Everyone Wears a Mask
A Conversation with Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
Atteyat’s first film, Horse of Mud (1971), is a twelve-minute short. It’s a series of simple images of workers involved in the remarkably primitive and tortuous process of brick-making. At one point in the film, we see a scrawny, blindfolded horse being guided by a man, sluggishly trampling the mud pit round and round and round... until after some three hours the wretched beast is finally given a break; collapses on its back rolling and kicking its legs about, enjoying a precious moment of freedom.
Women and children are especially prominent, working as “conveyor-belts” humping loads of mud and carting slacks of bricks on their heads. They make as many as 135 journeys a day. A woman tells how she tried to quit this soul-destroying drudgery and do something humanising and worthwhile – only to find there is no way out. And always in the background is the endless grinding monotonous sound carrying on, and on. The film’s theme has an in-built glibness about it, but Atteyat’s treatment of them is striking and impressionistic.
Jim Pines: The woman you spoke to in the film actually realises there is an alternative to the factory existence, but she isn’t in that “fortunate” position which allows someone to make such a move into the alternative.
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy: No. She said the only alternative for her is to marry, to find a man who will marry her and tell her to stay at home and promise to bring her the basic needs of life such as food. But she said at the same time that if she married it would not be to just anyone. It will naturally be to someone from the factory (the village) who would not, of course, be able to give her anything. So she would have to work with him.
There is no way for her to go. She has dreams, but there is no way for those dreams to be fulfilled. She tried in the beginning, she went to the school for three months, but that meant buying books and papers and at least a dress and shoes to go to school in. She couldn’t do this, so she couldn’t escape the factory life... there’s no way.
Did you have any problems getting the film shown?
Yes, a few. It has been shown only three or four times in Egypt (in the cine-clubs, of course) because the censor refused the film at first, but later gave me permission just for non-commercial showings. They didn’t like to show the people as very poor after twenty years of revolution in Egypt. They think the cinema, especially the documentary film, should be propaganda for the State. It’s not their fault in a way, it’s the fault of the filmmakers who were doing documentaries over the past twenty years. They made at least eleven films about the construction of the Aswan High Dam, but they spoke only about the machines, the tractors, the engineers; nobody talked about the working people who dies and suffered to help build this Dam. So Horse of Mud was a new thing for them, they were shocked to see this poverty (someone even suggested that I was making a film against my country, which I wasn’t of course).
Atteyat’s second film – The Sad Song of Touha (1972) – was made with the Cairo film school. It contrasts with Horse of Mud only to the extent that it deals with the community experience through community entertainments (e.g. puppet theatre, acrobatics, belly dancing, all incorporated in street theatre). Thus, on the surface the film does not imply any sense of glibness. If you like, it’s lighter in effect. The film was important for Atteyat because it affirmed her particular interest in documentary filmmaking. In fact, the film went radically against the film school’s filmmaking tradition, Atteyat told me, by being the first documentary in ten years...
Are the puppet shows and the various other street activities political in the sense of having an underlying “message”, or are they pure and simple entertainment?
They’re entertainment, but with a great deal of suffering for the people. Especially when I look at their songs, I found they were really expressing their life. For example, in the song I used at the beginning of The Sad Song of Touha, the man says, “They put me in prison and they took the keys. And there is no little window in this prison that I can receive air and send to my lover my best regards.” – i.e. that they imprisoned them, took the keys and went away, and so they will spend all their life in this prison. Maybe they are unconsciously saying these words, it is folklore, a folk song. But if they chose this song to say something about their lives then it means something important.
In The Sad Song of Touha we see a little girl being trained in acrobatics and another girl in belly dancing. Is this part of a family tradition?
Not exactly. It involves neighbours in the same community or block. The little girl for example is a member of a family, she goes with the troupe just to collect 5 or 6 pence a day to give to her mother. Families give their children to these groups just to get money.
What do you feel are the differences between your films and the national image of Egypt which one gets from the national (established) cinema?
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. When I talked to the young belly dancer in The Sad Song of Touha, for instance, she said she really would like to be a dancer in a cabaret because she always goes to the cinema and sees these belly dancers and beautiful girls. She said “I would like to see myself on the screen.” So I said, why not!
Is the established cinema in Egypt basically an escapist cinema then?
Yes. We always copy American films, sometimes Italian or French or English. Sometimes they have these foreign films and copy them shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene, only with Egyptian actors. Just three hours of escapism, like morphine injections.
Has that changed any?
Yes, after the nationalization of the film industry in 1961 under President Nasser. Then some intelligent directors came who wanted to combine commercial filmmaking with good filmmaking, films with ideas. They really tried to get some benefits from this system, so they made films not necessarily with happy endings, or with the belly dancer making a marriage, or with the hero always going to the cabaret to drown his sadness in whiskey (lushy melodramatic films). They tried to make adaptations from good Egyptian novels as well... We had at least ten good films during this period, e.g. The Night of Counting the Years and A Question of Honour which were made with the State Organization of Cinema.
But now they say the cinema in Egypt is finished, there is no money to give to the film industry. They want to return to the old system, so we are fighting and they are fighting. I think it is very difficult for a filmmaker from a non-industrialized country to come to an industrial country and feel at ease. Because we have our image from the newspapers of London, Paris, New York, etc. I came here with the thought that I would learn a lot about this society and gain experience which I could use when I go back to my country. But when I got here I found myself lost... The difference between the two societies is vast: in the human sense because we are very rich humanly in our countries. Here I felt a lack of emotions, a lack of involvement with each other’s lives... everyone wears a mask... these are very difficult and complex feelings for me.
So I said OK I will make a fiction film to try and learn through that. But the compromise I chose was great: i.e. a story from my own life re-enacted in this country. Consequently, when people saw the film The Nineteenth of October (about an intellectual young couple, both political, who are arrested) they didn’t believe the story. They said it doesn’t happen like that here, that we couldn’t see people involved in such situations because there is a democracy here etc.
I wonder if you had used, say, black actors or a black situation, whether your story would have been believable.
Yes, they told me if I had used foreign actors, Egyptian or Greek actors, it would have been. I made the mistake of using English actors and not understanding the differences between the English accents (i.e. the working-class accent from the middle-class ones). I made the mistake by saying that cinema language can talk with any accent about anything that can be expressed. I learnt a lot from this film... at least not to make such a compromise again.
Originally published in Time Out London, 29 November 1973.