Women in Arab cinema: an interview with Hend Sabry

April 2018

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

What challenges face actresses in the Arab region?  And what opportunities might they enjoy? Award-winning Hend Sabry (left), one of the most celebrated actresses in Egypt and the Arab region, shares her views on women in Arab cinema.

photo: © Hasan Amin

What drew you to acting?

It was a coincidence really. I was spotted by a director when acting in high school play. I was just 14 years old. Then I discovered that creating another world and making people believe in it is a lot of fun. I love acting because it gives me the freedom to explore and express different aspects of my personality.

What challenges do actresses face in Arab cinema?

We face many challenges. We are paid far less than our male counterparts, and we also get less exposure than they do. There are also far fewer scripts written for female characters. Male characters predominate and remain the motor of Arab cinema. Producers and distributors generally still don’t see actresses in the region as powerhouses who can boost box office revenues. Also, women who become professional actors are held to a different standard than men. They are often stigmatized and face many social taboos unlike men.

Why are events such as the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival important? 

Such events are a very good thing because they celebrate the achievements of women. But, in general, I am not a big fan of so-called “woman’s film”. A film is universal and is designed to trigger emotions, thoughts or discussion of an issue. There is no such thing as a man’s film or a woman’s film; there are good films and bad films. There are good films about women and bad ones too. We need to celebrate our successes and all the amazing female talent that exists within the Arab film industry. That’s the best way to support women in film. We need more beautiful stories about women and we need more writers, both male and female, to create strong female characters for film.

Ms. Sabry in Asmaa by Amr Salama, which recounts the trials of a young woman with AIDS. “Our role as filmmakers is to offer viewers an opportunity to explore diverse viewpoints and experiences and thereby to help promote more tolerance and understanding among people,” says Hend Sabry. (photo: Stills from the film Asmaa)

Why did you study law?  What drew you to it? 

After college, I dreamed of joining the Tunisian Foreign Service and law seemed a good option for such a career. But destiny decided otherwise. After I got my law degree, I moved to Egypt and became a professional actress. That’s when I decided I wanted to complement my knowledge of the law, and intellectual property (IP), in particular copyright law, seemed a perfect fit. It allowed me to blend my interest in law with my work as an actress.

Why is it important for actors to be IP aware?

Generally speaking, actors need to understand their IP rights because they are the means by which they can earn a decent living from their work. IP is their bread and butter. But in some countries, for example in Western industrialized countries, the copyright system is more mature and works more effectively than in others. Unfortunately, in the Arab region there is a lack of IP awareness and with that comes a lack of respect for IP rights. In TV, for example, many broadcast channels in the region take liberties in re-editing TV shows to boost advertising revenue. They seem to think that just because they have purchased an episode of a TV show, they can do anything they like with it, even mutilate it artistically. I am sad to say that people simply don’t realize that IP rights are an important means for the acting community to secure a living from their work. This is really disappointing. Things are changing, but slowly. With globalization the world is getting smaller, and with that people are becoming more IP aware, but a lot more needs to be done to raise IP awareness across the region if Arab cinema is to reach its full potential.

Would you like to see the recently concluded Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances enter into force?

photo: Stills from the film Asmaa

I would love to see that, especially in North Africa and the Middle East. When it does it will really bolster the rights of performers in the region and help ensure that they are fairly paid for the use of their works on all platforms. But there is still a lot of work to do. The acting community is not well organized when it comes to IP. We don’t have the unions or the knowledge of IP required to strengthen our position. At present, IP laws tend to favor the interests of producers and investors over the artistic contribution of actors. 

We need to celebrate our successes and all the amazing female talent that exists within the Arab film industry. That’s the best way to support women in film.

Hend Sabry

So we need to develop the necessary infrastructure, including databases of audiovisual works that will make it possible for performers to be paid for their creative contribution. Amassing and managing these records is a huge task, but such infrastructural developments are a pre-requisite if we are to see effective implementation of the Beijing Treaty.

Why have you set up your production company?

