Self-aware and revealing, despite its limitations: On new interactive doc Womanhood
 
 

When filmmaker Florie Bavard visited Egypt in 2012 for her master’s field research into Egyptian women’s autobiographies in the 20th century, she was struck by the number of women who expressed frustration or fatigue with how their voices were being portrayed in the West.

In an attempt to create a narrative written by, not about, Egyptian women, Bavard returned in 2015 to interview 15 women, bringing their testimonies together in the recently launched interactive documentary, Womanhood, an Egyptian kaleidoscope. This crowd-funded, English-language online platform attempts to challenge orientalist narratives and highlight the singularity of women’s experiences, while questioning the subjectivity in our daily language. What meanings and personal associations are attached to the words used to describe our experiences, words such as feminism, activism, awareness, challenge, creativity, orientalism and revolution?

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“Solidarity for me is a keyword because it is about personal solidarity between friends and family and people within the movement, and at the same time showing solidarity internationally. With feminism, even if it’s different from context to context, showing solidarity with each other helps.” – Mozn Hassan, 35-year-old founder of Nazra for Feminist Studies and recent recipient of Sweden’s Right Livelihood Award.

Aiming to build an “ABC on gender,” Womanhood employs “lexical fields,” keywords the participants chose from a list of 75 and used as prompts to begin their conversations, which flow from one topic and keyword to the next. Viewers are free to navigate the video segments using these keywords, which are presented bilingually, as entry points, creating a potentially endless combination of viewing experiences that mimic the natural flow of conversation with its tangents and subtopics. The start of each video lists its main topic and other keywords mentioned, which are repeated as clickable buttons underneath the video, making it easy to jump from one topic of conversation to the another. Viewers are encouraged to “take the time to see where the person you’re listening to takes [the conversation].” 

Bavard, a non-Arabic-speaking French woman who spent a portion of her upbringing in Cairo, interviewed activists, artists, and researchers born between 1931 and 1992 (including Nazra for Feminist Studies founder Mozn Hassan, actor and comedian Mona Hala, photographer Rana ElNemr and veteran author Nawal al-Saadawi). The unscripted encounters were cut by editor Aloyse Leledy into 80 segments, each two-ten minutes long, which add up to over 7 hours. The conversations took place in English, and were carried out by Bavard — whose voice is sometimes heard asking questions, but who mainly stays in the shadows — around topics that are both deeply personal and strongly political.

The French and Arabic subtitles make the conversations accessible to multiple audiences, while their direct and unpretentious feel is maintained through the refreshing colloquial Arabic used by Hanaa Safwat and Lamia Gouda in the translation. The site’s bright pastel color palette and the rough-and-ready videos which include pop-ups to draw attention to the specific words lend the project an appealing aesthetic.

“There’s a huge generation gap now that’s actually harming all of us. “It’s like [the older generation] are pushing us into a really dark hole and they keep pushing us there.” – Yasmine Zeid, 23-year-old volunteer for anti-harassment initiative Harassmap.

The fact that Womanhood stemmed from academic research is unsurprising; its “What’s the project?” section reads like a well-researched paper on representations of Arab women in the 20th century. The platform, which is co-produced by Benjamin Daugeron, designed by Camille Léonard and developed by Patrice Perceval Pellier, also includes an extensive timeline of political events in Egypt and legal developments affecting women from 1870 to 2017, a bibliography of works cited, and listings of the interviewees’ writings or other achievements. It thus transcends the boundaries of documentary to become a resource on modern Egyptian feminist movements.

But one of the project’s core conditions, that each participant refers the filmmakers to the next so that “each encounter leads to another” may have actually worked against it. The narratives feel extremely familiar, but also somewhat repetitive. Despite the fact that Bavard explicitly set out to make a documentary where “no perspective is here to be generalized,” the closeness of the networks in which the interviewees exist has resulted in the portrayal of a limited perspective: that of the socially and politically engaged, educated, Cairo-dwelling, English-speaking, self-identified feminist woman. To the filmmaker’s credit, she is very much aware of this fact.

“Sometimes it doesn’t make sense when we try to explain something in classical Arabic, it keeps sounding so very distant. When we express it in colloquial Arabic it is much more close. But it’s not yet accepted to really formally use that language.” – Rana El Nemr, 40-year-old photographer.

