It’s difficult to describe Elisa Sednaoui in just a few words. At 27 years of age, this multitalented, multicultural beauty has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime. She has worked as a model and actress and is now adding directing and philanthropy to her resume. In this exclusive interview, eniGma’s Lina Ashour finds out more about Sednaoui’s passion, work, and how she manages to juggle so many careers at once.
here’s a good reason Sednaoui is fluent in more than four languages. Growing up between Paris, Luxor, Cairo, and Italy gave her the chance to be exposed to so many different cultures and learn a lot from each one. By the age of 19, she was already a successful fashion model featured in magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair and even being shot by Karl Lagerfeld. During this journey, she became interested in cinema and has since appeared in a number of European films. In July 2010 she was a member of the Jury of the Paris Film Festival, and in September 2011 she was in the jury ‘Revelations’ at the Deauville Film Festival. Her work in film inspired her to get behind the camera and direct her own documentary. Bukra Insh’allah is her directorial debut and is yet to be released. She co-directed it with Martina Gili. During shooting in the Egyptian countryside, Sednaoui felt inspired to create the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation (ESF) to promote the personal and educational development of young people in rural areas. Now, she is in the final stages of editing her documentary and is working on promoting opportunities for underprivileged youth wherever she goes…
Tell us about your multicultural background and what effect it’s had on you.
My mother is Italian and my father is French/Egyptian and lives in Egypt. My family is originally from Syria but has lived in Egypt for generations. I spent the first six years of my life in Egypt and have been returning roughly three times a year since. To descend from a variety of cultures gives you different perspectives on life and a strange, intricate sense of belonging. The best part of this globalised upbringing is that you can feel at home everywhere and with anyone. You have the ability to adapt to any sort of situation. The negative side is sometimes you can feel like you’re always an outsider. It can make you feel confused about what your true identity is. The key is to understand and to embrace the fact that your uniqueness is what really matters.
What are the things you like in the French, Italian, and Egyptian cultures?
I like the French intellectualism and laid-back style of living. Now that I am a bit distant from it though, I can also see the French negativity, cynicism, and snobbery with irony. I certainly share some of these characteristics with them at times!
As for Italian culture, I love the passion, the drama, the humour, the food, the quality of life, the romanticism, the architecture, the poetry, the literature, and the history.
In Arab culture I love the way of looking at life. I also love the importance that is given to what is bigger than us and the sense of unity, community, and generosity. There is an Arab warmth, a cutting sense of humour, passion, an Arab way of receiving people at your house for example. In the end it’s all about the mazag (good mood), which I have always been determined to take with me as a way of life everywhere I am.
The movies you took part in have been very diverse, which one was your favourite and what kind of movies do you like to play in general?
All experiences have been great and different. Each one of them has made me grow, so I cherish them deeply even if some have been harder than others.
I loved working with American director Vincent Gallo, or in French cinema on Bus Palladium with Frédéric Beigbeder, or the wonderful French actor and director Alain Chabat. I like to experiment with different genres, whether it’s independent dramas, or more mainstream comedies for example. It depends mainly on the script. I accept a role if I think I can bring something to it, and if I have good communication with the director. The most recent film I did, which came out on the 23rd of October in Italy, is called Soap Opera. The role I play is the most dramatic within the film because it’s a girl who comes back from Paris to separate from her boyfriend and once she arrives she finds out he has committed suicide.
European cinema is known for having much more depth than American cinema yet American movies are always more popular, what do you attribute that to and would you ever consider working in Hollywood?
One of the main differences between these two types of approaches is the way the story is laid out. Often European viewers don’t mind being left in a place where they are asking themselves questions about what is actually happening in front of their eyes, what the director is trying to say, they sort of like that uncertain feeling. In the American style, you are told what is going on from the very beginning, what the stakes are, and what the obstacles in reaching the subject’s goal are. I personally like both kinds of films. Of course I would be more than happy to participate in some quality Hollywood films. I am always concerned, however, about how women are portrayed. I am not really interested in playing a role that stops at a superficial layer of femininity, to attract men based only on aesthetics.
Which do you enjoy more, modelling or acting?
