As she reprises one of her most beloved characters, Hend Sabri reflects on the emancipation necessary needed in the industry — and beyond.
“When a woman gets divorced, a part of her dies. It’s true. But a whole other part is born.” So narrates the protagonist of Netflix’s Finding Ola. While the first series featuring the character of Ola, Ayza Atgawez (2010), followed a young woman in search of matrimony, it is another realm of self-fulfilment she is in search of in the new show – the journey of rediscovering oneself. The premise is inextricable from a discourse of emancipation. In speaking with lead actor and executive producer Hend Sabri it becomes apparent that Ola holds a mirror to ourselves: an entire generation of women searching, thriving.
As a tale of new beginnings, the six-episode series sees Sabri reprise her role of middle-class pharmacist Ola Abdel Sabour. This time around, she navigates life’s challenges as an entrepreneur, mother, daughter, and recent divorce. Though the show remains independent from Ayza Atgawez, Sabri’s performance proves just as endearing. With her well-known wit, she evokes a sense of familiarity, drifting naturally between moments of humor, melancholy, and thrill. “Ola is the easiest character for me to dive into,” states the Tunisian actor. “She comes from inside. If my life circumstances were closer to Ola’s, I think I would be Ola.”
There is an intimacy that comes with television; one that holds a different energy from film. In Ola’s case in particular, audiences have grown with her since the character’s debut. This is something that is not lost upon Sabri. “The chemistry with people has been growing for 12 years,” she says. “Ola doesn’t belong to me, or to the writer, or to the creator of the show. Ola now belongs to everybody.” This is an achievement unto its own, though Sabri confesses it may also reveal itself as something of a double-edged sword. “When people relate to a character, they want them to be exactly the same,” she explains. “They want them unchanged, but they forget that they themselves have changed in those 12 years. And so has Ola.” Finding Ola reveals a more complex side to the character. Rather than a straight sequel to the original series, this is Ola 10 years later, situated in an entirely new context. “It’s social mobility,” affirms Sabry. “People do change – eventually they move on and move up the ladder of social standards and categories. Ola is not living with her parents anymore. She has her own house. The world has also changed tremendously with social media over the years. We want Ola to explore new spaces and daring subjects, while at the same time keeping this chemistry with the audience.”
Joining Sabri is Sawsan Badr in the role of Ola’s mother, and Hany Adel, portraying Ola’s husband, Hisham. Nada Moussa, Mahmoud El- Leithy, and Dalia Shawky also feature, along with a star-studded lineup of guest appearances, including Khaled El-Nabawy. Together, they form a charming ensemble, each promising to resonate with families everywhere. The show’s attention to family dynamics is further reflective of Arab culture. It remains significant. As Sabry maintains, “Family is an important value in our society, and to me. But is family supposed to be a support system? An environment where you thrive? Or is it your inner voice telling you ay bint al haram? This is what we are discussing here. When does – not family per se – but the sense of duty towards family become toxic?” To defy generational patterns onscreen is a rarity within the region. In this sense, Finding Ola offers something of value: the promise of transparency. As first-time executive producer of the show, Sabri seeks to reflect the nuances of this discourse.
Just as the nuances of womanhood – with all its intricacies. When asked her thoughts on women’s narratives in television, Sabri alludes to a lack thereof. “My view is that there are not enough complex stories about women in our region. A story that is worth telling, with no lies and no taboos. We should open more spaces for women to be writers. To be able to narrate their own stories.” Ola was created by a woman: Ghada Abdel Aal. “This character is the fruit of a writer who decided to tell a story that is female centric and that makes fun of the obsession with marriage,” Sabri explains. “What’s new for me is that I am the executive producer. I like to be involved in the artistic process.” Sabry’s experience as an artist recalls her debut role as young Aliya in the late Moufida Tlatli’s The Silences of the Palace (1994). Renowned as the first Arab film to be directed by a woman, remnants of this experience nurture Sabri even now. “Moufida still influences me today,” she proclaims. “I am approaching the age she was when she directed The Silences of the Palace. I could tell how difficult it was for her to balance her work life, her artistic side, and her duties as a wife and mother. The struggle is real. And I understand now why the whole process with Moufida was all about passion. She taught me that love is the source of everything. And the source of films.”
This search for both personal and professional fulfilment is no novelty within the region. It is present and ever evolving. As Sabri articulates, “Emancipation is not seen in films and dramas as much as we see it in real life. Every day, I see girls trying to reach for the stars. I know a lot of women in the Middle East and North Africa who are fighting for the freedom to express themselves the way they want to. Reaching out for big careers, for dreams. I want to show them they are not alone.” Ultimately, this is what Finding Ola delivers. Beyond offering new insights, it is an echo of the unheard, a testament to the unseen. “This is what art is to me,” Sabri concludes. “It is a vector of unity. Of relatability. Of erasing the differences, to find that we are all the same.”
Originally published in the February 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia