Ingrid Serben Interview, Free Trip To Egypt film director
“The world seems crazier each day, with people full of distrust. Suspicion, demonization, polarization and racism seem rampant. Are we headed for global war and conflict? If a country like America, always a world beacon of freedom and tolerance, is eliciting such racist rhetoric, is there hope? These are the questions that burdened me . . . “ Those were the thoughts of the creator of Free Trip to Egypt, Tarek Mounib, in the beginning.
Seeking to build a bridge of mutual understanding and friendship, Mounib, an entrepreneur of Muslim faith decided to reach out to the very people who fear him. Traveling across the U.S. to find Americans concerned about an Islamic threat, he makes them an intriguing offer … a Free Trip to Egypt.
With initial reactions ranging from suspicion to hostility, Mounib embarks on a mission, traveling from sunny California to a Trump Rally in Kentucky, a small town in the heart of Georgia, Union Square in NYC … and a variety of other locales in between. Eventually, they cobble together a diverse group of people, including a school teacher, police officer, Marine Corps veteran, single mom, preacher and beauty pageant queen.
All have preconceptions and misgivings but are open and courageous enough to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
When people look beyond their ethnicity, political affiliations, religious beliefs, economic status and connect at a human level, it’s a transformative and universal message for everyone to come together and join the global #PledgeToListen initiative, a social media revolution of acceptance; and see FreeTripToEgypt.com
The following is an interview with the film’s director Ingrid Serban that took place in 2019, just prior to the theatrical release of Free Trip to Egypt. The interview was conducted by Sylvia Desrochers, publicist for the film.
Sylvia Desrochers: Can you tell us a little about how you came to get involved in the film?
Ingrid Serban: A friend of mine introduced me to Tarek because she thought I would be a good fit for directing his film, Free Trip to Egypt. “You have to talk to Ingrid,” she told him, and followed up with an introductory email to us both. Tarek and I spoke by phone soon after the email exchange and decided to meet in person to discuss the steps needed to make his inspiring idea into a movie.
SD: Prior to this film, did you have a lot of experience with traveling to other countries and meeting people of diverse cultures?
IS: I was born in Europe and moved to California to attend school, so I have a somewhat culturally diverse background. I have traveled extensively within North America, Central America and Europe. This was my first time in Africa. I have a keen interest in other cultures. My curiosity constantly propels me to learn new things and meet new people.
SD: So, part of your interest in directing the film was generated by this opportunity to explore another culture?
IS: Definitely! One thing about being an avid traveler is you learn that it’s so much more about exploration than expectation. You have to keep an open mind and appreciate the adventure. That’s how I tried to approach directing Free Trip to Egypt.
SD: Did you and Tarek make any advance logistical plans? For example, did you know you were going to the United States to immediately begin interviewing people who would be interested in going to Egypt to be part of Tarek’s diversity experiment? Or were the Egyptian families selected first?
IS: We began our search in the US by meeting with some friends of mine in Georgia. Then we drove across the Southern states and ended up at a Trump rally being held in Louisville, Kentucky. After we talked to people at the rally and did some on-the-street impromptu interviews—along with an appearance on Sirius XM Radio—we found 7 Americans who were willing to travel with us to Egypt. The Egyptian hosts were either Tarek’s acquaintances, or friends of friends.
SD: Who were the most apprehensive—the Americans, or the Egyptians?
IS: Our Americans participants were a bit more nervous, understandably so. During the three months leading to the trip, I stayed in touch with them regularly, answered any questions they had, and made sure they felt that we had their best interests at heart. The concern they shared was that they would be portrayed in a negative light. The Egyptian hosts were great, and if they were nervous they didn’t show it. They were excited to share their lives and love for their country with the Americans.
SD: Would you describe for me one of your favorite scenes in the film?
IS: That’s an easy one! I’d have to say it was the connection one of the American women had with the mother of one of the Egyptian women. Every time I see it, I cry!
SD: Yes, I remember it too. It’s just incredible because you can tell that even though both women didn’t know what they were saying to each other in their respective languages, they felt it; they knew they were both speaking the common language of love. For me, this was one of the most powerful scenes in the film, one that I’m confident will be felt by viewers.
IS: Here’s a behind-the-scenes moment to add to that story. Before we brought the Americans over to Egypt, I spent a couple of weeks of pre-production in Cairo to scout for locations and to get to know our Egyptian hosts. I had gone with the Egyptian woman to her mom’s home. Within two minutes after walking in the door, I found myself in tears. The welcome and generosity of affection the mom exuded was overwhelming.
SD: Did you have an Egyptian film crew?
IS: In the US, I had a small American crew. Before the big trip, we filmed the American participants in an effort to get to know them and to allow them to get comfortable with the camera and with me. The more we knew about each American’s personal life story, the better we were able to match them with their Egyptian hosts. In Egypt, we hired an entirely local crew out of a desire to support the local film industry, and because it made sense from a logistical point of view. We hired 5 crews who followed the American and Egyptian groups wherever their activities took them.
SD: Were you watching dailies every night to see how the footage was coming along?
IS: Unfortunately, there was no time for me to do so. There were 5 cameras rolling and we were working 16-plus hours per day. Knowing that watching dailies wasn’t going to be a possibility, I created a different plan. Each camera crew had one of our producers keeping an eye on the events. And before we started filming, I shared information about our American participants with the producers and the cinematographers to make it easier to capture key moments on film. Then, at the end of each day, I gathered the details, which allowed me to be aware of how their stories were progressing. I joined a different group each day so I could keep a finger on the pulse of the action. I had certain targets I was going for in terms of the story. It was a calculated risk which, for the most part, worked out well.
SD: So as the director of the film, what do you hope its viewers will take away with them?
IS: As a filmmaker, I strive to capture and relay as much truth as I can. I don’t expect viewers to think a certain way after viewing this film, but I do hope they feel a connection and kinship with the American and Egyptian people and their journeys. I hope that the audience feels transported to Egypt, a place I’ve grown to love, and that the film inspires a desire to meet new people. For me, it’s been a privilege to meet everyone who has participated in our film, both in front and behind the camera. I am forever grateful for all of their efforts, courage and relentless determination to bring this story to the screen.