Ones to Watch: Ramy Moharam Fouad
Splitting his time between Brussels and Antwerp (that is, if he’s not touring the world with his brother Tamino) Ramy Moharam Fouad is a visual creative focused on directing and photography. Driven largely by narrative and a desire to accurately depict the different worlds of the artists he collaborates with, Fouad is the first to admit that he asks a lot from his audience. Having created his first short film at the age of 16, the young director is seasoned at delving deep into the lives of his subjects and it shows. At the top of 2020, he released a short documentary with Belgian rapper, Zwangere Guy. With music videos for Tamino, blackwave., and IBE, under his belt we’re excited to see what he has in store. Just before 2019 wrapped up, we spoke to the Belgian artist about art school, how he prepares for collaborative and personal projects (and how those processes differ), as well as a few of his favorite things. Read below for the full interview accompanied by his self-portraits.
What do you do as an artist?
What I do as an artist? So, I’m a visual artist, I mainly photograph and direct. Everything that I can translate through visual works, I try to do. I hate to put titles on it, but they’d also call me a creative director sometimes. For example, for my brother, I could say I’m his creative director. All visual aspects on one end — with artists I work for, and on the other end, just my own projects.
Tell me about your surroundings in Antwerp. What do you think that scene is like? How does it inspire you?
I think Antwerp is a very cool scene because there are several young artists and creatives, and they all try to look each other up as much as possible. When my career started to roll, I got to know many people I look up to and then suddenly they became friends; it’s a really open scene.
What are you studying?
I’m studying film direction at Luca School of Arts in Brussels, it’s my second year now. So it’s amazing to live between those two places. Brussels has its own environment as well, and it’s also full of creatives, but on another level, and in another way. I can’t really describe it, but it’s cool to manage between those two words.
Do you find that school is helpful? Or do you wonder, “Why am I doing this?”
At first, I didn’t like it at all. The first year I did it, I had already directed several videos. It was pretty weird because I directed my first video when I was 16; I already worked with professional people, and it really started to turn into my job. Then I had to decide whether I would keep going or go a bit slower with my career and go to school.
Eventually, I did, and it was a tough year. All my teachers were telling me I had to choose between my work and school, because, “music videos aren’t art or movies,” you know?
That was their vision about it. It was an intense year of feeling guilty about creating outside of school. I was doing it all the time, and I was on tour with my brother, so I wasn’t there a lot. And then at the end of the year, after the final exams they told me like, “Yes, Ramy, you know what? You have a 49/100…”
They wanted me to redo my year. That was a point for me like, “Am I really going to do this? Or am I just going to go my own way?” Eventually, I convinced myself to do it over. And that was a really cool year because I passed my theories so the only thing I had to do was make four movies. And besides that, I could do whatever I wanted to do.
I toured with my brother, I made three or four music videos, I made a few short movies; it was a really productive year. Now I’m in my second year, and it’s really cool. I’m finding that teachers are understanding what I’m doing. I asked one of my teachers to talk so that I could explain what I was doing, and that I was working, and immediately she said, “Ramy, what you’re doing beside school, it’s important. You’re making cinema. So I’m going to do everything I can to make it work for both of us.” Getting this from her changed a lot for me.
And then you have two more years left?
Yeah, one year bachelor, and then another year or two master.
Fantastic. So you said that you directed your first video when you were 16. How did you get into this path? How did you know this is what you wanted to do?
At first, I only did photography. I got a “job,” if you can call it like that, a friend of my mom asked me to take pictures of her grandmother who had dementia. I was 15, and it was a big responsibility.
Until then I was just capturing things I loved, like beautiful landscapes or people. I ended up doing it, and it was such a great experience because she told me stories about her husband as if he was still there when he wasn’t. It was a really touching afternoon, and the day after I got a message from my mom’s friend saying, “Thank you again for this beautiful day. She hadn’t felt so good in a long time, she was able to be a model, and it was great.” But I got the news she passed away this night. It was really shocking.
That is pretty heavy for a 15-year-old, for anyone.
Exactly. Yeah, it was really heavy. So I was the last one to capture her. It felt like I couldn’t only tell this story through the photos I took. I had to make a movie about it. I don’t know why, but it just felt right to do it. And then I gathered a cast and crew together, and I made my first short film.
Can you tell me about the film?
Yeah, definitely. It’s called “Damonia.” I took the word from the philosophical term, ‘eudaimonia.’ It’s the constant strive for people to work towards happiness. I wrote the story just inspired by the grandmother of Karen, the friend of my mother, a woman who was demented, but all she wanted to do was to get back to her husband. She was just building towards their own happiness, while people don’t understand because they think she doesn’t understand because she’s demented. Her name was Godelieve, it’s a very Flemish name.
From that film to now, how did you transition into the films that you’re making currently? And how do you think your style has changed?
