Egyptian actress Faten Hamama is one of Arab cinema’s great legends. In the 50s and 60s, she was known as “The Lady of the Arabic Screen”; today, she still records movies. Palestinian-British video journalist Jad Salfiti in Doha is the person behind a short documentary about Faten Hamama. Juxtaposing clips from old Hamama movies with contemporary black-and-white interviews with Egyptians in Doha, the film presents a true gem from Egypt’s golden cinematic past. Mashallah spoke to Jad about his work with the movie and why he is enthusiastic about Arab film talents.
Hello Jad, please tell us, who are you?
I am a British-born Palestinian video journalist who moved to Doha, Qatar, two years ago to work for the Doha Film Institute (DFI). The institute is an organisation that wants to do for Arab film what Al Jazeera did for Arab news. All my work to date has been centred around Arab film and filmmakers: I seek out young, aspiring Arab talents – from actors to producers to directors – from all over the world. Last year I attended the film festivals in Cannes, Dubai, Berlin, TriBeCa New York and obviously our own festival in Qatar, the Doha TriBeCa film festival.
I want to provide a platform for these people to promote their works. I would take a camera and interview them on the spot, get copies of their trailers and then cut it up into little video pieces that we put on the DFI website. For some I met this was the first time that media had taken an interest in their work. It is very rewarding work because these guys will grow and develop into the creators and stars of the Arab world. And it is great to meet them at such a daunting stage in their careers, when they are presenting their work to the world.
And you feel that there is a greater interest in creative initiatives from the Arab world after the revolutions of 2011?
Exactly. After the Arab Spring, everyone was looking at the Arab world. Last year at Cannes for instance, they had their first ever guest country. It was Egypt. With the revolutions, we had a series of events that would inspire and propel storytellers across the whole region. Now, more than ever, it is fundamental that people tell their stories.
When did your interest in Arab film and filmmaking start?
It is very recent, actually. I have always been a film enthusiast, but not more than any other form of arts. It was at the DFI that I was thrust into this world of filmmakers, journalists and creatives. I felt compelled to look at Arab film and find my own role. How could I make a meaningful mark? So I started to research Arab film more and more.
I had always been interested in Egyptian film from the 50s and 60s. This golden era incorporated Arab storytelling with Western aesthetics. It is very interesting. Films from that period are beautiful, from the cinematography to the stories, the soundtracks and the costumes.
And they have a big importance to viewers across the region.
Totally. Myself being of dual heritage, I could identify with them. Even when you look back at the music from that time, you find a tapestry of Western and Eastern influences. They have a dynamic that really work.
Then you decided to portray Faten Hamama.
Yes. She was someone whose name I had heard, but to be honest I had no idea of who she was. As her 80th birthday was approaching, I was asked to do vox-pops asking people what they thought of her. But then, the piece took on a life of its own and almost made itself. It was no longer – in my mind – a meaningless video, but it developed into a short film in its own right.
People adore her, even though she is less visible to the public eye these days. My editor Anis and I interviewed different people in an ordinary Egyptian restaurant in Doha, close to my office. We spoke to the woman who bakes bread, to the waiters and to customers. Their words coloured the piece. Their words trickled out like poetry.
You felt right away that it would be something special?
Yes. We knew the piece would come out lyrical. A spiritual investigation into this special actress. After having made the interviews, we took back all the rushes to the office. Then, we hunted on YouTube for every film she had been in. It was an experiment that made me realise that we have this wealth of amazing talent. I wanted to celebrate it and bring new audiences who might not know of these actors and actresses.
Anis and I watched film after film with her. We cut clips from them, and mixed them with the interviews. We took Faten’s words and allowed her to respond to her admirers. We made it in a way that you could no longer discern what was new and what was old, what was performance and what was reality. It was a great way to discover this Silver Screen Goddess.
I want to continue doing this. Celebrating all the icons of Arab cinema. Elia Suleiman, Omar Sharif, Sabah. Bring them crashing into the modern day. Well, obviously Elia Suleiman is contemporary and totally relevant. He is a great filmmaker and a big inspiration for many young filmmakers, especially from the Arab world.
Why did you find Faten Hamama relevant in today’s cultural context?
She was, is, a great actress who connected with her audience. She knows why the camera loves some people. Why some people connect more than others. It is this mystical, unknowable quality. Can it be developed in some people? I do not know. But she has something that is really special. People still talk about her. She, as well as people like Omar Sharif, they have something. And you want to find out what it is, so that through some kind of osmosis, you can recreate that magic.
The short documentary about Faten Hamama, produced by Jad Salfiti.
Translated to Arabic by Sahar Ghoussoub.