The statements from Zaki have spurred controversy in the region’s most prominent and popular movie industry where hundreds of Arab hopefuls flock each year looking for the big break.
Despite the syndicate chief’s subsequent retraction, saying his comments were “taken out of context,” directors, actors and observers have started to discus the legitimacy of his call for greater access to the Egyptian film industry for young, up-and-coming Egyptian actors.
In Zaki’s statement, he said the union would no longer grant work permits to “many Arabs who are coming to work in the artistic fields, because they take jobs from Egyptian graduates of the higher institute for cinema and theater.”
His main concern was the increasing number of non-Egyptian women who have achieved success in the country’s film industry, but lack acting background.
“Many young women who are introduced to film and television have nothing to do with art,” Zaki said.
Joseph Fahim, arts and culture editor of the Daily News, believes that while such a ruling might be beneficial to younger actors it would not have been possible to implement, considering the large number of non-Egyptians already on the job here.
“The cinema community was up in arms when the announcement was made, because of the fact that so many non-Egyptians work here,” Fahim said.
“It just isn’t feasible at this time for this to happen.”
Zaki was quick to point out that his call for greater access of young Egyptian actors did not spell doom for the already established non-Egyptians working in the country.
For example, Hind Sabri – a Tunisian who regularly speaks and plays Egyptian roles – was singled out by the chief for praise. He said she would not be limited to one production each year.
“Zaki’s decision is not targeted against Arabs, but it is to protect Egyptian artists from unemployment,” wrote Galal al-Sayyed, a columnist with the daily Al-Akhbar newspaper, referring to “an invasion” of Arab actors.
He added that it was a necessary step to “protect” Egyptian actors.
Over the past few years a large number of major roles have been given to non-Egyptian actors playing Egyptian parts. This has led many to question the role of the Actors’ Union as a place that protects Egyptians as the primary source for film and television.
Most popular among non-Egyptians is Syrian actor Tayem al-Hassan who received numerous accolades for his portrayal of a young Egyptian King Farouk in a popular series by the same name.
Still, Zaki has been under scrutiny for his assertions that he is protecting Egyptian cinema with the idea of Egyptians first.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni has entered the fray, saying that Egypt “is the cultural and political capital of the Arab world” and “we cannot sacrifice its unique position through decisions that might put it in danger.”
Fahim says that Zaki’s comments should not be blown up to mean that all non-Egyptians would no longer be allowed to work in the Egyptian film industry.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here,” he said. “Because when it comes down to it, this will probably not happen, and in a few months people will forget that Zaki even said anything of the nature.”
Amr Waked, a leading Egyptian actor who achieved international success with his portrayal of an Egyptian cleric in the hit movie “Syriana,” told the Middle East Times that much of the controversy surrounding Egyptian cinema needs to be removed for it to move forward.
“We have controversies all the time,” the actor said, referring to his run-in with Zaki and the Actors’ Union last year for his role in a BBC production about Iraq.
He was under threat of expulsion from the syndicate for acting alongside an Israeli.
Ironically, the Israeli actor, Yigal Naor, who has also played a leading role in “Rendition,” is of Iraqi decent and was playing the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
“Egypt must learn to accept others, while still supporting its own. This is a fine line that is often grayed, but I believe through discussion, film in the country can only improve,” Waked said.
The jury is still out on whether Zaki’s proposals will come to fruition. But one thing is certain, the debate has garnered more attention for an industry that in recent years has, what Fahim says, “lost its edge” in terms of quality Arab production.
“At least this conversation over who can act in Egyptian productions has returned the light to an industry that was taking steps backwards,” Fahim said. “Hopefully now we can look to the future.”