Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Screen legend

Samir Sobhi meets with Nadia Lotfi

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Always searching for the unknown, always reaching for the stars, yet grounded in a belief that her fellow humans can be kind to each other and to other creatures: in recent years, as her health became less robust, Nadia Lotfi has taken an interest in the medical world, befriending doctors, learning more about old age and the range of therapies available.

Lotfi was catapulted into stardom while still in her teens. Paula Mohamed Shafik, as she was then known, was talent spotted by Ramsis Naguib, film director, producer, and script writer, when she was studying in the German School in downtown Cairo. Naguib picked her screen name, choosing that of the character played by Faten Hamama in La Anam (Sleepless), a film based on a novel by Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous.

Apart from one television series and a single stage play Lotfi's career was all in film. In a career spanning more than 50 years she has appeared in romantic comedies, historical dramas and musicals.

Off screen Nadia Lotfi has pursued many humanitarian, animal rights and political causes. She is honorary president of the Donkey Society, a role of which she is proud. She holds donkeys in great respect, for their endurance and their gentleness.

"You never hear of donkeys killing one another. They do not speak ill behind other donkey's backs," she says, smiling.

Lotfi is also a bit of a historical explorer. She is particularly fond of the Coptic Museum and the nearby churches of Fustat. When she has more time on her hands she travels to Siwa, the Western Desert oasis close to the Libyan border. She has made many friends among the Siwans and is trying to learn Amazigh, the Berber dialect still spoken in the oasis.

She has one son from her first marriage to Adel Al-Beshari, a maritime engineer. Her second husband was Ibrahim Sadek, also an engineer. Later she married Mohamed Sabri, a news photographer. They met during a trip to St Catherine.

Among her own films her favourites are Al-Nadhara Al-Sawdaa (Sunglasses) and Al-Nasser Salaheddin (Saladin the Victorious). It must, though, be difficult to choose from an output that includes memorable performances in Ala Warak Solofan (Cellophane), Hobb Ila Al-Abad (Love Forever), Amalekat Al-Behar (Sea Captains), Hobbi Al-Wahid (Only Love) and Al-Semman Wal Kharif (Autumn Quail). Several of her films were based on literary works, by Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan Abdel-Qoddous, and she has starred alongside screen legends Ahmed Mazhar, Mahmoud Yassin, Fouad Al-Mohandess, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Kamal Al-Shennawi and Omar Sharif.

In Saladin the Victorious she played Louise, a strong-minded princess who accompanied the Crusaders to war. In Sunglasses she gave a memorable performance as Madiha, a hedonistic young woman who fails to connect with the real world until she becomes attached to an older man who introduces her to the world of books and ideas.

In the late 1970s Lotfi thought seriously about retiring. But the temptation of good scripts was hard to resist. She made a comeback in a series of thought-provoking films, including Al-Akmar (Moons), Rehla Dakhel Imraa (Journey Inside a Woman), and Ayna Tokhabeoun Al-Shams? (Where Do You Hide the Sun?).

At the same time she became involved in the Palestinian issue and began documenting the terrible humanitarian conditions of Palestinian refugees. Since then she has remained active in humanitarian affairs.

None of this, of course, was in her mind in the late 1950s. But since then, her lifestyle seems to have grown closer to the character she played in her first screen appearance, when Ramsis Naguib cast her as an investigative journalist in a film by Niazi Mustafa.

"I played the role of a journalist who, with the help of her fianc≥©, played by Rushdi Abaza, interviews a man escaping from the law."

Half a century later and Lotfi doesn't feel she's done with film. She has a script about Queen Farida which she is hoping to get into production. There is a note of nostalgia in her voice as she admits a tinge of sadness for not having had the chance to act with icons such as Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman. But for millions of her fans her co-stars are not the point. She is a legend -- her mysterious smile, her tentative gaze, sudden temper, remonstrative glance, are all part of our history, not just film.

When I ask her if she has any wishes for the future, I expect her to mention something about cinema or art. She doesn't.

"I want Egyptian streets to regain their elegance and great traditions," she says.

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