I originally wrote this two-part piece for the first issue of Kurrasat al-Cimatheque, which resulted from an extended workshop organized by Cimatheque, the alternative film center. Back then, I had only met Abnoudy — who passed away in October — once, when I was helping with a research on independent Egyptian short films and documentaries in the 1960s and 1970s, both thriving periods for documentary filmmaking in Egypt.
Like the majority of texts and studies about Abnoudy’s work, my conversation with her focused on her early films (made under the umbrella of the High Cinema Institute and the National Film Center): Horse of Mud (1971), which depicts the lives of mud brick workers along the Nile; Sad Song of Touha (1972), about a travelling circus troupe; and The Sandwich (1975), which follows one day in the lives of children in the village of Abnoud in Qena. In those works, she came very close to developing an independent production model, taking advantage of what the state could offer — which was meager, in all cases — to create works that are loaded with social critique and formal experimentation.
Over the years, however, I watched more of Abnoudy’s films which had never garnered the same attention as her first three. These later films show this semi-independent production model devolve into what can be referred to as a “developmental” approach to making and consuming documentary films. However, they retain a trace of Abnoudy’s former spark, even as it faded, slowly but steadily.
I believe the shift that takes place in Abnoudy’s work, on both the production and aesthetic levels, is very telling of how the craft of documentary filmmaking has changed in Egypt in the past few decades, and particularly of how the state has minimized its role, with other institutions stepping in to fill the gap and subsequently affecting the themes of the films being made.
It is difficult to grasp and analyze this, however, if all we watch of Abnoudy’s films are the first three, and this is why the ongoing retrospective at Cimatheque is an excellent chance to explore the rest of her oeuvre.
Movement in a grey area
The beginning of the 1970s witnessed a massive cinematic movement in Egypt: the late 60s had given birth to the Cairo Cinema Club (launched in 1968) and the New Cinema Group (founded in 1969), not to mention the Egyptian Film Association, which had also started producing films at the time. Such conditions allowed documentary films the chance to thrive, particularly since — in addition to its weekly screenings — the Cairo Cinema Club organized an annual festival for documentaries and shorts, providing exposure to documentarians such as Saad Nadim, Hashem El Nahas, Samir Auf and Ahmed Rashed.
It was also during that period that Atteyat al-Abnoudy made her first few films, those which she considers the “closest to her heart.” Indeed, more than any of her other works, those early films demonstrated her potential as a director with a clear vision, one that sides entirely with the marginalized. In each of them, one can clearly sense the strong influence of Latin America’s Third Cinema movement on Abnoudy’s work. The movement, about which Abnoudy later wrote a book (The Third Cinema, published by the Supreme Council of Culture in 2012), was concerned with finding a new space on the margins of established and dominant forms of cinema — from Hollywood to auteur films, and even state productions.
Abnoudy is a perfect Egyptian example of third cinema, and the most interesting thing about her films is that they show us that there’s a grey area between market productions and the state productions which dominated Egyptian cinema when she was working. This grey area allowed her to experiment with a visual language uncommon in commercial cinema, and narratives that were critical of the very state that supported the production of those films. To some extent, other directors such as Hossam Ali and Ali al-Ghazouli shared this space with Abnoudy, indicating that this is a phenomenon that we must examine when discussing experimentation, independence, and the relationship between the artist and the state.
In a conversation with Abnoudy, I asked her what it meant for the High Cinema Institute to produce a film — did it provide film reels, equipment, crew wages and other production requirements? She replied that the institute only offered the reels and equipment, and that she handled the rest of the expenses herself, along with other crew members. Therefore, the structure she worked with back then lay somewhere between state support and what we call “independent cinema,” not only on the production level but also when it came to content and treatment.
The films of Atteyat al-Abnoudy, particularly the first few, are not only intriguing, entertaining and stimulating, but also important — and even though the use of the latter in describing works of art is controversial, in this case it’s justified. Her films are living reminders of a margin that certain filmmakers were able to conquer, producing works we still value 40 years later, and enriching the conversations we engage in today about artistic experimentation and independence. What makes a film “important,” after all, is its continuing relevance despite the passage of time.
Sad Song of Touha: “People watching people watching people…”
Sad Song of Touha, Abnoudy’s graduation project from the High Cinema Institute in 1972, follows a small circus troupe hopping from one neighborhood and suburb to the next. It is a subject unfamiliar to many of us who grew up hearing only of the National Circus, which had come to replace the popular troupes (made up of a handful of performers, dancers, puppeteers and shadow players) that were still common in Cairo when Abnoudy made her film, which itself essentially questions what it means to engage in the act of watching from a distance.
The film opens with a shot of a group of children looking at the camera. While this piercing look, which appears to be directed at the viewer, is often seen by critics as a shattering of the illusion that the camera is nonexistent and that what we’re seeing onscreen is real, it can also act in certain contexts as a commentary on/critique of the act of watching itself, or serve to assert the subjectivity of the point of view on display.
In Sad Song of Touha, the choice to have the children stare directly at the camera is driven by all those reasons combined. The film’s subjectivity is announced from the very start through the gaze of the children, and the film’s accompanying soundtrack, a poem by Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudy, critiques the act of passive watching: “Or were you, too, mere people watching people who are watching other people?” It is a question that is further emphasized by the children’s eyes looking at the camera, as though straight at the viewer.
The act of watching is the film’s main theme, and this is particularly evident in the scenes where the troupe is performing in the street. People line up to watch the lithe, graceful bodies in their acrobatic movements, while viewers watching the film watch those watchers watching the lithe, graceful bodies, and Abnoudy’s voice rings clear in subtle condemnation of the entire affair. However, despite the centrality of the notion of “looking” in the film, the power dynamics involved in the depicted looks are only documentational, unquestioning of what lies beyond the image.
We see the performances but we don’t see what’s behind this look we share with those who actually witness them on the street — is our viewing experience the same as theirs? And is the gaze that falls on a man doing acrobatics the same as that which falls on a woman belly-dancing? They are definitely different looks, carrying different questions of power, bias, and integration within the world of the circus, and even though the film is founded on a critique of “watching,” Abnoudy’s camera treats them the same way.
–The Atteyat al-Abnoudy retrospective runs in Cimatheque-Alternative Film Center through Friday, December 21. Sad Song of Touha screens Wednesday, December 19 at 7pm.
-This piece was originally published in Arabic in the first issue of Kurrasat al-Cimatheque in April 2016.