The rise of Egyptian film director Marwan Hamed has been monumental to say the least. He’s widely considered one of the most prolific Egyptian – and Arab – directors of the 21st century. As soon as I found out that his latest film Kira & El Gin was being screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), I needed to find out more about this unique outing. A film that has managed to be the most financially successful film in Egyptian history since its’ domestic release in June 2022. The film is based on Ahmed Mourad’s book 1919, centering on a group of characters within the resistance (based on real-life people) who were fighting against the occupation by the British, using 1919 as the historical centerpiece of the story – the height of the Egyptian revolution.
The British colonisation of Egypt hasn’t been adapted to the screen in the past few decades. There were some films in the previous century that tackled this aforementioned subject matter such as Alexandria, Why? And A Man in Our House, but none at this scale in recent times.. Hamed comments “We don’t really see such stories on screen, but they are incredibly important.” He elaborates by saying “when it comes to younger generations who were born in the mid 90’s, there is nothing really out there that tackles this era.” He continues to highlight the importance of this era in Egypt and its’ links to modern-day Egypt, adding “We’ve been overwhelmed by recent events in Egypt”, stressing that this part of history gets overshadowed despite its’ inextricable link to the present. Adding to this, he talks about how we don’t really see those films coming from the MENA region often either..
“Whenever I find the right novel, I always want to turn it into a film”. This is not the first time Hamed adapts a novel into a film. His first short film Li Li, first feature The Yacoubian Building as well as the widely successful recent Blue Elephant 1 – also adapted from an Ahmed Mourad novel – were all novels first. Commenting on his affinity to adapt novels to the big screen, he highlights how novels have less commercial pressures than films. “Authors are very free when they write novels”. To him, in a way, the novels also function as a litmus test. If people connect with the novel, and it does well, then “there’s a specific value in turning it into a film”. He adds that there’s something in novels that get adapted and re-adapted that says something about its’ worth to the audience.
However, Kira & El Gin’s grandeur as a period drama that is almost akin to an epic had many budget implications that made the road to producing the film a slightly longer one. Hamed went on to note that he knew he wanted to make this film after Blue Elephant 1, but the market at the time wasn’t quite ready for it. “It was a bit too expensive at the time”. Things really changed in 2019 though. “Egyptian cinema was really booming in 2019, and neighbouring countries like the U.A.E and Saudi Arabia became very strong markets for us.” As a result, Kira & El Gin was finally a viable project. “It was possible to expand our productions, when 5 years earlier it just wouldn’t have been possible.”
In addition to this, Kira & El Gin halted production for one year because of the COVID-19 crisis. “It really affected us badly,” he reflects. “There’s a sense of continuity that you want to maintain when you really manage to capture a certain rhythm, chemistry, and atmosphere behind the camera as well as in front of the camera”. Continuing production after a year “as if nothing really happened” was definitely a challenge for him. “That’s why I never stopped working on the film”. During that year where production halted, he would always be editing and fine-tuning the film.
When it comes to Kira & El Gin, creating a large-scale production whilst also making sure the heart was still there was something Hamed really prioritised. There are a lot of characters in this film, and he comments that making sure they all felt believable was important to him. From the very beginning of the project, he notes that he also knew he wanted the film to be more character-driven and to “really take you on an emotional journey”. “We do have historic events in the film but we decided from the first moment that we were doing a feature film that moves you emotionally as well as respecting those historical moments and figures” he elaborates. However, balancing the flow from character-driven scenes with more action-oriented scenes was definitely something Hamed also found to be integral.
Despite his rise to fame, his ability to reflect on his career and his inspirations are present throughout the interview. Ever since he went to film school at 18, he states that he knew full well that being a director was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. We talk about influential films for a while and he notes a few directors that really impacted him such as Martin Scorcese and Alfred Hitchcock’s classics. Looking back to his own career, he highlights three films that really changed the trajectory of events for him. “Li Li, The Yacoubian Building, and Blue Elephant 1 really shaped my career. They were monumental steps for me.” He reflects that if those films hadn’t struck a chord with the audience, things would be quite different.
“Now is the time for risks” Hamed claims. Looking forward to future projects he would like to work in, he notes that he feels that he would want to try different things. “Audiences are really open now to new experiences and forms of storytelling” he comments. Adding to this, he links that to younger audiences needing that push to actually leave their homes and go to cinema screenings. “I always think of the audience when I work.” This is what makes all those challenges and risks worth it.” Reflecting on Kira & El Gin being screened as part of IFFR – with the first screening being just after our interview – he talks about how excited he is for the film to be shown in European cinemas for the first time. “It’s an honour to screen here”. The film had 3 screenings, with lead actor Ahmed Ezz being also present for the final screening’s Q & A.
Watch the trailer of Kira & El Gin here :
Written by: Mayra Nassef
Editor: Nimrat Kaur
Visuals by: Isabella Restrepo Vargas