“It Has to Be a Symphony of Voices.” – Hend Sabri on Changing the Industry

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Photo: Courtesy of IWC

The greater the mass of an object, the more gravitational pull it has, able to force objects into its orbit by the mere weight of its existence. Given the immense body of work and formidable talent of Hend Sabri, her gravitas is profound. In person, the beloved Tunisian actress is petite and sleek in appearance, but she is a changeling onscreen, capable of adapting any persona and interpreting a prismatic array of characters.

She flexed her comedy muscle as Ola in the Arab television dramedy Ayza Atgawiz, and shook audiences with her performance as a young woman who discovers she has leukemia just a few weeks before her wedding in Halawet el-Dunia. In 2017, she topped Forbes’ list of “Top Arab Female Actresses”, and has continued to scoop up awards and accolades by the armful – and her position at the top of Arab cinema shows no signs of faltering.

Others would be comfortable to rest on such auspicious laurels, but not Sabri. She often finds herself speaking out on behalf of women in her industry, challenging the status quo, and facing down the backlash. Fearless and peerless, the actress is an inspiration to women everywhere for her philanthropic passions and refusal to take a backseat to her male counterparts. She is also an ambassador for the World Food Programme and an advocate for Arab cinema on the global stage.

Sabri is also an ambassador for IWC Schaffhausen, a Swiss luxury watchmaker with deep ties to the international film industry. Given the honor of interviewing the powerhouse actress in Geneva, Savoir Flair explored Sabri’s propensity for taking on challenging roles, her outspoken call for gender parity in the Arab film industry, and her future plans to step behind the lens for the first time. Listen in.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - JANUARY 15: Hend Sabry attends the IWC Schaffhausen Gala celebrating the launch of the new Pilot's Watches at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) on January 15, 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for IWC)
Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

With IWC boasting such a huge legacy, how did it feel to be offered a brand ambassadorship?
It felt good because IWC is not a brand that is foreign to cinema, film lovers, and film makers. All of us filmmakers in the world know there are brands that really support cinema, and IWC has always been on that list. When I was approached, I really thought it would make sense because I have a rule that I would never advertise or associate my name with a brand that does not speak to me on a personal level.

As much as I love luxury in my life, I also like luxury when it gives you the means to do something more purposeful, which IWC does. It has always supported cinema and film festivals. It has, in fact, partnered in the past with the Dubai Film Festival. In the region, I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the jury of the IWC Filmmaker Award and give a voice to filmmakers from the Gulf.

Do fans ever recognize you for your ambassadorship role?
I’ve been with IWC for four years now, and people are increasingly associating me with the brand. I always get asked about the watches. It’s fun because I have watch lovers who come up to me to talk about the latest IWC collection, and I love that. It’s nice to be associated with something luxurious and meaningful at the same time.

What does the IWC brand mean to you?
Understated luxury. At the same time, people who like IWC watches or plan to buy an IWC watch are people who are into aviation, sports, racing cars, cinema. It’s not about what watch you own, it’s about what you do – and what you do with what you own. It’s not about having a very expensive watch on your wrist, it’s how you use it that matters. Filmmakers all over the world actually use their IWC watch as more than just an accessory, as do pilots and race car drivers. They are people who are doing something with their life. IWC projects a very inspiring image; people associate it with the idea of living with purpose, living your life to the fullest.

I will continue to speak up. I can’t do it alone – it has to be a symphony of voices.

You had a very busy 2018. What roles are you looking forward to in 2019?
Right now, I am shooting the sequel to The Blue Elephant, which is a story that is really well-known to audiences in the Middle East. But I can’t give away too much about my role. The Blue Elephant was in the top 30 biggest blockbusters in the history of Arab cinema and, now that we’re shooting part two and everyone knows I wasn’t in part one, people are wondering what I’ll do. We decided to keep it under wraps until the film is out because everyone wants to see me as the villain. I don’t want to say – I’d rather let people wonder. It is a psychological thriller and a bit of a horror film, so that’s a new genre for Arab cinema. We’re not used to that, and it’s a very big production. It’s set to be one of the biggest blockbusters of 2019.

