Hend Sabry is a Tunisian born actor who made her debut at age 14, and has been acting for the last 20 years in various Middle Eastern film industries. She is also a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations' World Food Programme, and recently visited a Rohingya camp in Bangladesh. In an exclusive interview with the Dhaka Tribune Showtime's Faruque Ratul, Sabry gives us a total overview over her career in the Middle Eastern film industries, and why she raises awareness about hunger
Is this your first time in Bangladesh?
It is my first time in Bangladesh, yes. Unfortunately, I did not get to see much of Bangladesh because of a very tight schedule. I just came for two days, and immediately went to Cox's Bazar to visit the Rohingya camp. I was pleasantly surprised by the kindness of the people here, and the energy they all have. I am sure I will be back.
How was it growing up in Tunisia? And will you please tell us about your debut film?
It was a normal and quiet childhood. I was an only child. My mother was a French teacher and my father was a lawyer. My parents really loved arts and had a lot of friends who were artists . Since, Tunisia is a very small country we all know each other somehow.
One day I was at a friend's birthday and the director of my debut film, Silences of the Palace, saw me. He said to my father that he was writing a film, and the protagonist is a 14 year old girl. He wanted me to audition for the role. So that is how my acting career started.
At the time I did not understand the impact of cinema on me, as I was so young; now I have more than 20 years’ experience in this field. So as we usually say, I go way back in this industry.
So, you did not have any aspiration to become an actor before that audition call?
Not at all. I was a nerd. I was very good at school and I wanted to become an ambassador. I wanted to study Political Science and begin a diplomatic career. I was always interested in observing people and psychology in general. I think it was my destiny (laughs) to become an actor, but I would say the career came to me more than I went after it.
It is only now I am starting to realize how much I love what I am doing, and how much, maybe, I was really destined for it. I never acted in front of a mirroror never wanted to go for an audition. It all came to me and I feel very lucky.
Since your film debut was at the age of 14, you must have naturally received a lot of attention at a very early age. How did you deal with all of that?
I did not do well at the beginning, to be honest. It was too much for a 14-15 year old. As a teenager all you want to do is blend in and be like others and conform. Since Tunisia is a small country, I became instantly recognized as the little girl from Silences of the Palace. Therefore, some of my friends in school were not that nice. They were not always kind. Maybe they were a bit jealous. So, I rejected this world (of films) for five-six years and continued my studies.
I was not ready to go back to cinema until I was 20.
Tell us how you began acting in Egyptian films?
In the year 2000, I made my third film in Tunisia, and I met an Egyptian director Inas Al Degheidy.
Months later, she contacted me and said: "I remember you. I am making a film called Muzakirat Murahiqua- A Teenager's Diary, and I want you to come to Cairo and play the lead."
For those who do not know, Cairo is actually the equivalent to Hollywood or Bollywood in the Middle East. It is the centre for films in the Middle East.
I was really surprised at the offer as I had no plans of moving to Cairo. I went just for the film, and it was a very controversial film. It was about a phenomenon that was very common at the time in Egypt. I do not know if you have it here. The topic of the film was marriage without a contract. Basically, the bride and groom get married in a very private ceremony and do not tell anyone, and the marriage lasts for years.
It was very common among young people at the time. Even some teenagers started doing it. It was a very controversial subject, and at the time I was not ready for that controversy.
So that is the beginning of my story with Egyptian cinema.
In the Middle East, a different dialect of Arabic is spoken in each country. Was delivering the lines in the Egyptian dialect difficult?
Yes, it was. I had to take classes. I could not just learn it from the films and music. I had to also learn the differences in dialect inside Egypt. People in upper Egypt do not speak the same dialect as the people of Cairo. I sometimes had to portray women from Upper Egypt in Egyptian films. Even the women in Alexandria do not speak with the same accent and intonations of Cairo. So, it was really difficult for me in the beginning, but very rewarding at the same time. I think it is part of being an actor - to be universal, to be versatile, to know how to do Egyptian, Tunisian, English roles and roles in other languages. I have always been good with languages, even in school.
You have also studied law. Any particular reason for that choice of subject ?
