Renowned for his masterful acting and singular, warm, deep voice, Egyptian film star Mahmoud Yassin has, throughout the span of some 40 years, appeared in 160 films, and gained the love, admiration, and respect of audiences.
Yassin’s career took off early. His acting talent was apparent in early childhood, and he was helped by training at the Theatre Club in his home town of Port Said. By the time he graduated with a law degree in 1964 his professional acting career had begun with appearances at the Theatre Club in The Assassination of Guevara and Acre is my Nation
His part in the National Theatre play Ahlan ya Bakawat (Welcome Gentlemen) five years ago—he repeated the performance last year, while he was director of the National Theatre—is unforgettable. For two months he played the part earmarked for Ezzat al-Alayli after Alayli dropped out. The role, which was drawn to expose religious-based corruption, led to several threats from Islamists, but despite this he continued for 60 performances. When the run was completed he submitted
his resignation to the National Theatre.
Yassin’s newest film Al-Gazira (The Island), is a huge success. He is currently working on a children’s television series.
Watan interviewed Mahmoud Yassin. We began by how he started on one of the activities that made him so popular, poetry recitation.
Yassin: The voice is a gift of God. Since I was in preparatory school I have been fluent in Arabic. And through my love of the language and poetry I mastered the art of recitation. I use the same method for works of tragedy.
Watani: You played leading roles in the golden age of the Egyptian cinema. How do you view the present situation in the film industry?
Yassin: Egyptian cinema today is passing through difficult times. Films are smuggled abroad before they are screened in theatres, and this infringes upon intellectual property rights. The move towards a free economy in 1991 resulted in the removal of State funds or subsidies for film production which consequently suffered much. State ownership of cinema theatres and studios dropped to 51 per cent, with the remainder being sold to private individuals. In 2001 three films were produced, and by 2006 this had grown to a total 36 of which only a few were quality films. The industry needs to take a serious stand against pirates to protect film production, and the number of theatres needs to increase.
Are webcams damaging the film industry by producing poor quality films that sell for a high profit to websites?
I cannot assume that the websites are harming the movie industry. No doubt there are some good quality films amongst them.
What do you think of the current state of Egyptian drama, and is the Syrian stage putting up some competition?
Egyptian drama both on stage and in films has a long history and a rich artistic experience. Theatre is an old tradition in Egypt, and films have been made here for more than a century. Television drama is well developed and Egypt has produced a host of prominent writers for the theatre and the screen. Egypt has a wealth of producers and actors, and anyone who says there is a setback in Egypt is exaggerating. One cannot describe a country which has such an old institution of arts as intellectually poor. Syrian drama also has a history close to that of Egyptian drama, and further possesses prominent men of literature, which is what makes it a fine art and thus constitutes a complementary, not a competing, factor.
There is a fanatic element in today’s expressive arts movement. Your wife Shahira, a famous actress in her own right, stopped acting and donned the veil. What is your attitude towards this? And does Shahira object to your daughter Rania taking up acting?
To say there is a full-fledged anti-arts current in Egypt is, in my opinion, incorrect. But there have always been those who oppose the arts. It is an old opposition that came into existence a long time ago, especially in the absence of cultural awareness. As for my daughter Rania, she has graduated from the English department in theatrical studies. Basically she can make her own decisions on how to approach a career in acting. Shahira, like any other mother, tends to give her some advice which is not obligatory, but she doesn’t interfere in her—or my—work.
What do you see as the mission of your generation?
No doubt our generation benefited from regarding art as a noble mission. The target was not how much one could earn, but how to be better. I have never regretted any work I did.
Is there any character you dream of playing?
I believe that after 160 films, some 25 theatrical works and several TV series, I do not have many more dreams, unless I come across some exceptional work.