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.
Tall and slender, she is standing there, as if she has been waiting for us for a long time, with her typical peasant dress for all occasions, weaving links with her rural origins from which she rediscovers love, as she learns to open up to others. Then, it’s her luminous smile that lets us enter her life, gently; this life that only asks us to shake ourselves among memories, happiness and regrets. A fragile smile in the form of promises, desire and shared dreams.
Born into a large family of wealthy spice and textile merchants in the village of Al-Sinbilawin, it took a lot of nerve for her to force her destiny and build herself a future. “According to tradition, the youngest child has to leave school to replace the eldest getting married. But when I, as the youngest of eight children, suffered this fate, I was a law student at the University of Cairo, and no one was going to take that away from me.” Her caustic eloquence and precocious assertion of her “I” predisposed her to it. Above all, she wanted to fulfil her mother’s wish for her to hold high the prestige of her lineage by carving out an important role for herself in society. Yet, she fails in her first year of school and decides to pay her own school fees. She gets a job as an accountant for the railways, leaves her brother’s apartment, who was studying in the capital, and stays at Sayeda Zeinab with her mother, who had come up from the countryside to join her. Proud of her newly acquired freedom, she gives her mother her full salary, setting aside some pocket money for travel and food. Because “freedom yes, but responsibility first”. That is her credo. “Irresponsibility can lead to the loss of freedom,” she reasons. However, she doesn’t forget to satisfy her passion for art and joins the faculty’s theatre group, taking part in the editing of the faculty magazine. “Law school introduced me to a plurality of points of view and an openness to various horizons.”
One day, chance leads her to assist actor Karam Motawie in directing the play Al Farafir [The Wacky] at the National Theatre. There, she discovers that when the actors are performing the play, the director slips away, letting the show go on without his injunctions. But she is more interested in taking full responsibility for the work. So she draws inspiration from her time and evokes the youth of 1950s Cairo, a noisy Cairo, in which all the odours of a changing world were floating around, bubbling with discoveries. She is one of those who benefited from the free education decreed by Nasser and the openness to knowledge and culture that he fostered through appropriate policies. Thus, she frequents the cinema in the Russian, French, Czechoslovak and other cultural centres, attends the Bolshoi at the Opera, and the production of a world repertoire of theatre in various places. Art was, indeed, hiding in a corner of her being, yearning to be revealed. She quite naturally turns to studying at the Higher Institute of Cinema. She focuses on documentary filmmaking, a tradition she believes dates back to ancient Egypt. “Our ancestors were concerned with bequeathing to us the memory of the time, using available means: sculpture, engraving, painting, reliefs and papyrus. All they lacked in the sculpted scenes in the temples and tombs was image and sound,” she declares. And adds: “That is the contribution of our present that we must subjugate the description of daily life and perpetuate the memory of Egypt. It is a promise of eternity.” The time had come to serve her rebellious temperament and her desire to build herself a major role, on a par with her desire to have a hold on the world. During her studies, she directs her first documentary, Horse of Mud, which was a great success. She looks into the fate of humble villagers who get mud from the banks of the Nile and mix it with other ingredients to make building bricks with the help of horses. She is struck by the contradiction between the elegance of man and horse and the hard work they have to endure. In the last sequence, the horse breaks loose from its bridles to go and wash away its suffering alongside the villagers in the river. In many ways, Atteyat resembles this horse, rebellious and liberated, but gentle and loving. She is an independent spirit. Later, she capitalizes on the success of Horse of Mud, writing her next works in the same vein.
Her graduation project was The Sad Song of Touha, in which she paints the daily life of many artists and clowns who roam the streets, offer their show to the public at a modest cost, and believe that life deserves a meditative burst of laughter. That is when she meets Abdel Rahman Al-Abnoudy, a politically engaged poet. Like her, he believes in the possibility of changing man, of changing life through imagination. He is the one she chooses and marries. They stimulate each other, and he takes her on his journey from village to village, attentive to words and the music of phrases, roaming myths and folklore, and discovering the hidden areas of existence and love. From now on, Atteyat tells village stories in her films. “The villages that stretch out in the sunlight, appear with modest but determined characters, who throw themselves at our feet, revealing their treasures.” She contemplates with admiration “those who kick the bottom of the river and make light gush through the mud”. We are in an atmosphere dear to Atteyat, the rural space of those who do not know despair, recreating that combination of pain and energy, spreading anguish and evil to the soul, triumphing over failure. In The Sandwich, Seas of Thirst, Permissible Dreams and Rhythm of Life, she feels close to the homeless, to the poor in the sense of the injustice inflicted on the humblest by society and History. “All I ask of the image is not to create an opacity between the characters and what they want to say. There is a degree of pain that cannot be transmitted. We only have a reflection of their pain. But we touch a degree of dignity, pride and wisdom.” It is the legitimate law of the “I” that prevails in her work. She tries to force the mysteries of an Egyptian nature that makes its difficult way between the contingencies of poverty and material precariousness, yet dreams every day, with an art of survival, of a noble and dignified life.
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.” Subscribing to this effort, NGOs, international organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF, and foreign television channels such as Channel Four in the UK and ZDF in Germany give her the funds to continue her work.
She wonders about the usefulness of modernity. “Modernity, for what use, for which issues?” That’s science restored to its emancipatory vocation. “We are civilized and not modernized. What does it mean to be civilized, if not to be able to discern problems and suffering, to identify their source and suggest actions likely to overcome them? To identify evil is to denounce its origin and announce remedies,” she explains. Egyptians, according to her, can spend it all to acquire new technologies, satellite dishes, mobile phones, the latest TV sets, etc. “For Egyptians, possession is not a matter of appearance, but of subjugating the means to the needs of making life easier, opening up to the world and to multiple fields of knowledge and communicating with their loved ones and others.” In her film Cairo 1000, Cairo 2000, she devotes an entire sequence to the multiple satellite dishes perched on the roofs of the most deprived, understanding the impact of this phenomenon and translating their will to evolve and change their lives.
She also knows how to give women a voice. In Responsible Women, Rawya and Girls Still Dream, she does not address the problem of illiteracy, a major obstacle to the integration and development of women, but rather shows women who have got around this problem and now hold jobs that could change their destiny and that of their environment. Her film Days of Democracy creates a dialogue between about fifty female candidates for seats in Parliament, who put social and solidarity issues, integration and social protection at the heart of the electoral campaign, calling for a rethinking of “the social bond”. “These women have an edifying project, and if it materializes, no one can stop their progress in drawing up a new policy of solidarity.” Since this film, Atteyat has discovered her talent for writing. Writing now completes what is missing in visual documents. Her latest work, Travel Days, reveals her meditation on the meaning of her trajectory and her work. “That I will die does not worry me. I work so that my oeuvre will remain like a gash of light and evidence in people’s memories. Thus, I would have acquired the possibility to live on in their lives. That’s what paradise is.”
When the imbalance between receiving and giving sets in in her relationship, she leaves Abdel Rahman and turns to her daughter Asmaa, whom she adopted after the death of her father, the famous writer Yahya Taher Abdullah, and whom she floods with affection. “I am a mother by choice and not by the natural process of begetting,” she proclaims.
This woman, who has more than 25 films and 30 international awards to her credit, is delighted with the tribute paid to her by the first Women’s Film Festival in Egypt. “You have to know how to chat, have fun and be serious, and never back down because not everything is won in advance. To be able to fight and laugh at the same time, that’s the most interesting.” And that’s what Atteyat Al-Abnoudy does so brilliantly.
Originally published as ‘Poésie du réel’ in Al Ahram (7-13 March 2007).