by Sherif Awad
The violent incidents that followed the shooting and the death of a twelve year-old boy by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio were not the first sad events related to racial problems in the United States. Because they were exposed to such media coverage on daily basis, two Egyptian-American directors decided to depicted racism in universities by self-financing, co-writing and co-directing a new ensemble drama called Boiling Pot that is about to be released in American theaters. Campus
Set during the 2008 presidential election, Boiling Pot opens with four university students dragging a bruised young black man through the woods to an oak tree. They hang a noose. They lynch him. Several students are then interrogated about the murder by Detective Haven (Louis Gossett Jr.) and FBI Agent Long (Keith David). The story unfolds through the interrogations, with a series of flashbacks that depict the occurrences that led to the lynching.
The plot follows the parallel stories of characters dealing with racial frictions through university life. Danielle Fishel plays a girl naïve to racial tensions, who struggles to have her conservative white father, played by John Heard, accept her new Egyptian-America fiancé Hazem, played by Ibrahim Ashmawey. Davetta Sherwood (The Young and the Restless) plays a Black Student Union college activist tenuously trying to encourage the passive dean of her school, played by Emmet Walsh (Blade Runner, Blood Simple), to battle campus racism during the heated election. The plot simmers as campus fury riles when a noose is hung on campus, a racist fraternity party rages, and news of a rape spreads. Boiling Pot delves into the depths of racism in modern-day society by allowing it to unfold through different narratives told in an intertwined dramatic thriller. There is neither apparent vile character nor a supposed hero; rather, every character, if pushed far enough, will exhibit prejudiced characteristics.
Omar and Ibrahim Ashmawey were both born in Maryland State to two Egyptian parents who immigrated to the States but were keen to teach the Arab language and Egyptian customs to their two sons. While paying some visits to Egypt between now and then, the family moved from Maryland to Michigan until it settled down in California. After finishing high school, Omar went to study economy while Ibrahim specialized in engineering.
However, while growing up in the States, the brothers Ashmawey felt offended from the stereotypical portrayal of Arab-Americans and Muslims in the US media. “We were sure that in order to change this depiction, it must be from within the entertainment industry as well”, said Omar who went to co-write with Ibrahim the screenplay of The Boiling Pot to become their feature debut. “We did not want to make an Egyptian film for the Egyptian market but our aim was to address the American people”, he explained. The two brothers went to make extended researches and also met up many US university students to reflect the true image of daily life on Campus. Before realizing Boiling Pot, Ibrahim and Omar created their own production company Ashmawey Films through which they made early shorts like Naomi's Song and Why I Killed My Brother.
For foreign viewers not residing in the US, the first thing that can catch their attention while seeing Boiling Pot is the existing of Unions for Black Students in certain universities, which somehow can pave the way to racial segregation between people at such early age. “Actually, there unions also exist for Latinos, Arabs and Asians here and there”, explained Ibrahim. “It is something the students set because they think it is the correct way to fight for their rights”.
In addition to real-life ethnic student union, the film also depicts dramatized events and characters inspired by news headlines that recently shocked the American people. In 2010, There was really a San Diego party where some teens where dressed up to mock African Americans. Same year, an Africa-American young men was kidnapped by four “white boys” who went to hanged him. “We fictionalized all these accounts in different times and locations so we can use them in our film”, said Ibrahim.
In addition to the young cast appearing in the film, Ashmawey Brothers has also succeeded to cast veteran character-actors like Louis Gossett Jr., Oscar-winner for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Keith David, Emmy-winner for Unforgivable Blackness (2004) who both play the investigating detectives. Also, M. Emmet Walsh appears as a school official and John Heard as Valerie’s father and Egyptian-American actor Sayed Badreya appears briefly as Hazem’s father. “Hollywood’s big names like these can come on board and agree to cut down their salaries if they believe in the just cause of the production” says Omar. “They also feel they have more room to give better performances. Gossett Jr. signed up immediately with us since he also established his Eracism Foundation in the States”.
The financing of Boiling Pot was, however, not that easy. “We started an online campaign like most indies do nowadays but it was not that successful”, remembers Ibrahim who spent more than a year to raise funds for his film. “With such luck of financial support, we decided to do it on our own by finding a lawn securing the first portion of the budget”. After doing so, they two directors succeeded to finish 75% of the film which attracted some film investors to put some money to finish it completely.
After screening the film in several events in Orange County, California and in Harlem, New York, Boiling Pot got a US distributor last month. “We hope to try to screen the film in Egypt and the Middle East later after its US release”, says Omar. “We got very feedback from the private screenings. Some people did not believe the stories we were telling until they have seen the film till the last frame”.