Documentary Film Free Trip to Egypt’s producer and creator Tarek Mounib talks Transformation
Producer Tarek Mounib had what some people might consider an unusual dream or mission—to bring a group of Americans concerned about what they perceive as an Islamic threat—to meet actual Muslims in Egypt. The resulting adventure was captured on film for the documentary A Free Trip to Egypt. LA YOGA caught up with Producer Tarek Mounib to ask him some intriguing questions about the making of the doc and what experiences may not have been captured on film.
LA YOGA: What is your professional background? How much experience do you have with coordinating travel—and with documentary filmmaking?
Tarek: I own various companies, so people sometimes call me an entrepreneur. I have two software companies, one health center, and a couple other minor things. I didn’t have much experience with travel coordination, but one of my companies is a software offshoring company. We have European and American customers, and the software is developed in Egypt. I did, on multiple occasions, travel with European and American managers and brought them to Cairo. I showed them the company, but also showed them around Cairo. That gave me the confidence that I could bring people to Egypt; and I felt safe and comfortable doing that.
This is my first documentary film. The project inspired me–and I just had to do it. I think the skillset that I did bring is the same as with my previous projects and companies. I think I have developed the skillset where I can identify and attract top talent and good people, then bring them together for a common goal. That’s what really helped me in making this film.
LA YOGA: How did you find the Cairo hosts and how did you go about matching them with visitors?
Tarek: The whole process of finding the Cairo hosts was completely different than what we did for finding the Americans. When we were looking for Americans, we basically approached anybody and everybody, and we were fine with taking random people who were concerned and giving them this experience. On the other hand, with the Cairo hosts, we wanted to find people whom we could really trust, because the host had a very important responsibility–which was taking care of the Americans. This was a responsibility I took very seriously.
I only considered hosts that I personally knew, or if someone I personally knew, also knew them, so I could really be sure somebody I trusted could vouch for them. That’s why I was comfortable with all the hosts.
The other factor we were considered was diversity. We tried to reflect the diversity of Egypt in the hosts, especially the diversity of interpretations of Islam. I think Egypt is one of the countries that is diverse in terms of its interpretation of Islam.
You have people who are really secular, people who are really religious, and a variety of colors and shades in between. I was quite happy with the degree of diversity we managed to achieve with the hosts.
Pairing them up with the Americans was fun. It brought up for me the curiosity of a child: What would happen if you put this person with that person? I was curious whether the human connection would really give the magic to make people see beyond their differences.
For example, when Ellen was saying one of her worst fears was Muslim men, I thought to myself, “What would happen if we paired her up with an Egyptian Muslim revolutionary?” I was curious what would happen there. Or when Jason and Jenna are talking about spreading the love of Jesus into the Middle East and baptizing Muslims, I thought, “What would happen if we paired them up with an Orthodox Muslim family? The man with the beard, and the woman covering her face. How would that unfold? Could they get along? Again, would the hearts connect and see beyond these differences? I was curious what would happen with all these pairings.
LA YOGA: How did you find the director, Ingrid? How was your working relationship?
Tarek: When I started the project, the first thing was trying to identify the people I was going to work with. And I tried to find really talented people. I started talking to film production companies here in Switzerland where I live. I found a lot of good companies, very professional, and I was happy with what I found. But I still didn’t feel that I found the right person. When I was going through that process, a friend of mine, who’s also a friend of Ingrid’s said, “You have to talk to Ingrid.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.”
Ingrid was in San Francisco at the time. I FaceTimed with her and her husband at the time Forest, who also came on board as a producer. He actually wrote the music for the film as well. He did an amazing job. Within the first five minutes I knew Ingrid and Forest were the right people for this film. They just got the soul of the project. They knew what it was all about.
And then as I studied Ingrid’s work and I spoke to her deeper, I realized that her whole goal and the whole reason why she’s a director is because she’s a storyteller, in the sense that she wants to showcase people’s humanity. She wants to bring out the true person on camera. That was exactly my goal. It really matched.
The working relationship was great. It was difficult at times because we both felt complete ownership of the project. it was important to me that the people on the team felt as much ownership as I did, but because of that there were different visions that we would argue about and different scenes we wanted to include. We managed to work it out.
What was really beautiful in the end was we were all happy with the resulting film. That made me feel good about the difficult process. We’re still very good friends. I think we must have done something right.
LA YOGA: How did you go about raising funding?
Tarek: I personally funded all of this through my companies since I was in a fortunate place where I didn’t have to look for external funding. I’m hoping maybe some of the money will go back to the companies, but we’ll see.
LA YOGA: What was the easiest part of this endeavor? And what was the most challenging?
Tarek: I don’t know if it was the easiest part, but the part I felt most grateful for was the talented people who joined. In addition to Ingrid and Forest, we were lucky with the people that just happened to be available. I had reached out to Kurt Engfehr, who was the co-producer and editor of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. We had a good discussion. This was before we even started filming, when I was just embarking on the project. He liked the idea. He thought it was cool, but you could tell he was also a bit skeptical about it actually working.
He recommended Pierre Haberer, who is also a topnotch editor with a wealth of experience and an editor for the Academy Award nominated film The Square. Pierre came onboard early and did an amazing job. Kurt was really excited and came onboard after we came back from Egypt and I told him that we actually did everything we said we were going to do (the five parallel camera crews and that we had footage).
Kurt and Pierre took over the editing. And then along with Ingrid and the others, we had a really amazing talented bunch of crew and filmmakers. And in Egypt, we had some amazing people who just happened to come onboard. It was really nice to see it being so fluid, having people jumping on with so much excitement.
There were different challenges in each phase of the project. In the beginning, the challenging part was actually finding Americans who would want to go to Egypt. I was surprised; I thought we’d have hundreds of people wanting to come, but it wasn’t that easy.
Sure, there were those that were concerned about their safety, but the biggest challenge was people who were worried about how they would be portrayed on camera. We would have some interesting people, but in the end, they would pull out just because they didn’t want risk looking bad. That was quite challenging.
Then there was the challenge of the trip as a whole: all the logistics of the parallel camera crews, the activities, and the coordinating. Sometimes we had 50, 60 people that we had to coordinate in the streets of Cairo.
After that, we had 250 hours of film footage that we wanted to get down to an hour and a half. That was another other set of challenges. Then, when we finished the film, who are we going to show it to? We were lucky enough to get into 500 theaters across the United States. That was exciting!
Now we have the challenge of filling those 500 theaters with 80,000 people. Each phase brings a new challenge.
LA YOGA: Were there any surprises or revelations not captured on camera?
Tarek: I think some of the details of the relationships between us weren’t completely captured on camera. But, I think the main essence was.
For example, when I visited Jason in Kentucky after the Egypt trip a few months later just to see how he was doing and how the trip affected him, there was a point in time where he just didn’t trust me all of a sudden. He didn’t want me filming in the church, and he didn’t really want to speak to me. Then, he was accusing me of things. I was really taken aback. It felt uncomfortable and we even had a bit of an argument.
I took him aside and asked, “What’s happening here?” I went out with him and Brian completely off camera, without crew or anybody, and got to the bottom of it. He opened up. I opened up. We connected. We built this new foundation of trust and became really close friends. It was a magical evening. At the end of the evening, we were walking in the streets of Louisville in the middle of the night, and this homeless person comes up to Jason. Jason’s kind with the guy and connects with him. I saw another side to Jason that I wasn’t able to see before that.
There are a few connections that weren’t completely captured, but I think the essence of what we all went through, and the magic that we all experienced was definitely captured in the end.
Free Trip to Egypt
See Free Trip to Egypt in theaters.