Three Arab Women
Documentary Filmmakers

Magda Wassef

Documentary filmmaking by Arab women was born in the 1970s, with Egyptian filmmaker Atteyat al Abnoudi’s legendary short film Horse of Mud (“Hussan El Ttain,” 1971). This revelation of a film, made for a pittance by the Film Association of Cairo, surprised audiences with its new tone, and its engaged social view inaugurated a new era for Arab documentary film. This change was due entirely to a woman who had just made her first film; for if the documentary film tradition had been part of different Arab societies since Egypt in the 1920s, earlier films often had the well-defined functions of informing, educating and sometimes ideologizing spectators.

Prior to Horse of Mud, only the rare film had the freedom to express a personal point of view or take a stand. This was due partly to directors’ dependence on silent partners; with no established market for documentary film, only rarely did private producers take risks. Consequently, various government ministers and large studios, in this case Egypt’s Studio Misr, were in charge of these commissioned films. This system was supplanted after the creation of television stations in the early 1960s, for whom documentary’s utilitarian function came first and foremost. Didactic, educational and informative dimensions dominated the orientation of films produced by these state organisms.

Whether made by men or women, documentary films were not considered a means of expression or a creative cinematic form. This has changed since, however creative documentary remains in the minority for most Arab countries.

One way to address the question of women making documentaries is to examine the work of three directors and the different direction in filmmaking that each represents: the social direction, of which Egyptian director Atteyat al Abnoudi is the most prominent; the political-militant direction initiated by Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab; and the identity-based direction that arises from questions of emigration, begun by Algerian director Yamina Benguigui.

1. Atteyat al Abnoudi

By choosing to film the most impoverished in their daily life, Atteyat al Abnoudi has opened eyes to the impact and force of images. In Horse of Mud, a 12-minute black-and-white short film, she films one of the hundreds of small brick factories along the banks of the Nile. She attaches herself to the men, women, children and horses who work hard and, come evening, bathe and relax in the Nile. This film inaugurated a series of films filmed throughout Egypt and through which the director wrote a new description of Egypt in images.

Trained at the Cairo Institute of Film and the British Film Institute in London, al Abnoudi has devoted herself to documentary film. She has made about sixteen full-length and short films over the past thirty years, of which the latest is Cairo 1000, Cairo 2000 (“Le Caire 1000, le Caire 2000”). Concerned with the human condition and in particular the condition of women, al Abnoudi has placed cinema and video at the service of her ideas and convictions. In Sad Song of Touha (“Ogniet Touha El Hazinah,” 1971), her promotional film made at the Cairo Institute of Film, her camera follows a small travelling circus. The young Touha and friends Viro, Bolbol and El Gamal wander roads, put on their show and gather a few coins. In Sandwich (1975), she and her camera visit the small town of Abnoud in High Egypt, and record the daily quests and few moments of simple, fleeting happiness of the town’s children, for example the unusual moment when a child makes a “special sandwich” by dripping goat milk on a piece of stale bread. What serenity and moments of happiness are conveyed in these close-ups of children’s faces and clear, considerate camera movements! The forgotten children of the village of Abnoud, six hundred kilometers from Cairo, will always exist grace to these images captured with love and respect. In To Move Into Depth (“Altakadom Ela Alomq,” 1978), a film commissioned by Catholic institutions of learning located in many towns in High Egypt, the direct propaganda message is diverted to benefit the film’s profoundly human aspect. The dignity of men, women and children is preserved through education and work. Christians and Muslims share misery as they do prosperity: this is perhaps the true message of this film, which takes into account realities often ignored.

Al Abnoudi then moves from the south to train her camera on a region in the north of Egypt: the village of Borg Al Borollos, situated at the mouth of the Mediterranean and the bitter Lake Al Borollos. In 1980, the inhabitants of this small fishing village surrounded by water were fighting a daily battle to obtain the potable water necessary for their survival. In this film, Seas of Thirst (“Behar El Attash,” 1981), the sublime nature of the location does not distract the director from her goal, that of exposing these unbearable conditions of existence. This human dimension never fails to dominate al Abnoudi’s films, and brings them their true worth. The witnessing wrought through her camera evolves throughout the film. In this fishing village never pampered by nature, we are part of a true, daily quest for humanity’s most vital element: water. The second part of the film is composed of a succession of scenes in which the daily rationing of water becomes a quasi-existential obsession. Women and children leave on a long trek to bring back a few liters of drinkable water in their containers. The film’s somewhat ironic title makes these images, so beautiful and so poignant, even sadder.

If the city of Suez is at the heart of Permissible Dreams (“Al Ahlam Elmomkinah,” 1982), Om Said is its soul. This old peasant woman who embodies to some extent all the peasant women of Egypt lives under the thoughtful, knowing gaze of al Abnoudi’s camera. Her daily life is made up of work and perpetual struggle to provide for the needs of her family. Married at a very young age, she left her father’s house only to recreate the same structure in her husband’s house. It was perhaps this film that confirmed Abnoudi’s feminist choices. That said, her decision to fight for the cause of women is never Manichean oversimplification. Al Abnoudi does not rise up against men, but rises to the defense of women and the often-inferior status to which society assigns them. By opening her heart and speaking sincerely and confidently to the camera, Om Said plays the game, and expresses highly developed ideas in her own way and with simple words. Her support for a daughter who wishes to pursue her studies and her clarity about her own journey give her character a depth and consistence all its own.

This film was followed by a series of films about older and younger women. In Sellers and Buyers (“Elli Baa Welli Eshtra,” 1992), women in Cairo find themselves increasingly alone and without men, and take care of their families by working. Raywa (1995) depicts a young peasant woman in the village of Tunis at Fayoum who makes pottery to support the needs of her nine brothers and sisters. And in Girls Still Dream (“Ahlam El Banat,” 1995), the director addresses early marriage, one of women’s most crucial problems. At present, 26% of the seven million girls in Egypt between 10 and 19 years old are married before the legal age of 16. In some rural areas, this percentage climbs to 44%. This film tells of the girls’ dreams for a better life. Finally, in Days of Democracy (“Ayyam Al demokrateyya,” 1996), the director follows the candidates for the 1995 legislative elections from Alexandria to Assouan, passing through Cairo, Assiou and the Sinai Peninsula on the way. This report enlightens the audience about the difficulties faced by women who wish to participate actively in the political life of the country.

These films, produced mostly thanks to private organizations in Egypt and abroad, make up a rich, coherent body of documentary work. However, while known and appreciated in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, around the world, al Abnoudi’s films rarely appear in the Egyptian media.

2. Jocelyne Saab

Lebanese but educated at French schools, Jocelyne Saab was a reporter and journalist for European television in the early 1970s. She covered conflicts in the Middle East for FR3-Magazine 52, for whom her work includes the series The October Conflict (“Guerre d’octobre”), films on Kurdistan (Kurdistan) and Syria (Syria: A Grain of Sand “La Syrie: Le grain de sable”), Palestinians Keep On (“Les Palistiniens continuent”) and a portrait of Kaddafi (Kaddafi), all in 1973; Palestinian Women (“Les femmes palestiniennes,” 1974); Lebanon in the Tempest (“Le Liban dans la tourmente”) and Portrait of a French Mercenary (“Portrait d’un mercenaire francais,” both 1975); The Children of War (“Les enfants de la guerre”), Beirut, Never More (“Beyrouth, jamais plus”), South Lebanon; History of a Village (“Sud-Liban: Histoire d’un village”), For a Few Lives (“Pour quelques vies,” all 1976); The Sahara Is Not for Sale (“Le Sahara n’est pas à vendre,” 1977); Egypt, The City of the Dead (“Égypte, la cite des morts,” 1978); Letter from Beirut (“Lettre de Beyrouth,” 1979); Iran, Utopia on the March (“Iran, l’Utopie de marche,” 1980); and Beirut My City (“Beyrouth ma ville,” 1982). In 1984, she launched out into fiction films, but returns from time to time to the documentary genre.

The essence of Jocelyne Saab’s documentary work was formed by the conflicts in the Middle East, especially the Lebanese War. She belongs to the new generation of Lebanese filmmakers who made their debut in the early 1970s in a politically troubled environment. Defeat in 1967, the October Conflict in 1973, the outbreak of war in Lebanon in 1975 and its continuation for more than fifteen years have marked the production of film in Lebanon. In particular, Jocelyne Saab, Maroun Bagdadi, Borhane Alaouie, Jean Khalil Chamoun et Randa Chahal-Sabbagh have all drawn the subjects of their documentary and fiction films from these bloody conflicts which their existence upside down and led nearly all of them to leave their country and emigrate to France.

