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Venice: Egyptian Star Hend Sabry on Power of Women in Arab Film Industry

Cairo-based Tunisian actress Hend Sabry, who is at the Venice Film Festival as a member of the jury for debut films, is having a good year.

“The Blue Elephant 2,” a thriller with horror elements in which she stars – directed by Marwan Hamed who cast her more than a decade ago in “The Yacoubian Building” – recently became Egypt’s all-time top box office earner. And right after Venice, she is heading to Toronto to promote first-time Tunisian director Hinde Boujemaa’s “Noura Dreams,” a drama about a woman who dreams of divorcing her husband who is about to be released from jail.

Sabry spoke to Variety about how the Arab film industry is changing and the ongoing role that women are playing in its transformation.

What’s changing in the Arab film industry? Is Netflix, which recently announced it’s first Egyptian original titled “Paranormal,” impacting the landscape?

The arrival of all these platforms is a great opportunity for us. We are transitioning towards more universal stories, that are also very local. Filmmakers in the Middle East are more aware that in order to be seen they have to have authenticity, but also have to deliver a universal story. As an actress it’s exciting because there is a return of powerful female lead roles in commercial cinema.

What’s the biggest sore spot for the Arab industry at the moment?

What worries me is that we are a bit behind in doing pan-Arab co-productions even though we are some 350 million people, and we speak more or less the same language. We should have a much much stronger market and a bigger market that will allow to make more expensive content and more quality content. But it’s not happening for some reason. I don’t understand why. I truly don’t understand why it’s so difficult for us to get together on a project and make it pan-Arab.” That said, “The Blue Elephant 2” was released the same day in all Arab countries. It’s the first spark of light we’re seeing…in every Arab country everybody is talking about that film.

You’ve recently landed leads in both the commercial and the arthouse spheres

My career has always been like that. I started in Tunisia with arthouse films. Then when I went to Egypt I did “The Yacoubian Building,” which was a breath of fresh air in Egyptian cinema. Marwan and others led this Nouvelle Vague…and now Marwan’s “The Blue Elephant 2” is a record-breaking blockbuster and a film that I’m very proud of. But at the same time there is this very small Tunisian film “Noura Dreams” by a first-time director. A project that I did for the pleasure and the fun of it. I am one of the few Arab actresses who can hop from commercial to arthouse.

Did “Noura Dreams” appeal to you because of its strong female empowerment theme? 

Hinde is a female director; but she doesn’t have a standard feminist approach in the way she talks about the problems of the Arab women. I am tired, personally, of all these thematically loaded cookie cutter movies.

Here at Venice most of the Arab movies are by women directors. In particular there are two films directed by women from Saudi Arabia. Do you consider this a novelty? 

Not really. “The Perfect Candidate” is Haifaa’s [Al-Mansour] third film. It’s really not about her gender or nationality. Regarding Saudi, however, “The Blue Elephant 2” is the first or second Egyptian film to be released in Saudi cinemas. And this is historic, whether we like it or not. As is the fact that a Saudi woman can drive her car and go to the movies. This is something that can only make me happy. I’m also glad that when the Saudi government started funding films, the first films they funded were by women. But I’ve been reading scripts from the [Persian] Gulf for years and 80% of them were written by women. So it’s not new to me…all the Saudi filmmakers I know, minus one, are women.

 

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