Atteyat Al-Abnoudy’s definition of documentaries is simple and all-encompassing: “No script, no actors, no direction. The cameraman follows the subject.” (...) “What I want,” says Al-Abnoudy, leaning forward to make the point, “is a Déscription de l’Egypte on film.” Layers and layers of thick description that would make Clifford Geertz happy, testimonies from people rarely heard from, images of daily struggles to survive, dreams deferred but not forgotten.
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, a pioneer of documentary filmmaking, has been making the voices of the poor heard since the 1970s. We meet her when the first Women’s Film Festival is paying tribute to her. (...) Some call her “the poet of the documentary”. Others criticize her for portraying the poor, the bratty children, the run-down places and the abject sides of reality. Likewise, Egyptian television, the only means of broadcasting her work, asks her to disclaim her inventories of misery in order to benefit from funding. She retorts to her detractors: “You must know how to reveal reality with its dark and luminous sides, without hiding an admiration for the total commitment of the beings whose lives meet History.”
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. Atteyat Al-Abnoudy: “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.”
“I look at life in a poetic way. I love to live and I think that poor people in my country are all doing their best to work and to create life. I try in all my films to convey this love of life, even if the people live in very poor conditions. I treat them with great respect. I love to see their faces on the screen. I come from the working class, but film is a middle-class medium, so you have to be strong in order to maintain your relationship to your class. Otherwise you are lost.”
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, a young Egyptian filmmaker, has won the Grand Prix du film documentaire in Grenoble and the International Federation of Film Critics prize for Horse of Mud. And for her film The Sad Song of Touha, she has won the Novais Teixeira prize: a prize founded in memory of our colleague who died last year and who was much loved by French critics. We met Atteyat Al-Abnoudy before she was awarded these important prizes, important for the direction she wishes to give to her work. Al-Abnoudy: “When I start a film, I don’t think about its form. When I became friends with the people in the factory, the only way for me as a filmmaker to express my feelings for them was to make a film.”
“I don’t want to make films because of some beautiful subject or because there’s something fascinating me in the colours or anything like that. It’s at least 50 years now making films in Egypt and always we see on the screen lovely houses and lovely hills, the decor and other fantastic things for us. But the poor people and the working class are not on the screen, when they have the right to be.”