“My loyalty is always with the oppressed. Whether in Africa, the Middle East or Vietnam”
A Lebanese Childhood and Adolescence...
Olivier Hadouchi: You were born and raised in Lebanon. What language did you speak within your family?
Heniy Srour: At home, in my family, we preferred to speak French, because it was the language of social advancement. My mother was an Egyptian aristocrat, my father a Lebanese of humble origin, and both of them insisted we speak French for reasons of good manners. Which, at times, leads to the famous “self-hatred” of the colonized. Fortunately, my grandparents were illiterate and, thanks to them, I enjoyed the advantages of the Jewish and Arab musical heritage and the wonderful tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which greatly influenced my cinema.
But I’m going to reveal a military secret to you that I haven’t revealed to anyone else, because the Tricontinental is as dear to you as it is to me. Thus, your interview will not be like others. People wonder why Heiny Srour has always been a pioneer, a groundbreaker, both in substance and form, why she has always gone off the beaten track. Why, in all of Arab cinema, was she the first to shoot in Dhofar and, also, to go to Vietnam? Why has she been innovative in various domains? The reason is that I was fortunate enough to be born in Lebanon, part of an ultra-minority, unrepresented in Parliament. That immediately offers you a wide-angle view of the world, which the Anglo-Saxons call “strategic thinking”. When you’re liberated from the local, silly and petty “politicking”, you tend to rise high and see far. But being born into an ultra-minority suffering from discrimination, as was the case with the Jewish community I was born into, could have made me narrow-minded – as is the case with so many Lebanese Jews, Christians or Muslims living within the narrow horizon of their communities. At best, I could have been un âne savant, a “learned donkey”, like some of those top-of-the-class at the Alliance Française Israélite in Beirut where I studied until I was fifteen.
I was lucky to be born into an authentically Jewish and Lebanese family, but with windows wide open onto a great variety of religions and nationalities. All this thanks to mixed marriages with a Lebanese Muslim, a British Protestant and a French Catholic. It created dramas and earthquakes in a family so deeply rooted in its religious community: my great-uncle’s Moussa Srour family synagogue, a well-known rabbi being the father of my maternal grandmother, my father being among the best cantors of the synagogue. My family was firmly rooted in its national soil: The Star of David is engraved on the fountain of my great-grandfather Daoud Srour in the central square of Deir al-Qamar, once the capital of Lebanon at the time of the Druze rule.
These distressing ideological shocks liberated me very early from the blinkers of social hypnosis; what was normal or sacred to my Muslim or Christian uncles and aunts was anathema, or even blasphemous in our Jewish family, and vice versa. People who grow up in a single system of values generally do not keep a critical distance from the dominant ideology or ideologies. Before the age of ten, I was lucky enough to discover what the French philosopher Blaise Pascal discovered only in his maturity: “Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.” At the age of thirteen, my torments as a Jewish adolescent made me discover what the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, founder of Western philosophy, only realized at an older age: the fundamental contradiction in Judaism between the Universal God (who loves all his creatures equally) and the concept of God’s Chosen People (a tribal god who prefers a particular category of creatures).
Thirteen is the age of the Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish community, a Jewish coming of age ritual for boys and an occasion for endless celebrations and surprise parties. I was continually invited to them because I was very popular with the boys. I loved the frenzied rock’n’roll Bar Mitzvah dance parties on Saturday and Sunday night. But it was also the age when the beautiful boys I liked would recite a morning prayer that began: “Blessed are you, God, who has not made me a woman.” At the French Jewish School, they wanted to produce good, submissive wives because, by definition, “men are more intelligent than women”. It was a time when teachers and rabbis hammered home absolute male supremacy, presented as eternal and normal because of God’s will, a supremacy ritualized in Jewish religious ceremonies: to this very day, a six-year-old boy in my family drinks the blessed wine before his 85-year-old grandmother at every Shabbat!
