Veteran Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen is known for her daring roles in cinema, TV, and theatre. She believes that art is a message that must be conveyed without embellishment or falsification. Shaheen has an exceptional capacity for embodying contentious characters in Egyptian society. Her spontaneity and courageous works made her a symbol of Egyptian modern art.
Shaheen will be starring in a new TV series “Betlo Alrouh” (By the Skin of One’s Teeth), which will be released in the second half of the holy month of Ramadan.
Since the launch of the promotional campaign of your new series “Betlo Alrouh”, you have been subjected to criticism on social media, why?
I do not follow social media; but since I read the script of the series, I knew it would cause controversy. However, I did not expect such uproar, especially that I appeared in the trailer wearing a hijab. I am surprised because I used to be attacked for wearing revealing dresses.
Why did you agree to star in this series?
The role I play in the series, “Umm Jihad”, is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, not only because the character has not been embodied before, but because the dramatic treatment of the series is unique, which made me agree without hesitation. I always look for new roles that address untapped topics. I hate to play the same character over and over. “Umm Jihad” is a character that I have never met or see before. She has no affiliation to her homeland or respect for women and different opinions. It reflects the nature of terrorist organizations; whether in clothing or convictions.
Who else did star in the series?
The series was written by Mohamed Hisham Obeya, directed by Kamila Abu Zekry, and co-starring Menna Shalaby, Diaman Bouaboud, Ahmed El-Saadani, and Mohamed Hatem, and Adel Karam. It will be released in the second half of the holy month of Ramadan.
What is the purpose of the series?
It aims to reveal more information about terrorist organizations, and what is happening inside them; to clarify facts for those who did not fully understand that these organizations used to deceive the public with fabricate videos. After the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in, they shared videos online of people faking their death to attract sympathy.
The series confronts terrorism in its way. It serves as an enlightening message to the public, and helps people realize the reality of those who supported terrorism and harmed the society, not only themselves. Healthy communication and awareness of these practices are necessary, because these groups were completely brainwashed.
Have radical groups threatened you because of this series?
No, they have not, but I am convinced that artists must have an important role and message in their career, and be ready to face any danger.
The series presents facts about people and entities who spread false thought and turn into mercenaries who work on fueling conflicts; whether in their countries or abroad, to earn more money.
How was the atmosphere of the series?
It was very exhausting. The series was shot in three countries; Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, which was not easy at all. There were difficult scenes that took a long time in filming. You may see a short scene that actually took two days in shooting. We decided to release the series in the second half of Ramadan, so that we could have plenty of time to complete the work perfectly.
How did you prepare for embodying the character of “Umm Jihad”?
I studied the character very well, to understand her feelings, way of thinking, and attitude with others. I also watched videos of terrorist organizations, such as ISIS. We also held workshops with the cast to understand and study the mentality of those groups.
Do you feel sympathy for “Umm Jihad”?
No, I do not feel sympathy for the character. The majority of those who have a similar spirit to her have a psychological complex, but it does not absolve them of any crimes they commit or incite.
Will this be your first confrontation with radical groups?
I have a history of confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood. I sued several members of the Brotherhood who ended up in jail. I also filed a lawsuit against one of their TV channels which led to its closure. It was a historic ruling because it was the first of a kind. That is why they have vendetta against me. They attack my works even before their release.
Does the series address the political and social changes that Egypt experienced in the recent years?
The series deals with many important issues that the arena is currently witnessing, and reviews the political and social events, the transformation of personalities, the fundamental changes, and the unprecedented disorder in morals and people’s character.
Do your artistic works reflect your political views?
I am not into politics at all, but I interact with the issues that emerge in society. Artists, in general, should reflect their communities’ thoughts and feelings.
What message would you like to present in this series?
The only message is: people should love this country and not be deceived by false slogans.
Most of your works caused widespread controversy, why?
I think that this is a good thing. It makes me feel happy because I always look for uniqueness, not normal works that go unnoticed. Only important artistic works raise controversy among the public. I also like to leave a mark on the artistic scene. In general, art should present different points of view.
Dozens of TV series are currently competing in Ramadan, do you think the viewership of your series will be affected?
I am convinced that a good series attracts people any time and under any circumstances. Any series could be released before or after Ramadan, and still fails because of its low quality. I received positive reactions, both from critics and the public, on the new series, even before its release.
Do actors normally ask producers to present their works in Ramadan?
I don’t think so. I have never done that. It is the business of producers only. Producers are keen to present their series during Ramadan, to benefit from the high viewership and sponsorships.
How do you spend Ramadan?
This year, I spent the first days filming the last scenes in the series. I will spend the rest of the month in my house with my brothers, because I love the family atmosphere. We eat Iftar and Suhoor and pray together. I also watch some TV series.
Why did you produce some of your films?
I turned to production, not to make money, but because I felt it was my responsibility to support cinema in Egypt, as the position of artistic production deteriorated recently. Production was limited to certain companies, so it was necessary to revive the industry.
Most of the films that you produced did not succeed commercially, how did you see that?
I did not produce films to achieve high profits. Films like “Fawzeya’s Secret Recipe” and “One–Zero” won many awards in local and regional film festivals. That’s my real gain.
Will you only produce films that you star in?
No, I also want to produce films starring others.
Some actors host TV programmes, would you do the same?
Frankly, I don’t like being a presenter. I only see myself as an actress.
You present more than one work simultaneously, whether in cinema or TV shows. What is your secret?
Hard work is a choice. I give all my time to art and nothing distracts me from it. I did not take art as a job to make money or to get attention for just being a beautiful woman. I studied acting and worked hard to embody different characters professionally.