It’s been a long road to the Cannes Film Festival for Egyptian-Austrian filmmaker A.B. Shawky and his feature debut Yomeddine. The feel-good road movie was a passion project that he developed as his thesis out of NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, shot in Egypt with his wife, first-time producer Dina Emam, and stars non-actors with no reading or memorizing skills. The challenge landed him rejections from some festivals before Cannes offered an Un Certain Regard slot—and then bumped him up to competition, a rare berth for a neophyte.

Shawky, who moved to Cairo at 25, set up indie production company Desert Highway Pictures with Emam to make Yomeddine, but “didn’t know anybody in the industry. It was a huge endeavor and a risky project for a first-time filmmaker,” he says. He returned to New York for post and stopped when he ran out of money, taking a job as a consultant on Hulu’s The Looming Tower in the interim. It was when Egypt’s Film-Clinic boarded that things picked up momentum.

Yomeddine is the story of a Coptic leper and his orphaned apprentice who leave the leper colony and embark on a journey to search for what is left of their families. Shawky had previously made a documentary short about the leper colony. Hearing stories of how families would abandon their children there and never return, he was inspired to make a feature.

His lead actor Rady Gamal is a member of the real leper colony Shawky had visited years earlier. He was “phenomenal. This is his story in a way.” The subject matter is heavy, Shawky allows. “But films from the Middle East usually have to be political and make a statement. This is just a feel good movie.”

He will continue to go where the stories take him. “This one is set in Egypt because it’s a good story. The bigger goal is to tell stories that get through to audiences regardless of background.”