A Conversation with Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
Johanni Larjanko and Riitta Santala: Why do you make films?
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy: I am socially concerned but I don’t make political films. People have to think for themselves; I don’t make commentaries. I make provocative films: When you see a film, you start to think and then you do something – but I don’t tell you what to do. I gave myself a task, because I think an artist has to have something to do in his or her society. My task is to describe Egypt. Whenever I make a documentary, I deal with the social aspect.
You film mostly common people from the lower social classes. Why?
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.
What kind of family did you come from?
I was the youngest girl; there were four girls and three boys in my family. I was the only girl who finished school. I always succeeded in my classes, too. When Nasser came to power I was about twelve years old. He opened the doors to dreams; poor people were encouraged to attend universities and get an education. Otherwise I could not have gone to university. I was very young when I went there – sixteen years old; I was the youngest in my class. I started studying law in Cairo and of course I couldn’t really buy the books; they were too expensive for me. So I worked at the railway station in some office jobs and at the same time I completed my studies at university. I read a lot, even politics. My mother was a very decent and ambitious woman. She always talked about me as her hope in life.
You were married to a poet?
For twenty years. I worked in a theater as an actress, in small parts, and as a stage manager and an assistant director. I was looking around to see what I really wanted to do. I found myself in filmmaking and went to the Higher Film Institute in Cairo for two years. I made my two first films while studying there. Horse of Mud received twenty-eight prizes all over the world. However, I was an amateur; it was not a professional film.
What kind of changes happened to make you a professional?
I worked on this ten-minute film, Horse of Mud, for two years, because I had no money, and also because the bricks have to be dried in the sun. I shot the film at the end of the summer, and I had to wait till the next summer. We had no professional cameras; we recorded the sound separately – but I remember thinking: how can I wait another year to accomplish what I want to do? Then I realized that what I really wanted was to express my opinions about life around me in documentaries. This is my tool.
Did the success help you?
Yes, it helped me to discover myself and to see that I needed more education. At the Film Institute in Cairo we were mostly taught theory. I made The Sad Song of Touha as a graduation film at the school and it was the first documentary there. They used to give the students a location on the roof of the institute: here is the dining room or bedroom; write a scenario and shoot in this area. That year I said: I want to make a documentary. We had heated arguments but I insisted.
Then you went to London?
Yes, I discovered I had to learn more. Making films is a profession; it is not enough to be talented. It was easy at that time to go to the Soviet Union or Poland, but I didn’t want to waste my time learning a new language and I knew English well, so I preferred to go to the National Film School in London for three years. I made three films there.
So, what happens to a young girl from the Third World who wins international prizes and comes to London?
I was feeling very lonely, very strange, very cold – not the weather, I mean the environment. We are very warm people; we like to touch each other, to talk, to kiss, anything, but all my movements were misunderstood. If I would for example embrace a male friend at film school, everybody would say: “Atteyat has a new boyfriend!” Those kinds of moral things. And I was wondering, I come from Egypt and yet I can understand the difference between sex and friendship. But people living in the so-called First World can’t. A relationship between a man and a woman seems always to mean sex. This bothered me very much. I encountered another culture and I was disappointed by it. I had expected to come into a free society not looking at everything in terms of sex. So I decided to take what I wanted to benefit my life, my profession. I was a very good student. But I told myself, as soon as I finish I have to go back to Egypt and work there. I was given a permit to work in England, but I just left.
Whom do you make your films for?
(laughing) For my friends, the critics! Unfortunately our television does not believe in cultural films, especially not documentaries. My films are not propaganda and I do not make tourist films either. I have no chance to show my films on our television. It means making films only for European television, because my films have been shown there more often than in my own country.
Sometimes I do not know how to respond to people who accuse me of making films that spoil Egypt’s reputation in Europe. “Why do you have to show poor people?!” Those who ask this lack an intellectuality. They are interested only in propaganda films. They don’t see the human aspect of their people. I have a chance in Egypt to show my films in film clubs, but my aim is to reach a broader audience through television. Since my production is in 16 mm, I have no chance in big theaters.
Your style has been called poetic realism. How would you define poetry?
Poetry can say very deep things in a few words. This is poetry. In my films I say a lot of things in one shot. I think my films need to be seen twice, and every time you discover something new. Many people have told me so. I never show you the same shot twice. I never deceive the spectator. This is very important – to be honest. I never make fake shots.
But isn’t film always manipulation?
Manipulation is another thing. I am not manipulating the people for my sake. And I never ask them to do something for me. I follow them with the camera. I was taught this at the very beginning, when making Horse of Mud. The girls carried heavy bricks on their heads, twenty-five kilograms on the head of a little girl. I was a beginner and wanted to take some beautiful shots, asked them to stop for a moment, asked the camera man to jump on something, and take a nice shot. After one minute the girls started shouting insults at me. I was manipulating them; I had never thought about their having to balance that on their heads the whole time.
Altered version of an interview published in Festivaaliuutiset/ Festival News (Tampere Film Festival, 1991).