Gamil Rateb: A homegrown Frenchman
Gamil Rateb is a veteran star with countless lead and supporting roles to his name -- in France and the US as well as Egypt. He is an accomplished director, one of a handful of true stage actors and, thanks largely to his phenomenally successful television roles, an Egyptian household name. Yet he insists that being an honouree of the last round of the Cairo International Film Festival, which closed this week, camee remains aware of his achievement, Rateb is wary of placing himself on a par with a movie star like Omar Sharif, the name to whom he is most often compared. A classically trained stage actor who grew up and spent most of his life in France, Rateb had appeared alongside Sharif in such classics as David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), achieving international recognition with a series of remarkable stage appearances, when he was propelled into local fame in the mid-1970s. And it was his contribution to Egyptian film, he says, that eventually raised his stakes on the Francophone, notably Tunisian silver screen. Still, Sharif remains "someone who successfully contributed lead roles to the American film industry, which is the definition of being a world star", while Rateb merely "participated" in such productions. "And there's a difference," he reiterates, "both between Sharif and me and between me and local stars who have had no experience of acting elsewhere in the world."
"Of course," he promptly responds to a question about whether, being a surprise, the Cairo Film Festival tribute was a pleasant one, after all. "Who wouldn't be pleased with something like this? It's a great honour and it's a tribute I'm very proud of. And I thank [Cherif] El-Shoubachy for thinking of me. Some people say it's belated, well -- I don't see why that's the case at all. It might never have come, why should it. I certainly wasn't expecting it. But since I've worked in foreign countries and participated in international productions, I suppose that places me on a certain level -- not higher than local actors, but somehow accomplished in a wider sense. Working with important directors, whether English, American or French, will definitely yield incomparable benefits to an actor. And these directors selecting me to work with them is a telling thing in itself..."
The conversation has progressed smoothly, Rateb having emerged into the main sitting area of the old Zamalek flat where he invited us a mere few minutes after we arrived. Already coffee is on its way, though he still asks us what we would like to drink. And combined with the busy atmosphere of this remarkably large space, tastefully furnished in a somewhat conventional style -- more than one person are separately going about their business in different parts of the house -- the team of uniformed servants who eventually deliver the coffee contribute to the impression that one has entered a pension, not a private residence. But there is also a sense of moving back in time -- to a cosmopolitan Cairo so Francophone it might as well be a satellite of Paris. And his accent notwithstanding -- the Arabic daad replaced with a daal a little too often to be negligible -- Rateb's briskly measured pace, his flowery rhetoric, his approach to hospitality and down-to-earth, semi-formal mode of response immediately suggest a mind steeped in French culture. He speaks of himself with an individual intensity that sets him apart from the vast majority of public figures in Egypt, anyway, never indulging in the usual pretences.
"I think it's improving every year," he goes on, scrutinising the festival's development under the jurisdiction of its latest president, El-Shoubachy, "and he makes a lot of effort to bring over internationally established stars in the attempt to raise the profile of the event. Every time he chooses a particular theme, too -- this year it was Chinese cinema, which is now very widespread throughout the Western world; it's important for us to get to know it. No doubt the benefit of festivals in general is that they make films from all over the world available to the Egyptian audience, which isn't always able to see everything. And this festival has risen in status indeed -- you've got Cannes, Venice, Berlin; Cairo now falls in the fifth or sixth category, which is an excellent achievement."
Ironically, prior to the tribute, Rateb had kept a relatively low profile himself, especially on the silver screen. "There is nothing coming up in the way of Egyptian film," he says, "because there's nothing that I've wanted to contribute to. And in fact I'm not offered much, either. I've worked with young but very serious filmmakers, and I'd rather do this than be part of the purely commercial scene, which doesn't have much of a place for me. I like working with serious filmmakers on their debuts. These young people have culture, cinematic and general culture; they are aware of social and cultural problems; and their work will always carry an important message. They also have strong character -- which will be obvious from the first film. Each of them is unique. Of course it won't always be the case that such films will prove successful. It's always an adventure, but so what; I like to be part of that adventure. I'd rather that than ordinary or derivative filmmakers. It makes me very happy that they like to work with me at my age..."
But the scene being what it is since he settled in Egypt -- and what goes for cinema goes doubly for theatre, too -- what brought him back in the first place? "In reality," Rateb confesses, "I didn't mean to. Because I'd spent nearly 30 years in France, where I specialised in theatre, performing in works by the greatest classic and modern playwrights. Not only Shakespeare, Molière, Corneille and all of those, but Ionesco, Camus, Sartre. And I was performing the lead roles. So, 30 years -- and when I came back towards the end of 1974, it was to resolve some family problems. But as soon as I arrived my friend [the late vernacular poet, cartoonist and screenwriter] Salah Jahine introduced me to [the late director and actor] Karam Mutawi', who was directing a play called Donya El-Bianolla (Music Box World), by Mahmoud Diab, with music by Mohamed El-Mougi -- a very important work in which he offered me the lead, and so I thought since I'm staying for a few months, why not. Then, starting on the opening night, important directors like Salah Abu Seif and Kamal El-Sheikh were offering me major film and television roles. Now thus far I had not concentrated on cinema, I was content with being a stage actor. When I was offered something on screen, I accepted it. But I didn't actively seek it out. Here, suddenly, I was entering the world of cinema through the most prestigious gateways, and completely effortlessly. So I thought I'd coordinate between here and there, but you know how one tends to be caught in a whirlwind in Egypt. And more work came my way here than there. Still, I work in theatre, television and cinema in France. And the fame of Egyptian film actor gave me star status in Tunisia, where I started being offered lead roles."
