Looking back, Faten Hamama says stardom has its ups and downs
Acclaimed Egyptian film actress Faten Hamama said she was “only playing” when she started performing. When she made her screen debut in 1939, at the tender age of 7, there was no way she could know that she would grow to become “The Lady of The Arab Screen.” “I was very natural while filming, happy and careless ... ,” the 82-year-old Hamama told The Daily Star. “It was more of a game to me and they used to get me lots of toys every day.”
She says that at the time, she never felt her youthful career deprived her of a normal childhood.
“At that I time I was happy,” she said. “When you’re young, you don’t feel it. On the contrary you feel important, and that everyone is taking you into consideration.”
Hamama still remembers “the little details” of her first day of filming.
“It was like a new game,” she recalled. “There were bright lights, and they warned me not to look at them because I would turn black ... I started telling that to all the other actors, ‘Be careful! If you look here you will turn black!’”
She recalled that, though “the elite were in the cinema,” by the age of 14 or 15 she was bullied by her schoolmates. “They used to say acting was a bad career.”
Hamama was in Beirut late last week at the invitation of the American University of Beirut, which awarded her an honorary doctorate Friday. She consented to meet a group of journalists at her suite at the Gefinor Rotana Hotel, radiating refinement and elegance.
Though her artistic legacy is beyond doubt – she made her latest screen appearance in 2000 in the Egyptian dramatic miniseries “Wajh al-Qamar” (Face of The Moon) – Hamama is not one to live in the past.
Hamama, who describes her talent as “a gift from God,” still seems more interested in cinema than celebrity.
“I keep stardom away when I go home, that’s it, I am an ordinary person,” she said, “You cannot go on if you do not do that.
“Even stardom has its ups and downs,” she continued. “When you are satisfied about a role, you feel great but when you are not content you really feel down ... I would not sleep for a whole month before a movie premieres. It was exhausting.”
Hamama admitted that she’s become deeply immersed in some roles. Following the shoot of Henry Barakat’s 1959 film adaptation of Taha Hussein’s novel “Doaa al-Karawan” (The Nightingale’s Prayer), for instance, she had a hard time dropping her character’s Bedouin accent.
She recalls with some remorse how, during the production of “Doaa al-Karawan,” she forgot her son was sick during the entire day’s shooting.
“I totally forgot,” she said. “I got so angry at myself.”
As an actress Hamama has worked to emphasize the importance of women in Egyptian cinema and society. She said that the movies that most interested her were those who had a social impact or touched on community problems.
“I wanted my art to express the causes and problems of Arabs and Egyptians,” Hamama said, “that was a factor I took into consideration before approving my scripts.”
That, she continued, is why she was never interested in acting in overseas productions, though in 1963 she acted in U.S. director Wolf Rilla’s 1963 heist picture, “Cairo.”
“While acting in foreign movies, you must accept wearing revealing outfits and doing anything,” she said. But “our society was more conservative, I could not do that. I was interested in acting our lives, the life of Khadija and Aliya and common people.”
Hamama’s 1975 film “Ouridou hallan” (I Want a Solution), for instance, traces the difficulties met by Doria, a woman seeking divorce after 15 years of marriage. The movie helped shed light on the travails of Egyptian women.
“The movie led to a change in the civil law in Egypt and other countries ... we incited women to revolt against the egoism of men,” she said. “While filming, we went to real courts and we kept the camera hidden. Most women thought I was one of them. They were so concerned with their problems that they did not even notice me.
“In the last scene, when the judge refused to grant [my character] the divorce, the director made me walk through the court hall past four ladies who had similar cases for real. The look in their eyes made me cry out loud. The tears in the movie were real ... we wanted the audience to sense our tears.”
At one stage Egypt’s best-paid actress, Hamama said that her key to success was her sincere love of art.
“The film industry was not about money back then,” she said.
“We were paid very little in comparison to now. I loved art for art.”
Hamama refused to compare Egypt’s film industry today with the one she knew, noting that there have always been refined movies and popular movies.
Yet she did praise the efforts of young filmmakers, determined to make films with very little means.
“There are movies produced by youth who lack funds,” she said. “They produce their movies with very little money. I saw some scenes of these films and they are successful.”
Hamama remains convinced that cinema can have an impact on the world, if “the adversaries sense them ... There is a big gap in our society, now not just socially but even in ideas.”
Reluctant to speak about politics and the changes wrought in Egypt after the January 25 revolution, Hamama said she supports “liberalism [and] good ideas ... They started fighting [art], movies, paintings ... this cannot work. A life without art is meaningless.”
The actor’s opinion of Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak remains tolerant. “He is good and simple,” she said. “He is not the evil man they are [depicting] and such a man should not rule. When you are weak and simple you should not rule. We need someone stronger than that.”
She acknowledged that the Egyptian Revolution has not yet reached its aims. “A lot of revolutions do not achieve their objective in the beginning but only years later,” she said.
“There have always been ups and downs. There are rulers who are cruel and dictators, and enough politics!”
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