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Egyptians in Hollywood: Hassan Said and his Character-Driven Stories

Having worked with some of the biggest names in film, from Sean Penn to Clint Eastwood, one award-winning Egyptian is truly making waves in the cinematic world. Valentina Primo talks with the hardworking Hassan Said about his journey to Hollywood.

He has worked with Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger yet he is fascinated by the microscopic tales of anonymous fighters. His films narrate –often playfully, occasionally disturbingly - the struggles of day-to-day commuters, parents or minorities, exploring the psychological impact of life’s shocking and heartwarming moments.

 “Stories aren't supposed to spoon-feed us lessons about how to cope with reality, but to reignite the passion and curiosity for better knowledge to survive in this long journey of life,” says actor and filmmaker Hassan Said, almost as if poetry was part of his innate language. Having appeared as an actor in the likes of NCIS and with an upcoming role in True Detective, film is where Said really thrives, both in front of and behind the camera, being one of the only Egyptians to have lent a hand to an Oscar-winning film; Milk

Born Alexandria, the artist moved to New York at the age of 15, where he studied Communication and Media Arts but in 2005, as his first short film, Unforgettable Romance was nominated at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, Said moved to San Francisco to grow a career that would lead him through a thriving trajectory in Hollywood. In an interview with CairoScene, Said shares his eye-opening vision and gives young filmmakers a powerful gust of inspirational advice.

Why did you choose to focus on personal, meaningful stories rather than the bigger narratives?

The epiphany of personal stories is misconstrued into it being a smaller concept than bigger narratives, which isn’t always true. There are many people amongst us who struggle to be heard or understood. As much as films provide entertainment and a bigger escape for the day-to-day audience, if there are no personal elements to the story, then all that money and hard work and time has gone to waste.

"There is beauty in that David-and-Goliath sort of struggle pushing for your film to make it, finish it and show it."  

We are over 7 billion individuals on this planet, and as much as we differ in culture, religion or ethnic background, there are more similarities to our lives than differences. I am attracted to those who are challenged, hurt, misfits, handicapped... Those who struggle to be heard in our day-to-day life.

It might take a blockbuster film, with over $200 million in studio funding a year to make a massive entertaining spoof of reality, yet it can take a film that costs $500,000 more than three years to see the light of day or premiere at a single festival. There is beauty in that David-and-Goliath sort of struggle pushing for your film to make it, finish it and show it. Most of today’s audience are drawn to content that doesn’t have them think, question or cause any reflection of discomfort. People are constantly seeking escapism from their troubles and conflicts, but with the right balance of entertainment and portrayal of honest human struggles, spiced up with some surrealism or mystery - that is when a story reaches perfection.

We were intrigued by your focus on unnoticed stories. If you had to choose a peculiar character that particularly influenced you, who would it be?

At the age of 16 I found myself to be alone - no financial support or immediate family, as most of my family is in Egypt. Being an Egyptian native living in the USA in the beginning of the 21st century, I realised how small of a minority I am in the realm of things, at a young age, which can be discouraging. I worked multiple jobs to try to stay afloat, struggled to adapt for years relating to others around me who had a very different background. I was fortunate to be able to survive New York, move to study and create art in San Francisco and settle in Los Angeles. I have met hobos, musicians, prostitutes, drug dealers, politicians, fanatics, lawyers, teachers, disabled, struggling, hard-working, racist, humble, amazing people. On the other realm I have been also fortunate to work with such amazing talented artists like Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, Gus Van Sant, Freddy Elmes, Harris Savides, Dave Guggenheim, who throughout the years have impacted me and my talent in various ways.

However, the people that most impacted my life was the day-to-day encounters; those who through every day of their life breaking their back to give themselves hope of a better tomorrow. When I was 23, I read a story in the news about a mother who woke up one morning and killed five of her children, one after the other. It was one of those instances where my mind froze and my curiosity piqued; what can push a person to kill their own flesh and blood?