I studied Political Science as I wanted to be a diplomat. Therefore, I had a natural interest in law. Law is a very unique study, as it influences so many aspects of our lives. From our private life to public life, law affects pretty much everything. When you have studied law you gain so much knowledge about so many different things, that even if you do not practice, as I do not, you can adjust to any field very easily. I am very grateful that I studied law.
Would you say that the Middle Eastern audience have a separate list of expectations from their cinema than that of other regions? Can you speak about the most important roles you played in the different industries?
Every audience is sort of used to a certain narrative structure, and that is for certain. The majority of Egyptian film-makers like to make films that can be described as sentimental. I would say Bollywood has a similar approach. People love to watch nice choreographies and love stories. Then you do have other film-makers who like to tell stories that are more profound or deeper. I have always liked to challenge my audience in terms of where I want to take them with the film. Therefore, I have done both comedies and tragedies. If there is any one aspect that is common in all the roles I have played, it would be the fact that they all challenge the status quo socially.
I would say I was among the first actors to play the role of 'spinster' in Middle-Eastern cinema. It is a common phenomenon. Women in the Middle-East get really pressured into marriage. I think it is the same here. The longer women put off marriage, the more they are considered to be ineligible for marriage.
We tackled this in a funny way, as we thought this was the only way to get the attention of the older generations. I played such a role 10 years ago. Even today, the series is being aired on TV. It became one of the classics. But, I remember that initially when I took the role, people were saying I am going to burn myself and destroy my image. They kept saying that nobody will like the fact that I was trying to tackle such a sensitive and delicate subject. But I turned out to be right.
I believe that we are not challenging the status quo enough. We are not challenging people's thoughts and beliefs enough. And I try to do that more and more as I get empowered, and as I gain more trust from my audience.
Did you have to do extensive research for your role Aasma?
The role in Aasma was also kind of challenging, as it was the first film that spoke about a woman with AIDS in Egypt. It was based on a true story. My research was based on the actual character in that true story. It was the story of a woman, who was contaminated by her husband. Then the husband passed away, and the responsibility of the family falls upon the shoulder of that woman. She had a kidney problem, but since she had AIDS no doctor wanted to perform the surgery. Unfortunately the woman died from her kidney related problem, but not from AIDS.
The film was a bit of a shock for everyone, as when I acted in the role, it was unthinkable to see an Arab actor portraying a woman with AIDS. However, that is part of my job. If I am always doing love stories and the role of a heartbroken girl, then what is going to be my impact on society?
My background and my studies have taught me to care for my fellow Arab women. If I do not do something for them, then I might as well stay at home and take care of my daughters.
Between film and television, which work do you think is more hectic?
Ohh, definitely television. I do not know how it is in Bangladesh, but we work for Ramadan series. We do thirty episodes for the holy month of Ramadan. We make the series in four to five months. So we have to spend between 14 to 15 hours a day working for six months straight. Movies are usually six to eight weeks so they entail a much lighter workload, of course.
For your role in the TV series Halawet Eldonia, you played a character who gets diagnosed with cancer, right before her marriage. Did it take a toll on your mind to play such an emotional role?
It was a series that was very close to my heart, as I had lost a dear friend to cancer, right before I began work in that series. We were a close group of friends, and everyone of us were there for her at each step from the tests, to the doctors’ visits and every hospital admission. She was cured at first, but then the cancer came back and unfortunately she passed away.
I felt that it was not a coincidence that that part was offered to me at that time. I really got inspired by her soul and her spirit. It did take an emotional toll on me, but that happened because I was doing a project that was so relatable for people who lost loved ones to cancer. I do not know the statistics for here but no home in Middle East is there, in which the family has not lost a member to cancer.
Every home and every family are either suffering or have suffered because of fighting cancer. When it was aired during Ramadan, many were saying that this was not the season for something as sad and tragic. But it was not tragic. We did it in a way that was very celebratory of life. It celebrated life, and tried to teach us how we should spend life. When you know that a disease can take you away any day, it changes your perspective on things. It is all about perspective. Either you go with the flow, or you challenge people's thoughts. When you try to challenge people's thoughts you get a lot of criticism. But you also get a lot of positive feedback, more than when you go with the flow.
