DUBAI: In the world of Arab cinema, there is perhaps no living actress more beloved than Nelly Karim. In more than two decades in front of the camera, the star — born in Alexandria to an Egyptian father and Soviet Russian mother — has cemented herself as an icon in both style and substance. Moving effortlessly from the biggest Ramadan hits to prestige art house films, Karim imbues each role with authenticity regardless of genre, as only the best can do.
It can be lonely at the top, however. At 48 years old, Karim is at the height of her powers as both an artist and as a fashion and pop-culture titan. As much as she enjoys film and television, the challenge has become finding material that is worthy of the dedication she will undoubtedly give it. So when something truly great comes along, she will drop everything to be a part of it. That is precisely what she did for “Voy! Voy! Voy!” — the debut feature of director Omar Hilal.
“It’s next to impossible to find a good script — believe me, I read them constantly,” Karim tells Arab News. “Everything is repetitive. Same subjects, nothing new. It’s an epidemic. But in this script, everything felt different. It featured characters I’d never met before, situations that felt totally fresh.”
The film — the first co-production between Vox Cinemas, Image Nation Abu Dhabi and Film Clinic from super producer Moh Hefzy — is exactly as she describes. Announced in a huge press conference at last year’s Red Sea Film Festival (the year Karim served on the fest’s main jury), it’s an irreverent comedy that’s hard to categorize. Actor Mohammed Farrag channels both Roberto Benigni and John Turturro as a man so desperate to get to Europe that he joins a blind football team just as they set off to the World Cup, despite having no disability of his own. Karim plays the journalist who interviews him, deceived by his charm.
“My role is small and I’m entirely surrounded by men, but I never mind the circumstances if the project is good enough. I’ve done this before — in Mohamed Diab’s film “Clash,” I was the only woman in a police truck of 23 men, all stuck in one location for the whole film. I want those kinds of challenges. It’s unique films like this that you end up watching four or five times,” she explains.
A point of pride for Karim is how many directors she’s worked with just as they began their ascent. Long before Diab was opening the Cannes Film Festival with “Clash” and directing Marvel’s “Moon Knight,” Karim reminds us that she starred in his first film “678,” just as she starred in the first films of celebrated filmmakers Amir Ramses from Egypt and Lebanon’s Othman Abo Labn.
“Of course, it’s great to work with big directors,” says Karim, who started her career in one of legendary director Yousef Chahine’s final films, “Alexandria... New York.” “But every great career has a beginning, and I love to work with people who are just beginning to tap into their passion.”
In many ways, Karim, who rarely grants long interviews, is still only scratching the surface of her own passions. Time and again, in our hours-long conversation, I’m reminded of director David Lynch. Like Lynch, Karim is virtually egoless and matter-of-fact in her speech, talking only of the toil that goes into making art and the pursuit of greatness that drives her. And, like Lynch, it doesn’t seem to matter what the medium is, she will follow the impulse to create wherever it leads.
“I don’t see myself as just an actor. I love handicrafts, for one; I’m always doing jewelry designs, making my own clothes, drawing on shelves. I love photography. I love music. I love flowers, the countryside, animals… I just love beauty, and every day I want to create something new. One day it may be a movie, another day some furniture, then a bit of crochet or planting a nice tree. Everything is art when it comes from love, and it’s all a blessing to me,” she says.
Famously, and fittingly, Karim didn’t begin her career in the spotlight as an actress. From her childhood until her big break — dancing on “Fawazeer Ramadan” — she was a ballerina. She danced in Alexandria and then in the former Soviet Union, where she lived for a time as a child, and was moved enough by the work of famed Russian choreographer Boris Eifman at the tender age of five to decide there and then that her life would be spent on the stage.
“It was a modern dance performance in the Odessa Opera House, I remember it exactly. It was something euphoric for me,” she adds.
It was through ballet that she acquired her renowned work ethic. “You will never find me late to anything, you will never find me not answering. Respect for the people around you, respect for their time, is the most important thing in any character,” she says. But it was through her mother that she found her humility.
“From when I was four, she was always making beautiful ballet dresses for me. We couldn’t buy them, so she was always doing it herself,” Karim remembers. “I think this is why I love doing things with my hands so much. My mother taught me to do things for myself.”
Perhaps that’s why, she reveals, the next phase of her career will come more directly from her own hands. Karim is working on several scripts with collaborators, some she hopes to direct herself. But this is not to shrewdly provide herself with more material as an actor. Rather, she is simply pursuing yet another newfound passion, struck with the excitement of new stories never told, this time coming to her from within.
“I just met with someone about a movie I plan to direct actually, and they listened very carefully. They waited for me to describe myself in the lead role, as they wanted to visualize it. I said to them, ‘Actually, it’s about a horse. Visualize that, instead,’” she says with a laugh.
For Karim, creation is its own reward. When I ask how she measures success, she doesn’t mention her global brand ambassadorships, major awards or her box-office and viewership records. Rather, it’s the moments when she’s on holiday in a place like New York, and someone comes up to her to tell her how much her work meant to them.
“Moments like that leave me speechless. I get so emotional. I’ve traveled across the world, and here is someone in front of me who appreciates the work I’ve done, and all they want from me is a hug, and all they want to give is a thank you,” she says.
Recognition like that means the world to her, but it’s not her goal. Even as she inspires a new generation of talent from across the region and the world, when we ask about legacy, she dismisses it quickly. Karim just wants to bring a bit more beauty into the world, and it’s up to the rest of us how we want to appreciate it.
“I don’t think remarkable people, in the days they were working and creating, were thinking about how to be remarkable. They were just working and loving and creating, then the years decide,” she says. “I don’t care about being called great. I just try to do things with love and respect and care. That’s it for me. That’s everything.”