With Her Eyes on Egypt: Amira El-Sayed


Amira El-Sayed


by Sherif Awad
For talented actors around the world, the dream of becoming a famous star has no borders. In Egypt, many actors who have made it in the regional cinema also tried to make a career on the international scene. On the other hand, other Egyptian actors who were born abroad are also longing to make a career in their homeland, given the popularity of Egyptian cinema and TV series and its impact on the Pan Arab audience.

The Austrian-born Amira El-Sayed is one of those young talented actresses. She has neither cut her ties with the city of Alexandria where her father was born nor with the recent sociopolitical changes in her country Egypt. Although her acting career in Austria and Germany is starting to shape, Amira is also dreaming of being cast in an Egyptian film or TV series.
Born in 1991, Amira fell in love with acting since her early childhood even before she knew it is a real job through which one can make a living. “I was acting at the theatre of my school then with the Youth Theatre in Innsbruck”, remembers Amira. “At the age of sixteen, I decided to go to Vienna and stay with my aunt to study acting and pursue a professional career. After I joined the First Film Academy where I studied for one year, the famous Austrian actor Heribert Sasse accidentally visited this academy and picked me up to join his acting seminars for two years. Once finished, I could call myself as one of his students, which helps very much in Vienna’s casting calls”. Sasse was so convinced by Amirs’s talent to the point to urging her to join Max Reinhardt Seminar in 2010 to strengthen her skills. “I started to get film and theatre offer during the first year at Max Reinhardt but I couldn’t accept because the school wouldn’t allow its student to work in the first three years”, she says.
Amira kept her connection with Egypt due to frequent visits with her parents. Her father Adel El-Sayed told her about how he was driven to leave Egypt due his involvement in politics. “While being a sociology student in Alexandria University, he was arrested and thrown into jail along with some of his socialists and activists friends and colleagues after being part of a demonstration against Sadat’s regime in the late seventies”, explains Amira. “After a month in jail, an officer came and met them to propose a deal: they can be freed and allowed to continue their studies if they sign on a document in which they swear not to be involved in politics again”. Most of those who signed ultimately left Egypt including Amira’s father who travelled to Austria to complete his higher studies and became a professor of Political Science at Innsbruck University. It was in the city of Innsbruck where he also made many friends and met Amira’s mother.
During her childhood, Amira used to frequently visit Egypt with her parents during holidays and even went to the kindergarten in Alexandria for two years. “My father kept on writing about Egypt while we were in Austria. In other words, he was still an activist on paper, which put him again into trouble with the Egyptian authorities that went to arrest him again up in front of my kindergarten in Alexandria.  Although my mother didn’t have a clue about how things go in Egypt, she went to many police stations and threatened to go to the international media if they don’t free him. My father returned home after a week only to reveal that he was interrogated by the late Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian Intelligence) because of his doctorate thesis Palästina in der Mandatszeit, Palestine in the Mandate”.
While studying in Max Reinhardt, Amira could not resist accepting the female role in the Austrian stage adaptation of Paul Schrader’s play The Cleopatra Club and was exceptionally permitted to go on stage. Schrader is famous for his film career being the screenwriter of classics like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, that both starred Robert de Niro and both directed by Martin Scorsese. He is also the writer-director of other film classics like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, The Comfort of Strangers and Light Sleeper. The play that debuted in 2004 on Broadway was based on Schrader’s own experience when he was invited as jury member in Cairo Film Festival back in the 1990s. It revolves around a filmmaker and a film critic who were among the invitees of Cairo Film Festival only to be outraged when the festival bans a film depicting a love story between a Palestinian man and a Jewish woman. When they both try to speak to the press, they are apprehended by an Egyptian police officer who resumes it all for the two of them: “A film festival is not about movies, it's about culture, and culture is politics, and politics is religion”. So in the Austrian version, Amira was offered the role of Esmet the festival’s interpreter who accompanies the two invitees. “It was important for me to join this production because it revealed the hidden face of the Egyptian regime and a side not as exotic as seen by many tourists and because it was also reminiscent of what happened to my father during his university years and again when he returned to Egypt several years later”, says Amira who continued her performance in The Cleopatra Club for several months. During an interview on the Austrian radio station Ö1, Amira spoke about the play and the story of her father. She was accidentally heard by an Australian publishing house “Letter P” who contacted her to write down her story in a book. So ultimately, Amira followed the footstep of her academic father and became the book author of Klang der Freiheit (Sound of Freedom), named after songs enchanted in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution. “In this book, I was trying to retell the story of my Alexandrian family as an example of one Egyptian family and particularly my father Adel El-Sayed. I found it impossible not to connect it to all the recent happenings in Egypt, until the months that preceded the revolution of January 25. Sound of Freedom also tries to answer questions of some of my European friends who didn't understand why this revolution was (and is still) necessary”, explains Amira.
Following the advice of her new agent Divina, Amira El-Sayed just made a move to Berlin where she plans to continue her studies in The Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art while trying to work in German film and TV. She is in talks to star in the next film by Fatih Akin, the internationally renowned Turkish-German filmmaker who got international awards for his past films like Head-on and Edge of Heaven. She will soon be seen in the Austrian film Schleier (Veil) where she plays a second-generation Egyptian-Austrian housewife who tries to help her husband to overcome an identity crisis.