Out of the Shadows

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Out of the Shadows Assia Djebar Jocelyne Saab Heiny Srour Selma Baccar Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


Out of the Shadows Assia Djebar Jocelyne Saab Heiny Srour Selma Baccar Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

“ All of us, all of us who come from the world of women in the shadows, are reversing the process: at last it is we who are looking, we who are making a beginning. ” Assia Djebar

Exploring a cinematic history as extensive and rich as that of the Arab Mediterranean, one is faced with an exhilarating range of forms and manifestations. From the era of silent film up to the present, the regional cinema cultures of the Maghreb and the Mashriq have produced a myriad of remarkable works. Yet, when poring over the canonical historiographies of cinema, one cannot help but being struck by their relative obscurity, which is even more striking when it comes to films that have been made by women. Although there has been a notable rise of Arab female film directors in recent decades, the work of many pioneers tends to remain painfully neglected. The Out of the Shadows programme, originally conceived for the Courtisane festival 2020 in Ghent, is intended to address this obscurity and revitalize the work of a diversity of filmmakers whose films remain overlooked and barely screened. Five of these filmmakers are presented in this publication: Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, Selma Baccar, Assia Djebar, Jocelyne Saab and Heiny Srour. Coming from different backgrounds and regions, these filmmakers all began to produce films in the 1970s, at a moment of great political and cultural ferment. Often working against the grain, they set out to attend to voices and stories that were at risk of being drowned out by official History. While each of these filmmakers developed their own bold approaches to cinema, their works explore shared themes such as memory and identity, oppression and liberation, violence and exclusion, and the social and political role of women in Arab societies and histories. Each of these filmmakers has been shaped by different traditions and realities, for the Arab woman filmmaker exists no more than the Arab woman. Accordingly, this programme seeks to follow Assia Djebar’s appeal “not to presume ‘to speak for’ or, even worse, to ‘speak on’, barely speak near to, and if possible, to speak right up against”. In this vein, this publication brings together a selection of writings and interviews that speak “right up against” the films in the programme. The texts, most of which have been translated for the first time in English for this publication, are a testament to the women’s singular practices. They have been brought together here, right up against one another, in the hope of illuminating their rich and inspiring work and widening its reach and appreciation. Stoffel Debuysere Gerard-Jan Claes

Compiled on the occasion of the Out of the Shadows programme, originally conceived for the Courtisane festival 2020 (Ghent, 1-5 April).



A Woman, a Film, a Different Gaze

Programme curated by Stoffel Debuysere, in collaboration with Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi (Subversive Film), Christophe Piette and Céline Brouwez (CINEMATEK), with the support of AFAC - The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.

Josie Fanon, 1977

Assia Djebar


A First Look

Assia Djebar and Wassyla Tamzali, 1978


“I was looking for a musical language”

Interview by Maryse Léon and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, 1979/1981


Extract from Une éducation algérienne

Wassyla Tamzali, 2007


Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound

Assia Djebar, 1979


The Zerda or the Maghreb in the 1930s

Assia Djebar and Malek Alloula, 1979


The Singing of Oblivion

Assia Djebar, 1982


A Woman’s Gaze

Assia Djebar, 1989


My Need for Cinema

Assia Djebar, 1994

Jocelyne Saab



“It’s up to women to lift the veil”

Interview by Maryse Léon and Magda Wassef, 1978


“The public needs fiction, and several of us are moving in that direction”

Interview by Gaston Haustrate and Corinne McMullin, 1982


“It is no longer a matter of taking a position”

Interview by Sylvie Dallet, 1983


Documenting and Telling the Torments of the World

Interview by Olivier Hadouchi, 2014


For Jocelyne

Etel Adnan, 2014


Conversations with Etel Adnan and Jocelyne Saab

Olivier Hadouchi, 2014


Letter from Algiers to a Friend from Beirut

Wassyla Tamzali, 2014

Heiny Srour


Atteyat Al-Abnoudy



The Hour of Liberation

138 Everyone Wears a Mask

Interview by Guy Hennebelle and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, 1974

Interview by Jim Pines, 1973


Woman, Arab and... Filmmaker

141 “The only way for me as a filmmaker to express my feelings for them was to make a film”

Heiny Srour, 1976

Interview by J.-F. Camus, 1973


“I hope and pray for a massive influx of women into all fields of the film industry”

143 Atteyat — the Egyptian

Interview by Magda Wassef, 1978


Before the Wolves

John Akomfrah, 1983


The Other Half

149 Making Movies, Marking Time

Interview by Manny Shirazi, 1985

Interview by Johanni Larjanko and Riitta Santala, 1991

145 “My mission: to depict Egypt. And my request: democracy.” Interview by Samar Salman, 1991 Diana Digges, 1998

102 Between Three Stools


Poetry of the Real

Amina Hassan, 2007

Heiny Srour, 1998

106 Dhofar for Memory

Heiny Srour, 2008

109 “My loyalty is always with the oppressed. Whether in Africa, the Middle East or Vietnam”

Interview by Olivier Hadouchi, 2020

Selma Baccar



For the Self-Expression of the Arab Woman

Heiny Srour, Selma Baccar and Magda Wassef, 1978

119 “The men in the street were a little amused to see a woman giving orders”

Magda Wassef, 1978


An Uncompromising View

Interview by Wassyla Tamzali, 1979


“I made Fatma 75 because, despite everything, women are still not equal to men”

Interview by Farida Ayari, Férid Boughedir and Guy Hennebelle, 1981

128 An Encounter with the Doyenne of Tunisian film, Selma Baccar

Interview by Stefanie Van de Peer, 2010


Assia Djebar

Assia Djebar “Can it be simply by chance that most films created by women give as much importance to sound, to music, to the timbre of voices recorded or captured unawares, as they do to the image itself? It is as though the screen had to be approached cautiously and be peopled, if need be, with images seen through a look, even a short-sighted, hazy look, but borne on a full, commanding voice, hard as stone but fragile and rich as the human heart.” Assia Djebar (1936-2015) was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayen in Cherchell, Algeria, to a family of Berber origin. She was the first Algerian woman to attend the École normale supérieure de jeunes filles outside Paris. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962), she worked with Frantz Fanon for the newspaper El moudjahid, conducting interviews with Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco, before going on to teach history in Rabat and later in Algiers. Between the ages of twenty and thirty, she wrote four novels. But in the mid1960s, she decided to abandon writing in French, the language of Algeria’s colonizer. Cinema offered her new ways to approach language as well as the world of the women in her home region, which sharpened her attention to sounds spoken and sung. “I made the decision to make a first film, not knowing really if I’m a filmmaker, I think in November 1975: because it was the day of Pasolini’s death. His relation to popular poetry, to the spoken dialects of these regions, which he has conveyed in a certain way on the screen, is what I felt concerned about.” To film The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua in 1975-77, Assia Djebar went back to the mountain of Chenoua in order to listen and give voice to the oral

Filming The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977)

histories as transmitted by otherwise silenced women. The film was awarded with the Critics’ Prize at the 1979 Venice Film Festival, but was received with hostility in Algiers, where it was considered as too “personal” and thus anathematic to the nationalist project of decolonized Algeria. In 1980, she resumed her career as a writer with Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, a collection of stories expressing Algeria’s collective memory through polyphonic narratives by female voices. This book was going to be the seed for a film on the urban women of Algiers, intended to complement its other half on the rural women of the hinterland. Instead, for what turned out to be her final film, The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion (1978-1982), she spent two years sifting through archival footage shot by French colonizers in the first half of the 20th century, weaving it into an alternative vision of the history of the Maghreb. As Assia Djebar grew to be one of the most important figures in North African literature, she continued to raise the issue of women’s language and the circulation of women’s voices, all the while developing what she has termed her “own kind of feminism”.

Assia Djebar


The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977)

A Woman, a Film, a Different Gaze Josie Fanon, 1977 What does it mean to make a film when you are a woman, an Algerian, a novelist (writing in French) and you decide to make it in your own country, for the people of that country, with the widest distribution possible, as it is a film for television? First of all, it seems, it means facing and then resolving a large number of contradictions, the most important of which is that of language. It means breaking the infernal circle in which Algerian-French writers have been trapped. (I write, and I know how to write indeed. I speak, and my enthusiasm and strength of conviction are intact. But who is listening to me, who welcomes me, who understands me? At the end of the day, what is my personal contribution to the culture of my country?) Assia Djebar is now 40 years old. An author of four novels, [1] she hasn’t published anything for about ten years. Why? “I sincerely thought,” she says, “that I could become an Arabic writer. But during those years of silence, I realized there were problems with the written Arabic language that are beyond my abilities. It is different when it comes to everyday language. That’s why making films, for me, is not abandoning words for images. It’s making sound-images. It’s a return to the roots in terms of language.”


So, for her, it’s not a transition from one mode of expression to another, as is the case, in other countries, for writers who have become filmmakers, but a much more immediate concern: how to reproduce the sound of your home, the “noise” of your home, that of daily life, but also a certain musical and untranslatable tonality, related to language and to the rhythm of life. You will surely notice the importance of music in this film, which is structured like a nouba (an Andalusian music genre, hence its title), including an intervention of authentic Algerian folklore and excerpts from works by Béla Bartók inspired by his stay in Algeria in 1913.

MEMORY OF THE PAST This desire to make sound-images is what determined Djebar’s first step. Before shooting the film, she spent two months listening to the women talk, talking with them herself, with the farmers and farm workers in the villages where the film would be set: the Chenoua region, about 100 kilometres west of Algiers. And, on the basis of the sound of the recorded conversations, the first images were devised. What

Assia Djebar

were they about? As a starting point, memories of the liberation struggle were evoked. Some of these women went underground at the age of thirteen. But very quickly, the conversations led to specific stories from a more distant past. Thanks to her personal relationship with the region — she was born there — and, thus, thanks to the connection with her own childhood, Assia Djebar was able to link the present and the past. She explains that one of the most important moments in the film is when the heroine remembers her grandmother telling the children about the lives of her ancestors and, in particular, the episode of the abortive uprising of 1871. Image-wise, what follows is a shot of about twenty old women surrounded by children. These images are not presented as a faithful reconstruction of the past, but as the memory of the past that gives rise to images in the eyes of the children. Assia Djebar says: “The repossession of identity can only come through history, that is to say, through the past. We must restore the dialectical relationship between the past and the present. We must not be afraid to show the shadows, but bring to light what is to be kept for the present and the future. In formerly colonized countries, you can only conceive of a culture through a search for its roots. And, memory-wise, we are a society cut off from its roots. There is a gap between 1971 and 1930. ‘Algeria between two wars’, as Berque reminds us, is a society blocked from its origins. Throughout this entire period, there is silence. Only the women’s voice is left. Of course, this idea of oral history transmitted by women is not new, but I wanted to visualize it. To make each person in the image recognize themselves and, thus, be able to piece together a personality. To finally arrive at a form of collective speech.” Assia Djebar’s training as a historian and sociologist will undoubtedly have been of great help to her in this research. However, she has other qualities which seem to me to be even greater guarantees for the success of her undertaking: a constant and heartfelt attention to the life and problems of others, and a discretion and modesty that made her “sacrifice” certain images of women during the shoot. If they were filmed without consent, or without the consent of their husbands, they could face serious problems when the film was released. Assia (her youthful silhouette, with this sense of independence and freedom, this desire to live, to move and to speak that she carries around) is a door that opens. A big breath of air that crosses the room full of women sitting and talking. It is the wind lifting the curtains, opening the space, and at the same time it is a way of entering apologetically, without disturbing, by being accepted, a gentle presence that lets others speak, listens, and ultimately gives rise to a dialogue in which they finally say “I” — beyond the stereotypical patterns of women’s language in a traditional society.

“In the case of Arab women,” she says, “individual speech, using the word ‘I’ for themselves, is a new thing. And any dialogue that leads to the search for identity is fertile. Dialogues between mother and daughter, between sisters, between women of different generations are dialogues of the future. The aim of women who create something is to pass on the desire to say ‘I’.” Lifting the restrictions on language, encouraging women’s speech, making women feel that they are free to speak — while they are traditionally denied the right to speak and are not even named — seems more important in the end, even if it’s easier to achieve, than lifting the restrictions on the gaze. “They expect that I, as an Arab woman,” says Assia, “by publicly projecting images of women, show what cannot be shown. And perhaps, at first, I myself naively thought I could do exactly that. But I neither make films for tourists, nor for foreigners who want to know more. And I realized that it is not interesting to show what everyone here knows. To burst in on the women just like that. I have nothing to discover; I do not have to unveil what they have never seen.”

TO SHOW THE BANAL AGAIN When, at a certain moment during the shoot, Assia had to take the camera herself and wanted to film women inside their houses, she understood that she was right. Because filming women between 12 and 50 years old in a traditional Muslim society “puts them in danger”. There is a possibility of repercussions for the family, including divorce. This raises a moral problem: what are you trying to do? Is it voyeurism? Or do you instead want to “show to those who are in the same position as you are that they can’t watch what they see every day. The image itself harbours a revolutionary potential. I didn’t want to show interior images. Those, I already know. I wanted to show exterior images: the image of women moving around in the space of men. Because, for me, that’s what emancipation is, to move around freely. You see these women in my film, but you also see doors closing, women hiding, avoiding the gaze. In the end, I wanted to show what we see every day, but in another way, as if you cleaned your gaze, forgot everything, and saw everything anew. To bring back the banal. That’s my craft; nothing else.” Both a creative documentary and a fiction film, The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua rediscovers the present and the past of a region through the approach and motivations of a heroine who looks and remembers. “In the end,” says Assia Djebar, “it’s a film about memory. The past is never past. It exists in architecture, in certain faces. And only if you have a clear view of your relationship with the past can you come back to the present.” This is what Leila does, the heroine of the film who starts a

Assia Djebar


journalistic investigation among the peasant women at the end of the film. The film ends with a film that begins. Assia Djebar is now convinced that after this first film, which is also the first feature-length film by a female filmmaker from the Maghreb, she will make more. What kind of films? She believes that documentaries are the future for Third World cinema. In Algeria, for example, cinema arrives in a cultural no-man’s-land. Therefore, it cannot represent this synthesis of all the arts it represents in other countries. The constant transition from creative documentary to fiction, the refusal to choose a position in relation to other forms of cinema — which is not a refusal of universal film culture, but an awareness of national cultural reality — and the concern not to abandon literature [2]: all this allows us to claim that Assia Djebar will contribute considerably to the ongoing broader debate on cinema in the Third World. Other women, alongside her, are casting a new light on their own society, transforming it through their gaze. A meeting of female filmmakers to be held in Algiers in the next six months will open a dialogue between those who, after being silent and watched for so long, are now speaking, watching and creating.


Originally published as ‘Une femme, un film, un autre regard’ in Demain l’Afrique (September 1977). Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] La soif [The Mischief] (1957), Les impatients (1958), Les enfants du nouveau monde [Children of the New World] (1962), Les alouettes naïves (1967) (published by Julliard and 10/18, Paris). [2] She’s preparing a new book that is to be published next winter, Femme arable, a story about the experience of filming. (Editor’s note: this book was never published, but parts of Femme arable eventually made their way into Vaste est la prison [So Vast the Prison] (1995)).

Assia Djebar

The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977)

A First Look Assia Djebar and Wassyla Tamzali, 1978 O you spectators of this nouba. You who have plunged into darkness! O Queen of the Chenoua, accept my wishes! Your heart is mourning the misfortunes of the past Every night, every morning, your eyes are sad! ** I speak to you, you who understands the symbols! My singing always speaks of freedom. I intercede for the women martyrs and for those who live, may God relieve them of oppression! The illness will recover from its ills and say, “Thanks to God, I have been freed!” **

She who returns home thirsty sees all her friends running there She has turned on the light of the past O those who have understood it as I do! The women will not return to the shadows. Let us question the present, you and I! She has turned on the light of the past O those who have understood it as I do! She has turned on the light of the past O those who have understood it as I do! In the age of servitude they justified the word Now begins the day of freedom. ** You the spectator, you hide We, we will look at each other in pure light… That day everything will flower again...

‘Ali’s Song’ — Lyrics by Assia Djebar

Assia Djebar




- The relationship between history and the audiovisual. The news is used as the unreal. The six images of the massacres of Algiers are edited into the first shots of the film, while Leila is sleeping. Is it a dream fuelled by history or a lived moment? - Fire, water, sheepskin, wool... It’s childhood; it’s memory. Leila is indeed a child. “It is with great pleasure that I rediscovered my childhood bed and the sappa [1] of my childhood. It’s my mother’s. It’s thirty years old.” (A.D.) The search for the brother is, in fact, a search for childhood. It is memory... It’s the regret of childhood. - The decoration of the room is white on white: sheepskin, woven wool. It’s a female universe with a certain disorder, and the case’s temporariness. - “When Leila puts on her scarf in front of the mirror, what interests me is the repetition of her daily gestures.” (A.D.) - Whatever intellectual or other activity is going on, during the film, we’re rotating around an empty bed. Does the film address the problem of male/female sexual relations? Ali’s fall happens after trying to enter the room in vain. This fall corresponds to that of the bodies being shot in Leila’s dream. Question: is there a connection between man’s (im)potence and war? - Leila puts her daughter to bed. “You have no maternal feelings whatsoever. No kisses. You put her to bed; you get rid of her.” (A.D.’s instructions to the actress). Question: woman/motherhood relationship. Women should be considered outside of the myth of motherhood. - It’s a film about memory; each shot is a gaze. Leila is constantly followed by the gaze, that of her husband first of all. - “What’s most important in a shot is to find the detail that is the opposite of the essential. That’s the motor of the sequence.” (A.D.) In the bath scene (water), they’re lighting kanouns (fire). - The bath scene was chosen as a replacement for the dance scene planned in the script. Between mother and child, transference onto the child of the desire to touch. - The music introduces both the dream and time passing. The landscape changes at the end when she is going to die. She sinks into stone. Stone replaces wool. Childhood/death. In the film, the heroine doesn’t die, but she joins a world of stones at the end. Alternating montage of stones from the Tombeau de la Chrétienne [“The Tomb of the Christian Woman”, the Royal Mausoleum of Mauritania located on the road between Cherchell and Algiers, ed.] and of stone bleachers, stairs under which Leila was held captive during the war.


- Sequence I/II: Opening titles: “O you who, in passing, looks or dreams, filters, sorts, gives the illusion that you are real!” - Sequence II/I: Presentation of the couple: “To finally plunge into the past, into my memory of the past, and then... (with a sob) then to leap... He won’t touch the body’s fever for a long time, I no longer want it... Fever only in the eyes of the child, only in remembrance... O, I’m returning home at last.” (underlined by the author) - Sequence III/I: Faces, landscapes. Second part of the prelude. “These portraits deliberately represent only old women or little girls. The only women a cursory survey would deal with when doing a quick review of this very rural region: the only ones, indeed, who live outside of confinement.” Same sequence, voice-over text: “I will look for him (the brother)... I will look for myself... Pride and caverns... He said (a faltering voice... Silence before a woman’s face, a peasant woman, the text resumes with a mountain view). We were going up, my feet were swollen with blood already, and he said, ‘up there’... They were already there, the old women who had finally escaped from the walls and from giving birth, and those who hadn’t been born yet, who were the age of my childhood... The ones I could have given birth to, for as long as I’m trying to remember... I’ll look!” - Sequence VI: Leila’s voice-over: “I’ll look... But for what? Not as before, the death of my dead brother... Not as before.” - Sequence VII/I: Leila and the husband... Alone, then together with him. After drying the man’s back while he’s lying on the floor, Leila slowly massages his back. Her face moves closer to his shoulder. A sudden and deliberate image of Leila’s face (in close-up). Leila (her face close to the nape of Ali’s neck, who’s lying on his stomach) says: “Tomorrow I am going to the mountains.” The next day Leila leaves. A shot of Ali lying on his back, and the beginning of a song whose lyrics say: “O my brother, o my love.” (unfilmed sequence) - Sequence XI: As Leila has decided to go and live “in the mountains for a few days”, time is stretched. The rhythm of the montage becomes slower as well as more liquid... A feeling of melancholy (as suggested by the “mesrah” [“performance”] of a nouba), but also of a certain liberation from everyday life... In fact, Leila turns her back on her current family, on the sea, in order to sink into the mountains of her childhood. Hence, a climb back in time, into the collective past… End of the sequence. Leila’s voice-over: “Oh yes... I’ve found it... I think I’ve found it. To turn, oh my God, to turn every defeat into a song of victory... An ululation of pride!”

Assia Djebar

III. DIRECTOR’S STATEMENT (SYNOPSIS EXCERPT) - Indeed, one of the ambitions of the film is that the structure be based on the Andalusian nouba... Thus, the montage of the thematic parts of the film can be classified as follows: Leila, the second return. Present II: Leila, the return and the search for the missing brother. History I: remembering the peasant women of 1945-62. History II: remembering the grandmothers of 1871-1842. These elements will be edited in three or four movements at the most, with each movement having its own rhythm. So there will be an istikhbar or prelude in which all motifs are announced as instrumental or vocal solos, and there will be a khlass at the end in which we will attempt a fast-paced fusion of individual memories of the calm Leila and collective memories — all of this will be supported by a musical composition based on traditional instruments. Between the two, the body of the film will comprise either a slow mécceder or a livelier btaihi part... Then a melancholic and dreamy nesraf. - Second, this film responds to: how to bring back memories of our history in images and sounds? The answer is put forward in two forms: a) As for 1954 to 1962, to just show authentic witnesses (at the heart of these interviews, an evocation through geographical places and voices of witnesses). Thus, the more documentary aspect of the film... b) When the historical facts are distant, to rely on an illustration of images with a precise goal: to evoke subjective history, to awaken, to reanimate images of a collective past without any pretensions of historical reconstruction... To produce a succession of general scenes, like those dreamt by every Algerian child that hears the evocations of the elderly of their tribe or family.

