INTERVIEW: Director Mohamed Hammad on Withered Green

Nahed Nasr, Wednesday 20 Dec 2017

Mohamed Hammad talked to Ahram Online about making of the award-winning Withered Green and how his belief in the film helped him overcome many obstacles

Withered Green
(Photo: still from Withered Green)

Following its world premiere at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland (7 August 2016), as well as its Arab world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival (9 December 2016) and several international screenings, the film Withered Green (Akhdar Yabis) had to wait several months to be released in Zawya on 25 October 2017, then across Egyptian cinemas the same month.

The film was then screened outside the competition during the 39th Cairo International Film Festival (26 November 2017) before returning to Egypt's cinemas.

Withered Green (2016) is the first feature film by director and scriptwriter Mohamed Hammad.

His first short narrative film as a scriptwriter was The First Pound (2006) directed by Ahmed Khaled, followed by two short films; Central (2006) and Pale Red (2009), both of which he wrote and directed, in addition to short documentaries.

Withered Green won the Muhr Award for best director at the Dubai International Film Festival 2016, and the Golden Palm Award in the Narrative Feature Competition at the Mexico International Film Festival 2017.

It was nominated for the Golden Leopard for Filmmakers of the Present at the Locarno International Film Festival 2016, and also for the Golden Bayard of the Best First Film at the Mexico International Film Festival 2017.

The film depicts Iman’s attempts to convince one of her three uncles to attend her younger sister’s engagement in her deceased father's place. During her journey, Iman faces shocking discoveries about her own life and the people around her.

The film features a cast of amateur actors, some of whom make their first on-screen appearance, including lead actress Heba Ali.

Members of Hammad’s family also took part in the film, including his father, mother, and father-in-law.

The director’s wife Kholoud Saad also makes her first attempt as a producer in the film.

Ahram Online talks to Mohammed Hammad about Withered Green and the obstacles he faced producing his first feature film.

Withered Green

AO: Tell us more about Withered Green as your first experience with feature film.

MH: A decade ago, I joined some friends in a film editing room, and since then I have been infatuated with the world of filmmaking.

Before that moment, I was a mass media graduate who dreamed of becoming a musician.

In 2006, I wrote my first film, which was directed by a friend, Ahmed Khaled. I then became more involved in the filmmaking world. I wrote, directed and produced some short narrative and documentary films.

But there came a time when I was frustrated and depressed because of all the obstacles one faces to making a long feature film, including financing the film, to the extent that I decided to quit filmmaking. I felt that I was struggling against time, and this is what this film is about. I decided to win the fight and to liberate myself from all the obstacles by producing my film by myself. This film is my radical response to those obstacles.

AO: Is Iman, the protagonist in Withered Green, your alter ego?

MH: In a way, yes, and at the end of the film there are some indications that she also decided to liberate herself and win her fight with time.

AO: Your film won the Muhr Award at the Dubai International Film Festival and it was nominated for the Golden Leopard at the prestigious Locarno International Film Festival. How would you describe your film in relation to the audience?

MH: I believe it is a not a mainstream film, it has its own audience. A filmmaker should make his film and he will slowly build his audience by time. This is the lesson we learned from our prominent directors Mohamed Khan, Yousry Nassrallah, and Daoud Abdel-Seid.

On the other hand, it is a very simple story about ordinary characters who belong to the lower-middle class, which is disintegrating at a blinding pace. It is about the effect of time on one’s life and how much we could love ourselves compared to our love for others.

Films are not only about ideas, but also cinematic style. In this regard I have no compromises because I cannot compromise the truth. In other words, a story of two lower-middle class sisters who live alone facing dozens of challenges could also be done in a different style adapting mainstream film techniques.

If I had done this, however, I would have abandoned the reality of my characters. These characters have their very own pace in their everyday life, which is totally different from the cinematic pace. I wanted to be authentic to reality and to real life.

I am not after appeal, I want to reflect reality.

AO: Did you expect such positive reception of your film?

