Cairo-born, LA-based Ramy Romany wins coveted TV honors for cinematography
By Sara Romany
O n March 2, Egypt’s eyes will be on Hollywood, waiting to see if The Square becomes the first Egyptian documentary to win an Academy Award at the Oscars ceremony. But there has already been one Egyptian who has ascended the awards podium… this past December to collect an Emmy, one of TV’s top honors in the United States. Cairo native and cinematographer Ramy Romany won a Suncoast Emmy Award for his work on director Nick Nanton’s documentary Esperanza.
The award comes from the Suncoast Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which is to the small screen what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — parent to the Oscars — is to cinema. The Suncoast Emmy awards recognize excellence in television produced in the Southeastern US region, including Florida and select areas of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Puerto Rico.
Now based in Los Angeles, Romany grew up on documentary sets and by age 20 had produced over a hundred Ancient Egyptian documentaries for international networks such as Discovery, History and National Geographic. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that he made the move to the camera. Once he did, though, he immediately struck gold: two of his first three cinematography projects were nominated for the 2013 Suncoast Emmy awards.
The story of Romany’s road to recognition is told by his biggest fan: his sister and local TV producer Sara Romany.
“Dad, Mum…I Just won an Emmy!”
As my brother said those words to us over Facetime, Dad had a big proud smile lighting up his face, and Mum broke out crying as she usually does when something good or bad happens. As for me, I just couldn’t stop asking Ramy about every single little detail of their night at the Emmy Awards ceremony: what he and his wife Sharra were wearing, to what they ate, to how did he feel when they called out his name. It was 4 am in Cairo and we were all half asleep, but this is probably one of our proudest moments as a family.
Ramy has always been the creative one in the family. I still remember our very first piano class — he was probably 8 and I was 5, and he was instantly good at playing the piano. On our second class, he went up to the instructor with his big shiny brown eyes and told him “I composed a musical piece.”
I soon gave up on the piano, knowing I lacked any musical sense, but Ramy had mastered the instrument and started teaching himself how to play the guitar. Needless to say, he was also an awesome guitar player. At school Ramy’s best friends were his music teachers; he spent all his free time at school with them learning how to play different instruments.
By the time Ramy was 9, it was obvious to us as a family that he was some type of a prodigy. Paying more attention to his creative talents, Ramy was an average student when it came to his grades. Thank God we had a smart mother who didn’t care much for grades, she always nurtured and encouraged our talents.
We had such a unique family. With our father’s documentary production company Egypt Fixer Productions, Ramy and I grew up on sets with foreign film crews, and from a very young age, we were exposed to different cultures. Our house was more of a hotel, and it was normal for us to wake up and find a foreign cameraman or director sleeping in the guest room.
When we would visit my dad on set, we were given a glimpse into a different world that we were both very fond of, and we always longed to leave our boring classrooms to visit one of my father’s sets. It was always such an adventure, visiting ancient ruins, meeting new crews and learning new things.
I was always into the production aspect of the business focused on organizing the logistics for the shoots, but Ramy was fascinated with the cinematography. Often, cameramen would offer him a peek into their viewfinders, and I remember seeing a wide smile on my brother’s face as he looked into that camera. It was as if he was looking upon his future. He was growing into a production career, but Ramy longed to move into cinematography where he could make use of his many artistic talents.
Once Ramy finished high school, he had very little interest in continuing his education; all he wanted to do was start working full time with my father. But not having a university degree is considered a blasphemy in Egypt, so Ramy and our parents agreed he would enroll in an Egyptian university that required minimal work, so he could devote his time to the family business. Ramy finally joined Cairo University and decided to major in Egyptology, with that logic that it would help him with documentary production.
At that time production was the easy career choice, as he had no formal training in cinematography. Still, he continued pursuing his dream, buying his first professional photography camera at the age of 20. Ramy loved this camera; he was snapping pictures right and left. And again his talent shone through his beautiful pictures and portraits.
At 24, while working as a production manager on a documentary called Destination Truth, Ramy met the love of his life: Sharra, an American camera operator. Just six months later they were married on the beach of Malibu in California. They decided to live in Egypt so that Ramy could go on working with the family business. And nine months later, they had their own family: Sharra gave birth to a beautiful little girl Sophia-Mary. Even at such a young age Ramy had no problem handling all the responsibilities that come with marriage and starting a family.
