Born in Umm Kalthoum’s village of Al-Sinbilawin and raised in Sayeda Zeinab, Atteyat Al-Abnoudy is a child of Nasserism. The only one in her family to attend university, she still credits Nasser’s “Head your head high” slogan with giving her “the right to dream.” She’s held firm to her leftist, secular leanings since entering Cairo University, where she graduated from law school in 1963. Abnoudy never went on to practice, but still dreamed of “being eloquent” – the question was what form her eloquence would take. While at university, she worked at the National Theatre, but the improvizational character of much of theatrical life proved exasperating to Abnoudy, known for her exacting style. When the Egyptian Film Institute said it was accepting postgraduates for a two-year program, she jumped at the chance, then went on to England’s International Film & TV School, graduating in 1976. She has made more than 23 films, won dozens of international prizes, been honored from Finland to Syria to New York. But her films are hard to come by outside the international circuit. “My films are about Egyptians,” says the grande dame of documentaries, pointing out the obvious market for her work. “Why don’t they show my films on Egyptian TV?” Diana Digges met with her.
Atteyat Al-Abnoudy’s definition of documentaries is simple and all-encompassing: “No script, no actors, no direction. The cameraman follows the subject.” When the “subject” is 33 of 89 women running as candidates in the 1995 parliamentary elections, there tends to be a certain pattern to the pep rallies, the platforms, the heartfelt promises and tales of woe. The casual viewer might feel a bit numbed at times, but for Abnoudy, the truth lies in the details, no two of which are the same beneath the surface. To say that one of the two details could be left out would be like telling an archaeologist that a fistful of shards is enough; don’t bother about the rest. Or saying that the endless variations of an hour-long Umm Kalthoum song or the repetition in tomb-paintings are unnecessary. “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.
Abnoudy always had the ethnographic impulse, even in her early days of filmmaking. Her thesis project at the Egyptian Film Institute in 1972 was a documentary film – the first ever submitted as a graduate project – The Sad Song of Touha, a valentine to the energy of street entertainment in pre-TV days. With these early movies, Abnoudy changed the definition of the documentary in Egypt, eliminating the narrator who spoke on behalf of others. In Horse of Mud, a film about traditional brick-making that garnered over 30 international prizes, “there was no commentator filtering the language of the people; even the soundtrack was used not as background but to give information,” says Abnoudy.
She has moved steadily from the personal, shaped films of her early years to the more panoramic ones of late. The subjects of the camera are now more on their own. “There’s less of me and more of them,” says Abnoudy. But she’s never lost her interest in exploring the impact of class and gender exploitation. In the 80s and early 90s, she gained a following for such tightly focused films as Permissible Dreams exploring in detail the circumscribed yet heroic life of a poor woman from Suez. Her 1992 Sellers and Buyers surveys the boom in landfilling the waters of the Suez Canal and nearby lakes to create villas for the rich displacing Ismaliya’s fishermen in the process. In all these films, Abnoudy finds spokespeople among the powerless and gives them the time to speak their piece. At least for the duration of the film, they are in a position of power.
In her 1996 film, Days of Democracy, Abnoudy pulls out all the panoramic stops. Not only did she interview 33 woman candidates standing for election, she went on to write a book about the process of making the film. Why bother, skeptics might ask? Why spend all that time and money documenting elections to an institution many of whose deputies are routinely ridiculed for sleeping on the job, lining their pockets, or spending time in jail? In short, why take these women seriously?
Abnoudy looks aghast, almost hurt. “I take everything seriously. We have to take everything in this country seriously. I’m not one of those intellectuals who have no hope, I have hope always. I’m not only a documentary filmmaker, I’m also a researcher and a social worker. I’m using the profession I’m good at to expose things.”
