Egyptian film director Marwan Hamed talks to Benita Adesuyan about taking risks in Arabic filmmaking.
Marwan Hamed’s latest film The Blue Elephant is an anomaly in Arabic film. Released in July in Egypt to a strong reception, the hit film is a thriller, a genre that’s such a rarity in Arab film that critics thought it was a risk straying away from the feast of rom-coms and family dramas that usually play on cinema screens. Starring popular names Karim Abdel Aziz, and Nelly Karim The Blue Elephant is about a criminal psychotherapist returning to work after a five year break, following the death of his wife and daughter. On his first day back at the ward, he discovers his best friend has been admitted. In trying to help his friend he delves deeper in to his own psyche. Time Out caught up with the director to see if he feels the risk paid off.
What was the initial reaction to the film when it was released on screens in Egypt?
It’s a two hour 30 minute long thriller, and it’s done very well in Egypt. It has been the number one in the box office and it had really good reviews and the feedback was amazing actually, because it’s not a typical Egyptian or Arab film. We were very aware of reviews because we didn’t know how the audience would react to the genre.
You say it’s not typical – what do you think people expect from Arab film normally?
Most Egyptian cinema revolves around romantic comedies. We write more comedies than anything else, so there’s more of a risk when you do something different. It’s the first time we produced a thriller for ten years. We took a risk and we hope it pays off.
Why aren’t thrillers popular among Arab audiences?
Well, it is now. The majority are supportive of the film and the book. But now we have this new young bright generation that are more open, brand-exposed, and they are aware of different genres and cinema styles and they are very demanding. We as filmmakers need to always put them in our minds and think about their taste because this is the generation that was brought up with the internet, PlayStation and access to information from all over the world, so they have big imaginations, too.
Were there any issues with the actors taking on a new genre?
No, not at all. I had a brilliant time working with my actors and they were very dedicated and were taking the risk, a chance to do something new. All my actors are big stars, especially Karim Abdel Aziz, and he was very supportive of us throughout. This is the first time he’d had such a role – he was brilliant and he did what was needed to put in a good performance.
How protracted a process was it to make the film?
It took seven months, but over a few years. There was a lot of turbulence in the country in 2013, so this affected us.
The film is adapted from a novel. Did you face any challenges during the adaptation phase?
Most of my previous work was also based on novels and what we did with The Blue Elephant is that the writer of the novel is also the writer of the film. From the beginning the novel was very visual, like a puzzle, so I thought the best one to write the script would be the writer who knows the story inside and out.
How has writer, Ahmad Mourad, taken to your final version of his adaptation?
Ahmad is very happy with it. He was a partner in the process and I involved him [up until] we saw the film together. He is very happy about it. In Egypt many of the viewers may have been familiar with the novel too.
How do you think the film will fare in Dubai?
I think it will do equally well. In both Egypt and Dubai we’re attracting young audiences. Actually we got feedback that it’s done superbly, and audience reaction has been very strong, and on social media too. It’s had a similar reaction to in Egypt.
How important is the UAE for Egyptian filmmakers?
It is the biggest market in terms of movies in the region, and the UAE support is huge. Before we used to concentrate on the Egyptian market, but now there’s another, which is as big as, and possibly bigger than, the Egyptian market. Also the support that the UAE gives to Arab cinema and filmmakers – whether it’s commissions or equipment – is very important for film makers. It has opened new windows in addition to the box office revenues.
What did you learn in the process of making this film?
I learnt a lot, and I had to go back to the books – it’s done me very well. In such a film you cannot take a chance that even one of the audience members leaves the theatre not understanding what the film is about – that would be a catastrophe.
Now that Arab filmgoers have experimented with thrillers and liked it, what’s next for you?
I’d love to make a sci-fi – that’s never been done in Arabic. That would great to try out.
The Blue Elephant is out now in cinemas across Dubai. www.gulffilm.com (04 2623964).