“Our project does not illustrate Egypt’s sociological diversity,” says Bavard, now 26, in a statement on the website, “it is about this sole group of people engaged at one specific time around one precise theme: Gender.” Bavard also acknowledges that the idea that the majority of Womanhood’s audiences will likely be Anglo and Francophones abroad (who largely made up its 328 crowdfunding supporters) impacts the participants’ answers, so she sets up a structure that avoids just reproducing common narratives in a way that makes them more palatable to a European audience: By presenting a large amount of video material in which each woman is at turns angry, humorous, upset, and hopeful, the platform portrays multi-faceted characters, avoiding the two-dimensional trope of the helpless victim or the empowered rebel.

Indeed, Womanhood is a self-professed attempt to go beyond the “sweeping generalizations and simplistic narratives of orientalism,” and employ the idea put forth by anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod, who has written extensively on Egypt and Egyptian women, of creating ethnographies of the particular (in this case, the very, very particular). But in attempting to do so, it does away with narrative completely, leaving us with fragmented particles of life experiences, loosely associated through the medium of language. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily — the fragmented execution is clearly intentional, as evidenced through the aptly chosen metaphor of the kaleidoscope in the title. But, just as with a kaleidoscope, no particular form emerges, and you are only just able to get a sense of what lies beyond the mediating lens.

“Desire is everything for me, it’s the thing that moves me towards things. Towards people, even my job.” – Mona Hala, 30-year-old actress and comedian.

The interactive documentary genre is an expanding field of alternative storytelling that has became more popular with the accessibility of digital tools. Releasing a documentary in the form of a web platform enables filmmakers to include much more material in their work than in a more straight-forwardly temporal film, while making the viewer a more active recipient. The form allows for a more diffused exploration of a concept or event, as in the crowd-sourced documentary 18 Days in Egypt, developed by journalist Jigar Mehta and artist and technologist Yasmin Elayat. Launched in 2012, that platform brings together community contributions of photos, tweets and posts to tell the story of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Similarly, the 2014 web documentary Shout Art Loud created an interactive experience, albeit on a more basic level, that takes viewers through the Cairo Metro to explore initiatives battling sexual harassment through art.

Like Womanhood, American filmmaker Alisa Lebow’s 2015 interactive documentary Filming Revolution uses interconnected short video clips, although its crisp video and sound quality lend it a more polished feel. Lebow interviewed filmmakers who participated in the Egyptian revolution, and presented the results in an attractive web-like structure that visually illustrates connections between individuals and concepts. Both Womanhood and Filming Revolution benefit from user-friendly designs, plentiful resources and interwoven stories, while the lower-budget 18 Days in Egypt uses more of a blog-like format, and Shout Art Loud evokes the physical space of the Cairo metro to organize a “journey” through its videos.

“There are endless discussions on whether feminism is being labeled by orientalists, or if it’s an international concept, or [if] any woman living in any context has the right to see herself as a feminist. These questions are completely important, but at the same time sometimes they become ridiculous. Like, are they leading anywhere or are we just trying to answer blank questions in a void?”  — Sally Zohney, 29-year-old storyteller for the BuSSy project.

Bavard commented that she chose the form because it “underscores the complexity of each perspective and allows us to follow the rhythm of each individual.” Likewise, Lebow has said that “rather than playing the expert […] I preferred the position of interlocutor, an interactivity that is amplified rather than reduced by this platform.” But a key difference is that while Lebow’s project is part of the obvious, charged, and still ongoing narrative of the Egyptian revolution, Womanhood has no narrative, just a theme — gender — and a methodology — building the participants’ “gender ABCs.” This leaves me attempting to narrativize the interviewees’ experiences and create linkages myself, something that Bavard, with her purist, somewhat gonzo approach to documentary, intentionally avoids doing.

Narrative aside, overall Womanhood is a complex web of personal, relatable stories shared with honesty and fervor, and presented with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. I think it will be a useful resource for anyone looking to experience some non-reductive snippets about what it’s like to be an Egyptian woman today.

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Lara El Gibaly