What exactly does she want to expose? A segment of the film, “Searching for Nafisa,” gives a clue. Abnoudy and her crew fly to Aswan, then take a bus to Edfu on the strength of a rumor that a nurse named Nafisa was running for election there. They hunt for Nafisa down one village road, up the next. “She’s here; no she’s not; we’ve never heard of her; she’ll be back soon; she’s in another village, campaigning.” Trying to salvage her trip, Abnoudy is interviewing some villagers about the candidate, when lo and behold, along comes Nafisa, striding up the dirt road, her black tarha a silhouette against the beige buildings and blue sky. It is a dramatic and visually classic Egyptian moment. She is out of breath. She is carrying a sheaf of papers – photocopies of the lists of voters. She looks Abnoudy in the eye and speaks simply and compellingly about why she’s running. She is running on behalf of the poor; she wants a proper drainage system, an adequate supply of flour, jobs for unemployed graduates, higher prices for sugar cane, fertilizers for the farmers, adult education, a better deal for women. Her platform – solidarity with the poor, but no religious dogma – clearly warms Abnoudy’s heart.
For Abnoudy the recording of the election process, with all its circus trappings – some hilarious, some sad – is its own justification. “It’s a kind of writing. I wanted to write history; some people can write with images.” The kind of history she records supplements and enriches the disturbing record of the 1995 elections, Egypt’s bloodiest ever: more than 100 people were killed in fights between competing candidates and their thugs or shot by police; forgery, bribery and coercion were rife. The women’s experiences in this democratic ritual reflect these aspects. Many of them complain bitterly of intimidation and violence. There were 444 freely elected seats up for grabs in the People’s Assembly, and 89 candidates were women. Five out of those 89 made it, all of them from the NDP’s slate of seven female candidates, commonly referred to as the Magnificent Seven.
These sad results are no surprise. In one segment after another, candidates talk about the reluctance – outright unwillingness in most cases – of their parties to nominate women. When they switched parties or ran as independents, they faced the same hostility that male independent candidates did: banner-looting, intimidation, bullying and buyouts. Hanim Toubar, a 31-year-old running in Al Manzala and a candidate, it must be said, with a rather imaginative sense of history – her grandfather was “one of the heroes of the civil resistance against the French army of Napoleon” – recounts the obstacles placed in her path: the frustration of being set up at a meeting where her male colleagues tried to force her to withdraw; and finally, when that didn’t work, the threats of the gender-blind baltagiya (thugs). In the end, she says, she was offered a quarter of a million LE to step down. She refused.
The film stops two days before the elections, while the book tallies up the results, gives fascinating insights into the process of making a film, and poses a few questions. The five out of the Magnificent Seven who won seats are the only elected female MPs (there are four others appointed by the president). There are 4 million women registered in the electoral rolls who, had they wanted to, could have secured the success of 60 to 100 percent of the women candidates. If only five women won, there are, basically, three possibilities: 1) women voted for men; 2) they voted for women but the voting was rigged; or 3) they didn’t vote at all.
Abnoudy doesn’t settle on one or another of the possibilities. She is not one to analyze; her interest lies in presenting the information. There her role stops; it’s the viewer’s job to draw conclusions. But she does make clear that though she takes parliament and electioneering seriously, the future of women’s political participation in general elections can’t be dealt with as an isolated issue but is a “matter of comprehensive social development.”
And indeed, that is what many of the candidates say. Again and again, men or women, they repeat the importance of access to basic services, the necessity to go through the local councils as a training ground for politics, the independent candidates’ inability to compete with the big-money men, their defenselessness against the looters, forgers and thugs who’ve stolen many an election. And more than one seems to think that a quota system, such as existed in the 1979 amendment which earmarked 30 seats for women, would hasten the process of social development and create access to political power. That amendment was deemed unconstitutional and abolished in 1987; the steep drop in the number of women MPs since then only underlines the general reluctance to promote women’s participation in politics.
As to whether or not women could really effect change in Parliament, Abnoudy won’t say. The 1995 election was a roller coaster of a ride, raising then dashing hopes of greater participation of women in politics. Many of the candidates refer to the brighter, pre-1987 times which inspired the title of the movie and the books – Days of Democracy – and underline the inadequacies of a system that would like to present itself to the world as democratic. If Abnoudy’s films are occasionally overwhelming in their detail, their power is cumulative. Like Rhythm of Life, her classic survey of Egyptian villages, Days of Democracy’s particular charm lies in its kaleidoscopic testimony to a force that won’t go away: the desire – and the will – of the powerless to represent themselves.
Originally published in Cairo Times (28 May – 10 June 1998).