Elham Shahin: Championing Artistic Value

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Tue, 06 Oct 2020 - 02:41 GMT

      Outspoken, bold and uncompromising, Elham Shahin has no fear when it comes to choosing her roles or the projects she has chosen to direct. In our latest issue, we spoke to Shahin about her numerous roles, her views on 'women's cinema', and her personal life. 

 

You’re on a continuous search for new and different roles. Tell us more about your upcoming project Curfew.

I play a completely different role in Curfew, a new character that is not similar to any of my previous roles. Faten’s role is a very difficult one, she has spent 20 years in jail and it was a horrible experience for her. The main idea the movie revolves around is totally new and has never been presented in Egyptian cinema. Amir Ramses tackled this idea from a novel perspective; it’s almost like a debate between a mother and her daughter, each of them has her own point of view.

What else is in the pipeline?

My upcoming movie is Ahl El-Eib. There will be a Part 2 of Ya Donia Ya Gharamy, but it will not be a movie, it will be a series called  Alby Yehbek Ya Donia and is slated to be released in Ramadan 2021. I’m really excited to be reuniting with my lovely friends and megastars Laila Eloui and Hala Sedky; and I feel we will present a really distinguished series. I’m also considering a play directed by Mourad Mounir entitled El-Beih Wel Princess but I haven’t decided whether I will take part in it or not. 

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You are a cinema aficionado, which is why you support the Egyptian cinema industry by producing movies that have high artistic value and are not solely commercial, such as Youm Lel Setat and Khaltet Fawzia. Tell us more about your work as a producer. 

Frankly speaking, I have never paid attention to financial revenues. You might be surprised to know I didn’t set a clear budget for any of the movies I’ve produced—I always say I earned my money from cinema and am ready to lose it to support cinema. I’ll produce a movie, if I admire its plot and its idea, and if I know that the other producers whose first priority is commercial success before art will not produce it. I will because my first and only priority is the artistic value of the movie. 

My target is to add value to the Egyptian and the Arab cinema industry, my aim is not to produce a film for Elham Shahine—the proof is Youm Lel Setat which houses 10 megastars from different generations, each of them can play the leading role in a big film: Mahmoud Hemeida, Farouk El-Fishawy, Ahmed El-Fishawy, Eyad Nassar, Ahmed Dawoud, Nelly Karim, Nahed El-Sebaie, Hala Sedky and Ragaa Hussein. At the end of the day, I performed one role among 10 characters in the movie, which shows that it’s not my name alone that I care about. I am truly happy and proud of all the movies I have produced. These films garnered a huge number of awards from different festivals around the world. Khaltet Fawzia received 17 awards and Youm Lel Setat received 21 awards. I also produced the movie Haz West El-Balad and the series Nazaryet El-Gawafa.

What do we need to do to push the industry forward in the era of Covid-19?

Of course because of Covid-19, people have become afraid to go to the cinema even if the capacity of cinema theaters is 50 percent; of course audiences will panic if they’re sitting in a closed place with the air conditioning on. I think the solution is screening movies on digital platforms such as Netflix, Shahid and Watch iT, and the good work always promotes itself, but the most important thing is that the Egyptian cinema industry shouldn’t stop.

Would you consider working with digital platforms?

I don’t mind working with them, and with the Covid situation, digital platforms are the only way for the continuation of the industry.

Some major film festivals, such as Cairo International Film Festival and El Gouna Film Festival, have decided to hold their sessions despite the pandemic. Are you with or against this decision?

I am with this decision. Life has to move on because Covid-19 may last for a long period of time. Covid-19 has changed our lives, made us more cautious, following different ways to boost our immunity like taking different kinds of vitamins.We have to wear masks, screen the movies in open-air cinema halls; by following the needed precautionary measures we will be safe.

The pandemic has also led to a rise in social media due to the lockdown. You’re not a big fan of social media but you started using it. Why?

This is true, I don’t prefer social media, especially when we use it to discuss frivolous things, silly issues, and at the end you find many people comment for amusement, to gloat or for revenge, so for the previous reasons I don’t like social media. But on the other hand, social media is a necessity if we use it properly, like delivering our artistic news to the rest of the world and knowing about their art, to keep up with all latest developments around the world. For me personally, it is very important to know more about the global artistic scene and the other different cultures so I use social media for these issues. Social media shouldn’t be all ridiculous comments from people who don’t understand the issue they are commenting on, or [be used] for bullying. 

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To what extent can cinema actually help address societal problems, offer solutions or even change mindsets? Which of your movies do you feel had the most impact in that regard?

Of course cinema can change mindsets and move people’s emotions because it has a big influence on them. A lot of subjects that were tackled in cinema have really impacted society, such as my movie Lahm Rekhees which shed light on early marriage for the sake of money, selling young poor girls to rich men. It really was a painful and shameful issue, and at that time there was an office in one of the Egyptian villages that was specialized in facilitating the marriage of adolescents to rich Arab men. The movie raised awareness of the dangerous consequences of this negative practice and was actually banned from screening in some Arab countries. 

My movie El-Qatl El-Laziz explored how our youth can easily get drawn into drug addiction, and in Wahed Sefr we discussed how Christian women are subjected to injustice because of their tough divorce procedures. Of course we can’t interfere in religious issues and we only shed light on societal problems, still many Christian ladies sent me praising messages because I conveyed their painful problem. In Youm Lel Setat we discussed how love and freedom can change people’s lives. We saw how all the characters’ problems were solved when they had true love stories. Maw’ed Ma’a El-Raees tackled governmental corruption, how people take large pieces of land for small amounts of money. In Ya Donia Ya Gharamy we discussed the importance of virginity for girls, how a terrorist fiancé wants to force a girl to wear hijab and niqab and how she was brave enough to refuse this. In Dantella we discussed how the friendship between two ladies was much more important than the love of another man. In Khaltet Fawzia, we presented the slums in a new and good way and how these humble people could be happy despite their poverty.

