“My mission: to depict Egypt. And my request: democracy.”
A Conversation with Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy returns victorious from the 21st Tampere Film Festival in Finland, where she received an honorary mention and attention from the Finnish media and the American news channel CNN. During the festival of the second largest city in Finland, four of her films were screened: Horse of Mud, The Sandwich, Permissible Dreams, and Rhythm of Life. In her nineteen years of continuous work, she has succeeded to give Egyptian documentary cinema a place in the international film scene, while winning over 32 awards for her films. It was Al-Abnoudy who entered Egypt as a member of the Third World Cinema Committee in London in 1986, a body searching for a new form for Third World cinema, away from European and American effects.
In 1985, Egypt won a grand prize for the very first time at the Francophone Film Festival with Al-Abnoudy’s film Seas of Thirst. Her debut film, Horse of Mud, won a prize at the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, as it did at all of the other film events in which it was competing, garnering a total of twenty-four prizes.
In 1990, Al-Abnoudy was selected to be the president of the jury at the 22nd edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany. Today, after nineteen years of independent production, she has finally, and for the very first time, received support from the National Centre for Cinema in Egypt for the production of her latest film, Sellers and Buyers, about the area of the Suez Canal.
In the following interview, we listen to Atteyat Al-Abnoudy speak in a loud voice about her vision for art, life and reality; and we get to know her inimitable, riotous character in return.
Samar Salman: Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, how would you describe documentary cinema in Egypt today?
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy: First of all, I would not be exaggerating when saying that documentary cinema, in its truest sense, meaning the cinema that deals with the lives of peoples, or that looks at events from a people’s perspective, is absent and is in a state of absolute stagnation. There is the media, or state cinema, that expresses the state’s point of view of all the events... There is even cinema that looks at important figures, addresses subjects recognized by the state.
Al-Abnoudy goes on to clarify that the National Centre for Cinema was founded in order to play a cultural role in the lives of our people. But, instead, it is yet another institutionled by the intellectual direction of the person in charge of it. Reactionary directors support reactionary cinema, and progressive directors support progressive cinema, but only within the limitations approved by the state.
In your opinion, what has led to this regression, especially since documentary cinema saw its days of prosperity beginning with the nationalization of cinema during president Abdel Nasser’s rule and the establishment of the National Centre for Cinema, all the way to the mid-70s?
This very important branch of cultural production called documentary cinema, the cinema of social reality and the pulse of daily life in the streets of Egypt, does not exist today because it needs a high level of culture and a true social consciousness, and an utter faith in the importance of documentary cinema and its role, as believed by its pioneers. And here I would like to stop to mention the artist Hasan Fouad, who was in the administration of the National Centre for Cinema during Tharwat Okasha’s mandate as minister of culture. Hasan Fouad was the chief editor of the magazine Sabah Il Kheir [Good Morning] and a visual artist who played a key role in the revival of the centre, which was, doubtlessly, built on his shoulders. During that period, documentary cinema was trying to be a realistic expression of people’s lives without any fabrications. Film directors had clear and specific positions regarding the society from which they drew their subjects and faced it with them. Documentary cinema was able to make significant progress until it reached its period of maturity in the early 70s, during which we witnessed great documentaries, such as The Blue Nile by Hashem Al Nahhas, and The Village Doctor by Khairy Beshara, and The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of the Village and Education by Daoud Abdel Sayed, and so many more. Today, however, our conception of documentary cinema has retrograded significantly because so has our concern with people’s lives and their true hardships. Instead, there is interest in the cinema of the hero, even if it’s built on the heritage of the “contractor films”!
It’s known that your films have garnered tremendous success in many of the world’s capitals, and that they have won over thirty-two international prizes, and yet neither the Egyptian nor the Arab audience know or have heard of these films?
I’ve been making documentary cinema for almost nineteen years. I work independently and the things I am interested in are the concerns of the poor and simple people. In Egypt, I haven’t made a single film about an important figure, as my first and last cause is depicting Egypt. And so, the cinema that I produce is oppressed and powerless. My films are not screened anywhere in Egypt or in the Arab World, which is truly sad. I am on the edge of my fifties, and I am a woman who has struggled to strengthen an active role of documentary cinema in Egypt and the Egyptian society. I say struggle, because, to me, documentary cinema is a cause and not a way of making a living or a luxury. If I wanted to, I could now be directing fiction films, or be a journalist, or direct TV films and series. Instead, I chose a more difficult road. And thus, with all this, I face a fierce war.
How and why are my films not shown in Egypt and neither, therefore, in the Arab world? Only once did the [Egyptian] television broadcast three minutes of my film Rhythm of Life after it had won a prize at the Valencia International Film Festival in 1990. And I think it was only by accident, because I had met Yousef Sharif Rezqallah, who was reporting on the prize that the film Aragoz had won, and of course it would have been very awkward had he chosen to ignore me. So, he interviewed me and screened three minutes of the film on Egyptian television. There was another time, before then, when three of my very first films were broadcast as part of an unknown TV programme called Sinema Fi ‘Elab [Cinema in Boxes] presented by Shafea Shalabi. My film Rhythm of Life won the first prize at the Ismailia International Film Festival, and so Egypt has finally recognized me after nineteen years of continuous work. Yet no one has cared about the film. The TV hasn’t tried to broadcast it, even out of curiosity or wanting to discover why the film won a number of local and international prizes! I am not complaining, but what I want is to state the facts clearly. This reality, however, has not and will not affect my work, and it will not frustrate me because I am in no way ready to surrender. It would be all too easy to make promotional films, or to ride the wave of the so-called women’s cinema, in order to gain fame and popularity. I will, however, with every chance possible, do nothing other than depict Egypt.
