Hamed tackles movie taboos

Director's ambitious style breaks boundaries

Egyptian helmer Marwan Hamed doesn’t do small. His first feature — 2006’s “The Yacoubian Building” — was an audacious big-budget adaptation of Alaa Al-Aswany’s bestselling novel of the same name. With everything from corruption to Muslim fundamentalism and homosexuality on the menu, as well as a $3.5 million budget that was at the time the biggest ever for an Arab pic, “The Yacoubian Building” certainly offered viewers a full-table spread.

Now Hamed has completed his eagerly anticipated sophomore feature “Ibra-him the White.” While more intimate in scope than the freewheeling “Yacoubian,” the pic promises to be just as controversial.

The dark story of an Egyptian boy and girl who grow up on the gang-infested streets of downtown Cairo, “Ibrahim” sees Hamed reunited with thesp Hend Sabri, who remains arguably the most exciting Arab actress working today.

Pic is something of a passion project for the 31-year-old helmer, who got the inspiration for the story from newspaper articles he read about life in Cairo’s impoverished projects.

“It’s very close to my heart,” Hamed says. “It’s a very emotional film about love and violence and the relationships that grow in these extreme situations.”

Just as the rookie Hamed fearlessly handled his all-star cast on “Yacoubian,” which included Egyptian film legends Adel Imam, Yousra and Nour Al-Sherif, the director this time dealt with a mostly nonprofessional cast taken straight from the rough neighborhoods in which “Ibrahim” is set.

“I made the decision early on with ‘Yacoubian’ that I wasn’t going to be scared about working with such a large budget, cast or the storylines,” Hamed says. “I was working 18-, 20-hour days, even before shooting began. I tried to know everything about the film — know the answer to every question. In the end, the film became a part of me. It’s the same with ‘Ibrahim.'”

As the son of famed screenwriter Waheed Hamed, Marwan grew up surrounded by the Egyptian film biz.

Through his father, he witnessed firsthand the Egyptian film industry’s decline from the third largest in the world during the 1940s and ’50s to a decades-long fallow period during the 1980s and ’90s.

That’s one reason the helmer is so keen to keep making films that are commercial as well as thought-provoking.

“I don’t think it’s brave to make a film that tackles taboos but scares the audience out of the theater,” Hamed says. “The only reason a film like ‘Yacoubian’ is seen as a success is because we were backed up by the audience and it made $4 million in this country.”

Hamed is positive about the future of the Egyptian film biz, as a new wave of filmmakers continues to break out, partly thanks to the success of “Yacoubian.” It’s a telling sign of the pic’s impact that Hamed has come to be seen as something of a godfather to the new Egyptian generation despite still being so young and having completed only two features.

“I was having lunch with Ali Abou Shady, the head of the censorship committee, and he told me that ‘Yacoubian’ had now become a reference point for him as well as filmmakers,” Hamed says. “Filmmakers will feel they can become more daring, since we were able to show what we did, while the censors themselves pushed the borderline a little bit further by approving the film with no cuts.

“Our cinema will keep getting better. We have a lot of young, ambitious filmmakers who will keep improving. Where we used to make maybe one film a year that challenged the mainstream five years ago, now we’re seeing maybe six a year. This is a positive development, and these films are making money.”