time past the more I realized that was just meaningless. In a couple of hours it will be curfew and luckily my brother and my brother in law decided to wait to make sure we got on a plane. So we decide this was a bad idea and attempted to make our way out.

There were people standing on conveyer belts, on top of counters. Metal detectors almost toppled by the masses. It was like swimming up the stream trying to make our way away from the counter while everyone else wants to get to it. For 15 minutes we were standing still attempting to move without being dragged down or having luggage fall on us. It was very scary! My brother was calling me and I couldn’t reach to my pocket to answer the phone. We finally make it to the doors but there’s no exit door. Only entry doors with metal detectors. I talk to an officer who sends me to another and they finally allow us to get out.

We take a cab back home with a sigh of relief that we got out alive without being trampled. It was great to see my parents again specially after the quick early morning goodbye. If anything I am grateful to have been there with them during that time to get a real picture of what they were experiencing rather than hearing about it from the news while I’m the US. More in the final part 4.

A Bird’s Eye View on The Egyptian Revolution – Part 2 (No Twitter!)

The view from our Alexandria hotel room during sunrise

Here’s a link to Part 1 in case you missed it.

So, on January 16, 2011 my wife (who’s American) and I went to visit my family planning on staying there for three weeks through February 6, 2011. Our first week in Cairo was amazing as usual. Time with family and friends. We also had some time to shoot some footage that will be used in a feature that shoots late spring and parts of it take place in Cairo. With a three week stay we scheduled a little mini vacation to Alexandria for three nights starting January 25, 2011. I’m sure that date sounds familiar now around the globe. We heard the day before that there were gonna be peaceful demonstrations in Tahrir Square. Nothing alarming life is still normal and for the most part everyone’s going about their business. We took the train from Cairo to Alexandria and enjoyed the leisurely ride as the train cut its way through the green fields of the Nile Delta as we sip our cappuccinos and take random picture & videos.

We arrived to Alexandria in the afternoon and things still seem normal. I ask the cabbie about the demonstrations and he says there are a few hundred people in Manshia square in Alexandria demonstrating peacefully. We reach our hotel in the heart of the Montazah palace. A heavenly place established by a former Turkish ruler whom after an African Safari wanted to have his own little jungle so he created this huge forest like surroundings for his palace that looks over the Mediterranean. In the past the forest used to have exotic animals roaming around and was restricted from the public. After the 1952 revolution the animals were moved to a zoo and the park was opened to the public and a few  hotels were built there. We were lucky to stay at the hotel with the most prominent view of the sea and had a room with an amazing view, thanks to my Tour Operator brother. We were sort of isolated in the hotel as we had everything we needed there. I mean why go out while you’re sitting in your balcony watching the waves crash on shore while you update your Facebook status?

Wednesday evening we hear about the protesters announcing Friday the 28th as the “Day of Rage”. My brother calls and recommends we move our train time a little earlier to avoid any traffic caused by the protests taking place after the Friday prayers in the afternoon. On Thursday, January 27 my cousin came over and drove us first to the train station to change our tickets and then to my aunt’s house and we spent a wonderful day and had dinner and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary as we drove from and to the hotel. Random talks of the protests but again nothing too alarming. No huge media coverage but we heard that Twitter was shut down in Egypt! Now that can generate some rage!

We wake up early on Friday watched the sunrise, enjoyed a huge breakfast buffet and then off to the train. On the train I started hearing people referring to the protests as a revolution and that today is going to be huge. In the back of my mind I started remembering days of college protests and how they usually grimly ended. I realized this was happening on a bigger scale but I didn’t quite absorb how big the scale really was. We get to Cairo around noon and again things look normal we take the subway and learn that they blocked the two stops leading to the square to prevent more protesters from joining. As soon as we got off the subway I tried to call my mom and tell her we’re a cab ride away but I had no signal on my phone. We decided to get a coffee at our favorite coffee shop named Cilantro. We were about 15 miles away from Tahrir Square. As we sip our lattes I hear other patrons talking about how they also don’t have cell phone signal and some mentioned that the Internet was disconnected as well. More in Part 3…

A Bird’s Eye View on the Egyptian Revolution – Part 1

So, in case you don’t know, I am Egyptian – American. Born and raised and lived in Cairo for a quarter century before moving to the USA. One of the main reasons that made me wanna leave Egypt was the fact that corruption was rampant and you either had to join it or pretend it doesn’t happen and live like a zombie with no hopes or aspirations. I’ve seen demonstrations during my college years and they usually ended in a cloud of tear gas and injured or killed youth and these were the lucky ones. The ones that were arrested were tortured and their families were tortured in front of them. You see, the imposed Emergency Law gives the government a fully fledged authority to arrest and imprison anyone for any reason they see fit. No trial necessary. Not to mention the one party system and the rigged elections that always resulted in 99.9% success rate to the ruling party. I never voted or bothered to vote as the whole process was a farce. Since I wasn’t an activist I tried to change things through music but even then we were sensored and targeted by the government. The government started a methodical press campaign using government owned media, demonizing all the Egyptian Heavy Metal bands that started popping up around 1993. They called us Satanists and they called us tools of the Western countries trying to invade our culture by corrupting the minds of the innocent youth. Some of my musician friends were arrested and got their long hair shaved.They were beaten and kept in custody for a few days. I was lucky I didn’t get arrested but I had to stop playing music and lay low for a long while.

I worked as a tour guide as that was my major in college. Looking back at Egyptian history, Egypt has never seen democracy, EVER! Since its creation, the Pharaoh was a God. Try arguing with that! Then we went through a series of occupations by various foreign entities, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, French, English you name it. So no democracy there either. Then the military stated a Coup D’états in 1952 against King Farouk promising of a new found democracy. However, replacing a King by a “President” was just a naming convention change but the reality was we had a dictator placing another. So since 1952, Egypt has seen only 3 presidents. None of them was elected and none of them left willingly. All of them were from the military. Of course all of them had great historical achievements there’s no doubt about that but they have stripped the Egyptian people from the right to choose. They all thought they knew what’s best for the people without consulting the people, relying only on the corrupt circles around them. Nothing good comes out of feeling superior to anyone.

Now fast forward 59 years from the 1952 Military “Revolt”. You have a country that is in a powerfully strategic location in the world, very rich in resources both natural and intellectual, yet more than 60% of the population lives off $2 or less a day! While 2% own the country’s wealth and about 30% getting by or living a somewhat decent life. I never felt the country was mine but rather occupied by the tyrant and his police forces. It’s really degrading to feel worthless in your own country and valuable in others. For some reason Egyptians coped and coped to a painful extent. People seemed to have given in to the current circumstances. There was a general feeling of carelessness. People didn’t care if there were garbage dump sites near their homes or if they had to bribe three different people to get any paper work done. Or that they had to stand in line for government subsidized bread and basic rations. “It’s not my problem” was the theme for years. People were numbed by government controlled media, wide spread of drugs, over 300 satellite channels that transmit nothing of value. Every time I went back to visit my family I would see some progress in certain areas, like better roads, better communications etc. but I also noticed that the general spirit was getting bleaker and bleaker. Being an insider/outsider gave me this bird’s eye view of the disintegration of the Egyptian human spirit. Never in a million years that I thought that they will ever rise up like they did. Not in my life time at least and I’m an optimist!

So, on January 16, 2011 my wife (who’s American) and I went to visit my family planning on staying there for three weeks through February 6, 2011. Stay tuned for part 2….