At the age of thirteen in Beirut, one discovers the double morality of Mediterranean societies: kissing a boy reduces an adolescent girl to the status of a “loose girl”, while sleeping with a girl turns a mediocre male into an important guy. So I was “a very serious girl” smitten with rock’n’roll and good-looking boys. But, at thirteen, I discovered to my horror that all the beautiful dancers of my age were intellectually inferior to me. I was several years ahead of them. My mental range was vast, theirs was narrow. At an equivalent age, I had learned an additional language – English – and discovered with amazement the splendour of ancient Greece, the pharaohs, Babylon... I had left my village through geography; I had explored another world through algebra, geometry, chemistry and physics, and literature.
The brainwashing by the school and the Jewish religion in order to make us believe that men were superior to and more intelligent than us girls was, therefore, false. Along the lines of Spinoza, I became aware of the fundamental contradiction of this good and just “God of compassion”, who used his “infinite mercy” to grant exorbitant and unjustified privileges to... creatures far less deserving than I. That’s why I understand the fundamentalists of today: I went through a fundamentalist period myself. When the Other is too powerful and you don’t have the tools to defeat him, you praise him. I wanted the Messiah to come – the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for, for thousands of years. Because, when the Messiah comes, the souls are resurrected. And souls transcend gender. I went through a period of great intolerance; I didn’t want my father to bring ham into the house.
Were you trying to find yourself at that time? Was it a quest for identity?
No, you don’t try to find yourself; you find false solutions and discover qualities in your oppressor – unfortunately so. But at the age of fifteen, things were getting better: I read Voltaire, who provided me with ideological weapons; I stopped believing in the coming of the Messiah. I moved away from my religion definitively.
The precocious awakening of political awareness
At sixteen, I discovered Marxism at the Lycée franco-libanais in Beirut, thanks to a Communist teacher of French literature. I prefer to call it Radical Socialism myself. I distanced myself from any form of religion. Alas, I didn’t yet know that many people practised Marxism as a religion, in spite of the very fact that Marx had said: “Under these conditions, I am not a Marxist.” I have to admit, in all honesty, that I prefer Engels to Marx. Perhaps I don’t have the right to say so, because I haven’t read Marx’s masterpiece Das Kapital in its entirety, only excerpts. And I have only read excerpts from Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, a dazzling text. Marx talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat, and you have seen the disasters that has led to. Engels remains relevant and keeps his modernity because he dealt Patriarchy a fatal blow by proving the existence of Matriarchy, a social system in which women maintain economic, social, political and religious pre-eminence. Patriarchy draws its strength from its totalitarian nature. Wherever you go on this planet, to Brazil, England, the United States, Spain, the Arab World, the geniuses are invariably men. The monotheistic religions call it the Divine Order. You end up believing it’s Nature. Engels proved that Patriarchy is only Culture. Based on the work of an American anthropologist, Morgan, who had lived among the Native American tribes, Engels proved that Patriarchy is just a social construction, and that it can, therefore, be deconstructed. Engels called for the synthesis of the two, Fratriarchy, a system in which women and men are brothers, lovers, equals. And I agree: I don’t want the injustice of Matriarchy either.
The tricontinental years...
In the 1960s and 70s, the Left didn’t really address religious issues, did they?
During the blessed period of the Tricontinental, full of hope for a better world, we talked about what united us, not about what divided us. Radical Socialism functions through horizontal solidarity: we workers, we peasants, we students, we women... As soon as you introduce vertical solidarity, we Druze, we Christians, we Jews, we Muslims... you’re splitting the ranks. It didn’t occur to us to talk about it. Everybody was talking about much bigger and more strategic things. However, apart from the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and some honourable exceptions, the Left has acted in a cowardly manner in regard to my Jewishness. I have been subjected to many discriminations as a Jew and as a woman. This provided me with a ‘saving’ critical distance from the historical and geopolitical context of my time. It has helped me to turn my handicaps into privileges.
