“I want to play roles without being a prisoner of misconceptions, without being sidelined. Freedom is my ultimate goal. I believe in an artist’s freedom. Fighting for it can be exhausting sometimes,” considers Hend Sabri, the Cairo-based Tunisian actor whose film career has spanned for more than two decades. She has distinguished herself for playing characters that break barriers, illuminating the plight of women in the region, and championing social causes.
Over the next year, her plans include starring in two soon-to-be-announced projects, a pan-Arab film production, and a television series. With all this on the agenda, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of “crossing over” into European or US films. “Who wouldn’t want to be in a Hollywood production?” she exclaims. However, as always, Sabri’s mind is on the impact of her roles. “But I’m not going to pursue it exclusively. I work in the region and I think this region needs us. It needs its talent. It needs people who can inspire, who can prove to the youth that you don’t have to ‘cross over’ to be someone. They don’t have to be a tool to tell stereotyped narratives about the Middle East.”
Sabri is also trained in law, is an ambassador of the World Food Program, and is one of the most decorated Arab actors today. Among her many accolades, she is the first Arab woman to win a Starlight Cinema Award, chosen by the Italian Women Journalists Foundation for “her great talent and outstanding artistic career.” This year, Sabri also became the first Arab woman to join the jury panel for the Luigi De Laurentiis Award at the Venice Film festival, where she set the internet abuzz for appearing on the red carpet in tuxedo pants and a cotton shirt, both by Etro. “I like to play with the codes a little and experiment with feminine and masculine,” she says of her head-turning look. “I did not expect the commotion, but it is one of my favorite red carpet looks.”
In 2018, Sabri appeared in two notable films: a small independent feature in her native Tunisia, Noura’s Dream, and Blue Elephant 2, an Egyptian horror lm that was the highest-earning lm in Egyptian history, crossing the 100 million Egyptian pound mark (US $6.2 million) within six weeks. The ease with which she navigates independent cinema and commercial films attests to her determination to overcome constraints and exist on distinct planes. “I’ve always tried to escape the cage that sometimes the audience and the filmmakers want to put actors in,” she says, passionately. “If you’re a self filmmaker and indie actor, you have to stay there. If you’re a commercial actor, you have to stay there, and you cannot move back and forth.’ I’m saying, yes, I can move back and forth – my role is to play a character and tell a story; that’s my job.” In Noura’s Dream, Sabri, with chipped nails and disheveled hair, downplays her considerable glamour and vivacity to play a working-class mother of three whose husband is released from prison early, thwarting their impending divorce. “This is what cinema is about; pushing boundaries,” she says of the controversial subjects covered in the film. “It’s about asking questions; initiating a dialogue between people who don’t necessarily think the same. There is no judgment in this lm.” Sabri subtly conveys the weariness of a struggling single mother in the wake of the Arab Spring. “We’re telling a story that exists. ere are many of these women in real life. Anything that is under the carpet when it comes to our region, I like to expose it. This is kind of my thing.”
For Sabri, returning to work in her home country is particularly meaningful and grounding. “I try to work there every three to four years because I don’t want to stay away longer. It’s always a pleasure because it’s a small industry. Not even an industry, it’s a craftsmanship; small films with very low budgets and no star system. It’s a reality check and only your performance matters. I can also speak in my mother tongue, which always helps me in my performance.”
Despite today’s fanfare, Sabri came to acting somewhat reluctantly. At 14, she was discovered at a casting call held at her school in Tunisia and cast in The Silences of the Palace. The film, directed by Mouda Tlatli, won a series of awards at international festivals, including the Cannes film festival’s Golden Camera award and earning a best actress award for Sabri at the Carthagelm festival.
Several more films followed, until she decided to step away from it all and study towards a law degree. “I never really wanted to pursue an acting career,” she says. “I wanted to be a diplomat or a political science expert of some sort.” She completed a master’s degree in intellectual property and copyright law in 2004. As she prepared to finish a political science degree in Paris, she was offered roles in two Egyptian productions. “My destiny always brought me back to acting,” she explains. She decided to settle in Egypt and pursue the careful-time. In 2008, she married Egyptian businessman Ahmad el Sharif, with whom she has two daughters, Alia and Laila. She holds dual nationality in Egypt and Tunisia.
It is perhaps due to this academic background that Sabri brings such gravitas to her characters. She acts with integrity and doesn’t shy away from challenging roles, such as a woman struggling with her HIV diagnosis in Asmaa, or fighting Isis in The Flower of Aleppo. Sabri has also been a vocal critic of the regional lm industry, speaking out about female discrimination and gender parity. She balks at the thought that this could be considered trailblazing. “There’s nothing special about it,” she says, matter of factly. “Many actors around the world are talking about the same thing and when you love an industry, you want to see it expand and develop. Gender equality and equal pay would make the industry better so I don’t see courage in addressing that, I just see responsibility over an industry I like and the job that I chose.”
Originally published in the November 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia