Captivated by the seemingly many personas of late actor Omar Sharif, Egyptian filmmaker Mark Lotfy and Swedish director Axel Petersén delved into the legendary star’s eventful career, tracing how the politics of 1950s Egypt formed the international star’s complex character.
Their new documentary, “The Life and Times of Omar Sharif,” shows in particular how the policies of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the political climate of the time led him to change his name and convert to Islam, and later to become a cosmopolitan individual who was equally at home in Cairo, Paris or Los Angeles.
Sharif’s life and career are described as a “dramatic balancing act, set on an East-West axis, illustrated by the hundreds of characters he played, on and off screen, in the changing political landscapes of Hollywood and the Middle East.”
Produced by Sigrid Helleday’s Stockholm-based Fedra in co-production with Lotfy’s Alexandria-based Fig Leaf Studios and Corniche Media in London, the project is among this year’s selections at Danish doc fest CPH:DOX’s financing and co-production event, CPH:Forum, which runs April 26-30.
“The Life and Times of Omar Sharif” reunites Petersén with Helleday, who produced his 2018 Berlin competition screener “The Real Estate,” co-directed with Måns Månsson.
For both Petersén and Lotfy, longtime collaborators who have worked on numerous projects together, Sharif has long been a subject of great interest.
“Omar Sharif was a conversation piece that we could always come back to,” Petersén says. “Quite early on in our relationship we realized that we had two very, very different perceptions of Omar Sharif. Me, representing the West, I saw him as some Hollywood superstar, playboy, glamour man, while Mark, representing the East and Egypt, had a completely different perception. He knew him as a persona non grata, like an Egyptian Judas. … We couldn’t figure it out. How could our views be so different?”
Their discrepant notions of Sharif sparked the idea for a film project to investigate why this was, Petersén adds. The more they dug into the actor’s life and career, the more the various personas became apparent. Was it a way to better conform to the different countries in which he lived?
Petersén notes that the changes in Sharif’s life were often connected to major political developments which he seemed to be navigating around, although at times he was directly in the middle of them.
Sharif reportedly played an instrumental role in bringing together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together ahead of Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Israel, which led to the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
The actor had left Egypt, due in part to the pressure he felt under Nasser’s rule, according to Lotfy. It was the pressure to conform in Nasser’s nationalist Egypt of the 1950s that led Sharif, born Michel Demitri Shalhoub in Alexandria to a wealthy Melkite Catholic family of Lebanese descent, to change his name, he adds. Sharif later converted to Islam when he married Egyptian actress Faten Hamama in 1955.
Unable to cope with the increasing pressure to serve as propagandists for the government, Sharif left Egypt, Lotfy explains. Leaving the country for the West hurt his image in Egypt, however. His efforts to help Sadat some 15 years later is the turning point of the film, Petersén says. It was his chance to return home, but Sadat’s assassination in 1980 dashed those hopes.
The film will seek to tell the story of how political agendas shaped his life and how he dealt with that, Lofty says. “We see him as a vessel of ideology. A reflecting surface to understand Eastern-Western conflict in the last century. It’s going beyond biography.” The political backdrop of the time is a natural part of Sharif’s story, he adds. His personal story symbolizes “the politics of his days.”
The documentary will also showcase Sharif’s film career, including his most memorable works, among them “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Funny Girl” and “Monsieur Ibrahim.”
The filmmakers are close to completing the film and have a finished rough cut. Comprised mostly of archival material, it will also include a number of interviews shot in Egypt, Stockholm and Berlin, among them scenes with Sharif’s son Tarek Sharif. The team was about to interview grandson Omar Sharif Jr. last year just as the pandemic struck, says Helleday. The filmmakers hope to meet with the younger Sharif this year, either in Los Angeles or somewhere in Europe. “That’s still to be done, but that’s more or less the final footage we need,” Helleday adds. “And then we’re finalizing the cut and going into post production.”
Petersén points out that the film is “not a straight talking-head documentary. Our ambition has been from the beginning to make this a cinematic experience.”
The project has so far secured financing and support from the Swedish Film Institute, Swedish pubcaster SVT and Film Stockholm as well as from Corniche Media and Leyth Productions in Tunisia. The producers are mainly looking to attach another broadcaster and find a sales agent for the film, says Helleday.