Towards The Hour of Liberation
I wanted to film in Dhofar because the PFLOAG, which led the struggle, was one of the rare movements in the Arab world that openly took the side of women. I had just spent a horrible summer working on my doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, under the guidance of the magnificent Maxime Rodinson, a thesis about the situation of Lebanese women in relation to that of Arab women in general. When I interviewed the leaders of the political parties of the Lebanese Left, all of them dismissed the women’s issue, except for the Communists, who recognized the problem but did not do much about it because they were too weak anyway. For the left-wing Arab nationalists and the Ba’athists, the problem did not exist. “We all have a mother, a fiancée or a sister we love. How could we oppress someone we adore?” they said, with a victim’s face ... You could have died laughing. According to them, women were more respected in the Arab world than in the West. It’s true that Arab men are much more gallant than European men. I objected: “But the life of a woman is worth less than that of a dog in Lebanon: according to Lebanese law, a Lebanese man is condemned to only one day in prison when he kills his sister, his wife, his cousin or his mother in a so called ‘crime of honour’ when he finds her in an ‘ambiguous’ situation – in the eyes of the judge. Alone with a colleague in a room is enough! Whereas, if a Lebanese man kills a dog, he could serve up to three years in prison! We have more than two ‘crimes of honour’ per week!” The recurring response: “It’s due to the underdevelopment imposed by imperialism, but it will all disappear once the great Arab revolution will triumph.” But, for my doctoral thesis, I had read two books by this Algerian woman... Fadela M’Rabet.
Yes. She showed that, despite the enormous sacrifices by Algerian women during the Revolution, little had changed concerning their specific oppression. For these men, the absence of women in important positions in left-wing parties was normal, “as women do not have a political mind”. I observed that, when the Iraqi Communists were able to obtain a single ministry under the rule of Abdelkarim Kassem, they immediately gave it to a woman, Nazira Al-Dulaimi, who subsequently tried to abolish the Muslim Sharia... and had to resign following the massacres caused by the reactionaries. My interlocutor’s reply, ogling my curves: “The ministry was offered to Nazira Al-Dulaimi because she was ugly and had complexes. Feminism is an ideology imported from the West.” And behind my back: “Heiny Srour invents this story of women’s oppression in order to divide the Arab Left... She’s a crypto-Zionist... A spy probably...” It was 1969, two years after the June War of 1967. The war had been a terrible humiliation for the entire Arab world. My experience of that war was very bad because some of my best friends got dragged into the lowest kind of chauvinism. Including some ex-nationalists and ex-Ba’athists who had shifted to Marxism before the war! They did not flinch when Syrian radio called for jihad. Whereas the Ba’athists of that time, very different from today’s criminals, were secular and progressive, they had courageously stood up to the reactionary sheikhs during the land reform. My friends didn’t blink when Nasser’s radio station broadcast appalling anti-Semitic comments. Not a single criticism. I felt horribly lonely during the June War.
All the more so as I was fortunate enough to have had a crucial founding experience on the subject of war at the Lycée franco-libanais in Beirut. A wonderful history and geography teacher, André Ropert, had revealed to us that, during the Second World War, both English and German bankers would come out winners whether an English or German plane fell. And for a very good reason: English bankers had shares in the German military industry and their German counterparts had shares in the English military industry. This was a conflict in which it was a matter of defeating the Great Evil – Hitler – but in which the rich, even those who were enemies, were the ultimate winners, while the death of the poor on both sides filled the gun merchants’ pockets. All the more so when religion gets involved in underdeveloped countries... But in the midst of nationalist hysteria, one cannot say this without looking like a spy in the pay of Israel. Nor can one say this to the Jews without being accused of being a Nazi.
I had respected Nasser for his industrialization of Egypt, his land reform, the Aswan dam, his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, his opposition to the veil, his nationalization of the Suez Canal. To see him and the Syrian Ba’athists stoop so low into chauvinism and anti-Semitism... I crossed out the entire Arab left. Except for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which professed a fraternal discourse: one secular, democratic, socialist Palestine for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Alas, the DFLP would turn out to be terribly disappointing.
And then, in 1969, you met a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf ?