You have been critically acclaimed for your work in Noura's Dream. Will you please tell us a memorable story from that set?
Noura's Dream is my latest film. I have received two Best Actress awards for my role in the film; one in El Gouna Festival and the other in Carthage Film Festival. I shot the film in Tunisia last year. The film in its entirety is very memorable as it is based on a true story, and it is a tough social drama. The themes were very sad and very tragic. However, like every sad film, the sets are really funny. I think it is a reaction to playing a sad story. You always try to lighten up behind the scenes. It was actually a very fun set, as the director and lead actor were my friends. We laughed a lot during the production, and any singular incident does not come to mind. However, if you watch the film, you will see that it is a very tragic story about love and revenge.
You have been working closely with UN's World Food Programme to raise awareness about hunger. Do you have any personal reason for choosing this cause?
I have been working with the UN's World Food Programme for ten years now. I started this work in 2008. They reached out to me for a campaign for the Gaza children; however, the campaign was unfortunately never realized for some other reasons. So, I asked them to make use of me to raise awareness about any other worthy cause.
As an actor we get used so much, for a variety of reasons. We get used for our looks and our image. Sometimes people who are close to us even use us. The only thing I do not mind being used for is to raise an awareness about something. I was very clear from the beginning, and I said they can use me in any role for the awareness campaigns.
So, it was not a conscious choice to raise awareness about hunger and starvation as a cause, but it was circumstances and courses that put our paths together.
And I asked them to take me with them to the field, so I can understand what they do. And I understood that what they do is not easy. Most people think that all we do is drop bags of food for people, and that is it. This is far from being the case. The World Food Programme has so many different programs that deal with responding to crises as needed, but also other ongoing programs for women, and in partnerships with various governments. We touch people's lives in many different ways, but food is one of the most basic requirements of human existence. In life, without food there is actually no life. We work with refugees, and we work with displaced people. We work in times of war, famine, and any other crisis. We also do a lot of positive things every day, such as school feeding, or raising awareness about good nutrition,what to eat and what not to eat. We also think about what a mother should provide for their children. We also work with pregnant women and lactating women.
I remember that a country director, who unfortunately is no longer with us, once told me something that I believe is so true. He told me, "When you are hungry, you cannot talk about freedom, or democracy or human rights." When someone is hungry, they cannot think about anything else. They certainly cannot get education. Food is the first priority and then other things.
How do you convince an apathetic crowd about the importance of the issue, for which you are conducting an awareness campaign?
I truly believe it is a matter of an angle. It depends on the angle you use to pique their interest . I believe that the problem with generational gaps is that we do not know the right angle. We do not know how to catch their attention. I consider myself to be quite good at that. I know how to catch the attention of the crowd, whether it is a young one or an uninterested one. For people to get interested in something, they have to first relate to it. If they are not interested, or they fail to relate as the topic is far from their scope or vision, then they will not listen.
But if you show them the story, or tell them the story so they can relate to it, and it is very easy, then they will listen. They also listen if you are sincere and genuine. People have a very strong intelligence; they know if you are telling them the truth and if you are really engaged, or if you are here just for the pictures. If they feel your presence, your attention, when you look them in the eye then they engage. This has happened for me every time. I never had an apathetic crowd, really, unless I was apathetic myself. Which happens sometimes.
You must find it difficult to spend time with your family, because of both your acting career and humanitarian work.
Yes, I miss my family. I think I will now cry in front of the Dhaka Tribune (laughs). Yes, it has been quite a year. Professionally and personally, it has been a very fulfilling year. I feel blessed. I am very happy. However, I have not seen my children in a very long time.
I believe that I am also doing all of this to be fulfilled and be a mother they can look up to. So, they know that I had to come to Bangladesh to visit the Rohingya refugees. And I sat down and explained the Rohingya crisis to them (my daughters). I explained who the Rohingya refugees are and so on. They (daughters) are eight and six years old. So they are very young. But I want them to understand that even if I am leaving home for a couple of days, I am doing something that I care about and believe in. And I believe that this is how you show the way to your children.