Hussein Fahmy, the astonishing veteran film and TV star in Egypt and the Arab world, will be re-elected to the presidency of the next edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), nearly 20 years after his previous tenure. Daily News Egypt interviewed Fahmy to learn about his plans for CIFF as well as his new works, especially his new film “The Atheist”, which tackles a controversial issue in Egyptian society.
How do you see your reappointment as president of the CIFF?
I received a call from the Minister of Culture, Dr. Inas Abdel Dayem, and we discussed the matter. She offered me the mission of leading the next edition of the festival. I agreed, of course. I was very happy because this festival holds a special place in my heart and I was honoured to preside over it once before. In the next edition, I will do my best, with the help of a professional team, to present the festival in the best way and in a manner befitting the name of our great country Egypt.
You were president of the CIFF from 1998 to 2001, what has changed in the cinema scene since then?
There are many changes, the circumstances have changed, and the life around us has changed. We face a pandemic and there is an ongoing war in Ukraine, which is said to be the third world war. These circumstances create many difficulties, especially since people have high expectations. But I will try to live up to those expectations and hopes of presenting a good festival, especially since many film competitions emerged in the region; such as the Riyadh, Red Sea, and El Gouna festivals. During my first tenure, film competitions were limited, unlike now.
How did you see the level of the CIFF in recent years?
The CIFF is one of the most important international festivals, because it was born big and strong. I believe that every artist should support all our Egyptian festivals in order to maintain our categorization as Hollywood of the East.
What are your plans for the upcoming edition of the CIFF?
A press conference will be held after I assume my duties, during which I will announce the new plan for the festival, which will build on what Mohamed Hefzy has presented.
How did you feel when you were honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Luxor African Film Festival?
It is an important honour for me and holds a special place in my heart, especially since it came from a festival that I love and in a city that I adore. I did not hesitate for a moment to agree when Mahmoud Hemida, the President of Honour of the festival, told me that the festival’s Supreme Committee had chosen me. It is nice for any artist to be honoured in one of the greatest historical cities. This honour is of great value to me, and by the way, my movie “Tutankhamun” was filmed in Luxor. Filming there was tiring and exhausting due to the high temperature, but it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in my life. I liked this experience a lot although I did not know much about the English archaeologist Howard Carter at the time, but I read a lot about him. He loved Tutankhamun before seeing him, and spent 25 years searching for the ancient king’s tomb. He discovered the tomb finally by chance; as a Nubian child was playing in the sand, when Carter noticed a different stone in the land, which led him to the tomb. I liked his character and was very impressed with it.
Luxor Festival is interested in African cinema. Do you watch African films?
Certainly, I follow it, and African cinema for me is very special because it stems from African societies. Their stories are genuine and they do not import foreign themes. Therefore, African cinema is unique. I think it shares this characteristic with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cinemas. The film industry in these countries has its own personality, style, flavour, and spirit.
The young generation look up to you, so how do you maintain your stardom?
Stardom does not mean presenting many artistic works to ensure continuity. On the contrary, stardom stems from careful selection of what you offer, and to have the ability and courage to refuse any work that does not add to you, even if this means years of absence. I think that the most important thing for the artist to ensure the continuity of his stardom is to be smart in his choices and search for excellence. Actors also should play the characters that suit their age.
Did your study of film directing make you more able to choose your roles carefully?
Certainly, I am completely confident that everything that a person learns benefits him in one way or another, and I benefited from my studies of cinema and directing. I also studied in America how to correct the script, and this I benefited well from in a practical way, and I sometimes shared my opinion and my point of view in filming some works, but I do not impose my opinion and many of the directors I cooperated with agree with me when they consider my suggestions, and in the end the artist must work for the benefit of The whole work, not just his role
Why haven’t you shifted to film direction?
Producers and distributors refused, and told me to “stick” to acting and advised me to stay away from film directing to maintain my success in acting. They also gave me examples of actors who directed films and did not achieve the desired success, including Ahmed Mazhar and Kamal Al-Shennawi.
Some say that having good looks helped you succeed in cinema. How do you see this claim?
At the beginning of my career, I was used to such criticism, and there were critics who wrote horrible things about me every day. Even TV host Mofeed Fawzy used to attack me, calling me a “14-foot refrigerator”. Afterwards, they realised that it was not all about the good looks. It helped me start my career, but I had to show talent to continue. Before my first film, I spent 10 years studying at the Film Institute in the United States. I was taught by great professors such as Youssef Chahine, Salah Abu Seif, Helmy Halim, and Abdel Aziz Fahmy. I also worked in the cinema in the United States of America for three years, and when I returned to Egypt, great producer Ramses Naguib asked me to perform an audition.
I did not rely only on good looks and refused to be that handsome man in films. That is why I presented various and different films: such as “Enemy Brothers”, “My Blood, My Tears and My Smile”, “No Time for Tears”, and “The Devils”.
How do you prepare for your films?
I do not rely only on the script, and I always study the psychological and human aspects of the character and search for its details, especially the social, cultural, and psychological backgrounds of the story. After this study, I embody the character because each role has its different background that affects his behaviour. For example, I was offered a role of a man who fears women. This is of course different from my real personality. I liked the role very much and was excited to present it because the audience will see me differently. I studied the character and told the producer that I must sit with psychiatrist Ahmed Okasha in order to know the aspects of such personality; how will he behave? What are the reasons for his fear of women? But the producer told me they must start filming within two days, so I rejected the role. Another actor played the character but the film failed because it was presented in a naive comic way.
Why do you oppose the idea of guest starring in cinema?
I am not convinced of it. I did it once in the “Mafia” film, only after director Sherif Arafa asked me to read the scene. I was outside Egypt at the time, so Dr. Medhat Al-Adl read the scene to me over the phone. I agreed to play the role because I found a new angle in the character, the scene was crucial in the film, and the script was very good. The film wanted to deliver a message to the youth who want to emigrate. I felt it was important to deliver that message. I was not actually a guest star as I appeared in the film with my true personality.
How do you see Egyptian cinema now?
I believe black-and-white films were the golden age of Egyptian cinema. This industry went through different periods and schools. Our cinema used to have a special personality, but now every director has his own school and style.
Do you still want to present the biography of late president Mohamed Naguib?
Mohamed Naguib is a very important historical figure, and his life is rich in details. I also dream of playing Khedive Ismail, because historians presented him in an unfair manner. He was far-sighted and had his own way of thinking. He built the modern civilization of Egypt.
I participated in several plays, such as “The Incident” which was written by Lenin Al-Ramli. By the way, I am currently preparing for a new play with director Essam El-Sayed, it’s called “Emsk Harami” (Catch a thief). It will be presented soon in a private theatre. It is about a thief who tries to rob a house whose owner suffers from Alzheimer’s. The man mistakenly thinks the thief is his son and asks him to spend the night with him.
Could you elaborate on the topic that your new movie “The Atheist” will discuss?
We must discuss all the issues in our society, and atheism is an important issue and has become prevalent, therefore it must be discussed. I am very excited about the film because this is the role of art; confronting thought with thought. A good movie, for me, is the one that makes a person think and discuss an idea or topic after watching it.
Will you present a TV series this Ramadan?
Some series were offered to me, but they did not suit me, so I rejected all of them.