Yes, two years after the June War of 1967. At first, I thought he was telling tall tales because he was talking about Oman, a totally unknown country that no one had ever heard of. The country was living in the Stone Age but had oil, which was forbidden to the people of the country. When he told me about their social programme – roads, hospitals, schools – I thought to myself: we’ve already seen that with Nasser and the Syrian Ba’athists, ... and it ended sadly. I was about to leave when he declared that what the Front was most proud of, was the liberation of women. His boring voice had suddenly come alive. The weather was blazing hot. Had I hallucinated? In disbelief, I asked him to repeat what he had said. To my great surprise, he said that women were not only oppressed by imperialism and class society (the traditional discourse of the Arab Left), but also by fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles, cousins, tribal chiefs (an unexpected and innovative discourse). To my bewilderment, he said that women are more revolutionary than men because they are the most oppressed persons of society! It was unheard of, since the “political conservatism of women” was a dogma in Western sociology and even more so in the Arab Left. I asked him to repeat everything he had said about Oman. It was unlikely that an archaic country would produce a political movement with men of such feminist awareness. Embarrassed, I then started to take notes. And to give you an idea of the extent of my colonized mentality, it was only later, in Paris, when I read an article by Jean-Pierre Viennot in Le Monde diplomatique, followed by his personal confirmation of the Front’s statements on women, that I began to believe it. The truth is not always very likely. I also went to Dhofar because the Front had moved beyond issues of identity and religion. I later discovered they had another kind of problem: tribalism, the equivalent of religious communities, which played some nasty tricks on them afterwards.
Who introduced you to the Dhofar struggle?
It was a friend and colleague, Nagy Abu Khalil, a journalist for Al Hurriya. He also corresponded for two years with the South Yemeni Minister of Culture, Abdullah Al-Khamiri. So, the latter co-produced the film by offering plane tickets, covering the air freight for the filmmaking equipment, domestic transport and hospitality. He also saved the shoot by lending us a second camera and an excellent second cameraman. Fawwaz Traboulsi, the first Lebanese journalist to enter Dhofar, pursued the contacts with the Front for me. Of all Arab filmmakers, and perhaps even of all filmmakers in the world, I have been the only one to openly discuss the issue that makes and breaks the Middle East and the Arab world: oil. There have been entire series of films on oil, but even my most left-wing colleagues or friends have lied, or lied by omission, while admiring my film in private. No filmmaker has dared to tell the whole truth about the “curse” this strategic raw material has been. Namely, that the discovery of oil has resulted in a genocidal war of aggression against the poor people of Oman, the division of the Gulf into artificial mini-states, the flourishing of foreign military bases to protect puppet governments – governments that, today, crush peaceful revolutions such as in Yemen. To my knowledge, I am the only one in the world to have said this, and it has cost me dearly, very dearly: it has stirred up a lot of hostility and created many enemies among decision-makers in the film industry, in England and elsewhere. It has prevented me from getting scholarships at film schools in England. So I remained illiterate on a technical level. The film was banned for 45 years in Lebanon and continues to be in most Arab countries. All Arab video-on-demand platforms refuse to distribute the film, and Arab television as well, of course, including the supposedly “audacious and objective” Al Jazeera, which pirated certain parts of my film nevertheless. Even worse: as no film today is made without the money of the Gulf Sheikhs, progressive colleagues and friends ban me from taking part in festivals specialized in the Middle East or the Arab world. I’m on the blacklist of many media and film organizations in the Arabian Gulf. Luckily, I was the first Third World woman to be selected at Cannes, and then I distributed The Hour of Liberation worldwide. Otherwise, I could have been executed by the henchmen of the oil companies. It saved me from a car pulling up, a gunshot (Heiny laughs) and an assassination.
The more-than-45-year ban has caused me many years of living in often crippling poverty. It has prevented me from making other films... and affected my health!
But it has also provided me with incomparable joys and given meaning to my life. By helping to save human lives, for example, because people sometimes left the cinema and came back with bags full of medicine. The film collected tons of medicine and thousands of cash donations from all over the world. Another example: on the occasion of an armistice in the mid-1970s, soldiers from North Yemen (then supported by Saudi Arabia) came to see my film which was projected across the border for the soldiers of South Yemen (Democratic Yemen). The North Yemenis subsequently refused to shoot their South Yemeni brothers and even braved the court-martial. This was all the more impressive as the army was the only job opportunity of these starving people! Another example of this film saving lives: exiled Iranians in London produced a dubbed version, which they showed all over Iran after the fall of the Shah. When Khomeini saw the film, he agreed to withdraw his troops from Dhofar. It was too late to save the Revolution after the deadly blows it had suffered, but it saved lives on both sides. Just like the North Yemeni soldiers, Khomeini had realized that the brainwashing against “the evil atheist Communists who want to poach women” was a pure lie: the women fighters of the Front do not wear veils, and you can see their legs up to their knees, but it’s in order to better fight social injustice and foreign domination. It didn’t prevent the Iranian police from confiscating the film once repression descended upon any progressive discourse.
