Egyptian Filmmaker Marwan Hamed on 'Assassins,' His Epic Project About the Birth of Radical Islam

Marwan Hamed - Publicity H - 2018
Credit: Marwan Hamed

The acclaimed filmmaker behind the 2006 hit 'The Yacoubian Building' is currently in post on 'Diamond Dust' and says Saudi Arabia's entertainment industry push will help the Arab market expand.

One of the most prominent names in Egyptian cinema, Marwan Hamed rose to fame thanks to his acclaimed directorial debut, The Yacoubian Building. Based on the much-loved novel by Alaa Al Aswany about the colorful residents of a Cairo apartment block, the 2006 drama is still considered the Egyptian film with the highest budget ever, but would also become one of the country's most successful productions. 

Eight years later, Hamed turned his attention to another best-selling novel, Ahmed Mourad's thriller The Blue Elephant. The film became another local blockbuster and dominated the 2014 edition of the Egyptian Film Association Festival, with nine wins (including for best director and best film). 

Hamed is now in postproduction on Diamond Dust, based on Mourad's hit follow-up novel. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the director discusses the film's global potential, but also his long-in-development mega-project Assassins that winds the clock back 1,000 years to the birth of radical Islam. 

What's the plot of Diamond Dust

The story is about a very normal guy — a pharmacist — who goes home to find that his father, a very old man in a wheelchair, has been hit on the head and killed. Through his journey to find the murderer, he discovers a new reality about his dad and new reality about what his dad was connected to. It’s a very interesting political thriller that tells you a lot of about Egypt from the 1950s up until now.

What’s the next step for the film?

I’m going to try to get it into Venice. I think it has a lot of international potential as it’s based on a very successful novel that’s been translated into several languages.

How does Diamond Dust compare with your other films? 

I think there is a bit of similarity with The Yacoubian Building in that there are multiple stories and that there are many characters — it’s an ensemble cast. And there’s also the political aspect in the film, which is as strong as the Yacoubian Building. And of course, it’s also based on a successful book.

What’s the current appetite for political films in Egypt? Are there any restrictions?

A few months ago, there was a film by Mohamed and Khaled Diab – Talq Senaee – released in cinemas that did very well. It had a lot of politics in it, but was very successful. I think it may have had a few issues with censors, but they managed to release the film. In the end, you can get your film released as long as there is an audience that wants to watch it. This is what really protects the film.

And you’re also working on a project called Assassins. What can you tell us about that?

There’s always this question that has haunted me regarding radical Islamic terrorism, and that is: how did it all start? Essentially, Assassins is about this. It’s about the man who created this, a man called Hassan-e Sabbah. That was more than 1,000 years ago, but it’s how this whole story started. It’s really a brilliant story and mirrors exactly what is happening now, as if we were living in the same age. We know very little about how it all started, and I think we need tackle this much more. But at the same I think it’s a story that can attract a wide audience. So you have the perfect formula for a film.

So the actual origins of radical Islam can be traced back to Hassan-e Sabbah?

Yes. He’s the one who invented all of this.

In the book version of The Looming Tower, on which the recent TV series is based, it suggests that it dates back just 100 years…

The Looming Tower is a very good example. I think it’s a brilliant book. It traces it back to Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna in Egypt. But there are a lot of theories that say Hassan al-Banna might be copying Hassan-e Sabbah. Because when you put both together, you find a lot of similarities. Also, the interesting thing about this project is that there’s this story about two friends who became two rivals. One is Hassan-e Sabbah, who became this terrorist, and the other is Omar Khayyam, who was a philosopher, scientist, poet and a great dreamer. We have inherited a lot of his poems. So you have this relationship between two friends who became two rivals that represent two opposite ends of ideas.

And you’d see this as a film rather than a series?

The script that I have made is a film script, and I think it’s a very compact script for a film. But my dream is to make it in English. Because I know that if it’s done in English it could reach a larger audience.

What’s the next step for Assassins?

Well, now I have a script. And it took a lot of work – years of research. And now I’m looking for someone interested in producing it. Now I’m talking to some producers in the Middle East, because the industry is growing here very powerfully, especially in the Gulf. And I believe for this film it is very important to have strong partners from all around the world. I would think that some of the money has to come from the Middle East and some from outside.

Is Saudi Arabia an exciting new market to tap into?

Of course — it’s a huge market. What’s happening is great news for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world. It’s very, very exciting. Saudi Arabia has been a huge market for TV and VOD. And let’s not forget that Saudi Arabia is one of the main financiers and producers of content in the Middle East, whether it’s from Rotana or MBC. They are huge and are investing a lot of money in content. So yes, I think it’s brilliant to have Saudi Arabia opening up. I think it’s going to help the Arab market expand by at least 50 percent.