Egyptian director, Marwan Hamed, is well established as a filmmaker who opts for edgy projects, pushing the boundaries of Arabic cinema by breaking the tried-and-tested formulas that usually draw crowds to the box office in Egypt and beyond.
Al Asleyeen (The Originals) is no exception, exploring the themes of surveillance and spying, and the intrusion of modern technology into our lives. The film, which was produced by Red Star Films and New Century Production, premiered in Egypt in June.
The story follows the plight of Samir (Maged El Kedwany), an ordinary, middle-aged, family man who works as a bank clerk. Samir, who has two teenage children, faces financial problems, especially when threatened with the loss of his job. As in Hamed’s previous film, The Blue Elephant (2014), Al Asleyeen takes a few surreal turns, with the central character being thrown into a twilight world of espionage after he receives a mysterious call from an unknown number and is offered a job using high-tech equipment for spying assignments.
The Originals was written by Egyptian writer, Ahmed Mourad, who also wrote the novel The Blue Elephant, and is expected to air in cinemas across the Middle East in September.
Speaking to Digital Studio, director Hamed says that he has been pleased with the reaction to the film so far. “In Egypt, overall, there was a lot of controversy about it, which for me is very good; there was a lot of discussion and a lot of talk about the film and it was something that I thought was very positive because it stirred a lot of opinion.”
Hamed was not surprised by the reaction to the film given its relevance to modern society. “It has to do with the world we are living in nowadays, because people are so obsessed with security and monitoring others, whether they are regular people or with the government. We are always seen by other people and always under pressure in that people can hack cameras on our TV sets, phones, and computers.”
He points to real world cases, such as hackers gaining access to Hillary Clinton’s private emails, and Angela Merkel’s phone being hacked. “Big politicians and leaders are having their phones tapped and emails hacked. These things are very strange but this is the world we are living in now, and I think it is a global thing,” Hamed says.
Ordinary people, like Samir in the film, are also under the watchful gaze of modern security apparatus, as Hamed points out. “Everyone is being watched now by CCTV cameras most of the day.
If we wanted to collect footage of a particular person, through CCTV and hacking his phone and email you could really get a good idea about him, his activities, and what he likes – the smallest details of his life.”
Production on the film started in March 2015 and it was shot over 35 days, with a break of a few months in between, mainly due to other work commitments on the part of some members of the crew.
The cinematography lead was Ahmad Al Morsy, an experienced director of photography (DoP), who also worked as DoP on The Blue Elephant. Hamed said that both he and his DoP were keen to achieve a certain brooding and paranoid feel in the film, and this was reflected in the wide range of cameras used for the production. “We used an Arri Alexa as the main camera and shot on mass track anamorphic lenses. We also combined this with a shots from telephones, Sony A7Ss, and GoPros, and drone shots,” Hamed says. “This helped capture the atmosphere of being spied on.”
About 100 cast and crew members worked on the film, which was shot in Cairo and Aswan. Most of the shoots were exterior or in real indoor locations. Only one indoor set was used, at a studio in Cairo.
Post-production, including editing, music, and special effects, took around six months to complete. The editing team used Final Cut Pro, and the process was challenging due to the variety of cameras used and the need to create the tense atmosphere of people spying on each other, according to Hamed.
CGI was used extensively in certain scenes, such as when the central characters enter ancient temples. These effects were produced in France by CGI specialists at BUF. “We had a scene where we recreated the old Pharaonic temples, and we tried to bring them back to life with their original colour using CGI.”
The film is a break away from the traditional light dramas and comedies that are the mainstay of Egyptian cinema. Having already collaborated with writer Ahmed Mourad on The Blue Elephant, Hamed knew he could expect a few surprises in the script, and he was certainly not disappointed. “When I first read the script, I thought that the idea was brilliant. It reflected what is happening now in the world and, at the same time, nobody has discussed it in any depth, at least not in the Middle East.”
Hamed mentions a number of films from the past that have dealt with spying and surveillance, and which he thought about when making Al Asleyeen. These included 1974 film The Conversation by Francis Ford Coppola; the 1998 thriller Enemy of the State, directed by the late Tony Scott; a German Film about surveillance called The Lives of Others; and Oliver Stone’s 2016 biopic, Snowden. “This topic is up there, but I don’t really recall anyone doing it in the Middle East,” he says. Asked whether the theme could also give Al Asleyeen international appeal, Hamed reveals that the film’s producers are being approached by some festivals.
While box office figures are not yet available for the film, Hamed admits that it is not the typical formula for a hit, although he is optimistic that it will resonate with audiences and perform well commercially. “It was not the typical kind of film you would do in Egypt. It was a bit of an adventure making it, on my side, in terms of how to sell such a difficult topic, with such a different kind of storytelling, to the Egyptian audience. This film demands a lot of concentration, which is not easy for some people. But I believe that a lot of people want to be challenged when they watch a film, and filmmakers need to challenge themselves also, always,” he says.
One aspect of the film that should help to attract audiences in Egypt – and in the rest of the Arab world – is the cast, which includes well-known names such as Khaled El Sawy, who plays Rochdy Abaza, and Menna Shalby, who plays Thorya Galal.
However well the film performs at the box office and on other platforms later on, Hamed points out that much work remains to be done in the Middle East in terms of creating a better market for Arab films.
“The challenge [for the film industry] now is to create a market and taste for Arab films among the younger audience. The big question is whether or not younger audiences really like to go to the cinema to watch Middle Eastern or Arab films,” Hamed says. “If you look at what American films are doing in the theatres in the Middle East compared to Arab films, you will find the American films are doing better.”
For Hamed, this issue will require a great deal of effort from various parties, including filmmakers and governments, to resolve. Governments across the region could do more to help support their local film industries, in the same way that governments in the UK, France, Italy, and China have, Hamed suggests. He adds that part of the challenge in the Arab world is that young people have grown up with American films and series and are used to the style and quality of US content. This has created a high benchmark for creators of Arabic content to reach.