To my great satisfaction, my father, a good man with reactionary ideas, was stunned after seeing my film and said to me: “These Arabs are not like the others! They fear God. They are good and they want to help the unfortunate. You must help them, Heiny.” Another source of pride is to have contributed to changing the course of some human lives. For example, Mognis Abdallah, who is half-Danish and half-Egyptian, told me that, after seeing the film, he refused to return to Egypt because it would have forced him to do his military service and, thus, contribute to crush the Revolution. He stayed in Paris and made films together with his brother Samir.
The film broke new ground in many ways. Aesthetically, it was the first time that popular songs were used as commentary. It was the first film in the Middle East that gave a voice to those “without a voice” through the use of synch sound, thanks to the innovation of cameraman Michel Humeau, who was the first to use a solar battery to power a 10kg synchronous camera that he carried in person. A dangerous solar battery, because it attracted airplanes... The same goes for the dedication of sound engineer Jean-Louis Ughetto whose Nagra weighed 12kg. They crossed 800 km on foot under military threat. It was the first time in Arab cinema that a director left the comfort of the studios to lead a crew under the bombardments. Plus, it was a woman! The film’s production broke new ground, too, by using donations from Arab workers and students, help in kind from militant English and European filmmakers, and help in kind from Arab activists to finance it. In particular from the Iraqi Student Society in England, which was the real co-producer of the film. Progressive Iraqis went to Birmingham, Sheffield and Cardiff every weekend to do political work with the South Yemeni workers. They also collected donations for the film. They gave me a roof over my head for three years while I was looking for funds and editing (without an editing table!). They wrote the commentary and introduced me to the British filmmakers of Cinema Action. Guy and Monique Hennebelle from the French CinémAction magazine gave me bed and board for more than three months while I was working in the lab. And Guy was a paralytic, with young children and an old mother-in-law in his care. Nonetheless, a great sadness remains, the fact that I was only able to fulfil half of my dream of militant cinema in the Latin American sense of the word. Hundreds of thousands of Argentinian workers watched Fernando Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces in secret, risking arrest by the police and imprisonment. They deprived themselves of cigarettes for a month in order to pay for their tickets to the clandestine screenings. My film The Hour of Liberation is needed in places of despair: prisons, refugee camps and homes for battered women, rather than preaching to converted intellectuals. So in my distribution contracts, I always include a clause that stipulates that my film must be offered, free of charge, to the refugees and the deprived, and this entirely at my expense, without any financial loss for the distributor.
But, in the Arab world, militant cinema must be served on a silver platter to the well-off. Even worse, former well-to-do members of the Bahrain Liberation Front (which has split from the Front) have pirated the film and are giving it to millionaires in Bahrain and rich people around the world, despite their full awareness of my precarious financial situation. Such is the case of Abdulnabi Alekry who wrote – don’t laugh – a book on Human Rights. He knows, therefore, that his recurrent thefts are a blatant violation of a number of articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. I have been telling him for years that his dishonesty desecrates the memory of the men and women who died in Dhofar before reaching the springtime of their lives. These martyrs never heard of cinema or copyright. But they knew they were giving their lives for a better world. And a world in which the needy are robbed in order to brag in front of the rich, is a world worse off. A world in which progressive culture is murdered by economic censorship is a world much worse off. The great laws of History are always reflected in small incidents: after the repeated thefts by Abdulnabi Alekry, we’ve had Mosul, Nimrud, Palmyra, Daesh, Netanyahu and Trump. But this moral decay is not inevitable: each one of us can help to turn the tide. That is where our freedom lies.
Leila and the Wolves
In Leila and the Wolves, you wanted to evoke the history of the Palestinians...
