'The Life and Times of Omar Sharif': new documentary to explore how politics shaped the actor's life

The film will examine how the politics of 1950s Eygpt shaped Sharif's life and career


DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES Ð Dec 15: Omar Sharif, Egyptian Actor during the interview at Al Qasr hotel in Dubai. (Pawan Singh / The National) For Arts & Life. Story by Philippa Kennedy
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Omar Sharif was as enigmatic as he was famous.

Across his six-decade career, the Egyptian actor starred in Egyptian, American, British, French and Italian productions and played hundreds of characters. But the man behind the many guises has always remained a bit of a mystery.

However, a new documentary is set to highlight some lesser-known facts about the Dr Zhivago actor, who died in 2015, examining how the politics of 1950s Egypt shaped Sharif and his career.

Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady. Courtesy Columbia Pictures

In The Life and Times of Omar Sharif, Egyptian filmmaker Mark Lotfy and Swedish director Axel Petersen will explore how president Gamal Abdel Nasser's policies led to Sharif changing his name, converting to Islam and eventually becoming a world-renowned figure moving between Europe, the US and Egypt.

"Omar Sharif was a conversation piece that we could always come back to," Petersen told US magazine Variety. "Quite early on in our relationship we realised that we had two very, very different perceptions of Omar Sharif. Me, representing the West, I saw him as some Hollywood superstar, playboy, glamour man, while Mark, representing the East and Egypt, had a completely different perception. He knew him as a persona non grata, like an Egyptian Judas … We couldn't figure it out. How could our views be so different?"

This contrast of opinion inspired the two filmmakers to delve deeper into Sharif’s life. The more they came to find out, the more multi-faceted and complex Sharif’s identity became.

Lotfy told Variety that Sharif left Egypt partly due to the strains he felt under Nasser's rule. He did not want to politically conform to the nationalism that swept Egypt in the 1950s. Born Michel Demitri Shalhoub to a Melkite Catholic family of Lebanese ancestry, Sharif changed his name and then converted to Islam when he married Egyptian actress Faten Hamama in 1955, with whom he co-starred in several films.

Omar Sharif and Faten Hamamah in Siraa Fil-Mina (1956). IMDb

A few years later Sharif left Egypt, after landing the role in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 that would catapult him to global recognition. However, as his international reputation soared, his name back home was stained by his decision to move West.

“We see him as a vessel of ideology,” Lofty said. “A reflecting surface to understand Eastern-Western conflict in the last century. It’s going beyond biography.”

Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, and Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) IMDb

Politics, Petersen told Variety, had a major impact on the changes in Sharif's life. But there were times the actor was an instigating force in political developments.

Sharif played a key part in organising the meeting of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin just before Sadat travelled to Israel in 1977. His visit would lead to the signing of the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The moment, Petersen said, will serve as a turning point in the film.

Sharif hoped that his attempts to help Sadat would pave the way for his return to Egypt. However, after Sadat was assassinated in 1980, Sharif’s hopes were grounded.

A rough cut for the documentary has already been finished, the filmmakers said. The film is comprised of archival material as well as interviews.

Sigrid Helleday, whose production company Fedra, headquartered in Stockholm, is co-producing the film with Lotfy's Fig Leaf Studios and Corniche Media in Alexandria, said an interview with Sharif's grandson, Omar Sharif Jr, was scheduled to take place before the pandemic struck. The filmmakers are still planning on meeting with Sharif Jr later this year.

"That's still to be done, but that's more or less the final footage we need," Helleday told Variety. "And then we're finalising the cut and going into post-production."

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