Hend Sabry • Actress
"Art, film and culture also help in the fight against other stereotypes"
- At the Cairo Film Festival, of which she was a sponsor, Cineuropa met up with actress Hend Sabry to talk about intercultural dialogue
At the Cairo Film Festival, of which she was a sponsor, Cineuropa met up with actress Hend Sabry to talk about intercultural dialogue.
Cineuropa: How did you get into the world of acting?
Hend Sabry: It was a series of coincidences that led me into a field that I ended up falling in love with.
Let’s talk about your second film, Asmaa (about a little girl living with AIDS). Were you apprehensive about making this film?
Yes, I was nervous about this film because at the time – and even now - there is a real stigma around anything that doesn’t fit in with society’s norms, within Arab society in particular. The subject of those living with AIDS is one that has always been neglected in Egyptian cinema and I believe Asmaa is the first film of its kind in the region. Many actors worry about stigmatisation. It’s difficult in the Arab world for an actor to play the part of a homosexual, for example, because there is always a confusion of reality with fiction and of actors with the characters they play, but I accepted this part without hesitation. This film hasn’t only changed the public’s perspective on this issue, but it has also changed actors’ attitudes towards certain roles: it has given people courage and has encouraged larger numbers of actors to take greater risks in their careers.
Did your part in The Flower of Aleppo land you in hot water, with its focus on extremism and radicalisation?
Yes, I did receive a lot of criticism before taking part in the film, though not afterwards. I even received death threats. I received emails from politicians in Syria telling me that I was talking about a subject I knew nothing about. At the beginning, people thought the film was about sexual jihad which wasn’t the case, and I don’t know why but the media really pushed this idea and lots of people were then telling me that there was no such thing as sexual jihad. I later explained that the film was about a brave Tunisian mother who had gone to look for her son in Syria. Ultimately, it’s a Tunisian story that shows how problems in the Arab world have a ripple effect; that there is a war going on in Syria and it is tearing Tunisian families apart. That’s what moved me. The Flower of Aleppo isa very modern film that couldn’t have been made in 2010 because the problems were very different back then; everything was very well controlled and closed off. I didn’t want to make a film about the same old Tunisia, and that’s what drew me to The Flower: it’s a film that focuses on a new Tunisian problem.
Do you believe that this film is helping to combat radicalisation and extremism? I always ask myself this question in my work, as do all artists and actors, but it’s one I can’t answer. Either way, it has opened up a debate in Tunisia and has broken the record in terms of box office sales. This is in no way an elitist film, it’s a film made for the greater public. People have been leaving movie theatres asking themselves questions: why do people feel they have to go to Syria? Where are we going wrong? Our role is to shake up the status quo. It seems pretentious to say that we can help combat radicalisation, but we can open up important debates and I believe the film has achieved this.
Art, cinema and culture all have a role to play in fighting stereotypes. We need to talk about subjects that are considered taboo in the Arab world, such as cancer. I was part of a very successful series broadcast during the month of Ramadan. It was about cancer, an illness that we Arabs just don’t talk about. I know people who have cancer but who don’t dare say it. The series was a huge hit and there was a great outpouring of love in the messages we received - those living with the illness thanked us for having given them the strength required to heal and to rebuild their lives, and it really changed people’s perspective on cancer, especially the perspective of those living with it and that of their families.
What message or struggle do you want to convey through your film?
I have no particular struggle to convey. If I have a purpose, it is to give a voice to the voiceless and to spread the dual messages of tolerance and openness towards others, even if these others are different to us. Conformity and conventionalism are real problems in the Arab world and they are suffocating us. 70% of under 35s have a genuine issue with individuality. No-one dares to say that they are different, no-one dares to say that they see things differently - everyone wants to be seen to be “normal”. I would like to say to our young people: “It’s ok to be yourselves”; to reassure them that they don’t have to conform and that the same goes for the whole of the Arab world. Thankfully there is now a new wave of producers who are fighting against conformism, such as Amr Salama et Mohamed Diab in Egypt. I want to bring to the fore characters who were passed over because they were seen as being too different. I always try to convey this message to people: we don’t all have to be like one another and it is this diversity, in fact, that is our greatest strength. In our region, there is a frightening desire to conform.
What is your view on Europe? Can art bring us closer together?
Only art can bring us together, nothing else. The only thing that unites us all in the Arab world, for example, is that we all love Ibn Khaldun, we all love the same films, we all share the same cultural DNA, and the same applies for the north and the south, for the east and the west, and for Europe and the Arab world. There are many exchanges that go brilliantly while others, of a political nature for example, can sometimes go wrong because of a few simple misunderstandings. Cinemas in the Arab world fully understand the importance of co-productions and they know that this does not in any way represent a new form of colonisation. Co-productions have afforded many Arab films a stronger presence in the market, in foreign festivals too, and have also allowed them to be distributed in cinemas in big European city cities.
Do you feel that the West offers a stigmatised image of the Arab world?
Yes, but I don’t think it’s intentional; they have a duty to talk about what is going on in the region and it’s true that there is a lot that is bad, such as extremism, radicalisation, violence… But there is a whole other side to the Arab world that just doesn’t seem to interest the West. I actually believe the Arab world is the victim of its own story - the story it has been telling itself for decades given the tendency towards self-victimisation in our part of the world. We must try to re-frame our story and, at the same time, speak out against radicalisation, loudly and without fear of recrimination. Extremists do not represent us. The great mass of people that make up the Arab world are not radicalised or violent. Instead, there is a tiny minority that is attempting to speak on our behalf and has taken our identity hostage. It is up to us to say that these people are a minority and to insist that we are different from them, so that the West can accept us for who we really are.
(Translated from French by Michelle Mathery)
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