It was rather an archaeological excavation of the collective memory of women of the Middle East. I wanted to rewrite History from a female and feminist point of view. Palestinian women were a part of it, but they were not the only part. There were half a million Palestinians in Lebanon, which had contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. The reactionary position said the Palestinians were cowards, that they had fled their country and had come to make trouble in our country. My film reveals that they resisted with the means at hand, but also that they were oppressors of women. So, it’s a critical portrait of Palestinian history. Moreover, when they tell me that I am on the side of the Palestinian cause, I respond that I am first and foremost on the side of a just and enduring peace, on the side of the oppressed, wherever they are – in Africa, Vietnam or the Middle East.
Did some branches of the anti-imperialist Left in the Arab world and elsewhere at first think that the Palestinian movement would revolutionize things and shake them up?
At first, yes. Like most people, I too believed that these authoritarian, corrupt, anti-Semitic Arab regimes would collapse under the blows of the Palestinian Resistance after the June War of 1967. But the Arab regimes turned out to be stronger than expected. And although the Palestinian Resistance hated them, it depended on them to feed, care for and educate its refugees, who were living in poverty and humiliation. The Resistance also needed weapons. On the other hand, the Arab Left never had the necessary fighting spirit to bring down the Arab regimes. One of the reasons being that the Arab Left was made up of nationalists painted in red. The Left wasn’t that leftist after all! Thus, during the Lebanese Civil War, Palestinians stole things, kidnapped people, sullied their reputation and disappointed many people, including me. However, the Palestinian Resistance must be credited with the protection of the Jews in Lebanon: they made it a point of honour to prove that “living together with Jews” was possible, a sort of rough draft of the coming “secular and democratic Palestine for Jews, Christians and Muslims” that they preached. The kidnapping of Jews did not take place in Lebanon until the Israeli invasion of 1981, which drove the Palestinian Resistance out of the Lebanese territory. But for me, this positive side of the Palestinians was not at all enough to exonerate their serious mistakes in other areas. The Lebanese Left was not exactly clean either. Once they started kidnapping and killing people on the basis of their religion, they sullied their reputation and disappointed many people.
Including me, of course. My generation has failed. Leila and the Wolves is a disillusioned film. But I remain faithful to the cause of justice in spite of immense political disappointments. Because, when there is injustice, there is violence and war. And in that case, it is invariably so that the vulnerable pay the price: the poor, the women and the children. And the rich and arms traders inevitably win, always. Thus, I am in favour of justice, but I remain lucid, without idealizing the oppressed. Opening our eyes wide to their faults is the best way of helping them.
In Leila and the Wolves, the women throw oil on the British occupiers. They take part in the struggle.
Yes, but a year on, they’re back at their pots and pans, in forced marriages, suffering domestic violence, taken out of school, and so on. What I liked about Dhofar is that the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf did the exact opposite of the Algerian and Palestinian revolutions. The latter two publicized a few token women (Djamila Bouhired and Djamila Boupacha in Algeria; Leila Khaled, Hanan Ashrawai, and recently Ahed Tamimi in Palestine); and, after that, the Muslim Sharia descended on them! In areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, today, one third of the Palestinian people are polygamous. In Dhofar, the Front did not wait until victory. It liberated women right away. It abolished polygamy, the mahr (the Muslim dowry that turns women into commodities and allows the father to sell a his little daughter to an often old man). The Front practised positive discrimination in favour of women 30 years before the West. Instead of the token female stars who hide the oppression of the majority of women, the Dhofaris chose to massively raise awareness among women, men and children on the issue of women’s liberation. Another thing I liked about Dhofar was the absence of the hate speech so common in all the world’s conflicts, the refusal to demonize the enemy. Che Guevara had said that one cannot defeat one’s enemy if one does not hate him. But the Front was different. One day, during a break, an unsophisticated fighter asked me to teach him English “because the English working class is our friend and ally”! This soldier was repeating what the political leaders taught their troops. Alas, as far as I know, this “friendship” was non-reciprocal! The British working class has been infected by the imperialism of its ruling class and provided the soldiers who were killing the poor people of Oman.
