INTERVIEW: Award-winning Egyptian actor Aly Sobhy on 'being different', clowning and film

Hadeer El-Mahdawy , Thursday 12 Jan 2017

After winning the Muhr Feature Award for Best Actor at the 13th Dubai Intl Film Festival, Sobhy talks to Ahram Online about his career, how art changed his life, and how it impacts the community at large

Aly Sobhy

Egyptian actor Ali Sobhy won the Muhr Feature Award at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) for Best Actor for his role as Aly Meaza in the film Ali, the Goat, and Ibrahim (Ali, Meaza and Ibrahim).

Directed by Sherif El-Bendary, the film’s world premiere was in Dubai and is expected to be released across Egyptian cinemas starting February.

The award came as a great surprise to Sobhy. His name has been mainly known for his participation in Outa Hamra (Red Tomato) clown troupe and for his many street performances.

He also hit social media in March 2011, when he was arrested and reportedly beaten up with others by security forces during the dispersal of a Tahrir Square sit in.

The incident sparked an online campaign "Aly Sobhy is our friend and not a thug" by his friends and activists.

It was not a surprise, then, following his success in Dubai, social media congratulated the actor adding, "Aly Sobhy is the best actor and not a thug" on posts that went viral.

Sobhy dedicated his win to all persons rejected by their communities “for being different.”

The 33-year-old Sobhy — who prefers the term artist rather than actor, since his 18-year-long career includes acting, singing, and dancing — considers himself one of those rejected by their community for being different.

As he clarified to Ahram Online, his choices throughout his life “were not normal,” taking us on his personal journey from his working class neighborhood in Cairo, Ain Shams, to the Dubai festival.

Road of coincidence and the force of art

When Sobhy was 15 he started acting, “by coincidence,” as he describes it.

His elder brother's friend was an actor in Mansour Mohamed Studio, which was an initiative in the 1990s for contemporary motion theatre and trained many who later became actors, including some from Sobhy’s neighbourhood.

"I used to attend their performances in the neighbourhood. It was a big event that we, the residents of Ain Shams, would celebrate," Sobhy recalls.

Sobhy began attending their rehearsals in the community youth centre and it did not take long before he joined the studio.

Sobhy was having problems in school. He felt he was not learning anything.

"When I first went to school I was good at reading. But I finished primary school with pronunciation problems" which, he explained, resulted in much bullying.

"In the neighbourhood where I lived, I could have easily ended up as a criminal. But art rescued me," Sobhy told Ahram Online. 

Sobhy then enrolled in high school, the phase he perceives as very significant in his life, as he started to be aware that acting was his vocation. From then on, theatre began absorbing him completely, leaving little time to study. He spent seven years trying to finish high school, constantly facing problems and escaping into creative activities.

He also joined a theatre troupe that operated within the high school. Ironically, as he struggled with regular studies, he gained many awards for his acting and was honoured by the school principal.

However those successes did not allow him to escape repeated expulsions.

“After I was dismissed from school, I was dissatisfied with myself and with my life … I even left the school theatre and stayed for almost one year and a half standing on street corners doing nothing," Sobhy said.

Again by coincidence, Sobhy met Mohamed Abdel Fattah, his neighbour who also used to act in Mansour Mohamed Studio. Abdel-Fattah was gathering actors to launch a theatre troupe called "Hala" (A case), one that was to become one of the most prominent street troupes during the 10 years prior to the Egyptian revolution.

Since Sobhy joined Hala in 2001, he never returned to doing nothing on dark street corners.

With the troupe, he participated in street performances that due to their political context attracted the attention of Mubarak's state security apparatus.

Sobhy, however, was not interested in politics until the deadly fire of the Beni Suef national theatre in 2005, an incident that claimed the lives of dozens of artists, including actor friends.

He began helping the families of the victims, and visited the injured in hospital. This experience resulted in a performance called "Fire" which did not attract a great audience, in contrast to Hala’s hallmark sarcastic comedy.

Hala started to become popular with other works though, soon giving performances not only in the street but also in theatres.