IV. APPROACHES TO THE FILM You’ll wonder what all the preambles are for. They’re meant to express how far removed I was from innocently receiving this film. And at the same time, by getting rid of it all, it’s in order to rediscover a certain simplicity when facing the film. Let me first say that The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua is a film of very high quality. For the first time in Algerian cinema, it introduces a study that truly provokes the intelligence of both spectators and critics in terms of cinematographic language. As Assia Djebar’s film doesn’t provide easy pleasure, it’s a long and difficult search. The comprehension of which requires a certain tension or, more exactly, leads to a certain tension. And we’re hardly ready to acknowledge this message (in the sense of a means of com-

munication) about women, accustomed as we have been to a certain laziness. But who would complain about it? The spectators of Leïla et les autres (Sid Ali Mazif, 1977) or Vent du sud (Mohamed Slim Riad, 1975)? In her initial project, which was supposed to last 90 minutes, Assia Djebar attempted a documentary approach to a region she knew well, Chenoua. At that point, she was already introducing elements of fiction, in an attempt to respond to the reproaches that have been addressed to the documentary mode these last few years, namely the always superficial approach allowed by the exclusive use of “true documents”. Already in her screenplay, we penetrate the history of the women of Chenoua, and thus a part of our own history by following a young woman in search of her past. Leila is an architect. She’s married to a veterinarian who is stuck in a wheelchair because of a work accident. The time of this convalescence in her native region will become a return to the past for the heroine. A painful past. Because, here, in these mountains during the war, her brother disappeared. And as time has passed (13, 12 or 15 years), she finds the strength to resume an investigation she started ten years ago among the women of the region, in order to find out how her brother died. Then, in a second phase, through the oldest women, she goes back even further than recent history — the one told in lived memories — to a history known through legends passed down from the forefathers. “And history is told around embers With broken words A grandmother’s voice rising from oblivion Dewdrops in attentive childhood eyes...” Assia Djebar — ‘Poems for a Happy Algeria’ For the filmmaker, on the one hand, it was a matter of transmitting the historical details of 1954-1962 “exactly as a documentary would do”, by involving direct witnesses; and, on the other, of reaching the source of the region’s tribal history through “subjective and concrete” views (the stories of ancestors, legends). Out of this 90-minute project arose a two-hour film in which purely historical concerns gave way to more personal concerns. To feminist concerns, one could say. Because, rather than a reflection on history, Assia Djebar’s film leads us to a reflection on women — rather than on Algerian women only. But can we separate these two reflections? It’s an interesting question, and far from haphazard. In Children of the New World [one of the first novels of Djebar, published in 1962, ed.], we already found a Leila and, twenty years apart, an anxious quest for happiness. For the heroine of the novel, Ali’s love (the same first name as the husband’s) had woven a “cocoon”, and his departure to the

Assia Djebar


maquis was considered abandonment, personal “betrayal”. Indeed, the happiness was born from her submission to Ali’s exclusive love. “This peace and quiet, this quagmire” into which she had “tumbled”. Twenty years later, in The Nouba, Leila will refuse this happiness and try to escape, an escape that is facilitated by her husband’s temporary physical impotence. First, an escape into the search for her brother — a search for a ghost, as it is now certain that he is dead — a vain pursuit of childhood. It is this search that will determine the room’s décor with elements of childhood and adolescence: the bed, the sappa, etc. A return to a feminine universe created by the materials decorating the room: wool, sheepskin, white on white — a feminine universe closed in on itself. It’s this universe that Ali will be unable to cross into, despite the absence of a door, despite his constant looking at the bed, his wife... And since he refuses to speak, the distance between the bodies multiplies the silence. Outside, through the window, on a sunny morning, it’s the present that passes when the troupe of musicians passes by. It is the music, the dancing bodies against a Mediterranean background, the playing. But it’s also the evocation of consummate joy. “We were so young.” Outside, there are flocks of bare-bottomed kids with dirty, straightened hair, who are growing up among brambles and stones and occupying the space opened wide onto the horizon and the sky, where the camera keeps on recording the uneven rhythm of life, and where the frame never limits the gaze. And this passage is quite vertiginous, as it moves from the interior (the room, the window, the door), fixed and frozen in the imageframe, to the outdoors. It might be one of the richest rotations of the film. This effect of the film is undoubtedly due to the effect of the filmmaker’s manner, of her approach. Because by choosing a rather anonymous house, she has completely transformed its interior but always used the exterior of the house with great restraint, great respect, without changing anything about the gestures, the behaviour or clothes of those who live around the house and served as extras. Her investigation into her brother’s death also runs into social reality, objective history. Is it an alibi investigation? An act of defiance towards her husband’s silence? A childhood refuge in a masculine world! Which way leads Leila to the reality of the women of Chenoua? In every hypothesis, she joins the history of the women. That’s where the artist is far superior to the sociologist, or the ethnologist. Through a poetic approach, starting from a subjective need, an artist always joins others in her lone singing. And Assia Djebar, starting from herself, from this room, from this man’s silence, hands us the most beautiful document on women in all of Algerian cinema, as she has managed to give them a


voice. She has managed to capture their gazes, their voices, their memories. She has managed to make them great and important. She makes them speak with History. How beautiful the dance scene in the cave is! From this confusion, which could have seemed or be taken for marginal, from this slightly narcissistic song (the impossibility of breaking the distance with things and beings), the filmmaker draws the strength to go towards others. There are so many shots of faces that, when the accelerated mode of the nouba culminates, we almost feel vertiginous. And happiness? The Leila of The Nouba does not respond to the Leila of Children of the New World. Khaled, another character in the book, said to the anxious young girl: “I don’t know if we have a gift for happiness in this country... it requires... how should I put it, a vocation.” It’s more or less what Camus, that other Mediterranean, said (but why not?): “If there were no sun in this country, there would be more suicides.” It’s the violent relationship with the sky and the sea that marks the men of these shores. And in The Nouba, we really feel this sea, this sun, this land, these bushes, these roofs falling into the water. The musicians passing by and playing, and the youth... Because Assia Djebar’s film is also a film about the geographical link in which a certain need becomes part of so much material beauty... But what should we call it? Happiness? Leila doesn’t even find it when she attempts to disappear in the memory of her ancestors. She’s a willing and happy victim of the cave. Because dressed in a white burnous, lying in the fishing boat, that’s how she looks. Peaceful, no doubt washed by the salt sea spray, she returns to the world of stones and shadows, leaving behind both the room, the closed universe of the feminine world, and Ali, the silent man.

INTERVIEW WITH ASSIA DJEBAR The public knows you mainly as a novelist, but this film is not your first contact with the world of entertainment, if you allow me to use this slightly hackneyed word. When we first met, one year before the shoot of The Nouba, you were teaching a course on cinema at the Faculty of Arts, so you already had a theoretical approach to your filmmaking… I was teaching a course on cinema and theatre at the university of Algiers. But before that, I even had a more concrete contact with entertainment, as I had been... how shall I put it... I had been a theatre operator for three years in Paris. I auditioned the actors, did the sound, the décor, etc., in a café-theatre, and I adapted the texts of course, and received the journalists... Even before that, I had written a play myself,

Assia Djebar

Rouge l’aube, which was directed by Mustapha Kateb. The play had been written to be performed at the border, during the war, and in Arabic dialect. It was never translated. Kateb staged it as a heroic piece. Which was the opposite of what I’d imagined. I felt betrayed, but not in terms of the quality: it was a different conception of theatre, of scenic space. I became aware of the importance of the mise-en-scène. So, when I was later asked to write scenarios for others, I refused. Is that what drove you to filmmaking? No, for a long time already, cinema seemed to be a disadvantaged art form to me because it didn’t convey the feeling of duration... Like certain kinds of books or music do... which introduce you into a thick sense of duration, where you feel that something is maturing in front of you. You’re in it; you’re no longer a spectator. Even with the great films, I couldn’t get into it. My problem, as a novelist, was always a problem of time... Maybe because I’m obsessed with it? That’s what I’m trying to express now in my films. Could you tell me if you were aware of the mise-en-scène from the outset — that is to say, at the scenario stage — or if you wrote your film using words, as a novelist?

for difficulty. I could make films that are easy, but those films wouldn’t allow me to make progress. At what point does the need to make a film or write a book arise in you? It’s when you sense the shadows surrounding a subject. An obscure edge... As you make progress, maybe you come across new difficulties... So, to have true respect for others and for yourself is not to try and find the easiest way, the one that should lead you to be more immediately understood. The real level of honesty is to try and solve your problem, your questions. And you can’t do that for others… Does the film push some of the limits of literature? It’s a very different thing. Let’s first say what cinema shouldn’t be when compared to literature... Cinema should not be a simple mise en chair [a flesh-and-blood version], a concretization of characters or a plot. I’d say that literature allows you more freedom in that respect; you’re both more personal and more collective... though obviously using the French language... but we could still say that the novel, that literature, allows you to go deeper. Cinema should allow you to tackle other domains… Why this transition to cinema? Why did you leave literature?

I know that I wrote The Nouba as a filmmaker. The flesh of the film, perhaps not the structure, was discovered in the field. Starting from the sounds of the peasant women’s voices that I recorded. And then the eye and the space were very important. I’m in the process of writing an essay on this awareness, on space. Why make a film in the first place? Do you think a film goes beyond a book? Maybe in terms of the public... You can’t say your film is an easy read. You mean the general public? Do you mean that, from a book to a film, one goes from 10,000 to 100,000 spectators? I don’t believe in the general public. I’m not interested in the message multiplied by 1,000 or more. People even tell you, “yes, if you switch to cinema, it’s to convey a more immediate message”. I’ve realized that it isn’t more immediate and that, when you approach cinema, you’re ultimately dealing with issues that are just as complex as you would in writing. Cinema really is a major art. There’s no quality loss. My film isn’t difficult. I’m just asking for an effort from the public. Plus, the difficulty is not a starting point. What was complex and fairly new were the issues I had to face... My means weren’t adapted to what I was looking for... I wasn’t looking

(no response) How did you construct your film? I told you that my scenario is essentially based on material from the field. First of all, quite simply, let’s say that the film was constructed from documentary sounds, that is to say, from conversations of peasant women recorded on tape. That’s the primary core of the film. Then I tried to visualize what they were telling me. I tried to understand the relationship of these women with their memory. Incidentally, unlike city people, the men and women in the countryside are capable of giving you oceans of pain in very sober and dry words... Perhaps because it was a repeated, a daily kind of pain? Then it’s up to you to feel, in some detail of the transmission — because in the field of cinema I consider myself a simple transmitter — the gap that opens onto other things. The little things are the true elements of the transmission. Through tiny bits — the inflection of a voice, unexpected tears, hesitation — that introduce you to the true, secret history of people. Words too... You asked me why I quit literature, why I left my written literature. I did it in order to search for other people’s words. Maybe that search was provoked by the fact that I write in French... Is it the concern for detail?

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Perfectly understanding the Arabic dialect, I tried to find the right word, not the grammatically most correct one, but the one that expresses more emotion, more affectivity. You wrote somewhere that French only allowed you to take your characters to the threshold of themselves… Yes, I would say that if I wrote in Arabic, an Arabic that would have fixed its problems with its various dialects — it would be interesting to reread what Pasolini wrote about dialects — I wouldn’t have felt the need to leave written literature... or not for that reason. It seems to me that you discovered other reasons in the field, didn’t you? Already when reading your scenario, one comes across voice register indications that seem to be addressed to cinema specifically. Or theatre. If I had written down the words of others, I could have staged them in theatre by choosing tones of voice, accents... But no, I moved to cinema through oral literature. What I discovered — or the issue I was faced with, if you like — when I was collecting documentary sounds, was space, and this space became an important component of the film’s subject. As long as I stayed in literature, I could escape the women’s confinement through my imagination. But having to film women talking (and only that at the beginning), I soon became aware of their space in a concrete way. I felt a solidarity I’d never felt in literature. This confinement was even more palpable because I was in a region where the landscapes are as beautiful as they can be around the Mediterranean. I’m not even talking about colour; I’m talking about the widening of space... I came across houses that were completely closed in on themselves, even if there were no privacy problems! In a certain way, cinema put me in front of space in a physical way. Literature wouldn’t have done that, obviously… So your film is more a film about space than about women? Yes, because saying that my film is a film about women doesn’t mean anything. I’ll always make these films... Female bodies, women are my subject. Like a sculptor somehow, who uses a certain material, while another sculptor will use another material. That should mean something, shouldn’t it? I think that’s what the Cinémathèque audience couldn’t stand; I’ve removed men from my film. But what can I say, except that I’ve just shown what exists in reality. I intentionally separated the sexes in the image, as in reality.


The intention is feminist, and why not? I wanted to show the number one problem of Algerian women, which is the right to space. Because I was able to verify that the more space the women had, the firmer they stood. It’s not a coincidence that the first woman that speaks in the film, the 88-year-old, is shown in her vegetable garden: she seemed happy, or at least sure of herself. Starting from the sounds and the space, how did you structure your film? There are two ways to proceed when you make a film, or a book for that matter. Either you take a factual situation and you face it by criticizing it — for example, you take a heroine suffocated by society and you show the extent to which she can be suffocated; or you show what should be. Me, instead of showing a dozen women chatting in their kitchen, I took a young woman that I liberated in space. Because that’s the real change. She is liberated by my imagination and by my hope, because I would like the majority of Algerian women to move around freely and to feel good when moving around. That’s the second problem: to move around, to see and hear, and not always be forced to escape another’s spying gaze. And as I go along, my camera moving around in space with my heroine, the documentary is there to show that which exists, that is to say, women… Did the public reproach you precisely for showing only old women or little girls? Which is precisely not a coincidence or a filmmaker’s bias. If I only showed older women and little girls, it’s because it was impossible for me to film women of other ages. Often, it was a twelve-year-old boy who came between me and his mother. So, who did I see that was slightly more liberated in space? You have older women who have the right to a vegetable garden, and you have little girls running around with a schoolbag on their way to school — we fought for their right to go to school until they’re twelve, and in the Tipaza region they go to school until they’re fourteen. It would be interesting to see until what age we see girls moving around in the street. That would be a way of watching the film... At one point, we see two girls in trousers, 20 and 22 years old... and then we see a girl from the back, with a schoolbag. We see her from the back because she doesn’t want to be seen. This leads us to the second problem, the problem of girls in Algiers: how to move around freely without the gaze of men — here, the gaze of my camera. And then you have the women in the fields, who are objectively freer than the local potentate’s or policeman’s wife (who doesn’t go out at all). Let’s end on this point: if I had made a film about Saudi women, there would

Assia Djebar

be 100 to 200 shots of women behind fences among the 700 or so shots of the film, whereas now I have one or two. That’s the real relationship between locked-up women and others, and cinema doesn’t allow you to dodge the problem. We could say that in a comparative history of women in the Arab countries, the situation of Algerian women is more favourable. But it’s not satisfactory. Now that you’ve taken the plunge, so to speak, and moved to cinema, wouldn’t you be tempted to make fiction films and leave aside documentaries? No, not really, and more for technical reasons than by preference, I would say. Whatever the result, The Nouba, a film you like or don’t like, allowed me to think about what kind of cinema to make in Algeria or in a developing country. Everywhere else, cinema benefits from an accumulation of techniques, talents or artistic disciplines, so the filmmaker arrives in a non-virgin territory. We arrive in virgin territory, or at least a territory where certain disciplines are 50 years behind. How, under these conditions, do you want to make entirely fictional films on a real level, not on the level of Rome or Warsaw, not on the level of your own thoughts. Because if a film is just about giving substance to characters, to a plot, then I am better off alone with my words. What’s interesting and exciting is that which is added to you, which is capable of energizing your own work. Let’s take actors, for example. They should be on a journey, so you could share some reference points with them. They should be able to bring their own elements to a character, instinctive elements that a professional practice would have liberated. A great actor always goes beyond what the director says. In a long shot, there is a point at which he innovates. He flees from his director, secretly joining his character, your character... So, we arrive in virgin territory. Let’s try to turn the disadvantages into advantages... In order to do this, we need to make films that aren’t closed. You mean we have to introduce the documentary? No, it’s more complicated than that... We, or rather I, can’t make completely fictional films. I have to introduce the documentary as I understand it and… What do you mean by “the documentary as I understand it”? I mean, first of all, that it’s a way of proceeding. For me, it’s not necessarily about adding to the social documents of

an Algerian film library. Which is a perfectly justified and very interesting goal, but let’s say it doesn’t interest me a priori… I’d like to rephrase my question. In your film, there is a fictional part and an “observed” part. Did you manipulate reality when you brought the real women of Chenoua to the screen? Do you want to know if it’s direct cinema? No, it’s not. There’s only one direct-cinema shot in the film, during the (fictional) sequence of the little girl in the tree. A woman walked by, without noticing the camera. We filmed her without her knowing it. For everything else, I proceeded in a very different way. I was in a place I knew perfectly well, because I had travelled around there a lot. Path after path, I had observed a lot — I probably had the desire to observe like a sociologist, or like an ethnologist would do, to re-observe the same kinds of movement, the same activities... Once I had observed and memorized this reality (because my method when I travel, when I go to people’s homes, is to not take a camera, but to observe and take everything in), once this reality was inside of me, I started thinking about the frame. When shooting, I would give the cameraman this frame and ask him to wait until the reality I had observed, once or ten times, would return. I would ask him to film something that was going to happen. It’s like hunting; you know the game will turn up. It wasn’t a matter of killing, but of capturing reality. Of course, in relation to this space, maybe I had the eye of a painter. I thought about a frame for a long time, wondered why I chose this or that frame, why I wanted a lot of sky when the girl was running down the road... I didn’t know. I followed my intuition... It was a bit disorienting for the people I was working with, who were used to doing news reports. We worked more slowly. Twice as slow. I waited for the things I knew to return. So you were passive in the face of reality? Not quite. Because once I’d memorized the reality, I thought of a mise en image, like in fiction in a way. Above all, if you say that something that exists outside of you is going to happen, you need to think about your relationship to this thing. About your distance. In fact, this relationship of proximity or non-proximity with beings, the place of the camera basically, that’s what mise-en-scène is. I experienced it in a physical way. Now, my way of watching a film is to see where the camera is. I recently saw Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) again, and the film could well be summarized by the place of the camera. Bergman always films actresses at armpit level, so this type of gaze that plays on women’s bodies obviously requires supernatural, or hardly natural actresses.

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The relation of distance is more than just aesthetic; it’s a moral relation. And here I return to the fact that it’s not a closed kind of cinema. In documentaries, despite your expectations, your perfect knowledge of the territory, sometimes something doesn’t go exactly as expected. That’s the imponderable, and that’s what’s exciting about this field. If you have established the true relation of distance with the subject, you’re able to understand when a person in front of you, or a gesture you want to capture, continues to exist by and for themselves, or itself, as with great artists who at some point go beyond the script and enrich it. So at that moment, if you have established the true distance, which is both a relation of promiscuity and a relation of knowledge, both not being a stranger and not disturbing — in short, the opposite of a tourist — at that moment, you’re ready to capture what’s happening in front of you. Something is really happening in front of you. Then, you can film.


Originally published as ‘La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua’ in Les 2 écrans (July 1978). Republished, in an extended version, as ‘Un premier regard’, in Wassyla Tamzali, En attendant Omar Gatlato: Regards sur le cinéma algérien ; suivi de Introduction fragmentaire au cinéma tunisien (Algiers: éditions E.N.A.P., 1979). Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] A sappa is a woven bathing basket or case, mostly used by women in the city. Its interior is often lined with satin and multiple embroidered pockets, and is encrusted with two or three mirrors.

Assia Djebar

During the editing of The Zerda, L’Hay-les-Roses (1982). Picture by Malek Alloula.

Reportage in the Aures, oasis close to Biskra (1980). Picture by Malek Alloula.

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The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977)

“I was looking for a musical language” Interview by Maryse Léon and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, 1979/1981 Being a novelist, how did you become a filmmaker? Let’s say I moved from written literature to oral literature in order to find a solution for the problem of not writing in the mother tongue of the collectivity. After ten years of purely literary activities, I gradually detected a popular language. At first, I thought it was a national language, but then I realized, instinctively and unconsciously, that it was a women’s language I was interested in. When I tried to transpose popular Arabic, which felt like a very rich language to me, to French, which is very rational and intellectual, there was a loss. And then there was the timbre of the voices which stuck in my mind and which gets inevitably lost in writing… We live in a culture where expression stifles a lot of things. When you look at the accelerated evolution and industrialization in Algeria, you realise that it speeds up this loss. So, for me, there is this problem of national culture, in a broad sense. But within this listening to the collectivity, I privileged listening to women. Since Les alouettes naïves, I have been looking for this attention


to others. The collection of short stories, which will probably be published, might elucidate this trajectory. Working with space and sound in a concrete way brought me back to literature. I situate my writing problems differently now. Actually, I wrote an essay on my work whilst making the film. How did you proceed to elaborate this in the field? For three months, I lived with several women, and I made an effort to listen to them. I chose the region I grew up in. The first woman you see is a cousin of my mother. So, there immediately was this atmosphere of everyday relations. We did a whole lot of interviews. It’s the only moment during the working process that the women accepted the presence of a woman assistant, a sound assistant. Starting from this documentary mass of material, I constructed an open script. I elaborated schemes of fiction that started from propositions originating in the documentary material.

