Hend Sabry embodies so much more than an ambitious young woman who has worked her way to ultimate stardom; she stands for persistence, intellect and grace. Her incredibly charismatic appearance and talent has captured cinema lovers and filmmakers alike. With both feet on the ground and her head up high she is one hell of a power woman and surely the pride and joy of her Tunisian countrymen.
Are there enough character roles for women in Egypt?
Not at all I must say. I think that in general there is a lack of characterization in Egyptian cinema nowadays for both male and female roles. Script writers somewhat don’t dwell into the details of the character anymore in terms of building the character as to understand why he/she acts in a certain way. This occurs even more with female roles being more marginalized in today’s plots. The common description for a female role is “pretty girl in her twenties”, ok so now what? I mean aren’t they all? What is special about her? What distinguishes her from others? We don’t have real characters of flesh and blood, it’s very rare. I think that most of the time script writers are focused on the story rather than working out the details, so the main focus is on the male lead role. I think this has to be somewhat revolutionized as half of the society is female so why not tackle issues that appeal to women? Why not tell their stories? She doesn’t have to be the lead role in size but why not in depth?
How do you pick your roles?
When I first started in Egypt I didn’t have the luxury to be rather picky and of course I accepted parts knowing that they could have been better written, but back then I didn’t have the name and fame to influence a role amendment. Any rising actor will have to compromise consistency of choice at one point. At a later stage I tried picking only the roles that struck me as best for me even of this often meant working less. In general, what I do is read the script and the more I can identify with the role the more likely it is I go for it. Of course, certain parties involved in the project often facilitate the decision as you know you are in safe hands with calibers like Mohamed Khan, Dawood Abdel Sayed, Marwan Hamed and Sherif Arafa.
Do you have a taboo role?
No. When I first started I had the conviction that cinema should not be categorized as acceptable roles and taboo roles. We need to teach people that what they see on screen does not reflect the real persona of the actor. When an actress plays a prostitute, killer or thief it doesn’t mean she is like any of these characters. I am fighting against these new kinds of moral judgments on cinema and actors. Cinema is supposed to be about addressing and exposing taboos. It should not judge, it should reveal and try to find a solution, trigger thinking and problem solving.
When you first came to Egypt to pursue an acting career did you face any problems?
Yes, it was very hard at the beginning, but it was equally challenging. I was unknown, foreign and often met with a somewhat suspicious outlook. I had question marks all over me it seemed. I also started here with two rather daring roles which resulted in instant labeling of my person as the girl for the daring roles, a free spirit without traditions and boundaries. There were two possible reactions to that either give in or change all my convictions about the avant-garde attribute cinema should have towards society and accept these double standards or fight. I chose the latter. I was often depressed and wanted to quit but then a good part comes a long, a great director who believed in me or a good movie which recharges your energy right away for a new round. After the rather harsh press attack I decided that I will not let anyone label me for certain roles so I always took parts that no one would expect me to present, like in “Best Times” (Ahla El Awa’at) when I played a veiled pregnant Egyptian woman from Shubra, for instance. Challenge is the best motivation.
Is there real friendship in the Egyptian film industry? Can female actors be friends when competition is so tough?
I actually managed to have some few. Hanan Turk and Menna Shalaby are my friends as well as Nour, we bonded during the cinema’s guild decree on foreign actors so we shared a common fate and fight in solidarity. I have to add that at the beginning it wasn’t easy at all. I always empathize with others, so here I was a foreign girl who wanted to act facing unwelcoming notions of not belonging here so of course I might have seemed as a threat or competition on already scarce female roles. It was a very sensitive situation as I had to be friendly but then again not too friendly as not be mistaken for sucking up. But along the way people you work with start to get to know the real you somehow. It is no secret that Menna and I were not on good terms, it was only after the third film the ice broke and we started becoming friends and set an ethical foundation for our friendship. I believe if you are ethical enough and the friendship evolves not around work only it can really work although very rare and circumstantial. Hanan Turk and I developed our friendship even after she left the field.
Short films vs. feature films, how come that directors and actors do much better in short films? Is that the way to live out your talents?
(smiles) Yes, short movies are my playtime. It’s the kitchen and lab for a new director before entering a feature film, like a teething baby. It is amazing to witness and feel that someone is trying to do his utmost as to get an outcome as unique as possible without any commercial pressure and censorship, which gives the project more freedom and flexibility compared to feature films. I love it and I do it for free. I love being there when new directors are being born and to be part of it.
You acted in some foreign productions such as “What Lola Wants” or Tunisian films; is this a refreshing change from the Egyptian cinema industry, that tends to be a little too commercial?