The National Centre for Cinema and other official cinema institutions had financed and supported most of the films by colleagues and comrades, except the films of Atteyat Al-Abnoudy. Why is that?
In the field of documentary cinema, there isn’t anyone who is working independently of all the official and state institutions. I tried to do so, and I believe I’ve succeeded. I looked for resources outside of Egypt, just like writers who had doors slammed in their faces and were unable to work and create in their own countries. Or like countless directors of Third World Cinema, which deals with hot topics, who had found funding from French TV, or German, or Belgian, or British TV. German television approached me to direct episodes on the “Egyptian woman” as part of a long running series on women from around the globe. The Second German Television (ZDF) channel also financed one of my films because its programming was focused on the issues of the Third World. But this way of funding is not a reliable and steady source. There are bodies that fund documentary cinema without requesting any returns, but their budgets are minor. My last film, Interview in Room No. 8, about the late poet Amal Danqal, was on standby for eight years waiting for funding, until I decided to complete it with my very humble savings. I still owe money to the Cinema City labs.
The officials have to realize the importance of documentary cinema and its necessity. They must realize the importance of the beauty of the history of our peoples, not only our military history but also the social daily life in its finest details, and to learn from our ancestors, the Pharaohs, who painstakingly recorded everything, because they were civilized and had faith in the coming generations. We, today, are not producing this, because we are not as civilized.
The foreign funding, does it come with conditions?
Foreign funding is not controlling, intellectually or culturally, not even financially. I have been given freedom to move and think. The actual problem is the accusations and criticism we receive in Egypt for merely filming and offering an honest artistic expression of the life of the people. I have been accused of tarnishing the image of Egypt because the subjects of my films deal with the lives of the poor and the sufferings of the Egyptian people. This untruth only goes to show that culture is at its lowest level.
But wouldn’t you agree with me that the West takes away all the possible and the impossible opportunities in order to prove that the Third World, and the Arab World in particular, is nothing but a bunch of thugs and gangsters, and this is so obvious in their cultural production, from cinema to literature?
This is a thorny road to go down. They produce and present their malicious perspective, and we produce and present our own honest and constructive perspective. I don’t like discussing this issue so much, because it touches on our essential problem, which is the issue of democracy for which we fight and aspire to, and this might be the weapon for suppressing freedoms. I believe that everyone is entitled to their freedom to create and produce. We are in the age when satellites can capture an image of one sleeping in their bed. What is left is the fact that we cannot enter people’s minds. Cinema, specifically, contains something called editing, and there is no power or preventive force that can do anything about it. I believe this issue should not be addressed as a cultural issue. I believe we are all free to express our opinions. And I wonder: is Egypt a toy that can be picked up by a film and then dropped by another? What is this bizarre weapon that they have aimed at people’s necks? If one writes an article discussing the collapsed economy, she is accused of defaming the economy and Egypt. What should we say? Politicians and officials talk about the economic crisis, but a filmmaker does not have that right? It contradicts reason. I can’t discuss it. My mission is to make films; the mission of censorship is to prevent them. But this prevention is historically temporary. History will bring these works out of their hiding because we are working for the dream of history and the dream of the future. However, the urgent question remains: can every filmmaker remain steadfast in the face of attempts to be subdued?
So the core problem is with censorship?
Well, it is rather a part of the problem. There are other elements that affect our creativity and slow us down in catching up with the speedy advancements in the world of film technology. Let me tell you about this small incident: In 1972, Fareed Al Mozawi, a film historian, nominated Horse of Mud, my first film, for the Academy Awards, in the documentary category. The film was submitted and then was refused for many technical reasons, the sound was poor and the picture wasn’t clear. This Arab historian and intellectual dared to nominate an Egyptian film for the Oscars with such confidence. This shows that we do not lack in talent, and we can reach internationalism, granted possibilities are provided to us and, most of all, that there is democracy.
Until that time comes, I will continue to work with the same momentum, and I will not run after people to show my films because I am certain they will be shown one day, and I will continue to find those who will finance the films that I dream of, like the film about Nouba. I don’t make films to mark occasions, and that’s why I am not worried. Every single one of my films sends a message and is entrenched in a valuable patch of the soil of this country. I stand on the margins of cinema, and on the margins of slogans, but I am very proud that the name Atteyat Al-Abnoudy is identified with serious documentary cinema. And I think your choice to have this conversation with me speaks to that.
This great pride that you have, is it because of the many international prizes you received as a representative of Egypt in the many film events?
I don’t care for the prizes as much as I care for my films to be shown in my own country, because I am offering pure Egyptian cinema to the Egyptian people, and I am addressing the existence of the authentic Egyptian human. Regardless of how many prizes I win around the world, their entire sum is not as worthy as one single glance of a pair of Egyptian eyes that give my films their glory and true worth.
Originally published in Al-Arabi Magazine, 8 April 1991.