During that period I had a friend who was a street artist in San Francisco, with an autistic daughter - she was the sweetest quietest individual, who was larger than life and loved expressing herself through art. I admired this man who is willing to pursue his dream, work two jobs and also take care of his baby girl. He had a hard time raising the girl, as she couldn’t help herself from crying or throwing tantrums at time. She struggled to socialise in school, without a mother by her side, yet she was one of the most talented artists I have ever seen. I couldn’t ever imagine surviving in this judgmental world in her shoes. Her life inspired me to make a hard and controversial film called Mute, which won the German Independence Award at the Oldenberg International Film Festival.

You have a knack for digging into controversial topics. Where do you think is the intersection between controversy and social awareness?

The films I create don't always carry topics of controversy but at times the presentation and execution becomes the subject of this controversy. The expectation of a hero’s journey timeline, where everything works out in the end, is the orthodox methodology of storytelling in the modern world; however, in today’s realm of short films, online content, web series, and various mixed media, the concept of how to tell the story expanded.

I don’t seek out or pursue controversy, it’s the reaction of the audience the inevitably defines the truth of the picture. And that’s the beauty of storytelling, leaving the interpretation broadly open for the audience to comprehend it at their own pace. I always aim to tell a story that I believe in my heart and mind to provoke emotion: whether its joy, fear, anger or disgust. I believe it’s the artist duty to grow with each story, explore more territories and defy the odds of public opinion and cultural expectation.

I experienced controversial responses in almost every work I have done: with Mute it was the topic of sexual abuse and autism, in Infamy the horrifying recordings of the events of September 11th and how uncomfortable it strikes the audience, and with It's a Strange World, it's the combining element of silent cinema of Chaplin and the surrealism of Dali - in addition to creating an in-tangent story that is not linear but more an experience of visual stimulation - that left some uncomfortable. Sometimes, I would sit in the back of a theatre and hear the audience’s reaction: it is shocking yet funny how the audience tries to comprehend the “why” and at times, just lets go to be immersed in the work.

"Listen to your instinct, don’t give up, don’t try to copy or mimic, have your own voice, share your vision and tale. If it can be thought, it can be told."  

I know this question will probably be like asking a father about his favourite son, but... What film makes you proud the most?

Ha, there is not really a plausible answer; it’s like asking a filmmaker what is his favourite film: if he decides to mention a single film, then he obviously hasn’t seen enough to build a solid opinion. Each project has been a challenge to me personally, whether it’s a language I don’t speak fluently or a funding issue or location or any source of stresses. I have been making films since 2004, and each one of them is a milestone for me and my learning curve, with the unmistakable truth that elements of each of my work required blood, sweat and tears for it to be complete.

You've managed to conquer much more than Hollywood; now what is your biggest dream? 

I hope I can continue to grow as a filmmaker and be able to tell more stories with universal link. I was fortunate to make films in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese; I’d love to explore more stories of various cultures and languages. I would also love to go back to Egypt and be able to find the right tools and people who see eye-to-eye and want to contribute creatively as a team to create phenomenal content.

I am currently on the typewriter, working on three various projects, two of which to shoot in the US and one in Egypt. I am also working on building a production house that connects Los Angeles to Cairo and later down the line, I would love to start an independent festival in Alexandria that focuses on young talent as well as old, not awarding budgets but encouraging those who try and push for their stories forward.

What advice would you give young Egyptian artists who want to break into the film making world?

Always be shooting, understand that “social commentary” is not a film genre, try to transcend the social stereotypes and not be blinded by superficial industry glamour. Work hard, shoot as many films as you can: all you need is a camera and a couple of kick-ass friends. Challenge yourself, write more, watch films of various languages, publicise your work online, reach out for international festivals, explore various genres and defy the norm. Be honest to yourself, don’t dumb down elements of your story for the audience, tell more character-driven stories and research, research and research. Learn to grow as a person in order to grow as a storyteller, travel, do not listen to the majority and raise your voice as a minority. Don’t let friends or family discourage you, listen to your instinct, aim to tell a simple story with a clear arc, work hard, don’t give up, don’t try to copy or mimic: have your own voice, share with us your vision and tale. If it can be thought, it can be told.


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