Assia Djebar

What’s the importance of sound for you? For me, sound definitely does not serve as accompaniment. When it comes down to that, I prefer silent images! Sound is not only explicit speech! The moment you speak about language, you take heart from the important role women play in the sound of daily life. In the beginning, my only goal was to save the natural tone of the women. That’s why, sometimes, a vocal expression or a turn of phrase are put into music, into space, in a person’s absence. I wanted the women from the cave to be present in their real, everyday movements. It’s the start of a trajectory. The intention is to bring the naturalness of the voice and the body together and maybe, in that moment, to succeed in conveying this naturalness. What were your issues at hand? First, I was making a product for television. Second, I refused to use the classical interview style. I chose television as a means of communication because, in Algeria, it is the only screen that women direct their gaze at. But I was very well aware of the fact that television broadcasts a product that is being watched without special attention. On the one hand, there was this medium that could reach a maximum number of women, of different cultural strata. On the other, I had to bear in mind the feeble nature of its auditory and visual reception. So, I wanted to bring women to the screen; but in order for them to really be seen, to really be heard, doing “anti-interviews” was essential. Because, since 1962, there have been interviews with former combatants (of both sexes) every week! To give a microphone to someone who’s talking results in predictable talk and predictable images. It’s a discourse that doesn’t work anymore, not because of its profusion, but because of the very approach that obeys a conformism that tends to remove all liveliness from the past and integrates the latter in a stereotyped scheme. What’s the meaning of the family situation of your heroine? It’s no coincidence that I wanted this woman to be in a relationship. The year is 1974, since 1962 time has passed… I can presume that this woman has married and had a child during these years. The only provocative side of the film is the fact that the man is confined to the house while the woman is circulating. I didn’t do this because I wanted to shock. I wanted to make a documentary as seen by a woman: women looked at by a woman, this look being both contemporary and memorized. I needed the man to be inside and the woman to be outside,

so I invented an accident and put him in a wheelchair. I didn’t need this man to speak. There was this couple and the husband was mute. Of course, I was reproached for it. In the cinema, with an 80 per cent masculine audience, men interpreted this situation as an aggression. Isn’t it rather the nature of the accident, that is to say, falling from a horse, with all of its symbolism, which stirred the imagination of the audience? No, for me, the horse represents the ancestors, the fantasias [a traditional exhibition of horsemanship in the Maghreb, translator’s note]. Most Algerians reason like this: “Our ancestors have been so heroic, as they fought for seventeen years.” But… they were defeated! When I started to teach Algerian history at the faculty in 1962, I addressed the resistance of Abdelkader. I wanted to know why we were defeated. Was it a matter of forces, of armament? Instead of glorifying heroism, I prefer to question the defeat. From Les alouettes naïves, where the couple was central to the novel, to The Nouba, where the couple no longer exists, there’s a radical evolution in the way you envisage the couple relationship. Yes, today, the notion of the couple is stuck. I told the actors: you have arrived at a stage in your relationship where you’re still together, but you don’t communicate anymore. So, why talk? My film doesn’t address the reasons for this silence, which might be multiple. Presently, many couples live alone in Algeria, without family around them. The couple in the film is coming apart at the seams, like couples elsewhere, or maybe even more so than others elsewhere. But parallel to this situation of the couple that is stuck, the woman continues to toil, to have many children, to gather wood every morning because of an economy that isn’t developed yet. The uniqueness of the situation of women in Algeria is the coexistence of these two aspects. We have to try to think about women’s problems in relation to men; but we shouldn’t forget that living next door, and I don’t mean fifty years ago, another woman lives her life as a spouse enduring economic hardships. For me, the sequences that are most representative are those that reunite fiction and documentary. For example, the sequence of the little girl in the trees and the old women gathering wood. The character of your heroine stirred quite some controversy with the Algerian audience…

Assia Djebar


I have been asked why she is so elegant. They thought she should relinquish her habitual dress and should wear her overalls for a return to the fields, a Mao shirt, and that she should take off her jewellery. They ignored that that would be a travesty. But my critics didn’t take a good look at these women. In our region, women have a very particular and privileged relationship with their jewellery. It represents their memories of the past, their bonds with the old women from their family… Ordinary women might be dressed in rags, but they will always keep their jewellery on, which is their only capital, besides some pieces of gold. In the caves, the rural women wear their own clothes. I didn’t alter their dress in any way. In your film, you insist on the quest for childhood, for the past, and you stress a desire to reconstruct an inner duration that is materialized through a unique treatment of the film copy during colour grading. What does this shattered chronology correspond to? In all Third World countries, questions of national culture are constantly being posed based on a look at the immediate past that has always been a past of destruction. In Algeria, this attitude is even more notable due to the destruction of language. But this not only concerns the attitude of the colonized because, since the country became independent, it has been looking for exterior models. The problem, thus, becomes: what is this new national culture, what is the relationship to its own roots and to the world abroad? When you look at African literature, the themes of a return to the roots, the images of ancestors or parents, or of the child recur more frequently than in western literature. Of course, these are emerging literatures, but they emerge in the shadows of a past that’s not being explored in much depth. There is a gap between the glorious past and the present. The nationalist attitude has been to re-establish, in the name of a glorious past, a dignity that functions as a support for revalorization in the present. As a woman and as an Arab, are you pursuing the same goal? I don’t think so! For me, the heart of the film is to be found in the relationship with the grandmother, which is autobiographical. It’s the relationship to national history that is handed down by the tribe, by the oldest person, who is also the one who is most despised and often also the least in contact with the offensive from outside. In the case of Algeria, the tales told by the grandmother or grandfather are very


important because they provide the cultural resources for the child’s memory. Subsequently, the child receives the scholarly knowledge as coming from outside, as a science. Before 1962, the only cultural product of Algeria’s poor was the voice of women. It’s true that this voice didn’t protest, but it contained a message that was getting lost. It established a relation of legend, of knowledge, of instinct, of sensibility. A backward-looking relation? The poem at the end of my film poses this question. Do we ignore the past and face the new problems as if they don’t have a background? The women’s situation induces the same interrogation. Before we should make claims for or against men, shouldn’t we elucidate the disappearing relationship we have (lived) with the community of women? It’s quite revelatory that the most advanced feminisms are trying to reconstruct this community that is still alive in the rural regions of African societies. Every attempt of becoming aware about women’s issues should make this visible and then develop a critical attitude. Is the relationship with the old women entirely positive? Shouldn’t there be an exchange? The real point of departure for a women’s language is there. We have known for a long time that women can be heroines, mayors, delegates, and so on. Now, we have to advance and look deeper for an essence… What’s the itinerary of the young woman in the film? In the beginning, she has problems concerning her personal past. The only way to move forward in the present is for her too individual mind to open up progressively towards the minds of other women. My film is constructed in this consciousness that sometimes listens, sometimes sees and, at some point, takes into account what others have lived. It’s only through opening up to the stories of others that she can proceed. In the song at the end, I say that one has to dive into the past to make the present dynamic. Now is the time to look for a feminist language, a women’s language, concerning women. When you are in North Africa or in an Arab country in general, you feel that we need to put an inter-Arab women’s language into action. We could talk about music. At a very early stage, even before I began filming, I had thought about and had been occupied with the relationship music–image. I asked to rewatch, on television, a certain amount of important films where music isn’t just accompanying the image. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1938),

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L’Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), Shakespeare-Wallah (James Ivory, 1965): at certain moments, the music sets memory in motion, plays with the relationship with the past, intervenes in the action, and clarifies the action. Why did you primarily focus on music? Because it was clear to me from the start that I didn’t want my first film to be based on fiction or a plot. I think it comes from a sort of… I wouldn’t call it despair… but pessimism about the function of plots of all kinds, as a means of talking in depth about blocked situations. I mean, sentimental or not, it wasn’t my intention to make the audience cry or laugh about the misfortunes of an individual woman, which would’ve made the film very popular. From the moment I refused the support of a plot, I wanted to have an internal logic. I thought about making a film like a piece of music. I remembered the Andalusian nouba that is structured in different movements. This kind of music, which belonged to the family atmosphere of my childhood, very often has various movements; the orchestra can play them all or only some of them. It depends. Is the nouba a typical Algerian form? These noubas have been conserved differently in different cities, but you’ll find them everywhere along the Mediterranean shores, also in Syria and Iraq — not only in North Africa. What’s the advantage of this composition? The six movements of the nouba all have their own unity. Likewise, you could watch the film in slices of ten to twelve minutes. So this enables the distribution of the film as a documentary. That’s an experience! There is only one movement where fiction is important. It’s the scene in the shed. Everything depends on the relations between the couple. There is the passage on Cherchell, with the biography of the heroine, then a visit to the monument called “Tomb of the Christian Woman”, and finally a tête-à-tête when the husband is working: all that can be a film in its own right, where fiction is more important than documentary. The four minutes on the town of Cherchell are a kind of parenthesis. Since I work in television, and prefer documentary, it’s a way to respect the rules of the game. You can watch my film in fragments, like a documentary, a view that is offered. But of course, it is the totality that shows the trajectory of the young woman, her quest.

Could you be more specific about the structure of a nouba? The nouba is a symphony that has no rigid form. The rhythm of some movements is slow, and the rhythm of other movements is quick. Very often, there’s a kind of dreamlike movement as intermezzo. The construction of noubas varies according to region. Be it in Constantine or Tlemcen, it’s very much about the movements that serve as a transition between two very different rhythms. Why did you choose this musical construction? It stems from my relationship with popular culture. The latter offered me models, in this case a construction model. These noubas have been around as collective culture for four centuries. I also played with the word nouba, which means: a story told by everyone, in rotation. (I was unaware of the fact that having a nouba meant having a party in the language of the pieds-noirs!) What kind of musical genres are used within this nouba? It’s a film about the countryside, while the nouba is a form from the city. It is ancient court music! In this film, I have used very different styles of music. In terms of the image, it’s a regionalist film. In terms of sound, there are pieces from all over rural Algeria. I had this desire to alternate between them, and to bring them together. There is this flute from the region of Sétif, Tuareg music that has been used for the ancient stuff. I tried to compose a soundtrack that illustrates the reality of sound in Algeria, both in time (the past) and in space. What’s the direct or indirect contribution of the oeuvre of Béla Bartók? I have used a whole series of pieces composed by Bartók that were inspired by his stay in Algeria. Bartók was the first great musician of the 20th century that had a feeling for folkloristic music. He didn’t use it for decoration, but looked at its structures. That’s one difference between Brahms and Bartók. The former transfers folklore to a classical structure, the latter succeeds in integrating it. His “Suites” are an example.

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How did you use these pieces of music? I started from the idea that the more a woman is traditional, the less she needs an association with folklore in terms of sound. When you come across the image of a person whose clothes and attitude are very “conservative”, there’s no need to associate this person with flutes or tambours. At the end, during the party in the caves, the women dance while singing the most ordinary songs, popular street songs really, and I linked this to the fourth dance of Bartók’s “Dance Suite”. I thought it emphasized the inherent nobility of these women. I got the impression that it was original music, written especially for this moment! The folkloristic music is associated rather with the emancipated woman. I think that’s normal, to the extent that she wears a Parisian dress, and you might think she’s interchangeable with another woman — except, maybe, for her physique — while her mind continues to be deeply rooted in a configuration of ancient sounds. For example, the flute theme associated with the young woman in the car comes from the Sétif region; it’s called “rhythm 36”. You seem to have reworked all this musical material. Whether it’s folkloristic or from Béla Bartók, you gave it an original twist. What you hear on sax for example, that’s the same “rhythm 36”, which is traditionally played on the flute! There, I thought I could modernize that folkloristic theme because of the presence of water. I tried. It gives a free jazz rhythm that comes, in fact, from folkloristic music. Following the same procedure, I took three minutes from a piece Bartók composed for piano, called “A l’Orientale”, and used it in the scene where the girl is in the tree. When I studied it, hummed it, I realized that it could be a popular tune from our country. I think he discovered the structure of a song and reworked it into a composition for piano. It’s this slightly obsessional theme that pops up several times in my film… I thought I could do what Bartók did and treat it as folkloristic music.


Do people still perform all of the pieces of music you use? These pieces of music surfaced from research on popular music in the twenties, which corresponds to the time Bartók was here. Since the independence, people have been researching music, poems, and recordings are being made. The poets of the people are old now and they don’t have any students anymore, nevertheless these poems stay alive. They refer to events from the beginning of the century; some refer to the resistance of Abdelkader. In Tlemcen, there’s a song about the 1911 exodus that’s still being sung. This oral transmission is more important in the south and in rural areas. In the cities, it’s chiefly the Andalusian nouba with its highbrow amorous language that has been conserved. For me, the research for the film paralleled this research on music. What does it mean for you to use music in such a profound way? For me, the entire emotional side of the film is communicated through its music. It’s no coincidence that such or such an instrument produces heartbreaking melodies. At a time when Algeria was totally closed off, the isolated people in remote corners expressed their desperation through the sound of the flute… The connection to music, to folklore is a serious one; it needs to be studied. It shouldn’t be considered a decoration. That would show disrespect towards an entire past.

This text combines two interviews by Maryse Léon and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, originally published as ‘Le cœur du film est le rapport à la grande-mère’ and ‘J’ai recherché un langage musical’ in CinémAction (autumn 1979 and spring 1981). Translated by Veva Leye

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Extract from Une éducation algérienne Wassyla Tamzali, 2007 I met many men and women after the 1970s, but I still carry the young people of the Cinemateque with me, who still resound, despite departures, separation, distance, time. My young people. And a woman, one single woman: Assia Djebar, who came back from Paris with a film in her writer’s suitcase: The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. She was friendly and distant at the same time, far from our revolutionary flurry. She arrived in the middle of the national campaign for the “second phase of the Agrarian Revolution”, with the loads of freedom we were deprived of. One night, during a dinner party at my place, she danced on the table, like a queen. She surpassed us all, by far. On the occasion of the preview of her film at the Cinematheque, I realized for the first time that we were sinking into a routine, that our spirits were drifting off — a presage of the depletion of the world. The film propelled us into the heart of a subjectivity we had covered with words and muscled and peremptory slogans, like those I heard that night, dafter than ever. The campaign for the collectivization of land was making a great stir and the slogan “the socialist revolution will liberate women” was on everyone’s lips. A slow pace, silence, memory regained, sensuality, Assia’s film tried to lead us far away from our noisy and dogmatic present. It tried to make us seize the intimacy of secluded women in unusual ways. The language of shadows, the language of bodies. The film is set somewhere between Cherchell and Tipaza. The beauty of the locations takes the story to a realm of mythological enchantment while leaving intact the realism of the existential wound that is buried beneath the silence of the characters. The heroine, a young architect, returns to the house of her grandmother. In the surrounding mountains, she’s looking for traces of the history of her mother, a resistance fighter who died in the maquis during the war for liberation. During this journey, her daughter, still a child, and her handicapped husband who’s in a wheelchair accompany her. This quest reveals the difficulties of living for an entire generation of women. In the obscurity and through the miracle of cinema, we made contact with a piece of truth, plunging in our unexplored reality. For this difficult journey, the heroine is accompanied by a handicapped person; a metaphor for the impotence of Algerian men to take part in the process of

self-examination some women of my generation engaged in. The room was shocked. We couldn’t bear the confrontation with this reality. The psychodrama triggered by the film among the young women who were present at the pre-première indicated the dimension of this repression. In an unvarnished way, it elucidated the condition in which eternal Algeria kept us, this Algeria that braked with two feet in front of modernity, intellectuals included, confused men and women too. The young women who were present in the cinema displayed a sample of the effects of ten years of indoctrination. They were outraged in the name of all Algerian women and accused the filmmaker of having abused “the opportunity” to make a film, the first film by an “Algerian woman!”, in order to make a “personal” film. This was one of the biggest anathemas in this country where socialist collectivism and Arab-Berber Muslim communitarianism were intimately intertwined. Scandalous! A film stolen from the “Algerian women” and the Algerian people. A film that didn’t speak about women’s liberation by way of the war for liberation and the construction of the country! Dogmatism, sectarianism, intolerance, insensibility, those present displayed their misery. Baffled, I listened to the diatribes of the young women in the room. A beautiful manifestation, once again, of the totalitarianism we were sinking into. For once, the neighbourhood youngsters kept quiet. Instead of talking all the time, they kept silent. They discovered violence more violent than theirs. And between women! Before the other half of the room, consisting of “specific socialists”, Marxists, leftist nationalists, communists, Trotskyists, before this Algeria wedged between identity populism and Marxist oriented nationalism, Assia, who had been a student at the École normale supérieure, the Francophone writer, the filmmaker devoted to the secluded memory of women, incarnated the solitude that our thinking would resort to at the end of the 1970s, the end of our utopias. She left for Paris again. After Paris, she went even further away, advanced in the world, far away from Algerian soil. She’s forever absent, silent behind her books and international recognition. Always present within me, like that night, during the debates, when I suspected she strongly resembled me, a rare sentiment in the country where my roots are.

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She chose exile, like nearly all those who were around at 27 Ben-Mehidi Street and believed naively in cinema as an absolute weapon. Me too, I left one day, but it took some time before I decided to do so. I remained glued to the country. Without really committing myself to anything, because I had chosen to become a lawyer. I was fascinated by Boumediene’s [1] Algeria, an Algeria under construction. I was constantly on the lookout, hand above my eyes, trying to perceive the new man that was announced everywhere: “We’ll catch up with France in one generation!” I felt confident, gazing fixedly at the horizon, without noticing where I put my feet. And the horizon, like all horizons, slipped away. What I was hoping for didn’t happen. To catch my breath, I escaped for some short absences. I always came back to the starting point of this noria of backand-forths, from Algiers to Rome, from Rome to Paris, from Paris to Algiers. I spread the word everywhere: Algeria was going to give birth to the new man. The Algerian revolution was easier to live outside Algeria.


Originally published in Wassyla Tamzali, Une éducation algérienne : de la révolution à la décennie noire (Paris: Gallimard, 2007). Translated by Veva Leye

[1] Houari Boumediene (1932-1978) served as Chairman of the Revolutionary Council of Algeria from 19 June 1965 until 12 December 1976 and thereafter as the second President of Algeria until his death on 27 December 1978.

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Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (1834)

Pablo Picasso, Women of Algiers (1955)

Forbidden Gaze, Severed Sound Assia Djebar, 1979 I. On 25 June 1832, Delacroix disembarks in Algiers for a short stopover. He has just spent a month in Morocco, immersed in a universe of extreme, visual richness (the splendor of the costumes, reckless frenzy of fantasias, the pomp of a royal court, the rapture of Jewish weddings or of street musicians, the nobility of royal felines: lions, tigers, and so forth). This Orient, so near and of his own time, offers itself to him as a total and excessive novelty. An Orient as he had dreamed it for The Death of Sardanapalus — but here washed clean of any association with sin. An Orient that, in addition, and only in Morocco, escapes from the authority of the Turks, loathed ever since The Massacre at Chios. Thus, Morocco is revealed as the place where dream and its incarnation of an aesthetic ideal meet, the place of a visual revolution. In fact, Delacroix can write a little later: “Ever since my journey, men and things appear to me in a new light.” Delacroix spends only three days in Algiers. This brief stay in an only recently conquered capital city directs him, thanks to a felicitous combination of circumstances, toward a world that had remained foreign to him during his Moroccan trip. For the first time, he penetrates into a world that is off-limits: that of the Algerian women.

The world he had discovered in Morocco and that he freezes in his sketches is essentially a masculine and warrior world, in a word, a virile one. What his eyes saw was the permanent spectacle of an exteriority made up entirely of pomp, noise, cavalcades, and rapid motion. But, as he passes from Morocco to Algeria, Delacroix crosses, at the same time, a subtle frontier that is going to invert every sign and will be at the root of what posterity shall retain as this singular “journey to the Orient.” *** The adventure is well-known: the chief engineer of the harbor of Algiers, Monsieur Poirel, a lover of painting, has in his employ a chaouch, the former owner of a privateer — the sort who used to be called a rais before the 1830 conquest — who, after long discussions, agrees to allow Delacroix entry into his own home. A friend of the friend, Cournault, reports the details of this intrusion to us. The house was situated in what used to be the rue Duquesne. Delacroix, in the company of the husband and undoubtedly of Poirel as well, crosses “a dark hallway” at the end of which, unexpectedly and bathed in an almost unreal light, the actual harem opens up. There, women and children are waiting for him “surrounded by

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mounds of silk and gold.” The wife of the former rais, young and pretty, is sitting in front of a hookah. Delacroix, Poirel reports to Cournault, who writes it down for us, “was as if intoxicated by the spectacle he had before his eyes.” With the husband as intermediary and impromptu translator, he begins a conversation and wants to know everything about “this new and to him mysterious life.” On the many sketches that he draws — women seated in various positions — he writes what seems to him to be the most important and not to be forgotten: specification of colors (“black with lines of gold, lacquered violet, dark India red,” etc.) with details of costumes, multiple and strange references that baffle his eyes. In these brief and graphic or written annotations, there is an almost feverish hand at work, an intoxicated gaze: a fugitive moment of evanescent revelation standing on that borderline in motion where dream and reality converge. Cournault notes: “that fever that the sherbets and fruits could barely appease.” The completely new vision was perceived as pure image. And as if this all-too-new splendor might blur the image’s reality, Delacroix forces himself to note down, on his sketches, the name of every woman. Like a coat of arms, watercolors bear names like Bayah, Mouni and Zora ben Soltane, Zora and Kadoudja Tarboridji. Penciled bodies coming out of the anonymity of exoticism. This abundance of rare colors, these new-sounding names, is that what arouses and thrills the painter? Is that what causes him to write: “It is beautiful! It is straight out of Homer!” There, during that visit of a few hours with women in seclusion, by what shock, or at least by what vague stirrings was the painter seized? This heart of the half-open harem, is it really the way he sees it? From this place through which he had passed, Delacroix brings back some objects: some slippers, a shawl, a shirt, a pair of trousers. Not just trivial tourist trophies but tangible proof of a unique, ephemeral experience. Traces of a dream. He feels the need to touch his dream, to prolong its life beyond the memory, to complete what is enclosed as sketches and drawings in his notebooks. It’s the equivalent of a fetishist compulsion augmented by the certainty that this moment lived is irrevocable in its uniqueness and will never be repeated. Upon his return to Paris, the painter will work for two years on the image of a memory that teeters with a muted and unformulated uncertainty, although well-documented and supported by authentic objects. What he comes out with is a masterpiece that still stirs questions deep within us. Women of Algiers in Their Apartment: three women, two of whom are seated in front of a hookah. The third one, in the foreground, leans her elbow on some cushions. A female


servant, seen three quarters from the hack, raises her arm as if to move the heavy tapestry aside that masks this closed universe; she is an almost minor character, all she does is move along the edge of the iridescence of colors that bathes the other three women. The whole meaning of the painting is played out in the relationship these three have with their bodies, as well as with the place of their enclosure. Resigned prisoners in a closed place that is lit by a kind of dreamlike light coming same nowhere — a hothouse light or that of an aquarium — Delacroix’s genius makes them both near and distant to us at the same time, enigmatic to the highest degree. Fifteen years after these few days in Algiers, Delacroix remembers again, reworks it, and gives the 1849 Salon a second version of Women of Algiers. The composition is almost identical, but the recurrence of several changes has rendered more obvious the latent meaning of the painting. In this second canvas — in which the features of the characters are less precise, the elements of the setting less elaborate — the vision’s angle has been widened. This centering effect has a triple result: to make the three women, who now penetrate more deeply into their retreat, more distant from us; to uncover and entirely bare one of the room’s walls, having it weigh down more heavily on the solitude of these women; and finally to accentuate the unreal quality of the light. The latter brings out more clearly what the shadow conceals as an invisible, omnipresent threat, through the intermediary of the woman servant whom we hardly see any longer, but who is there, and attentive. Women always waiting. Suddenly less sultanas than prisoners. They have no relationship with us, the spectators. They neither abandon nor refuse themselves to our gaze. Foreign but terribly present in this rarified atmosphere of confinement. Élie Faure tells us that the aging Renoir, when he used to refer to this light in Women of Algiers, could not prevent large tears from streaming down his cheeks. Should we be weeping like the aged Renoir, but then for reasons other than artistic ones? Evoke, one and a half centuries later, these Bayas, Zoras, Mounis, and Khadoudjas. Since then, these women, whom Delacroix — perhaps in spite of himself [1] — knew how to observe as no one had done before him, have not stopped telling us something that is unbearably painful and still very much with us today. Delacroix’s painting has been perceived as one approach to a feminine version of the Orient — undoubtedly the first one in European painting, which usually treated the theme of the odalisk as literature or evoked only the cruelty and the nudity of the seraglio. The distant and familiar dream in the faraway eyes of the three Algerian women, if we make an attempt to grasp its

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nature, makes us in turn dream of sensuality: a nostalgia or vague softness, triggered by their so obvious absence. As if behind those bodies, and before the servant lets the curtain fall once more, a universe is displayed in which they might still live continuously, before they take their pose in front of us, who look on. For that is exactly it, we look on. In reality, that look is forbidden to us. If Delacroix’s painting unconsciously fascinates us, it is not actually because it suggests that superficial Orient within a luxurious and silent semidarkness, but because, by placing us in the position of onlookers in front of these women, it reminds us that ordinarily we have no right to be there. This painting is itself a stolen glance. And I tell myself that, more than fifteen years later, Delacroix remembered especially that “dark hallway” at the end of which, in a space without exit, the hieratic prisoners of the secret keep to themselves. Those women whose distant drama cannot be guessed at except for this unexpected backstage scene that the painting becomes. Is it because these women are dreaming that they do not look at us, or is it that they can no longer even glimpse us because they are enclosed without recourse? Nothing can be guessed about the soul of these doleful figures, seated as if drowning in all that surrounds them. They remain absent to themselves, to their body, to their sensuality, to their happiness. Between them and us, the spectators, there has been the instant of unveiling, the step that crossed the vestibule of intimacy, the unexpected slight touch of the thief, the spy, the voyeur. Only two years earlier, the French painter would have been there at the risk of his life… What floats between these Algerian women and ourselves, then, is the forbidden. Neutral, anonymous, omnipresent. *** That particular gaze had long been believed to be a stolen one because it was the stranger’s, the one from outside the harem and outside the city. For a few decades — as each nationalism triumphs here and there — we have been able to realize that within this Orient that has been delivered unto itself, the image of woman is still perceived no differently, be it by the father, by the husband, and, more troublesome still, by the brother and the son. In principle, they alone may look at the woman. To the other male members of the tribe (and any cousin who may have shared her childhood play becomes potentially a voyeur-thief ) the woman shows — in the early days of an easing of the customary rigors — if not her entire body, at least her face and hands.