By the end of 2010, we were a picture-perfect extended family. My parents loved their new role as grandparents, and I couldn’t be happier being an aunt to our little bundle of joy. I was heartbroken when I had to leave my family that September for a year-long masters program in London.
More separations were to come: The 2011 Revolution started 25 days into the new year, leaving me stuck in London while my thoughts were with my family back in Egypt. And a couple of weeks after the revolution broke out, I got a call from Ramy saying it was all getting too much for him. He feared for his family’s safety, so he was going to America for a while till things calmed down. I was heartbroken, and my parents were devastated to see their son leave with their granddaughter.
Ramy’s plan was to stay with his in-laws in New York for a week or two till things calmed down. But things didn’t calm down and Ramy had to think of a plan B. After careful consideration, Ramy and Sharra decided to return to Los Angeles where Sharra could return to her previous job as a freelance camera operator.
The following six months were the hardest times Ramy ever went through. As he waited for his US work permit, all he could do was stay at home — something he was never used to even as a child. With Sharra working most of the time, Ramy was left alone in this new city with no family or friends.
Life in America was turning out to be quite hard. While waiting on his work permit, Ramy applied for any freelance jobs he could find, from a production assistant on a Hollywood set to filming birthday parties. Applying to 100+ jobs a day and getting a day’s work every other week — mostly filming birthdays — really got to Ramy.
Over time, Ramy started attracting more clients and his camera work spoke for him — in fact, word of mouth was his best friend. After another six months, jobs were lining up for Ramy. Although the content of what he was filming wasn’t always interesting or of any cinematographic value, Ramy still tried to shoot it with art, and it always looked good. In one of the events he was covering, one of the speakers was Emmy-winning director Nick Nanton, so Ramy took the opportunity to introduce himself and his work in hopes of working with him in the future.
By Christmas 2011, Sharra was very pregnant with their second baby, and with my engagement coming up, Ramy decided to come home for the party and to let the baby be born in Egypt surrounded by his loving family. Of course Ramy filmed my engagement. It was such a happy day not only because I was getting engaged to the love of my life but also because my brother and his family were finally back with us.
After Sharra gave birth to Leonardo, Ramy had to make a tough decision: Stay in Egypt or to go back to Los Angeles. Egypt is where Ramy’s heart will always be, but with the Muslim Brotherhood in power and our business suffering greatly. Ramy decided to move back to Los Angeles. This time he had established his name as a cinematographer and had many contacts. One of them was Nanton, who after losing his usual cameraman to a family matter, called Ramy for a film shoot in the Dominican Republic. This was the break Ramy was waiting for: a job as a cinematographer for an Emmy-winning director.
In the Dominican Republic, Ramy fell in love with the vivid, colorful culture of the country. Nanton’s documentary Esperanza followed the life of three women who got a rare opportunity to change their lives through a micro loan from the NGO Esperanza International. Finally shooting something with substance, Ramy focused on producing his best work.
The film was a year in postproduction, during which Ramy’s career skyrocketed — he was now shooting for all the major TV channels, from Discovery Channel to MTV.
On October 9, 2013 Ramy got a call from his now close friend Nanton to tell him that Esperanza was nominated for a Suncoast Emmy award for best cinematography on a topical documentary. I always believed in Ramy’s talents but none of us ever imagined that his very first work as a cinematographer would land him an award nomination, much less two in the same competition: Ramy was also nominated for best director of photography for Nanton’s documentary Mi Casa Hogar (My Home), shot in Mexico.
And so, on November 23, 4 am Cairo time, half asleep yet filled with anxiety and excitement, my father couldn’t wait any longer for Ramy’s call, and so he decided to call him. Ramy picks up with a wide smile and the statue of the Emmy Award in hand.
My brother finally gets the recognition he always deserved. My brother is an Emmy-award winning cinematographer. et
When the American baseball player Dave Valle came to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball in 1985, he was only expecting to improve his baseball. Instead, he found a lifetime commitment. Motivated by the poverty he and his wife witnessed during his visits to the region, the Valles founded Esperanza in 1995, an organization dedicated to giving those who needed it “a hand up, not a handout.”
Produced by the Florida-based Celebrity Films, the documentary Esperanza (Hope) focuses on three families whose lives were changed by Esperanza International’s initiatives to generate income and promote education and health.
Watch the full-length film at www.esperanzamovie.com