Cairo-based Tunisian film and TV star Hend Sabry is debuting as an executive producer on upcoming Netflix Arab Original “Finding Ola,” a series she proposed to the streamer. The show sees Sabry reprise her role as the widely beloved Ola Abdel-Sabour character she played 10 years ago in groundbreaking social drama “I Want to Get Married” (Ayza Atgawez). While in the original, Ola was under social pressure to get married before turning 30, and explored a lot of options, a decade later she is juggling responsibilities as a mother, a daughter, her job as a pharmacist, and her “attempts at finding love,” as the Netflix synopsis puts it. Beyond the built-in pan-Arab appeal, for “Finding Ola” Netflix is also looking to the global market. The streamer is preparing subtitles in 32 languages and four dubbed versions for when the show soon drops –– no firm date has been set –– in 190 countries. Sabry spoke to Variety about her belief in the soft power of Ola to connect with viewers and also prompt positive change in the Arab world and beyond.
So, in a nutshell, who is Ola? I haven’t seen the original.
You don’t need to have watched the original show to be able to follow “Finding Ola.” It’s really independent from “I Want to Get Married.” Ola, of course, is the core of the project. Ten years ago she was obsessed with getting married, because socially she’s not accepted if she’s not. Ola 10 years ago allowed us to explore social taboos and do it in a totally not in-your-face way. But with a smile instead.
There were [debates in] talk shows about the original in Saudi Arabia 10 years ago. People talking about it, saying: ‘Should we allow a TV show to tell us what to do? And what not to do?’ Saying: ‘This is going to make young women bolder.’ I remember that there was a whole social dialogue around it, and that’s exactly what I think the Arab world needs. And that’s why this character, Ola, can be a great conduit to a pan-Arab audience, because she was so relatable.
The original was a coming-of-age of a woman in her 30s. Now it’s a coming-of-age of a women in her 40s. I believe that if you have a character that provides a good connection to an audience why change it. So, this is how I see Ola. I see her as a bridge between me and people. I love her dearly, because people love her. And when Netflix approached me about a show I suggested Ola and they immediately liked the idea.
Did you also ask Netflix to be executive producer on the show?
Yes. It came natural to me, even though I have zero experience. The trust came from the fact that they know how much I love and know Ola inside and out. I’ve had a relationship with her for more than 10 years. She is the character who shaped my relationship with the pan-Arab audience. I think this made it easier for them to agree with trusting me with her.
What is so appealing about Ola, now that she is in her 40s?
For women, their 40s is the toughest decade. Kids are still young, they still need you. You are still young enough to aspire to things in life, but you have less energy because of how segmented your life is. Your family is still around – your parents are probably still there – the generational transmission is still going on. So it’s very tough for any woman, anywhere in the world. But even more so in the Middle East because of all our traditions. Women are really seen as the guardians of these traditions; they have to transmit them to the next generation. Breaking a generational cycle is very rare in our region and if it is done by a woman, then it’s always seen in a negative way. This is exactly what I’ve wanted to challenge. First we did it with a woman’s obsession with getting married. And now we are doing it with the obsessions of a 40-year-old.
Do you think this is a show that women outside the Arab world will relate to?
It raises very global, universal kind of questions. At the same time it’s very local in the sense that it gives you a very nice window on the Middle East. A window that for once doesn’t include weapons or terrorism. Just cozy houses and women baking and also clubs and pubs. We have everything in this show that I, as an Arab woman, have been wanting to see on a global platform like Netflix for a long time. I am really happy that we are portraying some kind of normality on an Arab show.
In broader terms how far along are we in terms of the possibility of an Arab TV show breaking out internationally?
I think it already happened with “Ramy” [the Hulu series co-created by and starring Ramy Youssef, which follows titular first-generation Egyptian-American Ramy Hassan (Youssef) on a spiritual journey in his politically-divided New Jersey neighborhood]. “Ramy” has been a big breakthrough. We forget that before “Ramy” there was no “normal” Middle Eastern family — or an Arab actor, or an actor with an Arab origin — portrayed on U.S. TV. “Ramy” is very popular across the [Arab] region, of course, because we are proud that we are finally represented in a “normal” way. Just a “normal” family doing their thing. We are not being judged. It’s a nice break from the damaging stereotypes of how Arab people have been represented on U.S. TV before.
And that’s also what you want with Ola right?
As a producer I wanted this show to be as universal as possible and as relatable as possible to many civilizations and cultures around the world. Netflix is truly global. So if I hear about even just one Korean or Japanese person who goes on their Netflix, watches ‘Finding Ola’ and says: ‘That’s exactly like us!,’ then I will be super happy. That’s what a breakthrough is to me.