The second period of this easing turns out, paradoxically, to be dependent upon the veil. [2] Since the veil completely covers the body and its extremities, it allows the one who wears it and who circulates outside underneath its cover, to be in turn a potential thief within the masculine space. She appears there above all as a fugitive outline, half blinded when she can only look with one eye. The generosity of “liberalism” has restored to her, in some cases and certain places, her other eye and at the same time the integrity of her gaze: thanks to the veil, both her eyes are now wide open to the exterior. Thus, there is another eye there, the female gaze. But that liberated eye, which could become the sign of a conquest toward the light shared by other people, outside of the enclosure, is now in turn perceived as a threat; and the vicious circle closes itself back up again. Yesterday, the master made his authority felt in the closed, feminine spaces through the single presence of his gaze alone, annihilating those of other people. In turn, the feminine eye when it moves around is now, it seems, feared by the men immobilized in the Moorish cafés of today’s medinas, while the white phantom, unreal but enigmatic, passes through. In these lawful glances (that is to say, those of the father, the brother, the son, or the husband) that are raised to the female eye and body — for the eye of the dominator first seeks out the other’s eye, the eye of the dominated, before it takes possession of the body — one runs a risk that is all the more unforeseeable since its cause may be accidental. It takes very little — a sudden effusiveness, an unexpected, unusual motion, a space torn open by a curtain raised over a secret corner [3] — for the other eyes of the body (breasts, sex, navel) to run the risk in turn of being fully exposed and stared at. It is all over for the men, vulnerable guardians: it is their night, their misfortune, their dishonor. Forbidden gaze: for it is surely forbidden to look at the female body one keeps incarcerated, from the age of ten until forty or forty-five, within walls, or better within veils. But there’s also the danger that the feminine glance, liberated to circulation outside, runs the risk at any moment of exposing the other glances of the moving body. As if all of a sudden the whole body were to begin to look around, to “defy,” or so men translate it... Is a woman — who moves around and therefore is “naked” — who looks, not also a new threat to their exclusive right to stare, to that male prerogative? The most visible evolution of Arabic women, at least in the cities, has therefore been the casting off of the veil. Many a woman, often after an adolescence or her entire youth spent cloistered, has concretely lived the experience of the unveiling. The body moves forward out of the house and is, for the first time, felt as being “exposed” to every look: the gait becomes stiff, the step hasty, the facial expression tightens.

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Colloquial Arabic describes the experience in a significant way: “I no longer go out protected (that is to say, veiled, covered up)” the woman who casts off her sheet will say, “I go out undressed, or even denuded.” The veil that shielded her from the looks of strangers is in fact experienced as a “piece of clothing in itself,” and to no longer have it means to be totally exposed. As for the man who agrees to share in this, his sisters’ or his wife’s most timid of evolutions, the slowest possible one, he is thereby condemned to live ill at ease and sick with worry. He imagines that no sooner will the lacy face veil, then the long body veil, be lifted, than the woman will (she can’t help it) move on to the stage of fatal risk, that of uncovering the other eye, the eye-that-is-sex. Halfway down this slippery path, he glimpses the only stopping point of the “belly dance,” the one that makes the other eye, the naveleye, grimace in the cabarets. Thus the woman’s body, as soon as she leaves her seated waiting in the cloistered interior, conceals dangers because of its very nature. Does it move around in an open space? All that is suddenly perceived is that straying multiplicity of eyes in and on that body. Around this feminine drifting away, the dispossessed man’s haunting feeling of paranoia crystallizes. (After all, the only man in Algiers who, in 1832, permits a foreign painter to penetrate into the harem, is precisely a former little pirate, now a conquered chaouch who is henceforth accountable to a French civil servant.) In Algeria, it was precisely when the foreign intrusion began in 1830 — an intrusion contained at all costs at the doorways of impoverished seraglios — that a gradual freezing up of indoor communication accompanied the parallel progressive French conquest of exterior space, an indoor communication becoming more and more deeply submerged: between the generations, and even more, between the sexes. These women of Algiers — those who have remained motionless in Delacroix’s painting since 1832 — if it was possible yesterday to see in their frozen stare the nostalgic expression of happiness or of the softness of submission, today their desperate bitterness is what must strike our most sensitive nerve. At the time of the heroic battles, woman was watching, woman was crying out: the gaze-that-was-witness throughout the battle, which ululations would prolong in order to encourage the warrior (a cry, extended, piercing the horizon like an infinite abdominal gurgling, a sexual call in full flight). But, throughout the 19th century, the battles were lost one after the other, further and further to the south of the Algerian territories. The heroes have not yet stopped biting the dust. In that epic, women’s looks and voices continue to be perceived from a distance, from the other side of the


frontier that should separate us from death, if not from victory. But for those born in the age of submission, feudals or proletarians, sons or lovers, the scene remains, the watching women haven’t moved, and it is with a retrospective fear that the men began to dream of that look. Thus, while outside an entire society partitions itself into the duality of the vanquished and the victorious, the autochthons and the invaders, in the harem, reduced to a shack or a cave, the dialogue has become almost definitively blocked. If only one could force that single spectator body that remains, encircle it more and more tightly in order to forget the defeat! ... But every movement that might recall the fury of the ancestors is irremediably solidified, redoubling the immobility that makes of woman a prisoner. *** In the oral culture of Algeria, primarily in the thoroughly occupied small towns, there develops the almost unique theme of the wound, which comes to replace the lively unpredictability of the expression of ironic desire, in poetry, in song, and even in the patterns of the slow or frenzied dances. The fact that the first encounter of the sexes is not possible except through the marriage ritual and its ceremonies sheds light on the nature of an obsession that profoundly puts its mark on our social and cultural being. An open wound is etched into the woman’s body through the assumption of a virginity that is furiously deflowered and the martyrdom of which is consecrated by the marriage in a most trivial manner. The wedding night essentially becomes a night of blood. Not because the partners become better acquainted or, even less, because of pleasure, but a night of blood that is also a night of the gaze and of silence. Hence the razor-sharp chorus of long cries uttered by the other women (a sisterhood of spasms that tries to take flight in the blind night), hence also the din of the gunpowder in order to better envelop that same silence. [4] Now, this look of the sex steeped in blood sends us back to the first look, that of the mother at term, ready to give birth. The image of her rises up, ambivalent and flooded with tears, completely veiled and at the same time delivered naked, her legs streaked with blood in spasms of pain. The Koran says, and this has been often repeated: “Paradise is found at the feet of mothers.” If Christianity is the adoration of the Virgin Mother, Islam, more harshly, understands the term mother to mean woman without pleasure, even before seeing her as the source of all tenderness. Thereby obscurely hoping that the eye-that-is-sex, the one who has given birth, is no longer a threat. Only the birthing mother has the right to look.

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II. During the time of the Emir Abdelkader, nomadic tribes loyal to him, the Arbaa and the Harazeli, found themselves besieged in 1839 in Fort Ksar el Hayran by their traditional enemy, the Tedjini. On the fourth day of the siege, the assailants are already scaling the walls, when a young Harazeli girl, named Messaouda (“the happy one”), seeing that her men are ready to turn their backs, calls out: “Where are you running like that? The enemies are on this side! Must a young girl show you how men are supposed to behave? Well then, take a look!” She climbs onto the ramparts, lets herself slide down the other side, facing the enemy. Thus exposing herself willingly, she speaks these words at the same time: “Where are the men of my tribe? Where are my brothers? Where are those who used to sing songs of love to me?” Thereupon the Harazeli came running to her aid and tradition reports they did so while clamoring this war cry that was also a cry of love: “Be happy, here are your brothers, here are your lovers!” Electrified by the young girl’s call, they pushed back the enemy. Messaouda was brought back in triumph, and ever since, the “Song of Messaouda” has been sung by the tribes in the Algerian south, recalling these facts and ending with this exact exaltation of the heroic wound: “Messaouda, you shall always be a wrench for pulling teeth!” In the history of Algerian resistance struggles during the last century, numerous episodes, indeed, show women warriors who left the traditional role of spectator. Their formidable look would prod the men’s courage, but suddenly also, right where the ultimate despair dawns, their very presence in the boiling movement of battle decides the outcome. Other accounts of feminine heroism illustrate the tradition of the feudal queen-mother (intelligent, a tactician of “virile” courage), for example, the distant Berber woman Kahina. The story of Messaouda, more modest, seems to me to present a newer aspect: surely a variant on heroism and tribal solidarity, but above all it is here connected with a body in danger (in completely spontaneous motion), with a voice that calls, challenges, and abrades. In short, it heals the temptation of cowardice and allows a victorious outcome. “Be happy, here are your brothers, here are your lovers!” Are these brothers-lovers more upset to see the completely exposed body, or are they more “electrified” by the feminine voice that runs off? This sound at last comes forth from the entrails, brushing past the blood of death and of love. And this is the revelation: “Be happy!” The song of Messaouda is the only one that consecrates this happiness of women,

completely inside a mobility that is improvised and dangerous at the same time: in short, that is creative. Very few Messaoudas, alas, in our recent past of anticolonial resistance. Before the war of liberation, the search for a national identity, if it did include a feminine participation, delighted in erasing the body and illuminating these women as “mothers,” even for those exceptional figures who were recognized as women warriors. But when, in the course of the seven years of the national war, the theme of the heroine becomes exalted, it is exactly around the bodies of young girls, whom I call the “fire carriers” and whom the enemy incarcerates. Harems melted for a while into so many Barberousse prisons, the Messaoudas of the Battle of Algiers were called Djamila. Since that call by Messaouda and the antiphonal response of the “brothers-lovers,” since that race forward of woman’s pride set free, what do we have as a “story” of our women, as feminine speech? Delacroix’s painting shows us two of the women as if surprised in their conversation, but their silence has not stopped reaching us. The halting words of those who have half-lowered their eyelids or who look away in the distance in order to communicate. As if it concerned some secret, the enlightenment of which the servant is watching for, and we cannot quite tell whether she is spying on them or is an accomplice to them. From childhood on, the little girl is taught “the cult of silence, which is one of the greatest powers of Arabic society.” [5] What a French general, “friend to the Arabs,” calls “power,” is something we feel as a second mutilation. Even the yes that is supposed to follow the fatiha of the marriage ceremony and that the father must ask of his daughter — the Koran requires this of him — is ingeniously squelched almost everywhere (in Moslem regions). The fact that the young girl may not be seen uncovered in order to utter her acquiescence (or her nonacquiescence), obliges her to go through the intermediary of a male representative who speaks in “her place.” A terrible substitution for the word of one by another, which, moreover, opens the way to the illegal practice of the forced marriage. Her word deflowered, violated, before the other deflowering, the other violation intervenes. Besides, even without the ouali, it has been agreed that this yes, which they are waiting for directly from her, may be expressed, because of her “modesty” in front of her father and the man of the law, through her silence or through her tears. It is true that in ancient Persia, an even more characteristic practice has been noted [6]: to consecrate the marriage, the boy makes his agreement heard loudly and clearly; the fiancée, the girl, is put in the next room amid other women, near the door over which a curtain falls. In order to make the necessary yes audible, the women hit the young girl’s head against the door, causing her to moan.

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Thus, the only word the woman must pronounce, this yes to submission under the pretense of propriety, she breathes out with discomfort, either under the duress of physical pain or through the ambiguity of silent tears. It is told that in 1911, during various Algerian campaigns, the women (mothers and sisters) would come and roam around the camps where the so-called indigenous conscripts were penned in, would come to weep and tear at their faces. The image of the tearful woman, lacerating her cheeks to the point of hysteria, becomes for the ethnologists of the time the only image “in motion”: no more women warriors, no more women poets. If it doesn’t concern invisible and mute women, if they’re still an integral part of their tribe, they can only appear as powerless furies. Silence even of the dancer-prostitutes of the Ouled Naïls, their bodies covered down to their feet, their idol-like faces weighed down by jewels, their only sound the rhythmic one of their ankle bands. Thus, from 1900 to 1954 in Algeria, there is a closing down of an indigenous society, more and more dispossessed of its vital space and its tribal structures. The orientalizing look — first with its military interpreters and then with its photographers and filmmakers — turns in circles around this closed society, stressing its “feminine mystery” even more in order thus to hide the hostility of an entire Algerian community in danger. However, this has not prevented the spatial tightening from leading to a tightening of family relationships during the first half of the 20th century: between cousins, brothers, etc. And in the relationships between brothers and sisters, the latter have been most often — always thanks to the “yes-silence of the tear” — disinherited to the advantage of the males in the family: here is another face of that immemorial abuse of trust, of that alienation of material goods and bed and board. Thus, doubly imprisoned in that immense jail, the woman has the right to no more than a space that is doomed to become ever smaller. Only the mother-son relationship has grown stronger to the point of obstructing all other exchanges. As if the attachment to the roots, which grows more and more difficult for these new proletarians without any land and soon without a culture, should again pass through the umbilical cord. But beyond this tightening within the families, by which only the males benefit, there is the attachment to the oral roots of history. The sound of the mother who, woman without a body and without an individual voice, finds once again the sound of the collective and obscure voice, which is necessarily asexual. For in the spinning around of the defeat that ended in tragic immobility, the models for finding a second wind and oxygen have been sought elsewhere, [7] in places other than this kind of immense nourishing womb in which the long chain of mothers and grandmothers, shaded by patios and shacks, nurtured the emotional memory...


The echoes of the battle lost in the last century, details of color very much worthy of a Delacroix, reside among the illiterate storytellers: the whispered voices of those forgotten women have developed irreplaceable frescoes from these, and have thus woven our sense of history. In this way, the enlarged presence of the mother (woman without body or, conversely, of multiple bodies) finds itself to be the most solid knot in the almost complete incommunicability between the sexes. But at the same time, in the realm of the word, the mother seems, in fact, to have monopolized the only authentic expression of a cultural identity — admittedly limited to the land, to the village, to the popular local saint, sometimes to the “clan,” but in any case, concrete and passionate with affectivity. As if the mother, recoiling on this side of procreation, were masking her body from us, in order to return as the voice of the unknown ancestress, timeless chorus in which history is retold. But a history from which the archetypal image of the feminine body has been expelled. A hesitant sketch in stipples floats on the surface, all that’s left of a culture of women, now slowly suffocating: songs once sung by young girls on their verandas, [8] quatrains of love from the women of Tlemcen, [9] magnificent funereal threnodies from the women of Laghouat, an entire literature that, unfortunately, is becoming further and further removed, only to end up by resembling those mouthless wadis that get lost in the sands... Ritual lament of the Jewish and Arabic women folksingers who sing at Algerian weddings, this outdated tenderness, this delicately loving nostalgia, barely allusive, is transmitted little by little from the women to the adolescent girls, future sacrificial victims, as if the song were closing in upon itself. We, children in the patios where our mothers still seem young, serene, wearing jewelry that doesn’t crush them — not yet — that often adorns them in inoffensive vanity, we, in the faint murmuring of those lost feminine voices, we still feel its old warmth... but rarely its withering. These islets of peace, this intermission to which our memory clings, are these not a small part of that plant life autonomy of the Algerian women in the painting, the totally separate world of women? A world from which the growing boy removes himself, but from which today’s young, self-emancipating girl distances herself as well. For her in particular, the distancing amounts to shifting the location of her muteness: she exchanges the women’s quarters and the old community for an often deceptive one-on-one with the man. Thus, this world of women, when it no longer hums with the whisperings of an ancillary tenderness, of lost ballads — in short, with a romanticism of vanished enchantments — that world suddenly, barrenly, becomes the world of autism.

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And just as suddenly, the reality of the present shows itself without camouflage, without any addiction to the past: sound has truly been severed.

III. As the war of liberation in Algeria was just barely getting started, Picasso, from December 1954 to February 1955, goes to live every day in the world of Delacroix’s Women of Algiers. There he comes face-to-face with himself and erects around the three women, and with them, a completely transformed universe: fifteen canvases and two lithographs carrying the same title. It moves me to think that the Spanish genius presides in this manner over a changing in the times. As we entered our “colonial night,” the French painter offered us his vision that, the admiring Baudelaire notes, “breathes I don’t know what heady perfume of evil haunts that leads us rather quickly toward the unplumbed limbo of sadness.” That perfume of evil haunts came from quite far off and will have become even more concentrated. Picasso reverses the malediction, causes misfortune to burst loose, inscribes in audacious lines a totally new happiness. A foreknowledge that should guide us in our everyday life. Pierre Daix remarks: “Picasso has always liked to set the beauties of the harem free.” Glorious liberation of space, the bodies awakening in dance, in a flowing outward, the movement freely offered. But also the preservation of one of the women, who remains hermetic, Olympian, suddenly immense. Like a suggested moral, here, of a relationship to be found again between the old, adorned serenity (the lady, formerly fixed in her sullen sadness, is motionless from now on, but like a rock of inner power) and the improvised bursting out into an open space. For there is no harem any more, its door is wide open and the light is streaming in; there isn’t even a spying servant any longer, simply another woman, mischievous and dancing. Finally, the heroines — with the exception of the queen, whose breasts, however, are bursting out — are totally nude, as if Picasso was recovering the truth of the vernacular language that, in Arabic, designates the “unveiled” as “denuded” women. Also, as if he were making that denuding not only into a sign of an “emancipation,” but rather of these women’s rebirth to their own bodies. Two years after this intuition of the artist, there appeared descendants, the carriers of the bombs, in the Battle of Algiers. Are these women merely the sisters-companions of the nationalist heroes? Certainly not, for everything takes place as if the latter, in isolation, outside of the clan, had made a long trek back, from the 1920s to almost 1960, in order to

find their “sisters-lovers” again, and that in the shadow of the prisons and the brutal treatment by the legionnaires. As if the guillotine and those first sacrificed in the coldness of the dawn were needed for young girls to tremble for their blood brothers and to say so. [10] The ancestral accompaniment had, until then, been the ululation of triumph and of death. It is a question of wondering whether the carriers of the bombs, as they left the harem, chose their most direct manner of expression purely by accident: their bodies exposed outside and they themselves attacking other bodies? In fact, they took those bombs out as if they were taking out their own breasts, and those grenades exploded against them, right against them. Some of them came back later with their sex electrocuted, flayed through torture. If rape, as a fact and a “tradition” of war, is in itself horribly banal ever since wars have existed, it became — when our heroines were its victims of expiation — the cause of painful upheaval, experienced as trauma by the whole of the Algerian collective. The public condemnation of it through newspapers and legal intervention certainly contributed to the spread of scandalous repercussions: the words that named it became, where rape was concerned, an explicit and unanimous condemnation. A barrier of words came down in transgression, a veil was shredded in front of a threatened reality, but one whose repression was too strong not to return. Such repression submerged a solidarity in misery that for a moment had been effective. What words had uncovered in time of war is now being concealed again underneath a thick covering of taboo subjects, and in that way, the meaning of a revelation is reversed. Then the heavy silence returns that puts an end to the momentary restoration of sound. Sound is severed once again. As if the fathers, brothers, or cousins were saying: “We have paid plenty for that unveiling of words!” Undoubtedly forgetting that the women have inscribed that statement into their martyred flesh, a statement that is, however, penalized by a silence that extends all around. Sound severed once again, the gaze once again forbidden, these are what reconstruct the ancestral barriers. “A perfume of evil haunts,” Baudelaire said. There is no seraglio any more. But the “structure of the seraglio” [11] attempts to impose its laws in the new wasteland: the law of invisibility, the law of silence. Only in the fragments of ancient murmuring do I see how we must look for a restoration of the conversation between women, the very one that Delacroix froze in his painting. Only in the door open to the full sun, the one Picasso later imposed, do I hope for a concrete and daily liberation of women. February 1979

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Originally published as ‘Regard interdit, son coupé’ in Assia Djebar, Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1980). This translation was published in Assia Djebar, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1992). Translated by Marjolijn de Jager

[1] The innovative talent of the painter Delacroix contrasts with the traditionalism of Delacroix the man. Cf. his very conservative image of woman when, after his visit to Algiers, he notes in his journal, referring to the harem: “It is beautiful! It is straight out of Homer! The woman in her women’s quarters busy with her children, spinning wool or embroidering splendid fabrics. That is a woman as I think she should be!” [2] Veiled women are, in the first place, women who are free to circulate, therefore more advantaged than the women who are completely secluded, the later usually being the wives of the most wealthy. According to Koranic tradition, the husband may not prevent his wife from going to the baths — the hammam — at least once a week. But what if he is wealthy enough to have his own hammam built inside his home?

