|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
28 June - 4 July 2001
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In the present tense
"I made one film with her, Maw'id Ala Al-Ashaa (Date on Dinner); that was in 1981. And it took me a year of meeting frequently with her to convince her about the film. We were always meeting and eating; she loves food. In the end all she really wanted to know was the motivation of the character she was playing, down to the smallest detail. She is always very curious about everything. To justify the character's actions, to understand why she does this and not that -- she always tries to do this.
"So, for example, while shooting, if she has a cigarette packet in her hand and I say, 'You'll put it here,' she'll want to know why. She'll spend an hour discussing why she's putting it there, because to her that's very important. Whereas with others, the response to what I say is more likely to be a sigh and 'Oh God, I'm not putting that cigarette packet there again am I.' She wants to know why.
"She also has the habit of learning the script by heart, left and right, meaning dialogue and description. And this was very difficult for me as a director who changes things all the time; I never stick to the right. This was my fourth picture, I was a relative newcomer, she was a big star: all this was on my mind.
"At one point there was a scene that I wanted to change completely: the decor gave me a different idea of how to do it. When I suggested this to her she said, 'Ah well, of course, yes, it's a very nice suggestion. We'll do it this way. But let's do it the other way too, just in case.' This really irritated me.
"The next day we did it the way I wanted it, but afterwards she still expected us to do it the way it was written in the script. Because this was the scene as she had learned it when she first accepted the script as a whole, and the thought of anything changing worried her enormously. I went out on the set and the crew had been asked to prepare for shooting the scene the original way. So I turned and walked away not knowing whether I should go back and scream at her, or what the consequences of that would be for the film.
"I resolved to go into my room, shut the door and just sit there. After 45 minutes or so, when everything was ready, they realised I wasn't there. There was a knock on the door and she came in. And I screamed at her in the privacy of the room. I told her that she shouldn't be telling the crew what to do, that I do not do the same scene in two different ways and that she put me in an embarrassing situation. She took me by the hand and said 'I'm sorry,' and we went out again. We just cancelled the whole thing and went on.
"I think that moment was the beginning of some kind of friendship between us.
"In the end I came out of that film with an ulcer, but I appreciated it later on: the fact that she's always searching for a reason; this is what distinguishes her. But she does it without an intellectual motive; it just comes, spontaneously. This is what makes her different from her generation of actresses: 1- a natural gift, and 2- some intelligence, which is how she came to be so involved in the actions of the characters.
"She is a natural, a non-intellectual actress. I mean: I hear that up to the age of 16 she could not read or write, then she was taught to read and write. She had a very difficult childhood, a very severe father who starved his children to keep their size small: it's very strange but this is what I hear. So she didn't have an easy childhood at all, and that might, as you suggest, invite a comparison with Marilyn Monroe, though I don't see them as having anything in common as actresses or in the way they appealed to their audiences. She's a better actress than Marilyn Monroe, I think. The only resemblance, maybe, is that they both had a difficult childhood; maybe that makes their outlook on life a bit different. And both of their lives had a tragic end.
"She didn't deserve to end so badly. From the beginning of the 1990s on (in the wake of both her illness and the death of her long- standing friend and mentor Salah Jahine), she was not in demand as much. She was considered a difficult actress, and she was difficult. When you are in the film business, being difficult costs money, and nobody forgives you for that. To say that she represents an era or an ideology would be an exaggeration, though. She was an actress, a star, and she knew it. And what one likes about her as a filmmaker is that she is not a pro, in the sense in which Faten Hamama, say, is a pro. She does not use a predetermined expression or feeling on demand; confronted with a scene, rather, she searches for the expression or feeling.
"In some ways she's an eccentric person, too, you know. In the way she dresses, for example, sometimes she tries to shock, a bit. She enjoys irritating others, not in an evil sense, but she knows others are irritated by her and she enjoys it. There was a specific cause for my ulcer: she had an assistant who was a relative of hers and she always followed her with a big basket of makeup on the set. The minute everything was ready for shooting, she would merely cast a glance in the direction of her assistant -- all she needed to do for the woman to rush to her with the basket for a few last-minute adjustments. And that meant half an hour's delay.