That was just the first film I did, and it felt really good, being on set, working with actors, working with people who inspire me on set. My brother [Tamino] made music for the film; it was a logical step to talk about a music video afterward.
He still lived here at home back then, and it was just a process of walking into each other’s rooms every day, and talking about concepts and ideas — it was such a cool communication. And then we finished the story and we made the first music video for “Cigar”, which was the first that we did together. Now, we’ve already made five.
Okay, so let’s walk through your process. Typically, how do you make a project happen from start to finish?
There are two different kinds of processes for me, maybe even three or four. I’m working as a director for people, but also for myself. And the same for photography. When I when I work as a director for artists, I do all I can to really crawl into their world; their visual world, their personal world, the story they want to tell. So, I meet with them a lot.
When it’s for my brother, it’s easy to meet with him. The artist and I talk about it a lot because I really want to make sure I tell the story they want to tell with the song, and then I try to get it down in a scenario and part that takes a lot of time for me. I try to take at least one or two months for the script because I really want to make it right and get the right inspirations, and metaphors to translate what they want to tell.
And it’s also important for me that I can find my own place in the meaning of the song or the meaning of the idea. So, when I’m working with my brother, it’s really easy because…well, “easy…”
Easier, yes, because we’re going through the same things obviously, and I immediately understand how he feels and what he’s going through. When the script is finished, and it’s confirmed by the artists, then we start to gather our team. You grow a bond with the crew, and it’s very cool to work with a manufactured well-oiled crew, and also young people who are still very enthusiastic. Then we shoot for one or two days.
I would love to say it’s a long post-production process, but mostly it has to go really fast. In the music industry, they are really last minute with their deadlines. It’s always a big rush. Sometimes you have to make decisions without thinking a lot about them. But still, the product is always what we would love it to be so that’s cool.
Let’s talk about your process for personal projects.
Well, that’s a process that I take much more time for. I’ve worked on four short films last year, but only two I’m really happy about, so it’s also a process of trying to find the story I want to tell and working towards a scenario that tells it. But that’s also something that takes a lot of time with me because I want to make sure every small detail is right.
I’m really a perfectionist when it comes down to my storytelling. I always have my own edit in my head. I know several friends of mine who are also directors who don’t have it at all; they just want to shoot and see in post-production. But for me, it’s very important to know which scene comes after what scene, and which shot comes after what shot. It’s really tight.
When it’s a personal project, it’s important that it’s my story, or at least the story from someone who’s very near to me, and something that’s relevant to tell. For personal projects, I really only work with young people and people I believe in. A lot of actors, I pick from the streets. One of the actors that performed in one of my short films last year, he was a boxer, but he was a great actor and he didn’t know for himself. It’s more of a process without too much pressure. I’m always searching to reinvent myself and try to work towards a goal that I’ve set for myself.
So what is your goal right now?
I am trying to work on a movie where I’ve created a world which is a variation on our reality. I love realistic films like films from Xavier Dolan or Richard Linklater, for example. But for me, the movies that have really kept me are the ones where a director succeeds to create a whole other world by abstracting the reality we live in.
When you say variation in reality, do you mean that it’s just slightly off? Do you ever read Haruki Murakami?
Yes! I’m reading Sputnik Sweetheart right now.
He’s really good at creating these very realistic, unrealistic worlds because of how much detail he creates. His writing is so unbelievably believable if that makes sense…
When working with other artists, how do you insert your own vision?
It’s a lot of talking and working towards being on the same page about everything; about almost every sentence in the lyrics, you know? I always sit with them a lot, and we discuss the lyrics, and I ask them to write a paper for me where they explain what they feel about the song, what they want to tell, and what the lyrics mean for them.
For some, it’s not easy. I’m used to my brother; Tamino, he writes a 10-pager about what he means with the song and what each word means. It goes on and on.
When watching your projects I’m really captivated by the lighting that you choose. Can you talk about that element?
Yes, we always try to work towards the right color palette. There would have to be a very special element on set, that would convince us to go in search of another palette, but normally we always stick to it.
There is a very close communication between me and my DOP and he communicates with the gaffers. We work out a color palette, which resonates with and translates the emotions of the song through the lighting. It’s always a search for the right lighting because you arrive at set, and you don’t know what you will get. I just try to make moods with it and try to captivate what’s important in a scene. That is where lighting becomes very important if you just want to accentuate what’s important or something.
Do you have favorite people to work with?
There are some people I really love to work with every time again. It’s the best thing when we have a connection that goes very deep and very far; when we don’t have to use many words to translate what we feel and what we think. It’s a blessing to have these people on set, really.
How would you describe your cinematic style?
You have difficult questions…my cinematic style…I don’t know if I have one yet.
