‘I saw an Egyptian’ in Salma Hayek, says Youssef Nabil

The Egyptian artist cast the Mexican-born Hayek, who is of Arab heritage, in his second film, I Saved My Belly Dancer.

Tahar Rahim. Courtesy of Youssef Nabil
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Youssef Nabil's work is always nostalgic, reminiscent of a time gone by, a yearning to recall and cherish the past. This is augmented in the Egyptian artist's second film, I Saved My Belly Dancer, starring Hollywood star Salma Hayek. The 12-­minute short – which both grieves and celebrates belly dancing – will feature in Dubai's The Third Line gallery in January, alongside 26 hand-painted images based on the film.

In a dream sequence in I Saved My Belly Dancer, Hayek – the last proverbial belly dancer – wipes Nabil's (Tahar Rahim) tears and performs one final dance on the shores of the Egyptian coast, before they ride away, in true Hollywood style, into the sunset on a horse.

This “vision” came to Nabil with the advent of the Egyptian revolution and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism – a climate, he says, “that has been directly and indirectly attacking the art of belly dancing by closing 12 nightclubs in Cairo”. The film is his way of commemorating a bygone era “when belly dancing was perceived as a true art form from the Arab world”.

The New York-based artist, who is currently in the last stages of post-production at Ridley Scott’s production company RSA in London, says the film is a love letter to his homeland: “[It] is concerned with the idea of memory and what lives within us, even if it’s no longer part of our reality,” he says.

There are two Egypts – a past and a present. Clearly, you are responding to the present with the past.

Freedom is the most important reason to live. What is happening is personal for me, because of my country and the cinema that I grew up loving.

I Saved My Belly Dancer is longer than your first film, You Never Left. What was the process like?

I’d written it three years ago, but working with Hollywood actors naturally takes time and so does funding, which has come in from Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, The Third Line, Galerie, Nathalie Obadia, and Arab collectors who own my work. Initially, we tried to shoot in Morocco, then Egypt, but there were a lot of impossible permissions and censorship. It became challenging and we finally shot in London.

Why Salma Hayek? And why both Tahar Rahim and the film’s score by Anouar Brahem, once more?

I saw an Egyptian in Salma, although she's Mexican with Arab blood. She has been collecting my work with her husband and the Pinault Foundation. I had drawn the storyboard for I Saved My Belly Dancer with her face and we met two years ago. She has also never played an Arab role and I guess I put her in touch with her origins. Tahar is an actor who translates my emotions. He's got a face that can be manly and innocent all at once. There's also continuity – You Never Left ended with him in the sea and I started I Saved My Belly Dancer with the sea. Anouar is a talented musician for whom I have great admiration.

This film ends with a white horse. Is this hope?

The film is personal, it’s about my country, me, leaving, being in the West and carrying my culture with me. He saves her in the dream and, for me, the white horse is a poetic symbol of beauty.

Is the white horse a metaphor for the West saving the Arab world?

Not at all. I don’t think that the West will save us. The white horse is romantic poetry that I am translating in my film.

How do you choose “scenes” to create your hand-painted photographs?

They’re not stills from the film, they are parallel works to the film. When I write a story or a project, I work with images already in mind. I know what I want to say every step of the way.

How do you think you’ve saved her?

She belongs to an era in Egypt that no longer exists, so I saved her. We all choose what we want to save in our minds, to continue living with us, and I am choosing my Egypt, one that is more tolerant and open-­minded through a belly dancer, who, today is subjected to attack because of her body, because she is a woman, and because she is a dancer.