In the town where I was born, in the thirties, the women used to go to the baths veiled, but they would go at night.

The veiled woman who circulates during the day in the city streets is, therefore, a woman in the first stage of so-called progressive behavior.

Since, furthermore, the veil signifies oppression of the body, I have known young women who, when they reached adolescence, refused the principle of having to be veiled when circulating. The result was that they had to remain cloistered behind windows and bars, and so see the exterior world only from afar… A half measure among the men of the new middle class: as much as possible, they let their women circulate in individual cars (which the women themselves drive), thus to shelter the body (steel playing the role of the ancestral fabric) and to circulate in a way that “exposes” them as little as possible.

[4] Cf. a wedding song of western Algeria: Oh, girls, I beg you Let me sleep with you! Every night, I’ll make one [of you] “explode” With my gun and rifle! [5] See La femme arabe [The Arab Woman] by General Dumas, written shortly before the author’s death in 1871 and published in 1912. [6] See P. Raphaël du Mans, Etat de la Perse en 1660 [The State of Persia in 1660] (Paris, 1890). [7] Elsewhere because the origin of political nationalism is as much due to the emigration of workers to Europe in the 1920s as to the movement of the new ideas from the Arabic East where large numbers of educated Arabic speakers and Moslems are trained (the Parti Progressiste Algérien — P.P.A. — and the ulema movements). [8] The “songs… from the verandas” are those of the Bokala game, in which the young girls respond to each other in rhyming couplets, as signs of portent. [9] These are the hawfis, a kind of popular, feminine poetry that is sung. Ibn Khaldoun already mentions this traditional genre, which he calls mawaliya. This same kind of feminine literature is found in places other than Tlemcen, but always in small towns of the Algerian north. [10] See, before 1962: Zora Drif, La mort de mes frères [The death of my brothers]. [11] La structure du sérail by Alain Grosrichard (1979).

[3] There is a traditional story told about the love between the prophet Muhammad and Zaineb, the most beautiful of his wives. A story born from a single look.


Zaineb was married to Zaid, the adopted son of the Prophet. One day, the latter needed to speak with Zaid. And so he approached his tent. Zaineb told him that Zaid was not there. She hid herself behind a tapestry, but “a gust of wind lifted the curtain” and the young woman, scantily dressed, became visible to Muhammad, who retired, distraught.

Zaid then sets Zaineb free again. But Muhammad will have to wait until a Koranic verse intervenes, making the union with a former wife of an adopted son legitimate. He will marry Zaineb, who will remain, together (and often in competition) with Aïcha, a favorite wife (cf. Gaudefroy-Demonbynes: Mahomet).

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Autochromes taken in Biskra and Tlemcen (1922)

The Zerda or the Maghreb in the 1930s Assia Djebar and Malek Alloula, 1979 Pre-credits Introduction One century earlier, around 1830, a genius painter, Delacroix, travelled across a free Morocco and a still unspoiled Algeria... The images brought back are indeed a “feast”. A truly dazzling view of the North African reality of the time... Is it the same feast? Is it the same view? Without any comment, however, shortly before and during the credits, three known paintings by Delacroix unfold in long shots and in slow pan shots that focus on details of characters, horses or costume elements, each of the paintings linked to an atmosphere of music and fantasia from the pre-colonial Maghreb:

1. Comedians or Arabic Buffoons (Museum of Tours) 2. Jewish Wedding in Morocco (Louvre) 3. Fantasia or Moroccans Conducting Military Exercises (Museum of Montpellier) Finally, as a conclusion: 4. 1 or 2 studies: sketches from the Louvre for Women of Algiers : - a seated woman (named Bayah) by Delacroix; - then - a simple babouche on an all-white screen. Once the credits are over, the title of the film appears, with an epigraph sentence that will only reveal — excluding any off-camera commentary that will never be used: “The world today is turned upside down, like in a wine press!” Saint Augustine of Hippo 5th century

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1st Theme: The Cinema begins: how an ISLAM at the turn of the century is presented to us

At these shows, the attending pieds-noirs are applauding, while the “Arab chiefs” are presented.

Before 1900: Algiers the White from the first Lumière reels A street in Tlemcen in 1896 Views of Biskra, Tunis, etc. (selection from the different titles — 40 — in the Lumière Catalogue) After 1900, and especially in 1911: - Sultan Mulai Hafid and his mehalla [district]: a slow exit, with pomp and ceremony, from the mosque of Fez. - In Cairo, same year: the khedive welcoming the Sacred Tapistry. - In 1912: in Tunis, the bey goes to the mosque. - In 1913: in Cairo, once again, a “battle of flowers”. The khedive’s daughter gets married… In Constantinople, the sultan attends the regattas. All in all, an Islamic world one would like to show only with pomp and ostentation. Pause 1 The link to the next title is made by: - the departure of troops for Morocco (1911). - Algeria: the departure of forced labourers. - the title “drawing lots among Arabs” allows us to recall how the conscription in Algeria, from 1911 on, brings us testimonies of refusal (hence the exodus) and especially of distress (search for folk songs and poetry which, as the only commentary available, make us experience some deeper emotions, contrary to the 1st theme). 2nd Theme: Travellers in North Africa From Mr. Morel’s trip to Algeria in 1913 to Millerand’s in 1939, including the president’s trip to the centenary, to a whole series of official travellers (each of which we will show only once, indicating only the names and dates), an almost identical presentation is shown: - the sites (the bay of Algiers — panoramic view of Oran — Gardaia square, etc.); - the horsemen thrown into fantasias... (repetitive succession in the montage); - the folklore groups: musicians and dancers; - dancers in groups (South Moroccan) - Ouled-Nails dancers in groups of 3 or 4, or one by one (South Algerian). So, this is the first act of the “folk festival”. Re-recording with, despite the image repetitions, various authentic pieces of music.


Pause 2 Without transition, once again in silence, a part on “yesterday’s war”: - images from 14-18, those that seemed moving to us: - Algerian fighters on a northern front; - their manoeuvres in snowy landscapes… - their “domestic” pastimes in the camps; - images from the Rif War: military operation plans and views of Tetouan, Tangier. Dates in subtitles. - subsequently, images of a succession of postcards on the “Marguerite Revolt”. This pause shows that memories of war — whatever they are — are nearby: cf. for the soundtrack, search for popular songs about insubordination. 3rd Theme: 1930, Settling in Colonial Peace: The Southern Festival This atmosphere of a “southern festival” is presented by an abundance of titles: - Algiers: the flower festival of 1911, then the flower festival of 1924. - “Origins of the Charleston” — a deliberately burlesque montage that goes back to the moving feet of an Arab woman washing clothes in a wadi! - At the centenary: parade of troops in costumes from 1830. - Algiers Regatta: several years filmed. - Skiing… - parade in “French province” style. Applause from families, children, inaugurations, etc. In these crowds, the Arab population is almost absent. The montage is restricted to the sphere of the pieds-noirs, not so much their daily lives as the spectacle they offer themselves and applaud to. No doubt, in the colonial world, the world of the dominant party “is partying”, but also because it feels watched by those in the shadows. The latter, at the same time, hide from the gaze (their wives, more specifically, but also their houses, their interiors). Pause 3 The other “side of the film”: it is a “circulation” of the streets and roads of the Maghreb, particularly well conveyed by the entire photographic collection of Arlaud (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques): 1500 snapshots of North Africa — 1927 to 1929.

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- mainly crowds of peasants in town markets; - in the streets, craftsmen, strollers, Arab women at the cemetery. To be alternated with autochromes: especially close-up portraits of women in Fez, of beggars, of nomad encampments in Biskra, etc. Sound research, especially of sound effects, or even continue the noise of the European festivals. 4th Theme: The South of the Maghreb To the gaze that wants to hide the real problems, everything happens as if the idea of a colonized society were avoided to the maximum, banished from any general vision, to the benefit of a “quest for the South” imagery, the call of the desert, etc. Thus, we return to the folklore of the Moroccan South and the Algerian South by proposing a 2nd pseudo-festival act, as they still do in cabarets: - successive shots of horsemen; - successive shots of dancing women; - shots of fire-eaters, of snake charmers and of Aissaouia; - further south, Tuareg folklore with warrior dancing, camel races, etc. Re-recording. Indication only of geographical locations and shooting dates. Pause 4 Break the rhythm. If possible, find the same places again, but in other images, everyday images, in a journalistic style: - shots of children in Biskra, but poor children… - women washing clothes, working, watching us, etc. To animate, make equal use of photographs and shots of the UN. From the start of this pause, anonymous voices start talking about their lives and their nostalgia. 5th Theme: Islam In these years of apparent respite and of a lack of confrontation between the two societies, the natives are deliberately shown in their religious identity. Cf. collective prayer in Southern Algeria (Gaumont) - shot of a “praying Arab” (ostentatiously placed on top of a rock by the cameraman). - inauguration of the Paris mosque and visit by the sultan, the bey and others: at each instance, the same pan shot up and down the minaret and the patio of the entrance courtyard.

- Eid al-Saghir or Festival of Breaking the Fast in Tunis, in Rabat, in Algiers (shots of the crowd for the breaking of the fast) Eid al-Kebir or Festival of the Sacrifice (festivities among the fighters of 14-18...) - Mawlid, including the allegiance of the vassals filmed at the sultan’s palace (cf. 1939). - Departures of pilgrims for Mecca — Port of Algiers filmed every year since 1936 - Return, the joy of the arrival (report from a train station in Oran) - A circumcision in Tunisia - circumcision horse parade - the guests - veiled women looking over a wall, trying to hide. Pause 5 Starting from these women who are looking out over the wall, produce a montage — once again in silence — about the many silhouettes of veiled, often elusive women: symbols of the interior of a society trying to escape the gaze. Alternate shots of dancers (most of them professional and in the south), this time without sound, with the multitude of veiled women. This is, therefore, a feminine pause. Possibly hummed singing by women, without any need to translate the words ... (cf. the singing of the women of Tlemcen). 6th Theme: The Machine Adventure Another temptation of the colonial vision: the colony is above all a space, a deliberately virgin space, in which new machines are propelled. Therefore, the emphasis is on adventure. The southern landscapes and the high plateaus are filmed, albeit crossed by new cars, by the triumphant railroad, and overflown by the first air links. - report on the Gradis and Citroën missions of 1924-25 - locomotives in the South: celebrations in Touggourt for “the arrow of the South” 1st train to Colomb-Béchar Planes over the Sahara dunes - and finally, in spite of and along with the machines: legionnaires, camel riders, etc. Pause 6 In fact, war is coming. The problem of transport and connections becomes essential. Alternating montage:

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- parades of troops and images of Arab women, peasant women watching them on a country road; - a legionnaire filmed in full regalia: at his feet, a shoeshine boy shining his boots, etc. Thus, to look for the revealing details in the reports of a nation of witnesses that has stayed in its traditional world and looks at “the machine” or “the army” as strangers… 7th Theme: Work, or the “Colonial Effort” As the World War approaches, and during Vichy France, North Africa is displayed in its “colonial effort”, providing wheat, wine, and livestock, exhibiting its crafts, etc. On the occasion of these deliberately propagandistic images, men and women are displayed while working: - peasants (wine-harvesting; cf. in the Tunisian South, sulfation of vines by agricultural workers supervised by foremen on horseback. Single-file departure for the fields, workers) - dockers in Oran; - craftswomen working for hours on end before our eyes. In fact, while the purpose of such news reports is to insist on the “colonial wealth”, a different montage brings out the image of men and women struggling through their daily lives. Pause 7

“The party curtain is torn.” The period 39-45 is marked by the events of World War II and by the strategic place of each Maghreb country in the Mediterranean battle. We sketch out a few reference points, from the anecdotal to the well-known: e.g. Mers-el-Kébir — then, an inauguration of a “Maréchal Pétain” village — then, De Gaulle in Algiers, and some similar images in Morocco, the sultan with the Americans, and Tunisia as a battlefield… More than anything, the conclusion of the whole film could be an unfolding — in rapid succession — of some repeated shots from 1920 to 1940, among images of triumphalism and fantasia. But we interrupt this summary on the one hand by images of North African troops on the fronts of Corsica, Italy, Germany, etc., then the rapid succession resumes, and we add superimposed images of the front pages of newspapers after 1950 announcing “the events” in Tunisia, the deposition of the sultan, the outbreak of the Algerian war... These announcements are then covered by the same fantasia shots, but now accompanied by either blurred music or silence. This film on “celebration” should be felt as an unfolding that can only end in the years of “colonial fever” after 1950. May 1979, Paris

A colony is first and foremost a provider of men and cannon fodder: Shots (from the INA film archive) of the enlistment of Atlas warriors: in their mountain villages, their departure, the farewells to the women. OFIC shots: Moroccan goumiers in combat in Corsica, in the South of France, in Italy: “To sketch out the departure and the trajectory of a forced emigration, that of the war.” If need be, take up the first Algerian images from 1911 of the enlistment by drawing lots. Montage of some of the parties (more or less caricatural dancing) organized by the colonial fighters in their barracks… For this montage, choose only one popular song about departure and exile.


8. Conclusion

Originally published as ‘La Zerda ou Magreb, les années 30 (Continuité)’ in Mireille Calle-Gruber, Assia Djebar ou la Résistance de l’écriture : regards d’un écrivain d’Algérie (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2001). Translated by Sis Matthé

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The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion (1978-1982)

The Singing of Oblivion Assia Djebar, 1982 Pincers of time: fighting and the illusion of defeat, then of victory; arrest of lamentation. Stagnation; night of muteness. Seized by the leaning lightness of a sweet drunkenness of space, I walk, I wander, I work… Smarting eyes, the uneven grain of a voice dripping dry, a sliding hull letting in water right from the start, and freedom reappears as inexhaustible rebeginning. The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion: while working on this film about the Maghreb memory of the first half of this century, I hear, for the first time, a singer’s lament in a deserted auditorium in Gennevilliers. I keep silent, I rush outside, I wait on a bench for the bus, near an old man carrying a bouquet of roses, talking about it. I shrivel, I graze myself, the singing of anonymous pain in my head. At the end of the day, looking at the crowd around the Gare Saint-Lazare, I find myself both weary and washed-out: I am a bombed city. I wait more than three months before editing the singing — three minutes and twenty seconds of sound for images of the Algerian war. Silent images, whose rumble and noise I have cut out in advance. I know that others, from the roar of a bombing, from the cries of fear after a diving plane, from the howls of panic, others will make a slick soundtrack, to the rhythm of the ocean, sound waves worthy of an opera: a spectacle!

In my first image work, The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, I had taken only one “sound document”: two minutes of a radio report during an attack, and I reversed it: out of modesty, out of interrogative reflection. It had become the nagging dream sound of my heroine who, night after night, tried to get out or sink into yesterday’s war. Memory is a woman’s voice grazed night after night, we strangle it under the bed of a leaden sleep sings, this time, the unknown woman from The Zerda, thus continuing the journey of the researcher from The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. In this work of poetry, I am very pleased to work in Arabic and in French equally… The voice of the Arab singer repeats ad infinitum the word makhdoucha (grazed), to graze herself, while a pan shot slowly climbs back onto the drape of the ancient dress of a little girl from Fez they will probably marry off… Then, still for The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion, the Moroccan composer Ahmed Essyad gives me, after days of patient work, this long cry modulated into soprano singing: three minutes twenty seconds. Is this the immutable weeping Berber woman from the time of Antinea, echoed? To give a rhythm to the images of reality for twenty years of everyday life in the Maghreb, where each of the three

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countries has paid its death toll to obtain its independence. This work, which should be a simple “historical” visualization, I approach as a mined area. I apprehend it as an explosive that awakens from my past, from any past, the engulfed pains we believe to be rotten or defeated, I don’t know. They come alive again, they dress again as faceless ghosts, but veiled, as if they suddenly demanded the unfolding of a purifying liturgy. Three minutes and twenty seconds of silent images, the visible reality of the “events” of Morocco, Tunisia, and the “Algerian war”. Waves of violence, masks of the fertile death I need to bring to the fifth singing of this one-hour cinematic work: “The singing of the innocent who died with their eyes opened onto the coming twenty years...” I realize that I have undertaken this film, this stubborn search for my ancestors and for myself, while yearning: the vanity of this profusion of images of hatred and suspicion that must be melted into it is a matter of melting into measured time. Between the images of the Algerian war and myself, I wish to leave the distance of religious respect, of emptied horror. The cries — those of friends or enemies, who cares — would remain in my head: they who risk bringing back to the present this past that refuses to coagulate. Or if the cries rang out again, we would have to black out all the screens, blur the photographs taken, seal the words of the reports, of the evocations, the pleas, then, eyes closed, open ears... If the clamour suddenly spreads, or accidentally loses its effectiveness, what kind of sister music to look for? Look, a woman cries out because she is giving birth, a beast in a thicket groans for a hunter has just hit it, a jealous, furious lover has just killed his beloved and howls with remorse — look, all the gaping holes of the most banal sounds, of the commonest bits of news open before us; it is enough to extract them from the present we thus pillory. Let us direct these cries to meet the images of yesterday embalmed by some futile respect; let us dress in them the visible convulsions of the seven-year war that disrupted my native soil: details rediscover the whole, the contingent solo singing becomes part of the funeral symphony, the flower heals onto its first stem, the voice rediscovers the mud and cesspit of the real. How, moreover, to continue the prayers for heroes or heroines? Of course, they are all dead; but if they were still alive, most of them would have exchanged their purity for accommodations, for fat or thin daily life. Heroes, when they survive, are absent from themselves and from the public noise. I imagine them lost in the crowd, prisoners of their silence, while their dream of absence keeps them obscure, like wandering nomads without caravans, or simply haggard!


Those who remember their brilliant deeds out loud remind us of those aging, dressed-up stars, around whom the mirrors have been veiled with heavy drapes, so that they cannot see themselves, so that their entourage leaves them to believe at leisure in their vanished beauty of yesterday. I often wonder what drives the multiple actors of this war — called “Algerian” on the French side, and “of liberation” on the Algerian side — to write, each and every one of them in each clan, more than twenty years later: are they writing in search of their youth, of their faith of yesterday, perhaps of their happiness, or simply and automatically as “veterans”? The warriors of the conquest, at least the victors, wrote almost every day, and these writings fascinate me even more. I wonder, more precisely, about the fighters of my side who, writing today or dictating to some scribe in the language of the enemy, do not consider it a problem, if not of conscience, then at least of identity. As if, by remaking their war (in such and such wilaya [province in Algeria], in such and such prison, in such and such hiding place in town...) with the words of the other, they were not suddenly looking for some love, if only to be recognized at last as a full-fledged enemy! I know an upright and peaceful man who, at the age of twenty in 1945, began “his” Algerian war in his village in Kabylia and was soon afterwards thrown into prison. He remained there, most of the time in secret, and was transported all over France until 1962: seventeen years of imprisonment! One day, a filmmaker came along and tried to reproduce this destiny in pictures à la Silvio Pellico. He was turned away tactfully. I knew that the modesty of this former prisoner was truly shaken: how to speak of his own life, which is not yet finished, when there have been so many definitive misfortunes, closed in on themselves? I think of this modest restraint: now that the a posteriori vulgarization of collective suffering takes place in roaring shows, only “instinct” can save us, that is to say, the sense of secrecy, or simply of silence. So this man must have felt that, in the spotlights, with technicians recording the supposedly true story of his long days of imprisonment, a second prison would have been installed: no longer around him, but inside of himself. May my words, following the example of this taciturn hero, emerge from behind the backfill of silence, and not necessarily in order to make holes in it. May my space-conquering gaze be weighed down today by the weight of the mask that I cannot, in spite of myself, tear off entirely. In these seven and a half years of the so-called “war of liberation”, what has become of the cries of the tortured, the groans of the forgotten dead, the sobbing of erupted violence? In which azure does their tone rise and set, uninterrupted?

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Traces of all kinds multiply about the “Algerian War”: images, photographs, bits and pieces of retrospective reports. Faced with this persistent graphomania, I think of the women of our country who like to share a meal, some semolina and some dates, on the tombs. More to console themselves than to remain faithful. More to submit and exorcize than to preserve, dig some revolt and tear themselves to pieces.

To feed oneself after having wept abundantly, after having, for subtle hygiene, exhaled the cries of the innermost protesting being. But the deeper pains currently swallow their noise. And let it macerate. And this muteness sits alone against the wall of marble memories.

Originally published as ‘Le chant de l’oubli’ in Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999). Translated by Sis Matthé

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The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua (1977)

A Woman’s Gaze Assia Djebar, 1989 One night in December 1976, in a farm rented from some peasant farmers 70 kilometres from Algiers, with a team of seventeen technicians and two actors, I was shooting an interior night scene — a man looking at his sleeping wife. A banal situation? No particular action... except for the duration of the look (a minute and a half ), or rather of the double look — myself, the technicians, and later the film audience, looking at the man, the Other, looking at an Algerian woman lying heedlessly asleep, like a Venus in an Italian Renaissance painting. It was as if all art (at that time Arab cinema could, objectively, be said to be at a stage of development similar to that of Florentine or Venetian painting of the Quattrocento) had to begin by going through this original experience: how the Other looks at a woman in an unguarded moment and how, in turn, we look at him looking at her. In the film, The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, the woman is lying on the marital bed, her hair bound up in a red scarf; only the pure lines of her face are visible. I had worked out the décor down to the last detail — the silky glimmer of the bedclothes and the pillows contrasting with the rough whitewashed walls, the carpets on the floor, and wool, lots of wool all around. Enveloped in the wide bed, the sleeping woman seems passive, serene. Then, from her few disordered movements, we gradually sense the beginnings of a struggle against a nightmare — the memories, as we will later learn, of a wartime past.