Do you think that there’s an element that ties the projects that you’ve worked on (so far) together? It could even be more of a narrative thing…
Yeah, I would say it’s a narrative thing. I could say that that’s my signature until now. The narrative is built throughout the whole project. I definitely have a very specific taste, things I love to see, and things I hate to see. I always work in one-shots. That could be a trademark of mine, I would say. So, I find it very interesting to really layout the scene.
You can work towards something very cool when you cut all the time in the edit of a music video for example, but for me, it’s the most interesting to work on a take which takes 30 seconds, one minute or longer. In short films of mine, even much longer. It’s a challenge, and that’s really cool to work towards on set. Some days you’re working for two or three hours on one shot to make, but the shot takes one-fifth of the music video. I often compare it to shooting on film, you’re really thinking about what you’re making. It’s not just, “Put your finger on the record button, and shoot whatever you can.” It’s really well structured, and everything has to be right before we start shooting. It grows while we’re shooting, but it’s not something we only decide while shooting.
When you’re talking about a long shot, I imagine that you have to remain pretty present too, and I think that that is reflected in the emotion of the people in the shot. Because if the director is constantly cutting, it’s kind of hard for the cast to get into it.
True. I know that when I’m making something, I’m asking a lot from the people working on set. Doing long shots a few times over again is exhausting. Some people even call me “the eternal one more take.” I know it’s heavy, but it’s always been worth it. But I’m asking a lot from the audience as well. You have to stay concentrated to understand everything we’re trying to tell, and you probably have to watch it several times to really get to the bottom of the story.
Sometimes, the artists I work for are very scared about it like,” Isn’t it taking too long? Aren’t we asking too much?” But that’s the thing for me, we’re living in a world where everything has to go way too fast, and nothing gets time to actually live. And that’s the most important thing. If you take the time, maybe you’ll find yourself in them. And that’s the thing I find very interesting.
What is your favorite film right now?
Can I say two? So first of all, Her. It’s one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen. He [Spike Jonze] managed to make a movie I would love to make. Number two is The Handmaiden by Park Chan-Wook. It’s a Korean movie, I’ve only seen it recently, and wow! How they manage to make every scene even more beautiful than the last, with only three characters. It’s amazing.
What’s your favorite city of the moment?
Well, it’s hard to say because we’re visiting a lot of cities with the tour, but we don’t get to really see them. So you only get a glimpse of what’s there. I love Paris. I feel I could live in Paris.
I couldn’t live in London for example.
What’s your favorite song?
This is so hard…okay my decision is made. I’m going to say, “All I Need” by Radiohead.
What is your favorite painting?
I’m going to go with my first feeling, and that’s not one painting, just an artist: Rothko. I once cried at an exhibition of him. You stand in front of these huge paintings, and how, just a color palette can make you feel such amazing, deep feelings…
What’s your favorite book?
I don’t know if it’s my favorite book, storywise, but it really got to me. It changed my vision on lots of things. Ishmael by David Quinn. It’s pretty weird at first. I don’t know if I should tell you about it, maybe you should just read it.
You work both in front of the camera and behind it. How do you think that informs your work?
I prefer to stay behind it, but I do like the world. It’s a completely other world. As a model, you’re working in the fashion industry. I just signed with a really cool agency, it’s called Noah Management. They have a whole other way of looking towards modeling and the fashion industry. We’re humans, we’re persons with an identity. They try to represent every model as what they are plus being a model, I’m a visual creative and a model. So it’s trying to look towards collaborations with brands where I maybe someday I could direct something where I’m in myself; it’s a cool mix between the two worlds.
I’ve been working with really cool people, really sweet people. For me, it’s never been bad or harsh, and I know that the industry can be very harsh sometimes, especially for women. But for me, it’s been very nice so far. It is quite inspiring most of the time.
Last question — what do you wish for 2020?
Every year I make a post on my Instagram account like, “Thank you so much for this year. So many beautiful things happened and let’s keep on growing in the next year,” and it’s exactly how I feel about this year as well. Every day, new things, new opportunities come towards me, and it keeps on going and I’m very grateful for it.
Sometimes I have to put my feet on the ground, and tell to myself, “Whoa, you’ve just turned 20,” like, “calm down.” But it’s amazing how all these things arrive on my path. This year I want to keep working on my own projects. All the music videos I’ve done, it was the best learning school I could ever wish for. Now my brother is taking a break, and I wish I could say the same for myself, but now I need to work on my own shit. But I’m looking forward to it a lot.
I’m making two short movies in 2020. I’m trying to write on them now. I’m looking forward to building out my own creative visual identity, and I’m looking forward to spending time on smaller things. There have been loads of deadlines and pressure for the last two years.
Now, I finally get some time to focus on the smaller things surrounding me. Focussing on myself, my own story, my own world. For example, I really look forward to pick up all the negatives I shot over the past two or three years. It’s going to be so nice to rediscover all these beautiful memories. And looking forward to visiting the US!
Self-Portraits courtesy of Ramy Moharam Fouad.
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