This emigration to Paris determined the financing, style and destination of these films. Journalistic reportage dominated Saab’s early films, before ceding its place to a more personal style in which the “I” is foregrounded, as happens in Letter from Beirut and Beirut My City. Affiliations with the Palestinian cause and with all victims of the civil war in Lebanon are a common note throughout all her films. The physical risks she has undertaken to report on the war make her one of the first Arab women to do this job and to bear witness through image around the world to the horrors of war.

Saab’s films are influenced by western journalism and documentary film, but their sustained rhythm, efficient images and economy of means give her documentary work a special cachet. Why? Because Saab’s films contain a gaze from the inside and an understanding often lacking in western journalism and documentaries.

3. Yamina Benguigui

Born in Paris to Algerian immigrant parents, Yamina Benguigui has become the voice of a whole community through her films, and has been able to reconcile the community with its history. Benguigui launched her career directing documentaries for French television with the 1994 series Women of Islam:The Veil and the Republic. Filmed in Asia, Africa, Egypt and France, these documentaries depict numerous Muslim women as they practiced their religion in daily life. The documentaries also portray the women appearing in different interpretations of Islamic texts from one society and one civilization to another.

In 1997, she directed Immigrant Memories (“Memoire d’immigrés”) for the French television station Canal +. This 160-minute documentary addresses the history of Algerian immigration to France since the colonial period. By letting the fathers, mothers and children of Maghreb immigration to France speak, digging into archives and mixing personal testimony with images of the past, Benguigui was able to reconstitute this often ignored and always deformed history. Her remarkable documentary was a milestone in the histories of film and emigration. Due much to the debates organized after screenings of the films, the film’s impact on the Maghreb community was remarkable. Benguigui has toured France with the film and has also taken it abroad, as the problems it poses are mirrored throughout Europe. The rise of xenophobia translates into hate and rejection of the other, the immigrant, the stranger. These immigrants were brought over by the hundreds of thousands after the Second World War to participate in reconstruction efforts. Fathers arrived in the 1950s, and, separated from their families and spouses and crammed into barracks, worked incessantly on building sites. Mothers often bent back their veils and found independent identities for themselves. Their children, who either arrived in France at a young age or were born there, must directly endure the contradictions of the politics applied to them even more than their parents.

In her most recent film, The Perfumed Garden (“Le jardin parfumé,” 2000), Benguigui addresses another sensitive subject: sexuality and love in Islam. The director seeks out men and women, girls and boys of different generations in Algeria, Morocco and France, each of whom evokes desire, sexuality and seduction as seen through their own experiences. The film brings to light the discrepancy that exists between an extraordinarily fertile imaginary and a horribly frustrating reality. Borrowed from a famous Arab work from the 13th century, the title resounds with meaning, for its namesake contains numerous allusions, and decency pushes some not to venture too far into the secret, perfumed garden that is love.

Made possible by the production resources of French television networks, Benguigui’s films have been shown across Europe. These highly favorable conditions permit the director to carry out background research, do in-depth preparation and shoot her films with a skilled crew. Other Arab women directors from emigrant communities who have benefited from these optimal work conditions include Fatima Jebli Ouazzani, whose film In My Father’s House (“Dans la maison de mon pere,” 1997) was produced in The Netherlands and filmed in Morocco, and Yasmine Kassari, whose beautiful documentary When the Men Cry (“Quand les hommes pleurent,” 2000) was produced in Belgium and shot in Spain with illegal Moroccan workers.

This quick look at the work of three Arab documentarists working and living in completely different conditions may, I hope, permit the reader to discover and come to know an interesting and often unknown field of documentary production.

—Translated by Sarah Teasley


Magda Wassef

Director of the film department at the Institute of the Arab World (IMA) in Paris, Magda Wassef is also a programmer and an artistic advisor for numerous film festivals and television stations around the world. She received her doctorate from the School of Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris in 1983, where her Ph.D. dissertation examined images of women in the countryside in 1960s Egyptian film. After the publication of Egypt: One Hundred Years of Cinema (“Égypte: Cent ans de cinema,”), recipient of the prestigious Art et Essai book award in France in 1996, Wassef was made a Chevalier of Arts and Letters by the French government.