Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 -21 January 2004
Issue No. 673
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In progress:

Mafia Inc.

By Sherif Nakhla

Sari El-Naggar, 31, is one of Egyptian cinema's rising stars. Alexandrian by birth, El-Naggar attended an English boarding school until the age of 12, completing his secondary education in Nicosia, Cyprus, before enrolling at, and eventually dropping out of, the American University in Cairo (AUC). In 1995 he joined a theatre troupe made up mostly of AUC graduates, but soon abandoned theatre for a role in filmmaker Osama Fawzi's Gannet El-Shayateen (Paradise of the Demons), with actor Mahmoud Hemeida. Since then he has played roles in such films as Al-Madina (The City), Dheil El-Samaka (Fish Tail), Al-Saher (The Magician) and Khareef Adam (Adam's Autumn).

After three years of studying theatre at AUC my father passed away so I had to leave Cairo to run his clothing shop in Alexandria. I worked at the shop for two years before finally giving up. I realised I didn't have what it would take to do successful business, with all the money and time management. At least I tried. I'd always enjoyed acting but it was the post-university theatre troupe that set me off on a professional acting career. The troupe included people like Mia El-Qayoubi, Ahmed El-Attar and Amr Waked -- a bunch of talented people who were very ambitious about doing decent art. One of the first plays I acted in with them was El -Otobees (The Bus), which was directed by El-Attar, the one he later remade, setting it on a real-life Cairo bus on the move. I often think of going back to university to finish my BA but I never do, partly because I think I've found my path in acting. In the earlier stages of my career I spent a year teaching English to 64 students at the Manor House School. It's important to have a money-paying job on the side.

The transition from theatre to film wasn't easy, especially that, doing Gannet El-Shayateen, I found myself working far more at the mental level. The required focus and concentration came to me initially as a surprise. Snapping in and out of character to redo takes etc -- that was very different from theatre, where you only break up with your character once at the end of each performance. I actually had to request a couple of days off during shooting because I was absolutely mentally exhausted. Gannet El-Shayateen was a genuine learning experience. I deeply respect Mahmoud Hemeida as an artist, not necessarily looking at his past roles but as a person who has maintained a respectful give-and-take relationship with art. He launched a magazine called Al-Fan Al-Sabaa (The Seventh Art), for example, which focused on Arab film. A pity it stopped coming out two years ago. He invested the money he earned from acting in establishing a production company and a magazine, giving back something instead of just taking and taking -- something that many actors do till the end of their careers.

There is a great deal to learn from filmmakers like the late Radwan El-Kashef, the director of Al-Saher, who have a history behind them. He had an interesting way of delivering what he had to say. When I read the script I knew the film had potential -- its idea was very relevant to the time in which we live. It explores social questions like divorce and revenge. It's not necessarily a very entertaining film but it's directed in such a way that you can't keep your eyes off the screen from start to finish. In Al-Saher and in every other film I tend to adopt an inside- out approach to character, working from my own thoughts and emotions out towards what's in the script. You can't force anything on yourself. Rather, you have to find a persona in between yourself and the character, making that vital connection. If you simply impose the character on yourself what you end up with is a mask, something that's neither real nor credible.

It's important for me to reject certain roles. Until now the number of roles that I've accepted is equal to those that I've declined. If I feel the film I'm being offered a role in has nothing to communicate, nothing to add to me or to society, then it's a waste of time. There are so many meaningless films being made now -- I don't understand the point of them. Of course there is always the money factor, but if we're going to start weighing money against art then I'm afraid we'll have to find a new name for the latter. I've worked in bars before now. I'll do anything to make a living but one thing I won't do is sell out as an actor. There are reasons I haven't acted on television. Sadly I've given up watching Egyptian television. I know I should stay in touch with the scene no matter what I think. Television is the industry through which many actors get their break. But it's not a genre I want to be associated with. When I flip through the satellite channels with my television on mute and my stereo playing loudly in the background, I can instantly tell which are the Egyptian serials. I'm sure some serials could turn out to be amusing but at the end of the day it's just not my cup of tea.

I'm sorry to say this but I feel that most of Egyptian films that were released in the past decade are a disgrace to art. Commercial cinema has been taken over by a certain, farcical genre -- the kind of catchy effect or silly joke that you tend to forget a day or two later. It doesn't interest me. I feel it's very cheap, and it's pathetic that people should be getting funding for this kind of film in the name of art. The industry should no longer be called cinematic; Mafia Productions have taken over with films starring Mustafa Qamar etc. If we look at the situation from a more even perspective and list the names of those real directors that we do have, we realise they are not doing anything. They're sitting at home getting depressed -- or else they are selling out to do advertisements and videoclips etc, just to put bread on the table. I don't know what will become of this as far as art is concerned. Right now the film industry couldn't get any worse. The producers are to blame: the industry releases around nine films a year, but maybe two of them are usually worth watching. My plan is to go back to England to do a few acting courses and workshops, relax for a bit and then come back and see. I would've loved to have a good project to come back to but, unfortunately, I haven't had any offers recently that are even vaguely enticing.

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