Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent
‘Film Legends Among Us’ series
The Arts Council of England’s model for measuring the impact of creative people encompasses three fundamental principles: actions, themes, and outcomes. Applying this model to the artistic career of the eminent Egyptian actress and producer, Elham Shahin, one can appreciate her influential position in the Arab world and internationally.
To begin, the ‘action component’: Shahin graduated with a BA in Performance from the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts in Egypt in 1982. Since then, she has pursued a path that respects her audience, challenges the status quo, and upends taboos. Over the course of 44 years, Shahin has acted in 62 TV series, 101 films and 19 theatre productions. Her career highlights are innumerable; but in each one, she commands her audience by taking them on a journey of discovery and self-reflection built around universal human predicaments. In her latest film ‘Curfew’ (Amir Ramses, 2020), Shahin is the world-weary mother and grandmother, Faten (figure 1). Recently released from prison for killing her husband, Faten is unable to divulge the reasons for what she has done. Shahin invites viewers not only to empathise with Faten, but intelligently leads them to consider the wider circumstances that led Faten to sacrifice her well-being and respect in an unforgiving society. It was no surprise that ‘Faten’ won her the best actress award at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) in 2020.
As a champion of Arab women from different socioeconomic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, Shahin never shied away from playing the anti-hero. In ‘A Day for Women’ (Kamlah Abu-Zikri, 2016) she was Shamiyah, a middle aged ‘tarnished’ woman ostracised by her community for working as a model for painters. In a masterful scene Elham experiences and conveys a roller- coaster of emotions, ranging from passion to longing to shame to elation to sorrow and inconsolable wailing, a feat that only a few stars in the world can achieve with such elegance and poignancy (figure 2). This remarkable performance was rewarded by an unprecedented number of international best actress awards.
As ‘Neveen’, a Christian woman stuck in a loveless marriage due to strict Catholic prohibitions against divorce, Shahin excelled in ‘One Zero’ (Kamlah Abu-Zikri, 2009). Drawing attention to the plight of Catholic women stranded in similar circumstances, the film was critically acclaimed in a record number of international film festivals.
Collaborating with pioneer women directors such as Enas El Dighade, in ‘Cheap Meat’ (1995), Shahin played the strong headed Tawheida challenging underage marriage and misogyny.
The taboo topic of virginity was one of the themes in ‘My life, my love’ (Magdi Ahmed Ali, 1996). In her role as Sakinah, Elham played a young woman undertaking a morally dubious procedure to restore an intact hymen to prove her virginity to a future husband.
In ‘Fawzia’s Recipe’ (Magdy Ahmed Ali, 2009) Shahin personifies the resilience of Arab women. In the role of Fawzia, she subverts taboos as a woman who marries several times searching for love and security in a socially oppressive community. The story of female camaraderie is developed through Fawzia’s friendship with a group of larger-than-life women in her neighbourhood.
On a related theme, the second-class status of unmarried women in Arab society was challenged by ‘Amal’ in ‘Yes, I am still unmarried’ (Ahmed Yahia, 2010) TV series.
Being the bold, experimental actress, Shahin represented the stories of several marginalised communities, as a single young mother with special needs in ‘Cholesterol free’ (Mohamed Abu Seif, 2005); as a street beggar in ‘Downtown Earthquake’ (Mohamed Abu Seif, 2015); as Samiha, a young patient abused in a mental hospital in ‘Days of Anger’ (Mouneer Radi, 1989); and as Magda, the righteous Member of Parliament advocating for residents of an impoverished community threatened with eviction in ‘Appointment with the President’ (Mohamed Radi, 1990).
More recently Shahin has engaged with global threats such as radicalisation and extremism, for example as Manal (Oum Jihad) the IS Jihadi woman leader in the TV series (Departing Soul, Bitloo al Rouh) (Kamlah Abu-Zikri, 2022) (figure 3).
As a vocal, fearless, film activist determined to engage in and stir controversy, Shahin challenged fundamentalists who denounce ‘organ donation’ in Egypt by announcing donating her organs after she dies. Her forthcoming role in Egypt’s National Theatre in an adaptation of the Jean-Paul Sartre play ‘The Respectful Prostitute’ exploring racial discrimination has already triggered criticism from extremists accusing her of advocating for immorality.
As for outcomes, Shahin has been recognised by academic institutions in Egypt such as Ain Shams University by a life-time achievement award in 2022 (figure 4). Shahin was also honoured by several Arab countries, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, and United Arab Emirates. Appreciating her contribution, influence, and impact in the Arab world, and beyond, Shahin received a Special Honorary award from the President of Tatarstan in 2021. Elham’s recipe for human rights, social reform, and women empowerment continues in her 2023 film ‘Four Strong Women’.