"It kept happening again and again and it was driving me nuts. Not all actresses are like this, no. This was unusual in her, but come to think of it, later on when I understood her more, it was a sign of worry, before going into the scene. For example, there was that scene in the morgue when she was supposed to touch the body of the man she loves (Ahmed Zaki). She said, 'No, I won't touch him.' I said, 'Yes, you will touch him.' She said, 'No, I won't.' So I said, 'Let's start shooting and just see how it goes.' The scene was completed in one take -- two cameras, one take -- exactly as it appears in the film. And she did touch him. Not only did she touch him, but she screamed and fell on the floor. It all came out by itself. So though she might seem stubborn, she hears what you tell her, she works over it in her mind and figures out how to react.
"As I got to know her I wanted to make other pictures with her, and I offered her the part of Kamilya in Ahlam Hind wa Kamilya (Hind and Kamilya's Dreams), and I sat with her for four hours in the Gezira Club sipping lemonade. But her vision of the part made me realise that she would not fit in my picture, and I left knowing that she wouldn't be in it. Her image of Kamilya was not in the spirit of the film: she wanted Kamilya to have a kind husband, while it was very important to the film that her husband be rough and unpleasant. I think it must have been the Cinderella influence again. The Cinderella story, always at the back of her mind. This is a big problem. This is what kept her out of many films.
"Again, I was doing a film called Nesma, about a fat girl, and I offered to change the character into a spinster if she agreed to do it. Again we met, and again I felt the film couldn't accommodate her image. So when I next saw her, in Paris, I said, 'Listen, if you don't want to do it don't do it.' We were friends enough for me to tell her such things now. We stayed in touch and I knew to give her three phone rings, put the phone down and ring back so she would realise it was me; there were ways of getting in touch with her. I even talked to her in London some five weeks ago. I got an answering machine with part of the refrain from Khalli Balak min Zouzou, the song, I left my phone number and she phoned back. She said she had just arrived in London and I felt she was lying, I felt she did not want to be seen. That was my last conversation with her.
"She's a comedienne. And besides films like Al-Mashbouh (Parole Suspect) and Hobb fil Zinzana (Love in the Prison Cell) -- both with Adel Imam -- in which she worked on complex characterisations, all her films are about love. Mostly it was the Cinderella thing and love and laugh and have fun. And (as in Khalli Balak min Zouzou) it was like vaudeville, her films had everything. That's what made her a star, really, I think, she had this talent of singing and dancing, drama and comedy -- plus her charisma. She was quite adventurous with some of the films that she did, too, Said Marzouq's Zawgati wal Kalb (My Wife and the Dog), for example, which was all about love and sex. As for the many films she participated in, I don't think artistic quality mattered to her that much. She just wanted to make one picture after another, and enjoy doing it.
"At the first morning show of Maw'id Ala Al-Ashaa, at Cinema Diana, I was there, and there you see her audience: women, middle-aged women, coming in taxis, hair undone, first thing in the morning, bringing their teenage daughters with them, to see Soad. And they loved her.
"There are so many stories about her. Once she chased me by car when she spotted me on the street, to stop me. She came out of the car and said, 'Listen, listen, I need a new title for my film. If you come up with a title you will get LE5,000.' The things that she does: impulsive, yes, and very funny.
"I met her when she was last married. It was a private screening of Youssef Chahine's film and she had a scarf around her head, I was going to kiss her when she moved back. It was the beginning of a thing, you know, with religion. But that didn't last long.
"In Paris I had a very interesting night with her. I was to help cut a deal for a radio programme about her life, to act as a mediator for the producers; she needed the money, I knew that. So I set an appointment for the others to meet us there and proceeded to her flat. On the way there was a Greek restaurant and as I passed it I could smell the food. So I went up -- and I know she likes food -- and I said, 'Listen, the food in the restaurant round the corner smells really good, how about we have dinner there?' And she said, 'Good idea.' As it turns out the owner of the restaurant was of Arab origin and he recognised her. He sneakily phoned his wife and child and told them to come. There was a piano and he told the pianist to come. Then he closed the restaurant. We were eating and drinking until two or three in the morning and she started singing: El-Donya Rabie (It Is Spring), and other songs. And it was a really unexpected evening, a very memorable evening. That was around 1993.
"During Maw'id Ala Al-Ashaa people told me she interferes in the editing, she will create problems. And I was a very stubborn young man. But I think she somehow realised what people were saying to me because she never, never showed up during the editing. In fact she saw the film for the first time with the audience invited to the private screening. She stood by herself in one corner of the theatre. I remember she was wearing a polka dot dress, blue with white spots. She was looking at the screen and she was trembling."
Mohamed Khan spoke to Nur Elmessiri and Youssef Rakha
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