I started in Tunisian films before I came to Egypt. I am a fan of Tunisian cinema, it is totally non-commercial not part of an industry at all, targeted to Tunisian audiences and festivals. Moroccan cinema is the second most developed cinema in the Arab world after the Egyptian and they managed to start an industry that was close to non-existent for the sake of art. This will never happen in Egypt in that form, as same as Hollywood and India, the film industry is an economic pillar feeding many mouths. You cannot compare Egyptian cinema to Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian or Lebanese, I stopped comparing. The motivation is different from country to country, in Lebanon you make films to convey conflicts or fight for a belief, as war struck regions have many stories to tell. In Egypt we make movies to make money same as in Hollywood yet the quality of outcome is different. We should manage a healthy balance between high quality commercial entertainment and artistic value as to be able to invest in arts. Unfortunately, we still think one track minded with commercial or purely artistic suitable for festival appreciation only. We have to create audiences for films like “The Aquarium”. I believe that when doing commercial cinema it has to be clean and of high quality, “El Gezira” was a commercial film but at the same it respected the audiences same as “The Yacoubian Building”.
What about censorship do you think it’s inhibiting?
No, I am not that radical. We are lucky enough to have Ali Abu Shady handling the censorship department; he is a very open minded cinema lover and film critic and knows what cinema is all about. He always has an open ear for directors and the confide in him and his judgment. He is part of the progress and renaissance of the Egyptian cinema that I mentioned before. Fact is we do have an audience that is not ready yet to be without censorship on the big screen, you have to make it your ally not enemy as we all pull at the same string. Step by step one can change mentalities and introduce new concepts.
You won many awards, which are the dearest to your heart?
The first one for “Silences of the Palaces” as it was in Tunis, my homeland. It won in Cannes, Valenzia and Toronto. I was 15 and received the best actor award in Carthage, which is in my country so I felt very proud and it was on my birthday so it is very special to me.
What advice do you give young girls dreaming of a career in the Egyptian Cinema?
Respect yourself, respect yourself, respect yourself! Work hard, in silence, in silence, in silence. The thing is that any new actress wants it the easy way and it doesn’t work this way as there is no easy way. It is a very dynamic process that eliminates people on each step up so if you are not strong enough to withhold you will not make it. I think being well read and traveled and of substance is also essential. Most important you need to be a solid and stable person with both feet on the ground. You need friends and family to support and ground you. If you are ignorant or addicted to the spotlights for no good reason then you will never make it.
Did your marriage affect your work? How do you balance work and marriage?
You know it is actually easier than being single. Because when you are single you spend much thought about finding the right partner which takes up a lot of your concentration and energy. Being stable gives you more time and energy to focus on your work if you have a supportive partner, that is. I am lucky to have that.
Your husband is not from field, is it easier?
Yes, it is for me. My job is only one aspect in my life, for some time it was the only thing I was focused on and it was all I could see. It was revolving around one small social circle, so every time I get out and get perspective I realize how shallow this sometimes is and that there are so many issues we need to consider other than who got which role. When I go home I am with a person that couldn’t care less about all this which grounds me more and enriches my life. The world is not going to stop turning because of me not getting the role or whatever.
Compare a Tunisian woman to an Egyptian one.
Tunisian women were very lucky to have had an extra ordinary president Habib Borgeba who in 1957 gave women a bill of rights setting women and men on equal level in all aspects of life. We never had to fight for our rights. It would not be fair to compare as circumstances were on our side. I am very proud to be a Tunisian woman and I am proud of the history of Tunisian women and I believe that Tunisian women could be a good role model to any Arab woman. I like about Tunisian women that they understand their freedom very much and know its responsibilities. They are very hard working and occupy high ranking positions and balance their family life.
How important is it that celebrities engage in humanitarian work?
The most precious thing one could do as a celebrity is put your name at the service of a cause or people. It is not that common in the Arab world. My priority is protecting the environment we are so far away form what the West is doing for saving the planet. People need to understand that saving the planet is very important.
Who is Hend the private person when the camera is off?
Quite boring I guess. I am not a party animal at all. I like my home. I read a lot. I am not a big fan of sports although I do to exercise a lot. I love traveling; it is one of the most interesting and enriching chances to get to know new people and cultures.
Name 3 strengths of yours:
Good judgment of characters, my husband says I have high emotional intelligence (smiles), and I am a hard worker.
Name 3 weaknesses of yours:
Impulsive, sometimes I care too much about what people might say and I guess I am too nice to people who don’t really deserve it.
What do you hate?
Stupidity and ignorance.
What would you take with you to a deserted island?
Good book and a dog.
Who is your role model?
I have many, one is Audrey Hepburn who reflects the essence of a woman and another one is Angelina Jolie for all the charity work she is sincerely doing.
Do you know what women want?
I don’t think they know. (laughs) I guess we want so many things. Let me know when you have an answer.