As Sobhy explains, the audience grew, and at the same time the members began developing the feeling of being celebrities in a sense, a fact that held them back from doing better.

With their last musical show, "Kastour," the whole troupe, that also started to organise a festival for mobile films and independent films, disintegrated in 2010.

Passion matured: Outa Hamra and cinema

Throughout those years, Sobhy's career did not give him any income of any kind. However, he found what he considers to be much more valuable: the love of his life (now his wife), as well as appreciation and a sense of achievement.

“Still, I needed income, so I worked almost in everything: in a pharmacy, or as a seasonal sales person. My first income from the arts came when I started working in cinema," Sobhy said.

His first role in a feature-length film came when he was cast in an independent production Ain Shams, directed by Ibrahim El-Battout.

Until this moment, he never considered film as a rewarding experience for an actor with a theatrical background, but El-Battout managed to change his perception. “El-Battout introduced me to a different kind of cinema, different than what I used to watch in cinemas.”

From that moment, Sobhy would explore cinema behind the scenes, taking different responsibilities within the field. In Tamer El-Said’s ‘In the Last Days of the City’ (Akher Ayam El-Medina), a film that was shot in 2008, he was an actor as well as assistant producer.

In 2009, Sobhy met a group of French clowns from Clowns Without Borders with whom he worked in two performances and who inspired him to establish Outa Hamra (Red Tomatoes) troupe a year later.

"As Outa Hamra, we performed in the popular neighbourhoods of Cairo and other cities of Egypt and outside the country. We collaborated with local centres, and developmental organisations. We often involved the residents of the places we went to in the performance, and I could see how their reception of our shows was changing over time: from primary hostility to a warm welcome. Parallel to the performances, members of Outa Hamra trained refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Eretria, and Syria with whom they also organised a variety of shows,” Sohby explained.

"After my arrest in 2011, I became distanced from politics and focused more on projects that created a palpable change within civil society. After one of the performances that addressed discrimination and which we staged in an economically underprivileged community, people were so touched that they came on the stage and began apologising for the way they treated refugees in their neighbourhood.”

For Sohby, such reactions are priceless.

"I believe in the ability of art to change people, the same way it changed me, to a better person," he said, hoping to continue carrying the torch of change.

Aly Meaza as a victory for all 'different persons'

The idea of the film Ali, the Goat, and Ibrahim and casting Sobhy first came to the mind of director Ibrahim El-Battout. “We worked on the script together with a team of actors. We secured the funds, but in 2011 El-Battout left the project,” Sobhy explains.

A few years later, the producer decided to reach out to another director, Sherif El-Bendary to help the scriptwriter Ahmed Amer, finish the film.

The shooting, which began in May 2015, took a year and a half.

The film centres on a man who believes that his dead girlfriend has been reincarnated as a goat, which he names Nada. At the healer’s clinic, Ali meets Ibrahim, and they are both diagnosed as being cursed.

When the healer prescribes a solution to break the spell, it sets them off on an adventure that takes them to the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Nile.

Both characters, who were rejected by their communities, manage to get acceptance at the end for being different.

"Aly is not a weird character. In fact, we share a lot of characteristics: he looks like any human being, has two eyes, two ears, and a nose … he just has different ideas," Sobhy laughs.

According to the actor, the film was granted a substantial budget. “It is a fortunate fact for an independent production. Today’s independent industry has evolved a lot in Egypt. What makes them unique is not the question of budget, but rather the way of production, the ideas, the content,” he comments.

Sobhy dedicated his award at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival to “all people who are rejected by their communities. We do not have to love a ‘different person,’ but we should learn how, at least, to accept him. In the world where everyone follows the same patterns, difference has a bigger value.”

Recognition as a film actor did not take away Sobhy from street art and clowning, and he assures he is not giving up on this art form.

"Following Dubai’s recognition, I was offered many scripts, but I will not act in any film unless I feel that it suits my abilities, as well as the film can create an impact on society,” he commented, adding that in order to move further in his artistic career, he considers gaining a degree, possibly studying theatre in Berlin.

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