Let us return to the gaze of the Other: the man immobile in the doorway of the bedroom looking at his wife? Will he join her on the bed? No. The gaze, here, is certainly a gaze of desire (Would there really be cinema if it wasn’t for the search for desire, explicitly or implicitly, or at least for its preliminaries?), but it is not observed with sufficient insistence to suggest shared pleasure, the promise of intimate union. The Other’s way of looking at the desirable woman, a gaze on which we too are spying, is not the gaze of a voyeur. Slowly and with increasing intensity (a minute and a half can be a very long time), he is, despite himself, contemplating his impotence and the pain of separation. It is a gaze before the desert, a gaze that confronts, that makes more distinct the dividing line between a couple, between the sexes. I should, perhaps, have indicated earlier that the man is immobilized in a wheelchair which he has propelled along the wall to the open door. Even at a distance, the woman is fascinating. His hand grips the door-frame. Behind the camera, I capture the movement of the seated man as he struggles to rise, inch by inch, his face in profile twisted by the effort, and in the background the bed, the sleeping woman with the red kerchief — two masks, one so near, the other so distant. The Other’s gaze at women: long after, I began to wonder if it was really just by chance that I had decided to shoot this interior night scene. At the time I had sought only the pleasure

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of a pictorial and cinematic composition. Had I not chosen the scene in spite of myself? After all, for me as a writer, as a filmmaker, or simply as an Arab woman, was not the real problem the painful search for an answer to the question as to the nature of the Other’s look at woman, in a culture in which, for centuries, the eye had been closely guarded? One eye only existed, the eye of the master of the harem who forbade all visual imagery and invoked religious taboos to reinforce this dominance. The gaze of the Other, unless it is the gaze of a voyeur (an aggressive, invasive gaze), perceives nothing but the image of the woman, a mirage enshrouded in poetry and melancholy. *** One could, indeed, summarize Arab cinema today by this issue of the gaze of the Other. Yet it seems relevant to me to enlarge the experience I have just described of this male gaze “before the desert” to include the submission through the gaze, in a not so distant past, of an entire society confronted with colonization: Arab, African or Eastern cultures, controlled, archived, “illustrated” by a dominant gaze. The Other was the Western painter (the painter of battle scenes, then the orientalist painter of fantasias, of caravans, bedouins, dancers, children begging against a background of sand dunes and ruined mosques), and then the traveller-photographer of the years between 1880 and 1900, when the great colonial empires were at the height of their power. This period saw a profusion of postcards, which were despatched in their thousands — pictures of more or less scantily clad “belles fatmas” [“beautiful Fatmas” — a stereotypical postcard image of an Algerian woman] across which, or on the back of which, tourists, soldiers and short-stay residents inscribed their messages with apparent indifference. Thus, for about a century and a half, as in the days of pagan magic, people were “possessed” — both in the sense of being dominated and of being tricked — by the annexation of their image in an operation in which they took no part. People communicated with each other on pictures of Arabs or Blacks who themselves were excluded from communication. Did they “look” at them? No, they used their image — their apparent difference, in fact — as a pretext for the circulation of ideas, words and banalities without their being even symbolically involved. A pretext-gaze of the absent for the absent: more than ever, the beings thus observed were denied any fundamental identity, as if their difference became a matter of fashion, of folklore, an empty décor. An entire “colonial cinema”, documentaries and fiction films, held sway for decades; once successful, it has today completely disappeared. As if, everywhere at the time, the blind were filming mirages.

And then, suddenly, women began to open their eyes and look around them. Women who until then had no right to look, who walked with lowered eyes, their faces, their foreheads, their entire bodies enveloped except for a tiny orifice left so that they could see a few paces ahead. At last they had a right to the world outside, to schooling, to study, to space. They forgot themselves so far as to contemplate the sky, trees, nature, foam on the waves, to observe the city streets and crowds, to look at others — other women, all humanity. I venture to return to my own modest experience of “elaborate looking” over time, because, for me, the strength of the cinema lies in its scrupulous, meticulous examination of ways of looking, in its way of looking at those who cannot look and of encountering those, whether men or women, who look for the first time. Let us, therefore, go back to the first scene of The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua. A woman is standing with her back to the audience; all that can be seen of her is her hair and the outline of her head against a wall. She rubs her forehead against the stone wall; perhaps, through impatience or helplessness, she has just banged her head against it. It’s possible, since she turns us away, turns me away, the camera-gaze. Yet this is how I chose to show her. She walks on, searching, persisting in her rejection of the audience. Suddenly her voice breaks out, and with it all her inner feeling of revolt: “I speak, I speak, I speak!” Then silence. “I don’t want anybody to see me,” she says. And then she adds, and we understand that the man is also there in the room, waiting: “I don’t want you to see me.” Thus, the heroine of the film, who will live out her life before us in the next two hours, begins by proclaiming her refusal to be looked at. Then she turns and faces us, because, above all, she wants to speak, to communicate. Perhaps she is unaware that it is difficult to speak out in front of others, or that to speak into the void and into the silence is even more difficult. Yet her desire to express herself is manifest: “I speak, I speak, I speak!” In other words the screen might be no more than a ribbon of darkness, a non-image pierced from time to time by the distant profile of a woman to remind us that the woman is there; only her voice becomes duration, full presence — a word preceded by her shadow. My conclusion is that films made by women — from the Third World as well as from the “Old World” — are an expression of a desire to speak. It is as though “shooting” means for women a new mobility of voice and body, of a body unobserved and therefore unsubordinated, with a rediscovered autonomy and innocence. As a result, the voice takes wings and dances. Only then, eyes open. At last the Other is seeing with her own eyes.

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In The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, the young woman architect who returns to the land of her childhood does indeed begin to speak, and she goes out too, rediscovering old haunts. As she wanders her eyes seek out places, houses, rivers, even those that have run dry, and forests, even those that have been burnt down. She meets other women who look at her in their turn. And through this exchange of looks, often slow, sometimes furtive, or simply blank, with the blankness of waiting, dialogues are opened — concerning the present and the past. And all around, these women among women are accompanied by the pervasive presence of scores of idle, noisy, laughing children and their uncertain bursts of song. As I follow the heroine, I look at the other women. Or rather, I watch her, a young independent woman, savouring her rebirth. I watch her discovering the other women. As she looks at the peasant women her look opens the floodgates of speech, until then firmly closed — women’s talk about the banalities of daily life and about the still vivid past, about the embers of memories still painful despite the balm of forgetfulness. “How can I weep, when I have no tears left?” exclaims an old peasant woman, with a dried up face but a proud bearing.

A woman looks at other women. And in that look desire plays no part. The barren gap between human beings disappears, conversations interweave. Returning home as dusk falls, the young woman is enveloped in the warmth of those who have spoken to her. It is as if the voice always preceded the body and the eyes and thus, far from the rapine of voyeurism, in these half-blind fumblings were to be found love, tenderness and recognition. Can it be simply by chance that most films created by women give as much importance to sound, to music, to the timbre of voices recorded or captured unawares, as they do to the image itself? It is as though the screen had to be approached cautiously and be peopled, if need be, with images seen through a look, even a short-sighted, hazy look, but borne on a full, commanding voice, hard as stone but fragile and rich as the human heart.

Originally published as ‘Un regard de femme’ and (in translated version) ‘Behind the Veil. Women on Both Sides of the Camera’ in Courrier de l’Unesco (October 1989). Republished, in an alternative version, as ‘Regard de l’autre, regard sur l’autre’ in Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999). Translation edited by Sis Matthé


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My Need for Cinema Assia Djebar, 1994 1. Why do I need a writing of cinema? For me, cinema is neither a “job” — in the sense of a career — nor a “vocation” — in the sense of a calling. What is it, then, for me, having made my first film shortly after the age of forty (1976-1977), then a second one (1982) shortly after the age of forty-five? Ten years or more later — during which, admittedly, no less than six scenarios that I tried to direct in a French-Algerian co-production followed one another, two of which resulted in texts “returned” to literature, but all of them “blocked” in one way or another by the Algerian state cinema; hence, ten years later, what does cinema as work mean to me: a plan, reflection and an attempt at realization...? I will question myself before you. Today, as luck would have it, I have been at the side of Sembène Ousmane, the pioneer of African cinema. And, now, I’m faced with a proximity that inevitably makes me modest. And yet, this is what allows me to situate myself — I was going to say “off-screen” — let us simply say elsewhere. “Elsewhere”, as a writer who came to the sound-image rather late. Elsewhere, as a woman with an Arab-Islamic cultural heritage in which the prohibition of images crystallizes, more than ever, on the female body. Elsewhere, finally, as an Algerian, at a time when my country, after the thirty years of independence I’ve spent with it, is exploding, is in danger of breaking up, covers itself in blood and searches in blood and blind distress for a future or a non-future, I don’t know, in short, in this tunnel in which my community today is trudging along, how to see, what to see and what to show? Why am I still driven by a desire for cinema after having been confronted with the Algerian film industry these last years, which readily helped films by filmmakers from the Third World (Egyptian, Lebanese, Senegalese, or even Westerners), but marginalized me locally because I was a woman and I persisted, moreover, in practicing a cinema of research and not of consumption...? I, therefore, who situate myself “off-screen” in relation to the Algerian cinema of independence, I am going to try to talk to you about my need for cinema, which remains in spite of all these obstacles.

2. Algeria, since about 1986, that is to say, after all, for less than a decade, finds itself, because of television satellite dishes, under the daily spray of a stream of images conceived elsewhere, more often than not in a language or languages from elsewhere, with the insistent exhibition of consumer objects sold and consumed elsewhere (chocolates, cheeses, deodorants, washing powder, cars, etc.), and with a parade of human bodies, dressed or naked, or half-naked, referring to a pseudo-sensuality that is filmed flatly and indefinitely excites a voyeurism of frustration… Algeria is certainly only experiencing the situation lived by many Third World countries (Latin America, the Caribbean, certain Asian countries...) in which the higher the poverty, dependence and blatant social inequality, the more the dominant Western imagery is proposed as a soporific antidote, as an anaesthetic and supposed visual way of letting off steam. At the same time, the international “news” (CNN and other media channels) is hiding or distorting earth’s real tensions, all the while pretending to show them to us, in their ephemeral nature. I do not pretend to make a political or ideological statement here in order to outline the specular state of my natural audience, which is more than ever subjected to this audiovisual domination; it is simply an aesthetic judgment on my part. It is certainly banal, when you live in New York, Paris or Vancouver, to denounce the subculture of the majority of this television production. The fact remains that any authentic filmmaker, any photographer, any painter or sculptor can now only work with his back turned, his eyes closed to these millions of windows, fireflies of illusion and even more of mediocrity, of nothingness. But when, for the Third World public, some people search for a fragile truth of their own via sound-images, and evoke, as I have done, the massive consumption of the non-consumable (concretely speaking), whether they like it or not, from the very outset, they can only settle in the fracture of the gaze, in the gap of absence, on the infinite ridge of frustration: in short, in violence. And all the more so for Algerian culture, whose elite — under threat once again today — had to heal the wounds of more than a century of colonial rape and of a distressing war of decolonization.

Assia Djebar


To heal the wounds and rethink its history, its memory, its inner duration above all, and this through languages scrabbling to become plural. (It should be remembered that for thirty years, Algerian cinema, the only cultural expression financed by the authorities for the benefit of the few, with almost Hollywoodian pretensions, wanted to be “pompous” — according to a “pompes funèbres aesthetic” — Saint Sulpician even, with a swollen pseudo-lyricism and a demagogic kind of populism. An official cinema that prevailed without a real audience, to which golden palms were given in Cannes — while, in the worst of circumstances, three or four directors, authentic filmmakers, only managed to make one, at most two, auteur films...) Under these circumstances, the television image was not just a pervasive subculture of sustained sleep and absence; it operated as an instrument of accelerated dispossession and acculturation. I even think that, in Algeria’s case, the televised sound-image — as well as certain films shot with the millions provided by the state for the “great” pseudo-historical “spectacle” — this image has deliberately functioned as a weapon of identity destruction. 3. As this gathering here in Victoria is called “Ecrits/ Ecrans” [“Writings/Screens”], I will summarize where I am standing at the end of 1994. For two years, I have been grappling with the impossibility of expressing blood, death, hatred — of expressing, that is to say, of putting it down in literary writing. (It is not a coincidence that my last novel, So Vast the Prison, begins with a prologue called “The silence of writing” and ends with “The blood of writing”.) In short, the genre of the novel has served me to evoke the initial stages of the current crisis: that is to say, in my eyes, the conquest of a female space on Algerian soil — and as soon as this space starts to become visible, starts to allow for a beginning of jubilation for some of us, the erasure, or the risk of dissolution appears and invades everything! My relationship to today’s reality is also marked by the attempt to rely on the sound-image, within the framework of the film shot, to create it as a moving scene, like a concentrated story. Yes, to turn to “audiovisual creation” (is that really the formula we need to use?) in order to confront myself, to measure myself and thus “produce”, that is to say “invent” (and one only invents, as Jacques Derrida recently said in Lisbon, the impossible) — to invent, yes, the encounter with what, if not with raw violence, with screaming and delirious evil, with murder and the omnipresent stride of death, over there, at home. I would say the following, which seems enormous to me, which seems outright impossible to me, which would make


me go into a trance, I would say that, yes: the idea of Algeria’s possible death, as an act of defiance, of stubborn hope, of writing — of either cinema or literature — must make life present. Pain too perhaps. But above all life. The incurable melancholy, but above all life! Faced with the bloody traces and threats, faced with the hideous scarlet of the Algerian everyday, to restore, above all, the palette of white, grey, shades of brown, green-grey, ash-blue, the entire band of a pre-dawn sky… You realize: how to protect yourself against the flood of images flung at the eyes of the “civilized” world of a convulsionary reality (in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, in so many other tragedy-riddled places!)? In sound-images, we need to reconnect with a cinema not of experimentation, but of experience — as if we had to cross, with eyes wide open and sharpened ears, Saharas of solitude for a clean screen. 4. Of course, buried under the dirt and vulgarity of conventional images floating before my audience — that we want to confuse, or destabilize in order to make it fit into the rank of conformism and hopeless servitude — a cinema of coloured silence and primary noises would be neither avant nor arrière-garde, but a cinema of survival, because of its own original rhythm. An “Algerian” cinema of a living Algeria, alive and multiplied, would go back to capturing life’s pulsations (animal sighs, the palpitations of leaves, the wind blowing and the roar of the river, so as to finally accompany the voice and body of an Algeria that is nearly forbidden, or in any case underground and, until now, rarely seen, barely perceived...). You notice that I am dreaming. Is it this dream cinema that I wanted to talk to you about? No... It’s a sketch for a cinema of lightness, of traces and rebirths. Of searching, most certainly... In this immanence, which risks being formless, where would the reflection (or the position) of History be, through the unfolding of a simple story? A cinema of fiction would be practiced not to arouse emotions, but rather to re-install true duration — whereas television as a pastime coagulates time, empties and seals it. 5. Don’t worry: if productional chance were to allow me a return to filmmaking — fiction films, for a cinema audience — I would certainly unfold a story, a series of apparent anecdotes. In short, a continuity. But which current landscapes of desolation and destruction would resurface in one way or another, probably in the background? How to position myself from that point on, how to frame things, what to evoke in a roundabout way, I would say, by slowly coming nearer, and by taking a step back in case of excess (Here, I call “excess” the failure of

Assia Djebar

over-naming something or someone. Because the face of hatred, when filmed too superficially, no longer means anything, becomes a commonplace, while we need to allow which mystery or horror to take shape exactly?). This suddenly reminds me of Robert Bresson’s superb last film, L’Argent. While the apparent central subject is the story of a crime, in one shot towards the end, the camera has a double approach, both towards and away from the fatal act. That’s all: hardly anything is visible, yet all of the tragic horror is communicated. Thus, in “cinematography” worthy of the name, there is a need to show and to hide, to deplore and not to cry, but to harden so that the lost tenderness nidifies. In short, cinema needs to receive and refuse violence through a gaze that hurts itself and through the voice that rises up. That is the ambiguity: a few hesitant steps are sketched out in the face of encroaching death, yet the desire persists. Not to immediately bear witness, but rather in a hope to liberate the desire for murder without murder, and also the desire for victimization without the victim, who is thus spared. Ambiguity and, above all, aporia: why, in the face of encroaching death, does the sound-image, by trying to find itself and by impregnating itself, both keep watch, watch out and watch the nighttime violence? The neutral sound-image, turned blank, or left blank, would defuse itself right before, or right after, alas. Too late, never too soon, alas once more! Whom to show, what to put into play, what to play and relive, faced with the lifeless and voracious eye of death? A dead eye.

6. My need for a writing of cinema? Certainly, but with eyes wide open, ears driven far into time, gradually rediscovering, at the end of silence, the confusion and the pure, or virgin, or dirty white, rediscovering the duration of life… Did I speak above of a dying Algeria, of its body almost ready to be transported to the nearby morgue for an autopsy after the crime? No. I spoke of each of us being in need of sound-images, of a cinema for the revival, the rebirth, and the quivering of a tattooed Algeria. That is what my need for cinema feeds on today: a desire that is perhaps formless, a prolific desire I am afraid, and I apologize for it here before you.

Written for the occasion of “Ecrit/Ecran : Assia DjebarSembène Ousmane” [Colloquium], University of Victoria, Vancouver (October 1994). Originally published as ‘Mon besoin de cinéma’ in Sada Niang (ed.), Littérature et cinéma en Afrique francophone : Ousmane Sembène et Assia Djebar (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997). Republished, in an alternative version, in Assia Djebar, Ces voix qui m’assiègent (Paris: Albin Michel, 1999). Translated by Sis Matthé

Assia Djebar



Jocelyne Saab

Jocelyne Saab “Once you’re holding a camera, it’s your profession that matters... Maybe, as a definition, and fundamentally I don’t know, you react with a gaze that doesn’t linger on the surface of things, of guns or armies; I have always preferred getting to know people’s sensibilities in great detail, the children, the women, the men, the daily life of human beings... In this field, people are so surprised to see a woman arrive on set that they make room for her and respect her.” Jocelyne Saab (1948-2019) was born and raised in Beirut. After completing her studies in economic sciences at the Sorbonne in Paris, Saab worked on a music programme on the national Lebanese radio station before being invited by poet and artist Etel Adnan to work as a journalist. Unlike most war reporters, who must travel to war zones to pursue their profession, war came to Saab’s native Lebanon in 1975, and that same year saw the beginning of Saab’s filmmaking career with Lebanon in a Whirlwind, an account of the various forces and interests behind the incipient conflict. The war would last another 15 years, and Saab’s chronicling of its horrors — particularly in her remarkable “Beirut Trilogy”, comprising Beirut, Never Again (1976), Letter from Beirut (1978), and Beirut, My City (1982) — is unequalled in both its ethical integrity and emotional impact. The same candour and empathy Saab applied to the war in her homeland can be found in her other documentaries. Filming the struggle of the Polisario Front in the desert of Western Sahara, the consequences of the infitah on Sadat’s policy in Egypt, or the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979, a picture of a Middle East removed from reductive simplifications emerged through the polyhedral

Filming The Boat of Exile (1982)

prism of her camera. “I believe that what makes up the specificity of my trajectory is that I have always wanted to remain coherent; I have always been ready to fight for what I believe in, to show and analyse this changing Middle East that I’m so passionate about. Yet the day came when I grew tired of it, or rather my eyes grew tired. I couldn’t see anything anymore — there had been too many deaths and too much suffering. I then moved on to fiction.” Her entry into fiction filmmaking came in 1981 when she worked as second unit director on Volker Schlöndorff ’s Circle of Deceit. Shortly after that, she directed her first fictional work, A Suspended Life (1985), set in the same war-torn Beirut she had documented ten years prior. After the war reconfigured the whole country, in Once Upon a Time in Beirut (1994), Saab tried to rescue the cinematographic memory of the Lebanese capital in the same year that cinema turned 100 years old. In 2005, she was censured and her life threatened for making Dunia, Kiss Me Not On The Eyes, a film shot in Cairo about desire, pleasure and female sexuality in the context of Islam. Until her death in January 2019, Jocelyne Saab remained devoted to what she called her “two permanent obsessions: liberty and memory”.

