Faten Hamama, whose career spans more than five decades and includes more than 100 films, will always remain in the hearts and minds of Arabs. When leading director Mohammad Kareem first met her as a child, he said he became convinced that Hamama, dubbed "the Lady of Arabic Cinema" would become more important than Shirley Temple, the most famous child star at the time.
Sure enough, Hamama became one of the brightest silver screen stars. "I don't act but I live my roles. I'm filled with their components, thoughts and feelings," Hamama says. The actress was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) recently.
"The daughter of Charlie Chaplin, Geraldine, once told me a story. She said her mother was against her choice of career and asked her father to interfere; but Charlie wrote to Geraldine, encouraging her to work in the field of her choice and telling her that to become a good actress, she must comprehend the character she was playing and feel it completely. She must not try to act but should act and express spontaneously and only then will she become a good actress," Hamama recalls.
"I was very happy with this enlightening thought and I told Geraldine that this is exactly how I work. I don't train to perform certain emotions, such as fear, distress or pain. I just live the character and let myself go. It all depends on my awareness of the character and whether it was developing, like Amna in The Nightingale's Prayer, or stationary, like Aisha in Sweet Day, Bitter Day. The first character's clothes and her way of walking and talking change, while they only get stronger in the second character.
Hamama also talks about her role in another of her memorable films, Mouths and Rabbits (Afwah Wa Araneb). "I didn't walk, I ran like any active farmer who was always in a hurry," she says.
"It is also very important to have the other characters while shooting a solo scene. If I was to be filmed talking to someone who doesn't appear in the shot, I would still need him to be present. That's the only way to achieve a high quality of work," she adds. Asked whether her performance has changed over the years, Hamama says she has only avoided obvious displays of emotion. "I don't like crying in my scenes any more, although that is a necessity sometimes."
For example, in one scene in Sweet Day, Bitter Day, Aisha writes a letter to her dead husband blaming him for leaving her alone. "I wanted to do the scene without crying and I had to repeat it many times but each time I would choke and cry. Later on, I realised that tears were suitable for this situation," she says.
To this day, Hamama remains uncomfortable talking about or evaluating other actors. "Please don't let me do that. This is the role of critics and all I can say is that when I watch my movies, I feel a very strong nostalgia towards my colleagues of the past, Hussain Riadh, Zaki Rustum, Fardous Mohammad, Zeinat Seddiqi, Estephan Rosti, Esmail Yaseen and others. But Ameenah Rizq has a special place in my heart. I really miss her," she says.
But what about directors? Are there differences between one generation and another? "I don't classify directors according to their generation because each has his own style, which distinguishes him from other directors of his generation, and they all represent Egyptian cinema.
"Mohammad Kareem represents elegant films in an ambitious age, Salah Abu Saif is all for realism, while Ezz Al Deen Zou Al Fikar had a special style, Kamal Al Shaikh was detail-oriented and had a high artistic level and Henry Barakat was all about gentleness, beauty and deep emotions."
When Hamama won the Best Actress award for her film The Nightingale's Prayer at the Berlin Film Festival in 1960, critics said her acting was near perfection and that she could express all kinds of sentiments with her face.
The film was directed by Barakat, whom Hamama holds in high regard. "There is no doubt that I do because his taste is identical to mine. He respects the eye, ear and feelings of the viewer and rejects obscenity as I do. Art is not about conveying an ugly reality as it is but expressing it tastefully and aesthetically."
Does that mean beautifying and perhaps faking reality?
"No. For example, in Mouths and Rabbits, there's a scene where my nephews and nieces eat very quickly out of a bowl of beans. Barakat's humanitarian feelings made him avoid hurting viewers with the scene of hungry children. He just showed their hands grabbing the food quickly and then my surprised face when I enter and see them eating this way, before returning to show the bowl, which had become empty.
"This conveys the meaning without inducing feelings of disgust among viewers because the children deserve pity, not disgust," she says.
Hamama, who played over 100 characters, still dreams of one. "It is not a fictional character. The part I would like to play is that of Safiya Zaghloul, wife of the late Egyptian leader Sa'ad Zaghloul.
"She is an amazing model of an Arab woman. She headed the feminist movement in Egypt and became much stronger after being arrested. She played a major role in spreading awareness among the people and knew the way towards effective work.
"Dubbing her ‘The Mother of Egyptians' was the best form of appreciation for her efforts. Playing this part is still my dream," Hamama says.
The characters she played all had one thing in common: They were all very strong women.
How does Hamama feel when she watches her old films? "I started acting at 9 years old in 1940 and kept working until a few years ago. I represented Arab women throughout all stages — teenager, young woman, mature woman, and mother, which is the closest to me.
"The distance between me and my earliest works is very big and sometimes when I see them, I feel as if I'm watching another actress, not me."
That does not mean she is disturbed by her old films but simply views them as a critic, although she refuses to attack any of her films.
"It is not about the success or failure of a movie but the spirit. For example, my 1959 film Between the Ruins was considered very strong. It now appears to be depressing and gloomy. The sadness in that film is overwhelming.
"Sadness is a part of life, like all other feelings, but it's not the only one. There is also happiness and I don't like to live in sadness, especially exaggerated sadness, which is something I see in many films and drama series," Hamama says.
The actress gained the respect of the audience, so much so that she found it very difficult to play the evil character of Nadia in I Don't Sleep, adapted from a novel by Egyptian writer Ehsan Abdul Quddus.
"I was not afraid to play the part but people around me were hesitant. They thought that would tarnish my image," she said.
Funnily enough, when the film was first shown in Hamama's presence, one of the viewers at the cinema yelled: "Is this a proper role for you, Faten Hamama?"
"People became accustomed to a certain image of me and this is why Nadia was shocking," she says. "A strong character is the only condition I can't do without. To be a strong woman doesn't mean acting like a man or being unfair to others or authoritative. Strength means resilience in the face of life's challenges. It is asking seriously for your just rights and working to bring together a family."
Kamal Ramzee, a Cairo-based film critic, spoke to Faten Hamama in an interview facilitated by DIFF.