Mamoun Hassan obituary

·5 min read

The producer Mamoun Hassan, who has died aged 84, was a significant figure in British cinema of the 1970s and 80s, whose remarkable career, if not entirely satisfying his artistic gifts, was unusual in that it enabled so many other film-makers’ careers, and gave rise to numerous courageously non-commercial projects. What was notable was how commercial some of them turned out to be.

Although he was a talented director and screenwriter, it was in his roles as the first head of production of the British Film Institute (1971-74) and managing director of the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC, 1979-84) that Mamoun was most influential, being instrumental in the making of such classic British films as Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl, Franco Rosso’s Babylon (both 1980) and the animated adaptation of Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, directed by Jimmy Murakami (1986).

Related: His pain was our pain: working with director Bill Douglas

Perhaps the most important figure he brought to prominence was Bill Douglas, the Scottish film-maker responsible for the exceptional My Childhood trilogy (1972-78) and Comrades (1986), an important political film about the Tolpuddle Martyrs of the 1830s.

In 1976 Mamoun had backed and supported Terence Davies’s first production, the short film Children, and Horace Ové’s Pressure, the first serious feature film to reflect the black experience in Britain. It was Mamoun, too, who granted the finance to Andrew Mollo and I to make Winstanley (1975).

Babylon was the first film he backed at the NFFC, after it had been rejected everywhere else. This continued a pattern of breaking the rules and putting his job on the line by committing more money than he was supposed to. When the film was released in the US in 2019, after nearly 30 years, it gained rave reviews.

Crucially, also at the NFFC, Mamoun changed the advisory board of the National Film Development Fund to include directors and producers as well as writers, which radically increased the number of scripts produced and led to films such as A Room with a View and Dance with a Stranger (both 1985) being made.

Mamoun was born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Hamid Hassan, a doctor, and Fatma (nee Sadat). His family came to London in 1949, settling in Hampstead, north London, where Mamoun went to King Alfred’s school.

In 1958, he began studying electrical engineering at University College London. I first met him during this time, in the early 60s, when I was working as an editor for a documentary film company and he came to work for me as an assistant. Eventually, Mamoun made the decision to work in film rather than in engineering, and he left university before graduation.

When I was asked to make a short documentary for the BFI on the last tram in Britain, 9, Dalmuir West (1962), Mamoun was indispensable as second cameraman.

A still from Babylon, 1980, by Franco Rosso, which Mamoun Hassan backed at the NFFC after it had been rejected elsewhere.
A still from Babylon, 1980, by Franco Rosso, which Mamoun Hassan backed at the NFFC after it had been rejected elsewhere. Photograph: Alamy

The films that Mamoun made at the beginning of his career – documentaries and shorts – proved his talent. The Meeting (1964) won the best short film award at the 1965 Oberhausen international film festival. A feature film that he was due to direct for the producer Stanley Donen lost its studio backers just before shooting; shortly afterwards came the BFI offer, in 1971.

Douglas’s script for Childhood, which was then called Jamie, was one of the first that Mamoun read. It was his idea to make it the first of a trilogy, to ensure that Douglas would get the rest of his films made, and after it won the Silver Lion at Venice in 1972, its success helped the BFI move into feature production.

In 1974, Mamoun left to lead the film section for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), based in Lebanon. As soon as he landed, civil war broke out and he found himself avoiding gunfire while directing the film Some of the Palestinians (1976),. It went on to win an outstanding film award at the London film festival.

On returning to the UK in 1976, Mamoun was invited to form and head the directing department of the National Film and Television School. The following year he became a member of the Cinematograph Films Council, advising the government, while also being a founder member of the Association of Independent Producers, critiquing said government.

As managing director of the NFFC, Mamoun, unlike his illustrious predecessor, Sir John Terry, never asked for an executive producer credit on the feature films he backed and nurtured. Many years later, he confessed this had probably been a bad idea.

Despite its renewed creativity under Mamoun, the NFFC was abolished in 1985, a year after his departure. That year he produced Alan Bleasdale’s No Surrender, directed by his friend and collaborator Peter Smith. Mamoun had backed Smith’s 1974 feature, A Private Enterprise, set in the growing Asian community in Britain, while at the BFI.

In 1988 Mamoun devised the Movie Masterclass series for Channel 4, based on his work with students at the NFTS. Satyajit Ray said of the masterclass on his film The World of Apu that “it was a lesson for me, too”.

In 1997 Mamoun was appointed dean of editing at Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV (EICTV), in Cuba. He went on to co-produce, co-write and co-edit the award-winning Chilean film Machuca (2004), directed by Andrés Wood.

With Wood, Mamoun also wrote the screenplay for La Buena Vida (The Good Life, 2008), which won a slew of awards including a Spanish Goya.

Mamoun was one of the most intelligent men I have met. His opinions were often startling and always stimulating.

In 1966 he married Moya Gillespie, a publishing editor. She survives him, as do their two sons, Sherief and Anies, two granddaughters, Sabrina and Jasmine, and a brother, Talaat.

• Mamoun Hassan, film producer, screenwriter and director, born 12 December 1937; died 29 July 2022