Why didn’t you make films for several years after the documentary on the Dhofar struggle? Were you living in London at that time?
Yes, I was living in London, but not by choice. The airport in Beirut had suddenly closed because of the Lebanese Civil War. I was unable to return to Lebanon. I was forced to survive in London and make ends meet by teaching in a country whose language I didn’t know very well. The militant distribution of The Hour of Liberation ruined me financially. Surviving was very difficult.
The narrative structure of Leila and the Wolves, with its circularity, is very modern...
I would rather say it’s a “mosaic” structure with recurring visual and sound leitmotifs. I wrote the scenario under conditions I still consider incredible: one generally writes a scenario in six months to two years. I only had three weeks. I wrote the scenario in a kind of trance; I hardly slept... The reason is that Tahar Cheriaa yelled at me, saying: “You haven’t made a film in ten years! There’s a script competition at the Agence de coopération culturelle et technique (ACCT) and I haven’t received anything from you...” Tahar Cheriaa had played a central role in completing The Hour of Liberation – a film he adored – when he was at ACCT (now called OIF, International Organization of La Francophonie). Tahar had just got out of prison, where he was put by Bourguiba, who considered his position in favour of National Cinema too radical. Cheriaa had young children, but he risked his job as director of ACCT to finance the film’s costly completion. Without his help, The Hour of Liberation would never have been finished in time for Cannes. As a very leftist film, it would never have got any money if Tahar hadn’t helped me to disguise it as an anthropological film – which it is, but only in part.
I absolutely wanted to send Tahar Cheriaa a scenario worthy of the man who had been a father to all of us young Arab and African filmmakers of the Tricontinental era. But how to proceed when you’ve never spent five or six years at a film school? Fortunately, the Tunisian filmmaker Ridha Behi helped me to overcome my terror and anxiety by explaining how to do it technically. I don’t know what I wrote... When I read it after I had sent it, I thought the committee would take me for a madwoman, as ACCT usually awarded prizes to well-crafted, neo-realist scenarios. Mine was the opposite, avant-garde in content and form. Neo-realism is an artistic form adapted to societies that have developed endogenously, such as Western societies. Former colonized societies, on the other hand, such as in the Arab world, have been horizontally and vertically fractured by an exogenous agent: imperialism. They are profoundly destructured societies...
In the countryside, there are people who still live in feudal or even tribal times. And in the cities, people use the Internet and the latest technology. There are huge differences between the beginning and the end of the caravan, to borrow an expression from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. To my amazement, I won the Grand Prix du Scénario of ACCT, 400,000 francs, a lot of money, not to mention the prestige. And I have the feeling that Tahar Cheriaa probably had something to do with it. This honest man would never have allowed himself to influence the members of the jury, which must be independent by definition. But Tahar must have read the scenario, as he – a cinephile of great finesse – put many women on the ACCT jury. He hit the nail on the head: in festivals with women on the juries, Leila and the Wolves wins the Grand Prix, otherwise it’s not selected or only awarded secondary prizes.
Another reason why the scenario won the Grand Prix is that it predicted the future. When I wrote the script, Lebanon was the land of bikinis and miniskirts. So the recurring leitmotif of black-veiled women sitting on the beach in a semi-circle was totally incongruous, and might have seemed false to educated people. But between the moment I sent the script and the moment the jury read it, Iranian feminists fighting against Khomeini took to the streets and Western feminists (Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, etc.) made headlines by going to Teheran to lend their sisters a hand. The jury must have thought that I was prophesying. And that is what Leila and the Wolves has been doing ever since. At the Cinematheque of Tangier, which recently honoured me, a woman opened the discussion by saying: “Ms. Srour, you are a liar. You say that you made this film 30 years ago, in the Land of Olive Trees. That is not true, you shot it yesterday on the beach in Tangier.” That’s how modern the film still is today, even though it was written in 1979, filmed in 1980-81, and finished in 1984 because the British Film Institute dragged its feet to finish it.
Nowadays, Leila and the Wolves is travelling the world again, more relevant than ever: my unconscious and the collective unconscious of the women of the Middle East spoke together throughout the extreme conditions of making this film.
Paris, 20 January 2020