MH: My concern was to complete the film. This was our everyday challenge and motivation. I planned to submit the film to the Dubai International Film Festival and Cairo International Film Festival so it can be watched in Egypt.

But when the prominent late film critic Samir Farid watched it, he liked it so much that he advised me to submit the film to all the prestigious film festivals.

I did not imagine that it would be appreciated this much at every film festival, including Locarno.

I will really miss Samir Farid, [who passed away in April this year], and his encouraging advice.

AO: Can the limited budget of a film play any role in its cinematic style?

MH: Absolutely not, and I think you cannot tell the real budget of this film from the way it looks. The budget was not on my mind when I chose the film’s style, but only the dramatic context.

On the contrary, the limited budget was a motivation for me and the film crew to invent alternative methods and think about the resources we have to implement my vision.

The only effect the limited budget had on the production process is reflected in time. Although filming took 28 days, it took one year and a half to gather all the crew, find the proper locations, and have dress rehearsals at those locations so the actors and actresses can live in the characters’ shoes.

Dress rehearsals at the film location are the key point in this film, because it helps in capturing all the details of the characters. For example, Heba who played the role of Iman, spent weeks in the sweet shop as a seller so she can feel and act like one.

Had we had a big budget we would not have had the time for such preparations. I think this is the difference between my film and mainstream films, which lose the sense of real life and the tiny details of real people. Real life is slower than cinema.

AO: Some of your family members are part of this film, including your wife Kholoud as producer, and your father, mother and father-in-law as first-time actors. Why did you take this risk?

MH: Most of the acting team in this film, including the protagonist, is appearing in front of the camera for the first time. This sense of freshness and unexpectedness that comes from an amateur actor is precious.

Also a film director is a professional observer, and the story of this film is inspired by the people that I lived with and observed for years.

I like that the film was very organic in the sense that all our family gatherings turned into interesting discussions about the film, and everyone was very enthusiastic to make it happen. It took some time to convince them to play roles in my film, but I am lucky that they decided to do it.

AO: Who are your cinematic references?

MH: My references are all the great filmmakers who were part of cinema history, those who were able to build their very own cinematic personality and flavour. The artistic achievements of filmmakers such as David Lynch, Béla Tarr, Stanley Kubrick, Jim Jarmusch, and Agnès Varda are my references.

AO: Your film was given the green light by the censors hours before its Egyptian premier at Zawya Cinema. Why did it take months to receive permission?

MH: The film was introduced to the Censorship of Artistic Works Authority last February, after which I was invited to a series of meetings to discuss their remarks.

Since I did not seek any permissions in the pre-production or during the production phase, their first remark was that some scenes that appear in the film are removed from the script, and when I explained the reason for this, they had further remarks on those scenes in the film itself.

They described those scenes as disgusting and immoral. It took much negotiation to convince the censorship committee not to cut the scenes.

This is totally ridiculous, since prior to its Egyptian premiere, the film was publically screened in Dubai and Beirut without a single cut.

AO: Why did you not seek any permission during the film’s production phases?

MH: It is difficult to get permission to make film, and it is also difficult to make a film without permission. But I decided not to seek any permission on purpose.

I do not believe a censor should have a say on a filmmaker’s script or a film’s screening. Also since the film crew and I are not members of the Cinema Syndicate and we do not work under any production company, it would be impossible to have any permission of any kind.

We work under many pressures.

AO: Have you thought about your next step?

MH: Although I have no idea what the next film will be about, I am ready to start a new film because we have to capitalise on the success of this film.

What I am sure of is that in all my next films, the script will decide the style of the film, and that I will always work with people who share my vision in filmmaking. I will also do my best to be a part of the production process as a partner to be able to protect the vision.

AO: What would you say to young filmmakers?

MH: My main argument to every aspiring filmmaker is not to listen to any argument for why you should not make your film. If you are true to filmmaking, not to the outcome of making a film, then enjoy making your film and you will overcome all the obstacles.

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