Yet even his story with Tunisia started with French theatre, as it turns out: "I was playing Claudius in Paris, opposite [Jean- Louis] Trintignant as Hamlet. And we started touring France, then other countries as well -- we passed Tunis. In Tunis I was spotted by the late Ali Ben Ayyad, who was a stage actor and director and the head of the national theatre there. And he asked me to play Othello with him at the opening of the Hamamet Theatre in 1964; it was a big and very successful event, attended by the greatest actors and directors of the world, but also by theatre students like Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud who, some 25 years later, remembered seeing me there. He had been moved by my performance of Othello..." Thus Ben Mahmoud's Chich Khan (1991) -- the lead role being an old man, "very difficult but very beautiful" -- and eventually Rachid Ferchiou's Kich Mat (1995) and the better known Férid Boughedir's A Summer in La Goulette (1996) -- award-winning roles. To master the Tunisian dialect, he would write out the words in French; and though he didn't understand all of it, he managed to deliver his lines adequately enough: "I was once acting in a film by Ahmed El-Khatib -- Al-Intifada, it was never shown here, sadly -- and we were shooting in Damascus. I was playing an Israeli army general, and it was credible enough that he should speak to the Palestinians in Arabic, because they do speak Arabic, but it seemed glaringly unconvincing that he should speak to his own soldiers in that language. Anyway, I pointed this out, explaining that I could learn what little Hebrew those scenes required by heart -- and so it was, I was acting in a language of which I understood nothing at all."
But how often did Rateb contribute to the local stage, after all? "First I have to say that Egyptian theatre is very weak," he says. "There are of course exceptions. Mohamed Sobhi does some very good work, and Hoda Wasfi presents worthwhile contemporary theatre on the Hanager stage. But the successful works on the market, I don't think of as theatre at all." Rateb laughs briefly, a gesture that will punctuate much of what he says. "They are very weak, devoid of dramatic or artistic, even visual structure. I cannot work in such conditions, after all I've done with serious directors in the West." Donya El-Bianolla was followed by the late playwright Saadeddin Wahba's Al-Ustaz (The Professor), which Rateb modified and directed for the National Theatre in collaboration with Wahba's wife Samiha Ayyoub: "I made major changes, but he was very understanding and he modestly accepted everything as he saw it was working." Following his phenomenal success opposite the aforementioned Sobhi in the television drama Rihlet Al-Milion (Journey to the First Million) -- better known after the name of Sobhi's character as Sonbol -- Rateb replaced the formidable Mahmoud El-Meligi after the latter passed away in a play directed by Sobhi, Intaha Al-Dars Ya Ghabi (Lesson Over, Stupid) and contributed to a stage adaptation of another of Sobhi's television triumphs, Yawmiyat Wanis (The Daily Chronicles of Wanis).
"Mohamed Sobhi has offered me many stage parts that I've sadly had to say no to," Rateb goes on, "and despite my liking them, knowing that when a play is successful it stays on for a very long time, which imposes a limitation on my ability to travel -- something that remains very important to me." During an Egyptian cultural week in France in 1981, Rateb also presented his French adaptation of Sheherazade by Tawfik El-Hakim, a play written, like much of El-Hakim's work, "to be read rather than performed", which he also directed and re- staged for the Hanager in Arabic, with an Egyptian cast. "I like stage directing a lot but I find it very time-consuming. It requires at least six months for preparation, and I have to be completely free during that time, so I can't work in cinema or television. And this often poses its own financial problems." Rateb laughs again. He is currently working on another bicultural project, he says. It is a screenplay of his own -- "I wrote two screenplays before now but nothing ever came of them" -- the shooting of which should begin during the first half of 2006. The cast is made up of two French actors, a man and a woman, Rateb and one of his favourite colleagues, Mohsena Tawfik, and a seven-year-old homeless boy: "The latter I'm not deciding on until the last minute, because the film was supposed to be shot two years ago and the boy I'd chosen then has already grown too old for the role. There are children who have acted, but I'd rather not use them -- once they act, they shed a certain spontaneity. It's a street kid," he says, "and he has the biggest role. So my dream is to find a real-life street kid and give him this opportunity."
photo: Youssef Rakha