What I’ve been focusing on lately is making more movies. The cinema industry is making a comeback in the region after many years of television taking over. You see more theaters opening in Saudi Arabia and all over the Arab world. People want to watch movies, and I’m primarily a movie actress, even though I have made television as well. I was filming a very independent movie in Tunisia three months ago – a very low-budget film – which I like to do from time to time, then went to Cairo to shoot The Blue Elephant. I’m still shooting it right now, in fact.

I think of you as a defining voice in Arab cinema, and you speak your truth to power. Do you feel like female empowerment is on the rise in Arab cinema?
I can tell you that we are a bit late compared to the rest of the world. #MeToo and #TimesUp were major movements that had a big effect in the industry, but not in the Arab world. I am proud to stand up and speak. I have values I believe in. Sometimes, I pay the price for believing in those values. I’ll be honest, and I won’t tell you that it’s rosy. The movement has not picked up in the Arab world, although we know there is a big gap – whether it’s a pay gap or a lack of opportunities for women – between men and women in this industry. It is still a male-dominated industry, so women don’t really have a voice.

Still, I will continue to speak up. I can’t do it alone – it has to be a symphony of voices. One person cannot change much on their own, we have to do this together. I am still waiting for other voices to join me, but everyone is so shy, especially with social media and the backlash you can get if you speak your mind. That’s why I think it’s going to take a couple of years, but I am very hopeful. There is a young generation out there that cannot be silenced, that won’t stand for things the way they are. They recognize the obvious gap between men and women in the industry. I am happy that some women look at me as a role model and see me as someone who speaks for them.

You’d rather be on the right side of history.
I hope so.

I feel like it’s very clear that change is needed. I feel frustrated by the fact that it is so slow because I see the potential, I see that it hasn’t become a unified movement. But I really admire what you stand for, so consider me on your side. You have Savoir Flair’s support.
Thank you so much, that means a lot.

When I look at the roles that you’ve played, you don’t back down from controversial or challenging roles.
No, I don’t.

What are some of the roles you’ve played that you are most proud of?
Asmaa, which was about a woman with HIV. It was a career highlight. We shot the film in 2010, before the revolution in Egypt. It was a very special time. Everything was boiling underneath, but everyone was silent, everyone was going with the flow. Asmaa was a disrupting voice at the time because no one could believe that a film about a woman with HIV would be out in theaters in Egypt of all places. I like making people think, question, discuss. I like it when a movie divides people. It makes people talk to each other when some people like a film, and others don’t.

To me, that is one of the definitions of art: it makes people wonder and look at the world in different ways. There’s no right and wrong, there’s only your own perspective on things. You come with your own baggage and background to every situation, and it affects how you interpret art. In the Arab world, we are often afraid to speak our minds, so it’s necessary to provoke these conversations to see how people really view the world. Conformity is expected in the region. It’s a shame because the beauty of individuality is defined by our differences. We are different, unique individuals, and this should be celebrated – not frowned upon. Any character that stands out and allows people to think or be different, I am proud of.

Directing is the next step. I’ll keep you posted.

When you look across the world of Arab cinema, who do you think is creating the types of films that are making a big impact culturally?
Well, there are many. Nadine Labaki, of course – she is really groundbreaking. Lebanese filmmakers are more daring, they challenge the status quo. But there are filmmakers from the 1970s and 1980s who changed the way we look at Arab cinema. There was Nouri Bouzid in Tunisia, and Yousry Nasrallah and Youssef Chahine in Egypt. They were very brave, they were braver than us.

Then, there was an era when everything was conformist, and all films looked like each other. But there’s a new wave now. There’s Marwan Hamed in Egypt, there’s Abu Bakr Shawky, whose first film Yomeddine was at Cannes last year. His film celebrates difference; it was about lepers, who are outcasts of society. It makes me really happy to see audiences requesting diversity and a variety of films. Now, there is film for every taste, which wasn’t the case five or six years ago.

Do you have any ambitions to direct?
It’s funny that you asked me this because I have been discussing this. I think I am ripe, I think I am ready.

I sensed it from your career trajectory. It’s time.
Exactly. I really believe in timing. Everything you do leads you somewhere, somewhere that you’re meant to be. I believe that. I love being an actress. I enjoy it, interpreting the vision of a writer and director, and I contribute to it with all my heart and soul. Now, I am ready to show my own interpretation. That requires control of the whole project. So, yeah, I am ready. I’ve been producing through my company for a few years, and I’ve been enjoying it tremendously. Directing is the next step. I’ll keep you posted.

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