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Amr Singh Versus the World

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Fort co-founder Amr Singh is one of South Africa’s most exciting commercial directors – and he’s now making moves in Europe and Canada. But his story of creativity and determination is full of insight and inspo for anyone hoping to do their own thing in a seemingly impenetrable industry, writes Laura Swinton

Amr Singh Versus the World

Amr Singh is a director whose time has come on the international stage. With ink drying on a representation deal in Canada with Sequoia and Betti Films repping him in Europe, the UK and the Middle East – and deals in other major markets in the offing – Amr’s fresh, colourful and crafted reel is, we suspect, about to pop up around the globe. But while it may feel like everything is happening at once, Amr’s journey is a tale of patience and persistence.

As a child, Amr’s creative eye was cultivated as he spent time in the studio of his pattern maker and fashion designer mother. As he’d sit and draw, he’d absorb his mum’s conversations with the designers who’d visit – conversations of fabric, of texture, of colour, of emotion. The idea that an outfit could convey a character or imbue the wearer with a feeling or attitude burrowed its way into a young Amr’s mind, and even today informs the way he approaches his work.

“The idea that a look could give someone confidence or be appropriate for a context all of that definitely plays a role in how I approach a brief,” he reflects. “I have a very concerted approach to the tonality and feel of a film through the way it’s represented from an aesthetic perspective.”

Creativity, and the possibility of a career path outside of some pre-prescribed norms was alive in Amr’s mind from a young age. But it took him some time to get to the idea of directing. As a boy, he grew up on films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters, twiddling the radio knobs trying to find the English language simulcast audio track for shows like the Spider-man cartoon or Beverly Hills 90210, which in South Africa were shown on TV in Zulu and Afrikaans respectively. Directing was a fanciful dream, akin to a boyhood wish to play in the Manchester United starting 11. In his teens, he finally got his mitts on a camcorder and started noodling about, shooting and editing together films of skateboarders and rugby games.

That all changed at the University of Cape Town. Starting off with a general BA, Amr followed his interests to a triple major of Social Anthropology, Media Studies and Film Production. And things really changed gear when he and his fellow student Shukri Toefy (with whom he would later co-found Fort) figured out they could use the university’s AV equipment and edit suites to shoot event films and promo films for $150 a pop. One job, filming foreign students who were at the university as part of an exchange scheme, unexpectedly kicked off the pair’s international career. The exchange programme invited them to shoot a similar film in Dublin, providing they paid their air fare. They stayed there for a month, missing their graduations, but came back revved up and excited.

The next job was a tourist campaign for the Western Cape Department of Economic Development, but making something for the government meant they needed to be an incorporated business. And so Fort was born.

“We felt like the world was our oyster. We were like, let’s be like Steve Jobs, let’s build a legacy, let's build a dream – it was super ambitious. But then also when I came back from overseas I basically went back to my bedroom in my folks’ house, raiding their fridge. We probably ran at a loss,” says Amr, looking back at the mismatch between youthful enthusiasm and reality with a self-deprecating chuckle.

Amr describes his journey, building up his reel and building up Fort as a ‘war of attrition’. For a long time Amr and Shukri felt like outsiders to the industry, and Amr struggled to get their foot in the door of agencies. He took small direct-to-client jobs, committing to over-deliver on under-concepted scripts. The pair invested in attending industry events, and focused on building relationships with young creatives, in the hope that they’d eventually bring them into pitches as wild cards.

At this time, Amr, who is incredibly exacting and self-critical of his work, was also going through the at times painful, ego-tempering process of honing his craft. Great directors don’t emerge fully-formed – mastering craft is a journey.

“When I started getting my head round this industry of advertising, I would just spend hours trying to get as many ads as possible to watch, to figure out the mechanics behind a piece of work,” he explains. For anyone at the beginning of their journey, Amr reassures them that becoming great means trying things that you can’t do. Analysing and breaking down the work of directors you admire can be disheartening at the beginning – but it’s invaluable.

“For the first half of my career, I felt, ‘why do my videos look so shit’. I was putting them up against the work of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, the greats. I was trying to copy. If I could understand how they made that shot, the next thing would be, how could I make my version of it? I was trying hard to backwards-engineer, create something that looked like the ads that I thought were good. It took time to actually understand how all these things happen or how to craft something. Once I got my head around the process, how to actually direct something, I slowly started to ask, ‘ok, cool, how do I do it in  style that suits my tastes and sensibilities?’”

Innovative and entrepreneurial as always, Fort’s ticket to the South African industry came somewhat circuitously. Amr and Shukri headed to Dubai in the late 2000s. With few local directors in the city, Amr got work on corporate videos and tourism ads, and even a couple of spots for local telco Etisalat – work that helped him get in the front door at Cape Town and Johannesburg agencies.

The first spot that really catapulted Amr from a grinding journeyman to a celebrated director of note was a low-ish budget spot for broadcaster DSTV’s 20th anniversary. The highly critical Amr was quite pleased with the outcome – but he didn’t expect the spot to bag a gold directing award at Promax. That, combined with a Young Director Award win, turned him into ‘a name’.

“Those two moments had a tangible impact on my career. And that’s when I realised that awards, from a marketability perspective, play a big role actually. Those two spots started opening up doors to work on KFC and MTN. Since then, I’ve gotten into some really good relationships with local and international creatives.”

1000 WOMEN | Krissy Doll from Fort on Vimeo.

These days, as well as shooting his own eye-catching work, Amr is also a mentor to young directors at Fort, trying to make their way in the industry. Of course, things have changed enormously in the past 15 or so years. Tech is more accessible and it’s easier to play and practice and fail and learn. It’s also more fiercely competitive. However, some things remain constant. 

“My first advice is: be patient. By that I mean they need to be patient with themselves. It can be really disheartening. One thing I find with young directors, and I found in my career, is that you go into a project with focus and ambition and at the other end you feel, ‘why is it just not that good?’. The patience I’m referring to is the patience that you need to do some work that’s not good and figure out how to do good work,” says Amr.
 


It also takes time to develop a unique style and perspective. Amr describes his own style as something that developed organically. Once he had nailed various genres, he wanted to start playing with and putting his own twist on those genres. 

As well as developing his own style, Amr also started developing his own projects, outside of the commercial world. He and his team were inspired to go to Nepal on an adventure to make a film. Over the years, Fort has shot films for numerous NGOs across Africa, in countries like Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda, Mali, and Nigeria and Amr loves the fascinating stories they get to tell in cinematic ways. They wanted to do that, but to have the freedom to experiment. Unexpectedly, that film proved to be a hit, getting into the official selection at several film festivals and won the Van Gogh Award at the Amsterdam International Film Festival.

And now, Amr is working on a script for his first feature film. Cryptically, he explains that it’s a film about interconnectedness across the generations, across millennia.

Moreover, he’s embracing the next stage of his career as a truly international director. It’s ambition he always harboured, and when he felt ready reached out to a carefully curated selection of production companies around the world, looking for people with a ‘similar creative compatibility, similar worldview and similar ambitions’. Deals with Sequoia in Canada and Germany’s Betti Films have been finalised recently, and other conversations are underway elsewhere. And while Covid-19 has put a cramp in production generally, Amr has also been pitching on more European jobs as agencies seek local South African directors.

With his exacting eye and sizzling style, look out for Amr’s zesty work cutting through the stodge. 

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Genres: In-camera effects, Comedy, People, Storytelling

FORT, Thu, 15 Jul 2021 13:41:09 GMT