Tayara is a digital production company, the first of its kind in the Arab world. We create edgy online video content for younger, less traditional audiences. We are re-shaping conventional ideas of advertising in the Arab world and bringing online advertising and marketing to a new level.

What impact is the digital revolution having on Arab cinema?

It’s too early to tell. The transition to digital is having a greater impact on TV than cinema at the moment. Now that cinema has established itself as an art form, I don’t believe it will die. Literature did not die because of cinema, nor did theatre, which is thriving. The move to digital is undoubtedly changing the habits of audiences. Today, viewers want more control over what they watch, how (preferably without ads) and when they watch it. That’s why new platforms like Netflix are thriving. But I don’t believe it will kill Arab cinema. 

How would you like to see Arab cinema evolve?

I am very optimistic about the future of Arab cinema. Fortunately, there are many very brave male and female filmmakers who every day, push the boundaries of public debate and introduce new perspectives on the issues facing the new generation. The Arab world has many challenges and thankfully there are more and more films that explore these issues. So I am optimistic.

I would love to see more diversity in Arab cinema. When commercial cinema becomes the only viewing choice because it is so widely distributed, we all lose out. We need different film genres because audiences are highly diverse and we need to accommodate those varying interests and preferences. A more diverse cinema means more choice and a richer movie landscape. 

What opportunities and challenges do you foresee?

With globalization, the world is becoming smaller every day and people are more connected than ever before. There are real opportunities here because people can access content from all regions. Today we enjoy unprecedented viewing possibilities. New platforms like Netflix and Icflix offer opportunities for viewers in the Middle East to watch Colombian novellas, Indian epics and Spanish thrillers. Similarly, viewers in those regions have access to Middle Eastern productions. So there is a huge opportunity here to bring Arab cinema to the global stage and for more and more people to enjoy Arab cinema. In terms of challenges, filmmakers in the Arab world have a tendency to avoid issues that we should be talking about. We tend to fear public opinion. So I would say that self-censorship is our biggest challenge. 

Why is it important to encourage diversity and inclusion within the film industry?

A diverse and inclusive culture is very enriching. It creates opportunities to explore different viewpoints and perspectives and promote understanding among cultures. It is our role as filmmakers to offer viewers an opportunity to explore diverse viewpoints and experiences and thereby to help promote more tolerance and understanding among people.

“People are becoming more IP aware, but a lot more needs to be done to raise IP awareness across the region if Arab cinema is to reach its full potential,” says Hend Sabry (Photo: Claudia Wiens / Alamy Stock Photo)

What advice do you have for young women with aspirations to engage in Arab cinema?

Don’t get into film for the fame or the money, do it to change society. Do it because you believe in something that you think needs to be expressed on a big screen and carried to millions of people. Unfortunately, in our social media-driven world many confuse the love of the art and its expression with the love of being photographed and famous.

What can policymakers and others do to encourage more women to engage in innovation and creativity?

They can help create a more enabling environment for us to be innovative and creative.

How do you choose your roles? Which one did you enjoy playing the most, and why?

I favor socially relevant roles. For example, my role in the comedy, I Want to Get Married, tackled the issue of women who aren’t married by the age of 20. In the Arab world women who have career aspirations and who don’t follow in their mother’s footsteps and get married young are under huge social pressure to marry. The series was a huge success. People still talk about it. It really struck a chord. Similarly, in Asmaa, I played the role of a woman with the HIV/AIDS virus and the struggles she faced. 

Who is your greatest source of inspiration within the film world?

There are many, both men and women. Some, like the famous Egyptian actress, Yousra, inspire me because of the longevity of their careers. Others inspire me because of the roles they play. For example, I love Faten Hamama, a leading light of Arab cinema (and ex-wife of actor Omar Sharif), because of the social and legal issues she addressed in the roles she played in the 1950s and '60s. Her work, and the debate it triggered, helped change the law on divorce at the time. I really respect her for that.

What next?

In June we will begin shooting an independent movie in Tunisia and I am also preparing a TV series for release in Egypt next year.

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