Do you believe in “women’s cinema”? Or do you feel that as equals there should be no discrimination in classification?

In every movie that tackles female issues you’ll find a man playing the leading role, because in all our issues, men are involved; life itself is shared between both. For example, Youm Lel Setat discussed women’s issues and we were 10 main stars, five men and five women. 

Name one movie and one series you consider milestones in your career.

The movie that I really consider a milestone in my career is El-Halfout alongside megastar Adel Emam, which was written by the veteran Waheed Hamed and directed by the renowned Samir Seif. At that time, I was studying at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and I had already taken part in some important movies such as Omhat fel Manfa, El-Aar and La Tas’alny Man Ana with the late great Shadia, but they were all small roles. El-Halfout was my first leading role that made me a big cinema star. 

When it comes to TV drama there are a lot of series that were milestones in my career; but if I had to choose one, it would be Nisf Rabie El-Akhar with the veteran Yehia El-Fakharany.

Which actor, actress and director do you want to work with the most and why?

Anyone I haven’t worked with, so from this perspective Hend Sabry, Hany Salama, Menna Shalaby, Amir Karara, Ahmed Ezz. I want to work with all the Egyptian stars from different generations. The same for directors, so I’d love to work with Sherif Arafa, Mohamed Yassin and Hala Khalil.

Off screen, to what extent do you feel actors have to engage in public service? How has public service affected your perspective on different issues?

Of course, every artist has a duty to serve the public. Whether they choose me to be a goodwill ambassador or not, I have to play a role in serving my society, country and the Arab community. I played a key role in the June 30 revolution; I stood beside Egyptian people and our great Egyptian army and we succeeded in protecting our country and saving it from the destructive hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was brave enough and spoke on TV shows and to newspapers expressing my point of view. I filed a lawsuit against the hypocritical Sheikh Abdallah Badr who was always criticizing art and insulted me and he was sentenced to three years in prison; and the TV channel El-Hafez was shut down for six months. 

I made a number of visits to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to help people there during their crisis. The Syrian nation has made a lot of sacrifices to combat terrorism. I will always do my best to help any Arab country that needs me. After I had been honored at the Babylon Festival in Iraq, I spoke about peace and that all the nations worldwide deserve to live in peace. Our fans and audience are from all over the Arab world, they are the ones who made our success so we have to back them in their ordeals and crises. We owe them that.

You’re an avid reader. Who is your favorite writer and what’s the book that has influenced you the most? How important is reading for the artist?

I’ve loved reading since I was a kid. As a teenager, I used to read romantic novels by Ihsan Abdel Kodous. When I got a little older, I read books by Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idris, Tawfeek El-Hakeem and Mostafa Mahmoud, in addition to books by international writers because my courses at the institute required reading world literature. I read plays by William Shakespeare, Eugene Gladstone O’Neill, Jean-Paul Sartre.  I took part in the great play Caligula, one of Albert Camus’s classics, with late veteran star Nour El-Sherif. 

Reading is vital for artists, who should be reading in all fields because that’s what shapes the artist’s character. Enhancing my artistic awareness is definitely a priority for me because when I serve as a jury member in any festival I have to evaluate all the movie’s elements, not just acting. I love to add to my general knowledge and to follow what is happening around the world by reading political and scientific articles.  One book that has really influenced me is El Insan w Kowah el Khafia [The Occult] by Colin Wilson. This book gave me power and hope that I can achieve many things; it made me feel that I am not weak and that deep inside I have huge power that I have to know how to use. It really made an impact on me.

Other than a name, what else do you and your niece Elham share?

Elham is the love of my life, she is my daughter and friend not just my niece. Both of us have a great influence on each other, we resemble each other in many things even though our horoscope signs are different. We are ambitious, stubborn and we both love art a lot. Elham studies art and acting. When she was a child she used to sing, play piano and dance; now she is also interested in photography, film editing and montage. I believe she will be a better artist than me because every generation is better than the one before. 

What’s your dream role?

In the past, I used to dream of portraying all the Pharaonic queens and I wanted to start with Hatshepsut, the first lady in history to rule. I was fond of her story and how she fell in love with an ordinary engineer from the public who built her temple. I was jealous of Elizabeth Taylor because she portrayed Cleopatra; I felt that this is our history, why not an Egyptian actress? Why not me? But this was in the past, now I don’t have this dream. There was a project a few years ago to portray Shajar El-Durr, but the project stopped because period pieces require a high budget. I want to take part in a historical series or movie because I’ve never worked on one before.

Who is your idol and who has had the most influence on your career?

I have a lot of idols, such as Hend Rostom, Shadia, the great Faten Hamama, Nadia Lotfy, Souad Hosny; all of them are my role models.  I wish I’d had the chance to work with all of them, but I only got to work with the great Shadia. At the beginning of my career, directors used to cast me only because I look like Faten Hamama, because I met her on one occasion and ran to greet her and she told me that I look like her more than her daughter. After this incident, I was introduced on a famous TV program as the girl who resembles Faten Hamama, and that drew attention to me. I was a good friend to the lovely Nadia Lotfy and she had a great influence on me on both the personal and artistic levels. I learned a lot of moral principles from this great lady.

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