Movie Actor Khalid Abdalla Recasts The Arab Voice In New Film British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla jokingly calls his recent films — about Sept. 11, Afghanistan and Iraq — his "war on terror" trilogy. Now he's leveraging his footing in Hollywood to make his first independent Arab film — and it isn't focused on war or politics.
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Actor Khalid Abdalla Recasts The Arab Voice

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Actor Khalid Abdalla Recasts The Arab Voice

Actor Khalid Abdalla Recasts The Arab Voice

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Some movie actors like to use their high profiles to put the focus on people and places they care about. We have a couple of those stories now.


British actor Khalid Abdalla is one of the stars of the new film "Green Zone." He plays an Iraqi in the film, marking the third time Abdalla has drawn on his heritage to portray a Middle Eastern character in a Hollywood production. In his next project, Abdalla will do just the opposite, using his footing in Hollywood to make his first independent Arab film.

NPR's Bilal Qureshi went to Cairo and met Abdalla on the set of his latest film.

BILAL QURESHI: In "Green Zone," Matt Damon plays an American soldier looking for WMDs in Iraq. He's overseeing a dig in a Baghdad neighborhood when an Iraqi man breaks past the security line to confront him.

(Soundbite of movie, "Green Zone")

Mr. KHALID ABDALLA (Actor): (as Freddie) You think someone can put something in this place with all these people watching and all these people don't know? It's not logical. I am here to help you, okay?

QURESHI: The role of Freddie, the interpreter who's here to help, seems fitting for Khalid Abdalla, the actor.

Mr. ABDALLA: The failure of people to be able to understand things to do with the Middle East is in some ways a failure of the arts world.

QURESHI: So the 30-year-old star has tried to guide his career toward changing that. In just four years he's played a hijacker in "United 93," an Afghan immigrant in "The Kite Runner," and now a conflicted Iraqi in "Green Zone." He jokingly calls it his war on terror trilogy.

But just as Abdalla was preparing to film "Green Zone," he received an unsolicited script from a first-time director from Egypt. Girlfriend and fellow actor Cressida Trew urged him to forget it.

Ms. CRESSIDA TREW (Actor): It was going to be a huge time commitment, with almost no money at all, miles away. I mean, like, in terms of what you would consider to be a sensible, financially oriented, ambitious career decision, this is kind of a bit left-field.

QURESHI: But for Abdalla, it was the rare script that didn't focus on war or politics but instead on the lives of young artists not too different from himself, all set on the streets of his parents' hometown.

(Soundbite of car horn honking)

Mr. ABDALLA: Anyone who kind of a filmic sensibility of any kind sort of gets in a taxi or jumps in a car or walks down the street in Cairo and thinks: I wish I had a camera with me.

QURESHI: The film is called "In the Last Days of the City" and it tells the story of bohemian Cairo, Beirut and Baghdad, of a generation of young artists trying to find their voices in a society that often doesn't see them.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: It's the story of people like director Tamer Said.

Mr. TAMER SAID (Director): (Through translator) The problem with mainstream cinema is that it undermines me. It doesn't give me my space, it doesn't offer me solutions, and it doesn't give me room to work.

QURESHI: That's because commercial Arab cinema is often a bit like Bollywood, full of slapstick comedy and melodrama.

Mr. ABDALLA: It's almost like it's impolite to its audience, you know?

QURESHI: (Unintelligible) Abdalla, with is international profile and his experience, joined Said to form their own production company. Abdalla raised money in London; Said tapped into his personal savings, and they took to the streets to shoot, which as they've learned can pose its own problems.

Ms. TREW: We had the perfect take and then, you know, the old guy with his cap or whatever that, you know, who looked so fantastic, looks at the camera and waves at it and, you know, the whole take's completely ruined.

QURESHI: Seven floors above the chaotic streets of downtown Cairo, Cressida Trew, now part of the film's crew, is logging the day's shoot. That crew is called Zero Productions. Their offices are in an apartment building tucked behind a synagogue in a grand French-inspired part of the city that was once home to Cairo's intelligencia. The walls are lined with posters for classic Arab films, and the staff - a mix of Europeans, Lebanese and Iraqis - are on their Macbooks discussing the day's schedule.

Ms. TREW: There's loads of different languages being spoken in this office, and those are different people learning different languages. I mean, you know, there's like hesitant French, hesitant Arabic, hesitant English being spoken all over the place as we all try and speak each other's languages.

QURESHI: Along with learning each other's languages, they're building a new professional network that stretches beyond Egypt, and Khalid Abdalla says their first film is an extension of that spirit.

Mr. ABDALLA: You know, "In the Last Days of the City," and you say the words Beirut and Baghdad and Cairo and (unintelligible) Medina, the last days of the city, it kind of resonates a bit for anyone who's lived in Cairo and for anyone who's been through the turmoil and the instability in Lebanon, anyone who's lived in war in Baghdad; it's hard to know whether there's something that ties those instabilities. And I guess part of the question that this film is asking is what relationship is there between these cities that are finding it hard to keep their balance?

QURESHI: With one foot in the door in Hollywood and the other now trying to kick open a door for Arab filmmakers, Abdalla says he sometimes struggles to find his own balance.

Mr. ABDALLA: I won't allow either part of me to tell me that I shouldn't love the other part, and I love them both, and I love them both equally. And it saddens me when people from one part of me don't love the other part of me, and vice versa.

QURESHI: So he hopes "In the Last Days of the City" will premiere at an international film festival and that it will help make that connection and above all share a story that takes its audience beyond the confines of the Green Zone.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

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