Jocelyne Saab


Egypt, City of the Dead (1977)

“It’s up to women to lift the veil” Interview by Maryse Léon and Magda Wassef, 1978 Jocelyne Saab has directed a number of documentaries on conflicts in the Arab world. The majority of her work concerns Lebanon, her country, but she has also taken an interest in the Saharawi cause, in Egypt’s destitution. Her latest film, Letter from Beirut, tries to give an idea of the underlying violence that has taken hold in this devastated country, in the minds of the disillusioned populations suffering the blows and repercussions of suicidal politics. How to explain the fact that you are one of our rare filmmakers showing what is happening in Lebanon? Cinema is a passion, and it’s my job. During the war, faced with the impossibility of any real action, I couldn’t take up arms; I’m a journalist, and the role of a journalist is to bear witness. So making a film about the war in Lebanon is a political action. I tried to follow the war closely, first to explain it and then to show my distress in the face of my country’s destruction. The war has been going on for three years, so I have evolved and my films have taken on very different shapes. My journalistic side makes me a go-getter, not


that I’m not afraid, but I go to the battlefields, to the more difficult places. But what’s a bit sad is that I’m the only one, during these three years of war, that has been in the field, trying to convey and explain it to people. There have been edited films, like the ones by Randa Chahal and Georges Chamchoum, but they came out after the war. Maroun Baghdadi made a film in 1973 in which he explains the premises of the war and some of the problems that existed then in this country. But it’s a fiction film. He then made a film about Kamal Jumblatt. If you could talk about your evolution as a filmmaker... I lived the war as a Lebanese woman, that’s all. I couldn’t talk about anything else, because the subject was so very dear to me, so that’s where I had to start. In 1975, the first step was to explain this war. At the time, I could still go everywhere, the gap between the different political tendencies, the different parties, wasn’t that huge yet. I interviewed the left, the right, trying to make a film that would analyze the ins and outs of this war, obviously showing

Jocelyne Saab

my own leanings, but giving the floor to each and every one. For this, I was sharply criticized by the way. The left criticized me for giving the floor to the right and vice versa. In fact, it was a first attempt at explaining an event. I wanted to get away from the classic methods; I had already done several years of reporting. I thought I could describe a short phase of Lebanon’s history without any pretension, as people would describe it themselves. In fact, in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, I fell back into the classical approach, juxtaposing images and interviews... It’s very difficult to explain a country in which eighteen communities are living, and many problems coexist, without making people talk. At the time, one didn’t really understand the situation. I learned a lot from this first feature-length documentary experience. In my second film, I felt more confident. I no longer tried to explain things; I wanted to express what I felt like expressing. Children of War is a first attempt. I most certainly put my sensibility as a woman in the foreground. I can’t ignore my sensibility towards children. But that could also be a man’s sensibility! I noticed that the public was touched by these children who lived through a massacre. It’s a film that denounces violence and war. It was a first step. The turning point is the film Beirut, Never Again. It’s a film and a drifting walk around a destroyed Beirut. It contains my entire sensibility towards a country that I loved and that has been destroyed. To express this in the voice-over, I chose the Lebanese poet Etel Adnan. Our two sensibilities met. The voice-over was very surprising as it didn’t respect the rules of reporting. It’s a poem expressing impressions that are personal, but could be those of every Lebanese. Each time I made a film, it was in a given political period; each time I had a political objective, my films couldn’t just be without orientation. That’s not sentimentality. Through a form of sensibility, a political problem emerges. The destruction of Beirut, the children fighting, it means something. I figured this way of showing things could touch people and have a real political impact. People are fed up with the talking. On television, for example, one day they show a representative of the left, the next a representative of the right. Every day, they agree with someone else, and they end up forgetting who’s right or wrong! At least you show that a people is suffering. Five years ago, one of my first films, the one about the Palestinian commandos, left a deep impression on me. It was a scoop, a resounding success, but it was a failure in terms of information and public awareness. People are tired of the violence. I had shown the violence and, as this war is only violence, I now refuse to show it immediately, you see it through a destroyed image. I started refusing sensational images and

took the opposite side. I bypassed the horrible spectacle and went to see the people, those who were suffering. I continued along this path with the story of a besieged village in South Lebanon. Nothing happens but everyone imagines they’re going to be attacked. It’s a kind of anti-reporting. Was your contact with people easier because you were a woman? Maybe it made things easier for me, but I like to get close to people. I like talking and listening to them. Each time I spend several days with them and I try to become more integrated. As I’m Lebanese, it’s easier. I work from there. When I return, I’m not a voyeur, I’m an insider. Then you made Egypt, City of the Dead. I needed to get away for a while. So I made this film about Egypt. Once again, I worked with my sensibility, since the second part of the title, Chaque année en janvier [Every Year in January], is a poem by Sheikh Imam dedicated to suffering Egypt. This film was shown all over Europe, everyone was moved by what they weren’t used to seeing. It had never been shown over there. The appealing part of my approach is that I talk about a subject from within. I speak the language. I’ve visited the country many times. I feel the problem I’m addressing. However, as soon as you move on to a larger issue, you’re obliged to go back to a more academic style, especially when you only have a miserable camera and a limited format, or a sound engineer that I sometimes need to replace myself. That’s a far cry from the documentaries of American filmmakers; they have three million dollars for one small film, three cameras... Barbara Kopple’s film Harlan County U.S.A. is a perfect example. I’d like to do reporting like that — you capture everything, at every moment, and you don’t need a voice-over! I have very limited means! And then I returned to Letter from Beirut — it was a new experience. I’m in front of and behind the camera. Maybe I don’t have any acting skills, but the camera films me as if I’m reporting. I don’t have time to compose, to play. It was only possible because I made it in my own country; anywhere else would have been impossible. What about your experience as a woman, your opinion on women in Arab society? In Arab society, women have to do everything if they want to lift the veil. If they have to rely on men, if they have to respect social behaviour, they won’t get very far. You have to

Jocelyne Saab


go for it and open the doors. But I’ve never experienced any problems as a woman. At first, people were surprised to see me, a woman, looking so young. I went for it! It’s not men who will open the doors! What country do you live in, France or Lebanon? I live in Lebanon. I’m only here to show my film. It’s a shame, as I would have liked to do everything over there. Although the country is currently destroyed. Besides, I want to be able to express myself, and censorship exists. My films aren’t shown in Lebanon and there’s no other archive footage on the subject. Do you plan to make non-documentary films? As a journalist, I was prepared for this genre. There was a war and I was involved, so I went for it. And, I trained as an economist, so I combined a scientific mind with intuition. I came to cinema without knowing anything about its techniques, and I learned them in the field. The better it goes, the more I’ll turn to fiction. I’m tired of documentaries, especially because I’m doing everything myself. Could you tell us about the production? These days, I’m lucky enough to be known by television companies; so when I propose a film, they ask to view it and take it. It’s a sort of purchase guarantee. I have a kind of mini-capital that I use to shoot my films. It’s not even a tenth of a normal budget for a fifty-minute film! I’m lucky enough to have a camera and a Nagra, but it remains a leap in the dark. It’s hard not being entirely sure whether the film is going to be sold or not. You have to do everything: check your equipment, service it, go to the lab, subtitle the film, check the calibration because you can’t afford an assistant, do the communications, announce the film, in other words,


do everything a production company does. Ultimately, it’s pretty frustrating to waste your energy like that. I would like to only direct the film! And your projects? I’m going to make a feature-length fiction film. It’s going to be funded by the television companies that have been buying my documentaries. So I won’t have to chase after funding! I’ll be able to become better, even as a woman! It should be finished by the end of next year. It’s a new experience, and it might influence my way of documentary making. What is your relationship with other Arab women filmmakers? I don’t distinguish between my female and my male colleagues. I think feminists are isolating themselves even more. In Arab society, where women live in ghettos, it can only make things worse. On the contrary, the liberation of women means integrating them into this society of men that rejects them. This doesn’t mean that I’m against information about women, about what they do. The fact remains that men perceive you the way you show yourself! Among Arab filmmakers, more women are starting to make a name for themselves: Ronda Chahal, Cherine Tannous who was Farouk Beloufa’s recent assistant in Beirut. I am also thinking of “Habiba”, Gladys Abi Gouda. I repeat: it’s up to women to open the doors! To lift the veil...!

Originally published without title in CinémArabe, 10/11 (August/ November 1978). Translated by Sis Matthé

Jocelyne Saab

Beirut, Never Again (1976)

“The public needs fiction, and several of us are moving in that direction” Interview by Gaston Haustrate and Corinne McMullin, 1982 You’re about to start your first feature-length fiction film as a Lebanese filmmaker. In the past, you’ve made fourteen short “subjectivized documentary” style films. Does moving to feature-length film and to fiction imply a distance from your previous work? What kind of development forms the basis of this second stage of your career? This documentary phase wasn’t only linked to my personal history; it was determined by my country’s political situation and Lebanon’s cinema history. My trajectory is a bit like that of other Lebanese filmmakers. If I decided to move to fiction it’s because, after speaking in a “militant” manner, I now want the image to speak as much as possible.

The Schlöndorff experience was, [1] for me, a turning point. Before the war, there were hardly any possibilities for us to make films. For an education, you had to either work for Lebanese television or leave. At French television, I found out about the means of filmmaking and discovered that I had a sensibility of my own and an understanding of the Arab world different from that of the West. Thus, I had a particular advantage: a different gaze. It was an intuitive observation because I didn’t know which way my sensibility was going, but it gave me the confidence to become independent and make my own films. The time of this discovery was the beginning of the war in Lebanon; people talked more about the Palestinian problem than the Lebanese problem. My subject was decided in advance. I joined the wave of militant cinema but tried to distance myself from it, because I didn’t want to make marginal films: I wanted to focus on television.

Jocelyne Saab


What was your initial ideological choice? I wanted to avoid overtly political cinema, propaganda cinema. But, in spite of myself, because of my somewhat “Pasionaria” character, I fell into the trap of activism. Then the problem of Lebanon began to emerge; but as it wasn’t really a cause yet, it was easier to take a step back and tell the story by moving away from direct activism. That was the time of my film Lebanon in a Whirlwind. To what extent did the war determine your approach and to what extent did you feel capable of translating it? This event determined the approach of all those who were making films in Lebanon at the time. The political aspect determined our analytical subjectivity; the lack of means and of education determined the rest. I tried to express myself with my own sensibility, to say what I felt inside. In 1976, the circumstances forced me to make up my mind, to speak as I wanted to. I made Beirut, Never Again in this spirit, thinking that it didn’t matter if no one else liked it. I didn’t have anything to demonstrate, I just wanted to show what was happening. Beirut, Never Again seems to deal with reality in a new way. A personal approach establishes itself. Was that the product of a premeditated, theorized development? It was both instinctive and theorized. My social background played its part. I was born as a Christian in a bourgeois family, and in today’s Lebanon, I was on the fringes of the Islamo-progressive left. I needed to find my place. I used cinema to establish myself in a certain way, politically. Once this personal development was over, I broke away and only spoke cinema. Did your film practice sometimes transform your awareness of the political problem? Certainly, and here we’re talking about the role of the image in information. I became aware of the limitations of the field of militant cinema, and of the reversal of meaning an image can provoke. Sometimes the images backfired on me; the established principles and precepts weren’t the ones to follow. The best example is a short film I made about the Palestinian commandos in 1973. I thought I was defending the Palestinian cause by going to live and film in a suicide commando base.


I approached the situation in a very journalistic way, without any distance towards the subject filmed and towards the image. I thought I had turned this raw footage into a strong film. When it was shown on television, it was a shock because the images were too much and, ultimately, did a disservice to the Palestinian cause. People said: “Look at this fanaticism, this terrorism.” They were commandos of the Rejectionist Front; they wore balaclavas and swore an oath by extending their arms like the Nazis. Those desperate Palestinians had become Nazis. It would have sufficed if I had filmed them differently, from another angle, in other light. That was an important lesson for me, both in terms of cinema and politics. What consequences did this experience have on your subsequent films? Did it play a role in Letter from Beirut, in which you suddenly started to address the viewer and entered the scene? After the experience I just had assisting Schlöndorff, I can say that, in 1978, I thought I was making films when I didn’t yet have the means. But I wanted to capture an atmosphere, tell a story. It was the draft of a fiction film. You have to remember that we’ve been in a war since 1975. We needed to talk and show this war “on the front page”, and documentaries were the only way to do that. Today, Lebanese filmmakers, and foreign television stations alike, have had as much as they can take. We no longer want to talk about the war because we are desperate, anaesthetized. We haven’t found a solution. We don’t know which way to go; our hands are tied. There is also a new phenomenon in Lebanon: public interest in Lebanese films. Some commercial films discussed the war: they filled the house, while the theatres showing foreign films were empty. There is hardly a difference between these films and documentaries. Why do people recognize the value of these films? Because a collective history is beginning to take shape. We’re a country formed in 1943, with no real past. But the people have suffered a painful and violent history together, and a collective memory has developed. In the images, there’s a desire to find themselves like in a mirror, to situate themselves. Nobody has recognized themselves yet, but everyone’s looking. Faced with a loss of identity, we take refuge in fantasies. Isn’t it dangerous to present the public with a false image of themselves?

Jocelyne Saab

We gave them a flat retranscription, a Polaroid, not a false image. The public needs fiction, and three of us are moving in that direction: Borhane Alaouié has finished his film, Maroun Baghdadi and I will start in April-May. We’re pioneers, strange pioneers, just like our country. To return to concrete problems, our films are edited with foreign money, because there are only funding options in Lebanon for two-minute films produced by the Ministry of Information about the visits of X or Y. It’s true that Lebanon is a country open to the outside world, shattered, and it’s up to us, filmmakers, to translate a possible balance. As a person, I no longer have any complexes about this openness to the East and the West; as filmmakers, we are the synthesis of these two poles. If this gets translated into the images, it’s incredible. But it’s dangerous also: when I receive 5 million francs in funding from France, I might have to change my scenario. At the same time, it reflects a certain reality of our country, our social origins, our cultures. Of the three feature films, one is produced by the United States, the other by Europe, and the third (Borhane’s) by Belgium, but that’s the only one strongly oriented towards the Arab world. Does this return to fiction have other reasons? Perhaps an element of fashion. It took a long time after the Vietnam War for Coppola and Cimino’s films to be released. In Lebanon, where the war has a different shape — half-war, half-peace — it took less time. The other phenomenon is the existence of a fantastical universe that can only be expressed through the fictional image. It’s not a coincidence that Coppola finances Baghdadi or that, in Paris, French funders decide to help me when they see my screenplay. The country contains a wealth of fantastical elements. It has been glued to reality to such an extent that it now needs to distance itself and talk about the problems that have affected the people. How to explain that all German films shown at Cannes in 1981 were about the war? Schlöndorff himself says that he rediscovered the Berlin of his childhood in Beirut, the war complexes of his childhood fantasy world. How do you explain that Skolimowski, who comes and spends ten days on the film set, feels the need to make a prologue in which he takes Beirut as a symbol to talk about Poland and its problems? [2] Beirut, today, contains this potential for images, fantasies, projections of oneself and of today’s reality. Besides, Schlöndorff is not alone: Boisset is coming, as well as some American filmmakers.

Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, would therefore be the place where the contradictions of the entire world right now are synthesized? Certainly. Skolimowski used it that way, but we Lebanese speak of these contradictions by living them from within, by expressing our suffering, the search for our identity. In the film that I’m preparing, I’m going to talk about how we come out of this war; like the Germans did with The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979) or Germany, Pale Mother (Helma Sanders-Brahms, 1980). We meet on this theme, the difference being that we continue to experience it on a daily basis. Are you convinced that the more personal and Lebanese you will be, the more likely you are to refer to a universal interpretation of the tragic theatre taking place in Lebanon? I hope so. I feel like I’m not only telling a Lebanese story, in the Lebanese context, but also a story that touches everyone who’s been affected by war. For the past seven years, I’ve been living in this halfwar-half-peace perpetuated by the world. My protagonist is between sixteen and eighteen years old and she experienced the war at the age of twelve; so I’m not talking about myself but about the next generation, which allows me to “see” the future of the country. The character facing her is in her forties. They only experience very personal, felt things, things I experienced most viscerally myself in this war state, and which have been transposed. This story is not mine, and I recognize myself in both characters. In the writing process, when I feel that the character no longer has anything to do with me, that a certain trait is no longer mine but is fully embedded in the logic of the character, I know that it’s good. My dynamic is a kind of self-confidence, a confidence that prevents me from being afraid, from shying away from “pushing” my fantasies. And if I have this strength, it’s because of having lived this war, and also because of my evolution in relation to the image. The imaginary is developed to the maximum because we’re deprived of it in Beirut today. This film is a way of allowing me to live in Beirut. Otherwise, I would have no business being in this city. At the beginning of my experience with Volker (Schlön­ dorff ), when I saw the walls inside of which I experienced the war transformed into cardboard, this place where I saw people die, I suffered. Two things happened: I took the step from documentary to fiction, and I took a necessary step back.

Jocelyne Saab


There’s a kind of mourning, a kind of restraint, that prevents you from putting together a story around the death of real people. With the thirty years of hindsight that separate Volker from his history in Berlin, he took his step back, and we can now do the same. I couldn’t accept the fact that we were recreating the war in the middle of a war. When leaving the shoot by car, I felt like I was going to another city. The people close to me couldn’t make this shift and tried to point out to me that so many people had died in the South. I no longer read the newspapers because it would have made it impossible to work on this film. It was as if I was levitating, and in order for fiction to hold I had to ignore reality. It’s a disintegration that Schlöndorff did not experience as such because he came from outside. It’s a kind of schizophrenia. One day, on the clapperboard that normally said “the falsification”, someone had written “the falsification of the falsification”. It was a technician who, like me, couldn’t stand what he was seeing. When he went home, he went back to the real war. No one really questioned the film; it was an unconscious reaction. From our unconscious reaction Schlöndorff deduced that we resented him for going off with our oil, our sets, our technical capabilities. But that’s not true. It was only the phenomenon of disintegration that led to these trivial things. Every Lebanese person on set was unconsciously suffering. Wenders was criticized for using Nicholas Ray’s death to translate his own fantasy world in Nick’s Movie, by performing the beautiful act of allowing someone to direct his own death. But perhaps Schlöndorff allowed Lebanon to direct both its death and resurrection? As with Nicholas Ray, it was a German who, once again, played the role of the catalyst; the bad conscience of a whole generation of German makers pushes them to produce processes of awareness.


That’s exactly the theme of his film. It’s been an enriching but hard experience, a rift, a difficult time of death and war anxieties translated into my country by a foreigner at a time when I had enough of them already. This film made me take a turn. I first wrote my film in Paris; the ideas came very quickly but in a rather schematic way. Then I went back to Beirut, and I immersed myself in what is my country, with an extended sense of time and a different way of seeing things. Now, I’m back in Paris to work with a professional screenwriter and restructure what I’ve written. Then, I’ll take it up again and add my own personal stamp. I need to go back there for the dialogues, the colours... Because I was part of Schlöndorff ’s film, writing this script has become a lot easier. There’s a fictional dimension that I didn’t know and that I experienced there, in my own country.

Originally published as “Le publique a besoin de fictions et nous sommes plusieurs à aller dans ce sens” in Cinéma, 278 (February 1982). Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] Jocelyne Saab was Volker Schlöndorff’s assistant on Circle of Deceit (1981). [2] Shot in 1967, Jerry Skolimowski’s Ręce do góry [Hands Up!] was banned in Poland, under the Communist regime, for 18 years because it depicted the Stalinist past. In a twenty-minute section, added by Skolimowski in 1981, he explains how the original was withheld by Polish censors of the time. The introduction includes, apart from some fictional apocalyptic passages, shots of Beirut ruined by the civil wars of the 1970s, where Skolimowski is working as an actor on Volker Schlöndorff’s film Circle of Deceit.

Jocelyne Saab

Beirut, My City (1982)

“It’s no longer a matter of taking a position” Interview by Sylvie Dallet, 1983 Why make films about wars and revolutionary wars? Today, I no longer really know why. I was initially interested in working with images to describe situations. At the time, when I started working as an independent filmmaker, after working for different television stations (French and Lebanese), as a sort of apprenticeship, the Lebanese war began (1975). I already knew then that it was both the end of an era and of a country, and I wanted to tell this story through an absolutely non-militant approach, even if some people said it was, perhaps because of my clumsiness. I don’t believe in militant films because they preach to the converted, and I wanted to speak to a wider category of people. After shooting in Iraq, Egypt and Syria for French television, I made a feature film about Lebanon in 1975, Lebanon in a Whirlwind, with the intention of giving a voice to everyone. I did it without much technical experience because I never went to film school and my work is always very intuitive. After 1968, after the failure of activism, my point of departure had changed. But very quickly I realized that I was involved in this war and that I couldn’t not take a position, without necessarily

becoming — and this might sound contradictory — biased. Today, nine years later, I say to myself: “It’s no longer a matter of taking a position.” That’s where my films are headed and that’s what brings me to fiction. I think I’m meeting my time, the wave of complete scepticism, of doubt, which means that in the fiction to come I have completely abandoned any political point of view — even if everything is political. Even if there is no doubt that there has been a political position. The desire I had to be on TV, to reach a lot of people, meant that my work was concerned with the imagery, which was much more powerful than militant film. How to define this war? I can’t, and I don’t think anyone can: a civil war, a religious war... in which international forces are involved today, an imbroglio. In my opinion, you better understand what is happening if you describe people and their suffering from within. From there, your account can get through: this is what this war is all about, this is what some defend and others suffer. Rather than explaining to you what some are defending, I will explain to you what others are suffering. Then, it’s up to you. From this

Jocelyne Saab


starting point, I began to work on the images: never images of direct violence, but counterfilms, unlike the 400 or so film crews on location. You don’t defend a war by showing the guys who shoot and the guns, but by showing the people below. But the people below are not only defined by their suffering but also by their aspirations... That’s not my concern. I’ve moved away from that, perhaps because I lived this civil war. But you can defend a cause in many ways. Me, I didn’t want to talk about personal aspirations. The Palestinians wanted to recover their land and live independently. Well, if you show someone who is bombed every day, who is exiled every day, who has fled from one place to another, if you show their situation, you well understand what their aspirations may be. In a climate of war and violence, I have not always been able to express this passion very well. Did the Palestinians you met think, beyond the recovering of their land, about the creation of a state? Or about other demands? Yes, of course. We showed all that through the organization of people around an industry, a culture. The film reports I made for television, in order to get them seen by as many people as possible, gradually made me prefer people’s sensibilities over their words: watching them live, watching them go about. I thought the film would be stronger that way; and I was right: I made my last film alone without a cameraman, under the bombs of the siege of Beirut, like a personal experience. I didn’t know what I was going to do with this film. For two months, I took the film camera in hand as if it were a photo camera. I wanted to show the defiance of the inhabitants towards the siege, towards this encirclement: I only showed the solidarity, this euphoria of utopia where everyone is taking care of the essential things, water, bread, electricity, and where people really look each other in the eye. In this film, there are situations, looks, gestures and very few words: one minute of a man speaking, but no interview. The will to survive, this defiance towards the violence imposed on us, the refusal to leave, all this certainly creates something very strong. That’s what I wanted to show. I would like to discuss your films more in detail. I see there’s a short film called New Crusader in Orient and one called Palestinian Women. It’s not an important film, Palestinian Women. In Lebanon in a Whirlwind, I met a French mercenary who supported the militias and I thought it might be interesting to study


someone who says: “I like to kill, I can’t live if I can’t regularly kill, etc.” I was amazed, and I recorded that. Long after, I saw René Vautier’s film Techniquement si simple, a kind of fiction recreated by an actor, and I was very surprised to see how Vautier had managed to make it, because my mercenary said the exact same things as Vautier’s. (Palestinian Women is another small short film. I think we shouldn’t dwell on specific examples or cases but look at the whole picture.) I repeat: Lebanon in a Whirlwind at the beginning of the war and where I’m still saying: “You, you are wrong...” Who is “you”? At the time, the Christian minority that was part of the rightist Phalange. I told them: “You’re a minority, and you behave like a minority. I don’t believe in minorities, nor in confessions, and you risk destroying the country like that.” That’s what happened: ten years later there’s no country left. At the same time, I talked about the Palestinians, etc. Everybody criticized me, both the right and the left. In 1976, I found myself making three films: Beirut, My City, Children of War and South Lebanon, History of a Sieged Village. Beirut, My City is a love song to a city: I believe that we can denounce war with a love song. The text was written by a Lebanese poet [Etel Adnan, eds.], it’s a poem about the city, about a time, written for the film. Children of War denounces the violence imposed on ten-year-olds who can only speak, think or draw in war terms: they mimic the war. The last film was also a counter-subject: it’s the story of a village at the time of the “encroachment on the territory” in which I didn’t want to show the outside aggression but the people inside, anxious at being swallowed up, or no longer being recognized. They were right: their territory is now occupied territory. When you say “show everything”, do you also show the militants? What does “militant” mean? I don’t like the word. You’re militant because of your attitude and your behaviour, beyond your words. My own resistance is passive: I don’t shed blood; I work with the camera. I can’t stand violence, and I’m suspicious of declarations. In 1979, I came back to Beirut: Beirut, Never Again. It’s my city. I have a very strong relationship with it, and I wanted to express myself through it: to talk about the city was to talk about the state of things, about the crumbling of everything we believed in politically in the face of the chaos of 1983. Nothing but the cause of all human beings, and not only those who are being massacred (the Palestinians) like in Beirut, My City. When I took stock of all this through the prism of Beirut (three films), which is the symbol of my country, I was in a

Jocelyne Saab

period of doubt and travelled to the Sahara, to Iran, to Egypt... I took an interest in these countries to see if I was seeing things clearly. I realized that I intuitively took the same approach: in Iran, I was fascinated by the revolutionary era, by what I knew about it — the man-to-man fighting, the fall of the shah. I discovered the same revolutionary air I had known and supported: the American student movement, Woodstock, May 68. I arrived at the end of the revolutionary era and then everything collapsed. I even tried my hand at impressionism there, indulged in my sensibility. The film is called Iran, Utopia in the Making to underline this passing movement, this new communitarian ideology that was being built and the dangers this country could be heading to. Same thing for the Sahara, I didn’t want to pass any judgements; I was fascinated by the Polisario horsemen in the desert. But I went there without knowing the real situation. I believe in the independence of these people, so I followed them (curiosity to see all sides) and gradually I made a choice.

