Given that he is one of Egypt’s youngest film directors around, it’s hard to imagine that Marwan Hamed has been in the cinema industry for 22 years already. Starting as a trainee in 1995, while still in film school, he went on to spend eight years as assistant to his teacher and mentor, director Sherif Arafa. Hamed is a great fan of Arafa and is very proud of his experience at his side, an experience from which he says he learnt so much.
Hamed struck out on his own, with his first film, The Yacoubian Building, which was based on the widely acclaimed novel by Alaa El Aswany. The film was a huge success, and since then, people pay attention when Hamed is about to release a new film. No wonder then, that the premiere of his newest film, El Asleyeen (The Originals), a mystery whose script was written by the popular young Egyptian author, Ahmed Mourad, generated a buzz of excitement and anticipation.
“I’m very interested in mysteries,” says Hamed, “and Ahmed Mourad, who has won many awards, is very successful at this genre and is especially popular among young readers. Mourad wrote Turab El Mas (Diamond Dust), El Feel El Azrak (The Blue Elephant), and Vertigo, and his novels have been best sellers for the past six or seven years.” El Aslyeen also has a very strong cast, with Maged El Kidwany, Khaled El Sawy, Menna Shalaby, Kenda Alloush, and the rising star, Mohamed Mamdouh. So it has the ingredients of success.
Even though he’s already made a big name for himself in the industry, Hamed doesn’t take success for granted. According to him, “making films is a very difficult thing, and making a good film is even more difficult. As for making a really impressive film, well that’s really a miracle,” he adds. “Maybe that’s part of the reason I like transforming books to film. A bestselling novel has the advantage of having already been tested. At least you know that people already like the story. When you work on a direct screenplay, there’s more risk involved.”Hamed’s second huge success, Al Feel El Azrak, was also originally a best selling novel, but by Mourad this time. Still, Hamed is quick to acknowledge that a novel’s success does not automatically extend to the film it’s based on. He notes, for example, that films based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s award winning books were not so successful.
Asked whether he would be ready to venture into comedy, Hamed admits that, at this point in his life, he doesn’t have an interest in doing comedy. “But I might decide to work on a romantic film,” he says. “We are missing this genre in our cinema. Romance is also having a comeback in the whole world. Everyone appreciates a good romantic film.” While other Egyptian directors have ventured into television, especially in Ramadan TV series, Hamed says, “personally, at some point in the future, I will probably have to do work for television, but the time hasn’t come for me yet. But I appreciate the lure of television, of course. This Ramadan, with social media and YouTube, the viewership of some TV series reached a total of 120 million views. Stars, directors and producers, want to work on television because you get paid more and the risk is much less. It’s also easier for the audience. It takes effort and money to go spend two hours watching a film which they may not like, while with TV they can just switch the channel. That’s why, all over the world, the challenge for our industry is how better to attract the audience to cinema. They are doing that through fancier theatres, bigger, more comfortable seats, bigger screens, like Imax, amazing sound, and more special effects. At the same time, television companies like HBO, Netflix or Amazon, are working on much more powerful stories and more powerful acting. This trend is going to affect our region for sure, maybe with a two or three-year delay. Lets not forget that, with a population of about half a billion, the Arab market is huge.”
Hamed is very pleased with the rise of many young actors and actresses in recent years. In his view, Mohamed Mamdouh is an extraordinary actor who touches people’s hearts; while Yasmine Raees, and Amina Khalil’s great acting have made them leading ladies in a short span of time. He’s also especially impressed with the young Ahmed Malek, whose acting, despite his young age, is very real. He finds that Malek and Gamila Awad, who is also very young, are full of energy and they make a real connection with viewers. “Bear in mind that a big percentage of the audience today are young people in high school and university. It’s important that the audience sees actors their own age,” he says.
Hamed’s advice to young filmmakers is all about discipline and hard work. “The stereotype some people have of ‘I’m a creative guy so things will work out without effort’, simply doesn’t exist in reality, he warns. “Success is about working hard and always seeking knowledge, constantly reading drama and literature, and keeping up with what’s going on in the industry globally. You never stop learning, and you must have the discipline to work hard every day. At the same time, compared to, say twenty years ago, today’s generation has opportunities we never had. The combination of the internet and smart phones is changing the world. Today you can make a film with your phone and upload it on the internet. Once you get someone to watch and acknowledge your work, everything will be easy afterwards,” he says.
As for Hamed himself and other directors, this brave new world of the internet has meant that there is so much competing content available all around the world. Hamed says that they are now competing, not only with good films being produced for television, but with the history of cinema and television available on the internet. “This means that it becomes even more difficult to do something impressive; to create a film with an original idea that will have an impact. But it’s this challenge that makes me want, even more, to continue to try to do just that,” he says.