I enjoy them both for different reasons. On the one hand I like acting because of the ability it gives me to interpret a character and to tell a story. On the other hand I like modelling because it has given me a lot of opportunities; it allows me to fund my personal projects such as the documentary I’m filming in Egypt (see below) and the social work we are doing with the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation in Egypt and elsewhere to foster creative learning through the arts.
Of all the advertising campaigns you’ve worked on, Chanel, Roberto Cavalli, Giorgio Armani, which one was your favourite?
I find it funny to see myself as a part of the different identities of the brands I work with. It’s a bit of a boring answer, but I do like them all for different reasons and also because it is, of course, emotional for me to have collaborated with such artists.
Tell us a bit about the work of your foundation.
We did our first workshop in Luxor in April 2014. It was a musical workshop where we brought in an American organisation called MIMA who work on music and improvisation all over the world. To us, working on enhancing a sense of “national identity” is also extremely important and that is why we asked two teachers from Makan, an organisation which works on preserving traditional Egyptian music, to join us. It was a wonderful experience to see so much joy and excitement in the children’s eyes and the connection music created. Music and art really do speak more than words. The community responded very warmly and 150 local children joined us for the workshop. Together they composed a song and performed it.
My dream is to create a sustainable cultural centre which provides daily after school classes which focus on the arts and on culture in the broad sense: painting, photography, acting, music, crafts, languages, and recycling. This centre will be run by locals. I hope to then be able to replicate this model around the world. I believe this type of work is relevant in both the so-called “developed countries” and the “developing countries”. For different reasons, many children, whether they are in disadvantaged situations or not, are in need of being exposed to the arts and to have access to a space where they can express their feelings and dream big.
What inspired you to start your foundation? Are there any personal experiences that helped you get there?
As a little girl, I didn’t really dream of becoming an actress or a model, I wanted to become a diplomat – a cultural attaché of some sort. The dream to work in the social field is something I had within me for a very long time. But one of the determining moments that really pushed me to effectively begin this journey happened while I was filming the documentary (which I am directing) in the countryside of Egypt. It is about how you become who you are within the historical, religious, and social context you belong to and in the context of the global connectivity, which has an effect on us all. One of the questions I asked all of the subjects was “what do you think the child you were would think of the person you have become?” No one wanted to answer, they told me they would rather not because they had many dreams which did not come true. It was extremely hard to hear this, especially because it came from some of my childhood friends from Luxor. I grew up with them and they are an important part of my life till this day. Bill Clinton said it well: “Talent is equally distributed in the world. It is the opportunities that are not.” So I need to do everything in my power to try and help in any way I can.
Are you planning any future events for the Elisa Sednaoui Foundation that we should look forward to?
There will definitely be more events. The best way to follow our journey is to sign up for our newsletter on our website (elisasednaoui.org). On December 15th I will be hosting this year’s Cairo Fashion Night so I’m looking forward to discussing more ideas on that occasion. We are very open to hearing your ideas, your comments and your suggestions. We want this to be a communal journey!
What’s your ultimate dream?
To be surrounded by my family and friends, be healthy, serene, and always inspired; and to continue to meet fascinating people and work on interesting projects together.
Do you ever see yourself settling in one country and leaving all of this behind?
Of course I do. I’m toying with the idea of settling back in Luxor full time or going somewhere in South America and running a farm. It will probably happen at some point! Insh’allah!
What are you currently working on?
Right now I have partnered up with Christian Louboutin, MyGoodness.com, and Lisa Marie Fernandez on an online campaign to raise funds for ESF projects. The winner will be flown to Paris to meet Christian Louboutin and me at his studio, where they will get to choose their favourite pair of stilettos from the collection that will be signed by Christian Louboutin himself. They will then indulge in a VIP spa treatment at Darphin and will spend an evening at the Crazy Horse, enjoying the most glamorous show in Paris. Donations start from as little as $10, which will earn entrants two entries to the competition, with the winner being selected randomly at the end of the campaign.
I am also currently working on the editing of my documentary filmed in the countryside of Egypt, which I co-directed with Martina Gili.
What advice would you give to young Egyptian girls who aspire to work in fashion or in acting and go international?
Work hard, believe in yourself and never give up. Don’t think that anything is ever owed to you, except respect obviously. In my opinion, only those who are confident yet humble really get far.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Eric Guillemain
COORDINATED BY: Maissa Azab