No, in fact, it was a film against violence, but it didn’t manage to portray the city: it’s very difficult to describe how war destroys the communication between people. That’s why the filmmakers working there, including myself, are driven to reflect on life, death, violence, love, all those things that are scorned by the superior and limitless violence of war. That’s what fascinated Schlöndorff who, having experienced the destruction of Berlin, wanted to rediscover Berlin in Beirut. But he never left Berlin, nor his dated Camusian apprehension.

Why did you choose countries caught up in war?

Television teaches you how to make films about such and such an event; I myself have been practicing anti-journalism because I talked about things no one wanted to talk about — but it was shown on television all the same.

I’m going to be a bit cynical here: I’m a freelance 16mm reporter, and people are only interested in war. So I go to countries with wars. If I had continued in that direction, I would have probably gone to Afghanistan. But I’m sick of it. My films were expected to be spectacular, but I reported on the lives of people and places, bringing out my culture and sensibility through the images. My sensibility is a medium; I work in order to express myself. Today, in the case of my country, who’s right and who’s wrong? It’s difficult to say. More and more, I have tried to narrate my films like fictions, to make sure there is a story (a city, a person, a letter, a country) through the strong and fleeting impressions of human beings who aren’t shown on a daily basis.

Violence fascinates people... That’s all I can say. I know that people who are living in a war are no longer fascinated by it, but one way or another you’re deceived into watching the violence that destroys you. We return to journalism...

And in Lebanon? No, my films are distributed in parallel circuits. It’s too much of a burning situation, people are too impassioned, and they don’t want to see films that recount their problems all over again. They prefer fictional films in which they can project themselves and construct or pacify their collective memory. I’m currently preparing a fiction film as if I, too, need to take a step back. You see, it took ten years to make a fiction film after the Vietnam War. Could you talk about your film?

You were Schlöndorff ’s assistant on Circle of Deceit. I met a lot of people in the Arab world who hate this film. How do you feel about it? Me neither. I don’t like it and don’t agree with him. But it was a good technical experience for me to see the locations of my documentaries perceived as locations for fiction. The general criticism of Circle of Deceit is that “it doesn’t reflect the situation in Beirut”. Indeed, I believe that, in this film, Beirut only exists in the Weltschmerz of a German journalist. So the criticism is obvious: Beirut is deliberately used as a décor.

Why are the media fascinated by war?

No, I can only say that it’s a reflection on life and death based on an oriental tale set in Lebanon. Perhaps I’ll return to documentaries afterwards. Were the people you mixed with similar, either because of a shared Arab culture or because of the crises they were going through? No, I don’t think so. All people are different, even if I can find common ground with them because of my Arab background.

Jocelyne Saab


Have you had any problems as a woman in this profession? Never. Once you’re holding a camera, it’s your profession that matters. Now you’re reacting as a woman, and I’m not objecting to it, on the contrary... maybe, as a definition, and fundamentally I don’t know, you react with a gaze that doesn’t linger on the surface of things, of guns or armies; I have always preferred getting to know people’s sensibilities in great detail, the children, the women, the men, the daily life of human beings... In this field, people are so surprised to see a woman arrive on set that they make room for her and respect her. The veil is not a problem for me, if we bow out of respect, if we choose not to attack them for being different, for a particular body shape, it will always work... I don’t want to walk into these theories of the underprivileged side of women... It could also be easier for a woman, there are two theories...

You refuse to be defined by activism, preferring instead people’s lives, yet, like everyone else, you must have been confronted with structures (Party, Constitution, State). How did you respond to them? That’s not my subject: I look at them through people. My films are a drop in the ocean. If I believe in them, I give them life, especially when it comes to Lebanon. The drop of water is the presentation I produce; I don’t make choices for other people, it’s up to them to draw their conclusions.

Originally published in Sylvia Dallet (ed.), Guerres révolutionnaires : histoire et cinéma (Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 1984). Translated by Sis Matthé

No, I don’t think so.


Jocelyne Saab

Documenting and Telling the Torments of the World Interview by Olivier Hadouchi, 2014 This text is a retranscription of several interviews conducted in Paris between 2010 and 2013. Jocelyne Saab took part in the game of questions and answers with great honesty, kindness, seriousness, and even patience, given the fact that the interviews lasted several hours each time. I would like to take this opportunity to thank her as well as Nicole Brenez (for the beautiful retrospective at the Cinémathèque française in the spring of 2012) and Aliette Guibert (for hosting a first version of this text on criticalsecret).

FIRST STEPS OF A FILMMAKER-REPORTER How did your career as a filmmaker begin? Actually, I didn’t study film, nor did I follow the classic path of a filmmaker. In my family, in the society of the time and the milieu I lived in, film wasn’t considered a serious endeavour, unlike law or economics, for example. So I agreed to study economics, knowing that it was a way of buying time, until I was ready to follow my own path and go into journalism and film. What were your first films? They were film reports, weren’t they? Indeed, I began by making film reports, documentaries, and I didn’t come to fiction until much later. The boundaries between the two aren’t very clear-cut, however, and there are often documentary elements in fiction films and vice versa. At the time, there was a fabulous reporting tradition, with film crews in conflict zones that didn’t hesitate to take risks and demonstrate a certain situation by bringing us the footage. Resorting to cinema, especially to documentaries, in order to provoke or accompany social change, to denounce or to provide a basis for action, all this was very much present when I started. The effervescence of the 1960s continued to shake a large part of the world’s youth. So, no doubt with the energy and perhaps even the recklessness of youth, I found myself covering wars with very important consequences on a regional as well as a global scale. Think of the October War in 1973, of the Palestinian situation, because the PLO had

fled to Lebanon after the problems in Jordan, or of the war in Lebanon which broke out in 1975 and would last for too many years; and I met political leaders like Yasser Arafat, Houari Boumediene or Colonel Gaddafi. One of these works is The Suicide Commandos, which will be broadcast on television under the title The Rejection Front. Of course, in retrospect, we could say that the whole thing is edited in a rather classic way: you take a few images, add an interview, then some more images, a new interview... Yet, it still has a certain value, even in retrospect, because it shows a reality that would gradually become more widespread: the suicide commandos. Often young men, ready to die as martyrs for a cause after being recruited by party or movement leaders. The floor is given to leaders such as Nayef Hawatmeh of the DFLP [Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine] and Ahmad Jibril of the PFLP-CG [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command], who is filmed from behind, without showing his face. We see the shock troops practicing. But you’ll notice that I decided to keep a scene that may seem unexpected and surprising in this context: one of the commando members is dancing, rhythmically shaking his hips, a scarf tied around his waist. His moves are very feminine, I think. Let’s not forget that dancing accompanies all the important acts of life. At the time, they made me promise not to reveal the location of this secret base. And this scoop brought about a lot of jealousy from my colleagues, as well as reprimands and criticism from the more moderate division of Fatah and the PLO. Intrigued journalists wondered how a young woman, a virtually unknown debutante, had managed to record images of suicide commandos? Not to mention the problems I had afterwards in France because of this film... When I applied for the French nationality, I was entitled to a long interrogation by the counterespionage services. I asked them: why don’t you go and see the other French journalists who also met with the suicide

Jocelyne Saab


commandos, five or six months after me? I had just done my job as a journalist, trying to do it as well as I could. That’s why I gave a voice to the militant division of the Palestinians, who were at that time united in the Rejectionist Front. This didn’t necessarily mean that I supported either position. I was a journalist and gave the floor to everyone. What was the criticism from PLO members? The members of Fatah reproached me for interviewing the militant division of the resistance movement, in short, for providing a negative image of the Palestinian struggle by showing its most radical and violent fringe group. “Don’t you see that they extend their arms and that it looks like a Nazi salute. In the West, they’ll equate those who fight for a Palestinian state with anti-Semites or pro-Nazis, and you very well know that’s not the case...” Were they performing a Nazi salute? In retrospect, I don’t think so, but there may have been a possibility of misunderstanding. In the Lebanon where I grew up, a truly cosmopolitan country, open to multiple faiths and granting rights to religious minorities, there was no anti-Semitism in society. Following the various conflicts with the State of Israel and all the bombings, they started criticizing the country, a criticism that was often virulent given the extent of the human and material damage, but I think it is important to separate the two and recall the absence of any anti-Semitic tradition in Lebanon or in the neighbouring countries, whereas it was once widespread in Europe or Russia. Anti-Semitism is really something I discovered in France and was not part of my personal experience in Lebanon. To come back to the film, in my next works I introduced and interviewed the leaders of other movements, starting with Yasser Arafat himself in 1973 — he didn’t give many interviews at the time, so it was important — not to mention the Palestinian population, women, the inhabitants of the refugee camps in the south of Lebanon or on the outskirts of the capital. Did I try to make up for it by giving the floor to Yasser Arafat or Fatah in documentaries? Again, just because I listened to such and such member of the Rejectionist Front doesn’t mean that I adopted their point of view. Suicide commandos were something new at the time, a practice that has unfortunately become widespread in the Middle East and elsewhere afterwards. All these reprimands and discussions allowed me to grow artistically and to always reflect on what I was filming: why and for what purpose is an image made? What should be shown and presented? Not for censorship, self-censorship or propaganda reasons. All this provoked in me a useful and necessary reflection on cinema, on the meaning of images and their reception.


AT THE HEART OF LEBANON IN A WHIRLWIND As soon as the war in Lebanon began, in 1975, you returned and decided to focus on what was happening there? Indeed, war correspondents were then present in several places in Asia and the Middle East. Eric Rouleau, Ania Francos, Jean Lacouture, Lucien Bodard — and many more — all passed through Beirut in the 1970s, notably because the PLO headquarters were located in Lebanon at the time, because the Cyprus dispute had just broken out and was still going on, and because Lebanon was freer than other Arab countries. When the war started, press correspondents, photographers and reporters arrived in large numbers (Raymond Depardon, the American Jon Randal...). They inspired me, and I told myself that I had to understand what was happening in my country, because I very quickly had the intuition that it wouldn’t be a short war and that its consequences would be dramatic. However, I had already become very politicized, educated by the 1969 demonstrations in Lebanon, Black September in Jordan, the Vietnam War, the Palestinian question in general, and the division of Cyprus. What surprises me when I rewatch Lebanon in a Whirlwind is the reserve it expresses towards each of its protagonists. The film isn’t dogmatic, even if one feels that it probably expresses more sympathy for the left than for the conservative right and the Phalangists. Where does this reserve come from, at a time when the country is going to war amidst a radicalization of discourses and strategies? It might have to do with my personal background (studies in Paris) and my partner for this film, the Swiss journalist Jörg Stocklin, that I was able to keep a certain distance and benefit from a genuine reserve towards my own country. A strange history, in a way, not to mention Jörg’s private life... Even though he was working in Beirut, he still had an outside perspective, that of a foreigner who sometimes sees things you don’t notice when you’re part of society, when you have grown up inside the country. Jörg was left-wing, and he supported the progressive camp in the conflict, but he always kept his critical spirit, devoid of any naivety. In short, he had a certain distance when analyzing the situation, and he managed to instil it in me. Perhaps I should also mention my father, who always kept his distance in the face of events and never succumbed to the ideological sirens of either side, nor advocated the exclusion of the other. The

Jocelyne Saab

Phalangist discourse had no hold over him; he stood on his own, thought for himself, and needed no one to tell him what to do, what to think. In the film, a great deal of attention is paid to social issues. It feels like a survey of several parts of the country, several neighbourhoods of the same city (Beirut, Tripoli). Even the former minister attending a dinner feast with wealthy friends and jewellery-covered women seems to be aware of the risk of an explosion. The problem is that social issues have dissolved into religious disputes, which have taken precedence over everything else. But it seemed to us, at the time, that social issues were very important. In Egypt, when I shot Egypt, City of the Dead, I was also very sensitive to social issues, to the arrogant wealth existing alongside the harshest, most unbearable poverty. It’s the policy of openness and unbridled liberalization that has brought Egypt both globalization and the economic crisis from which it still hasn’t recovered. In Lebanon in a Whirlwind, you also show the absurdity and the pathetic side of these men with their great resounding declarations. You’ll notice that I always resort to irony and distance towards interviewees and political leaders. And I systematically show the pathetic or even totally ridiculous side of every side, of every statement by every political leader, in their way of moving towards armed conflict with such a lack of concern. In retrospect, we know the conflict has been very long and very hard for Lebanon and the Palestinians, and I think the film clearly shows the process of war, this going into battle without really caring about the consequences. The price to be paid has been very high indeed. But you’ll notice that in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, everyone is on parade. The Lebanon of today is still like that. Everybody loves to be on parade, strutting around, showing off. Why is that? It was already very present in Lebanon in a Whirlwind and it might even be worse today. Unlike the other leaders, Kamal Jumblatt is filmed alone in his palace. At the time, I was asked: why do you film all the political or religious leaders with their partisans except him? Kamal Jumblatt had the calibre of a modern and progressive leader. After all, he was the leader of the left-wing alliance. So he represented something important to us, and he was openminded. He often went to India, stayed in ashrams and then

came back... He radiated a great spirituality, which gave us hope. We wondered: who is this man reflecting on the state of the world? He represented something really important. Having said that, he still had armed men at home, a militia like all the others, but that was not the aspect that interested me. As for the other political leaders, I sometimes gave instructions, choosing the context in which I wanted to interview and film them with their troops. For example, the leader of the Phalangists, Pierre Gemayel, I told him: “I want to film you at the meeting table, with your supporters.” Since I was kind of in their bad books and couldn’t get permission, I called in my father so that I could film them. Actually, I was faced with a series of filming problems: a group of militia women ruthlessly questioned me, I received threats, and they tried to confiscate my camera and filming equipment after assaulting me and pulling out my hair. In the film, you interview two other leaders of the left: Ghassan Fawaz and Fawwaz Traboulsi. Could you tell us about them? After being an active member of the left-wing movement COAL [Communist Action Organization in Lebanon], as we see in the film, Fawwaz Traboulsi [1] has become an important political thinker and is preparing a new essay on the theme of violence and memory, which I would like to discuss with him again soon. His concerns have aspects in common with mine. As for Ghassan Fawaz, he was a communist at the time, we were neighbours. In what used to be West Beirut, we lived on the first hill of independence, which was mixed, and its extension was called the Zarif neighbourhood (literally “the sand of Zarif ”). Then, as the situation continued to deteriorate, with no real way out and no real victories, the country became more and more unliveable. And around 1976-1977, they left. Ghassan became a publisher in France. He wrote two pretty successful novels at the end of the 1990s, published by Seuil [2]. And Fawwaz published essays and articles of political analysis. I didn’t have to travel far to film them. They lived close to my parents, so I just had to cross a few streets. In fact, looking back, I think that when I went to film the combatants in the street I had no idea... we had no idea, we were unable to predict where the violence might lead. As for Farouk Mokkadem, he is defined as a libertarian, but he seems to consider himself more as a kind of Lebanese Che Guevara. It’s funny that you find him sympathetic, but he really had a completely megalomaniac side. Remember when he evoked the people’s uprising against the oppression in the castle...? Don’t forget that ideologies travelled a lot in the

Jocelyne Saab


1960s. And in this little country, because of the very mess we were in, we could apply any ideology, but only across a tiny territory. Besides, that was true for all combatants. For example, Fawwaz Traboulsi and his COAL comrades exercised their authority on a few streets, across a tiny territory... In fact, they and other friends wanted to blow it all up. By this I mean blowing up the traditional system and replacing it with a modern, secular system. Me too, even though, unlike them, I never took up arms. Besides, in 1975, I personally believed that we were going to win, that the Lebanese left was going to win and overthrow the conservative Christian right. Because this Phalangist kind of right, this “isolationist” right — as it was called at the time — an ally of Israel in the midst of minoritarian complexity, was dragging the country towards war, preventing it from moving towards modernity, towards a system that was both socialist and truly democratic. When thinking of recent events, of the fact that the protest movement for change in Tunisia began with the self-immolation of a young fruit seller who had his wares confiscated, I remembered a sequence from Lebanon in a Whirlwind: the passage concerning Farouk Mokkadem and the October 24th Movement in Tripoli. When Mokkadem recounts that the wares of the vendors in the city of Tripoli had been confiscated by the authorities, he adds: “We went to see these gentlemen in power. We asked them why the wares of the vendors had been confiscated... They told us: to keep the city centre beautiful. We told them: so, abolish poverty. We were born poor; it’s not our fault. We warned them: we are going to resort to weapons. We took back the confiscated wares and gave everything back to the fruit and vegetable vendors, and we armed the vendors, who could continue their activity.” At the time, rifles were used in various types of struggles, this situation has changed. Yet, in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, as in the country at the time, was there ever a movement of democratization comparable to the one shaking the Arab world at the moment, with a desire for social change? In Lebanon of the 1960s and 1970s, there was a deep aspiration for social change, with a view to a profound transformation. This movement was crushed around 1976-77. But I am closely following the current events related to the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya or Syria... and I support the movement for change, but I am waiting to see who is pulling the strings and what interests are at stake.


Have you ever thought of shooting a 2011 version of Lebanon in a Whirlwind? I would most certainly be killed if I shot the equivalent of Lebanon in a Whirlwind today. At the time, the participants displayed a certain innocence, which is not at all the case today — the situation seems even more opaque. Unfortunately, there are still many weapons in Lebanon, and I am sure that at the first opportunity many people are ready to take them out and use them. It’s a country where people tense up. And this is the negative other side of all this plurality: everyone feels that they have a mission to be the one who guarantees their community, which must be defended at all costs. This can take on terrifying proportions. Not only does it produce true social conservatism, but the people that believe they have a mission act on their own and demand that other members of the community submit to the cause. Thirty-five years later, alas, I think the film hasn’t aged a bit. At the time, Lebanon in a Whirlwind was shown in theatres in Paris together with the short film New Crusader in Orient. But no television station agreed to broadcast it? Given the special ties between Lebanon and France, it was refused by French television because it was disturbing. They considered it too critical of the Christian and fascistic right. On the other hand, it was broadcast on television channels all over the world. However, it concerns one country, Algeria, which is trying to play a role on the global stage by arguing in favour of a new world order, more favourable to the interests of the South... In the mid-1970s, Algeria was very interested in what was happening in Lebanon, especially because the PLO was based in Beirut and the Palestinian question was the central concern in the Arab world. I remember that some of the senior leaders of the National Liberation Front started to wonder whether Algeria was going to experience the same kind of civil war as the one setting fire to Lebanon. I was invited by Boudjema Karèche and Yazid Khodja to present my documentaries at the cinematheque of Algiers, which was then a hotspot for global cinephilia, in front of a room full of Algerian officials — I think even the President of the Republic, Houari Boumediene, was there. The Institute of Algerian Cinema and Television bought several of my documentaries, and I had very interesting discussions with Algerian filmmakers like Farouk Beloufa, who discovered Lebanon through my films. Shortly afterwards, he would

Jocelyne Saab

film Nahla (1979), which many Algerian critics consider one of the best Algerian films, and gave a role to Lina Tabbara, whom I filmed twice (in a film report and in Letter from Beirut). I passed on many personal contacts to him. Farouk was fascinated by the freedom of movement and the proliferation of ideas and political parties. He worked on his scenario with Rachid Boudjedra and used my documentaries, from Lebanon in a Whirlwind to Letter from Beirut, to learn about the Lebanese situation. I’m not saying that I’m the one behind Nahla, just that the film somehow interacts with my work in certain aspects. Otherwise, it’s a film in which Farouk reflects on a given situation, thinks about several aspects of it. They are his personal reflections. He was fascinated by the freedom of speech and movement in the Lebanon of the 1970s, by the multiplicity of political orientations. By the way, I filmed a making-of of Nahla, Farouk Beloufa should still have the reels somewhere. What’s interesting in retrospect is that the Algerian Film Office acquired my film Beirut, Never Again, shot on 16mm. They decided to blow it up to 35 mm and distributed it in cinemas all over the country. Did you quickly realize that the left and the so-called progressive camp would fail? When Kamal Jumblatt was assassinated in March 1977, we all understood that it was over. I left to make a film in Egypt and then to Western Sahara, in the same year. But I continued to live in Lebanon, even if I was sometimes away. When the Lebanese capital was besieged by the Israelis in 1982, I was there with my camera. And I didn’t leave Lebanon until 1985, when I was sick of the violence. Since then, I’ve been going back regularly. How did your collaboration with the poet Etel Adnan for Beirut, Never Again come about? She also appears in Letter from Beirut, filmed two years later, doesn’t she? Etel is a poet and a talented painter. She’s also the author of a major text on the war in Lebanon, a novel called Sitt Marie Rose. [3] I’ve read a lot of books on the conflict, and I think it’s the best, the most accurate one. The poetic texts of Beirut, Never Again and Letter from Beirut were written in one go, she told me recently. She saw the edited images only once before she started writing. Since I recently asked her to recall all this, I prefer to let her speak. “I liked these instinctive images. I linked them to a poetic text with the same source. You were the first to go into the street, to record these images without anyone asking you. You knew you had to do it, and you did it, you didn’t hesitate for a second. All I could do was follow you. For my part, I had instinctively

understood everything you were showing. I was very sensitive to the children who had understood before us that nothing and no one would be the same again, that a period had just ended and that they would never be the same again. It was so strong that I had no choice but to pay tribute to their lucidity.” And, a little before that, you had just shot another documentary, which was called Children of War... After Lebanon in a Whirlwind, I had a camera and a car at my disposal, and I had my house. It’s true that I didn’t have any money problems, but I didn’t have a lot. And so I took the director of photography aside and told him: come on, let’s go! Because I’d spent the night talking to journalists who’d just come back from Karantina (the refugee camp that’d just been taken over by the Phalangists), and I’d seen the end of the massacre. Plus, I’d even learnt that a friend of mine, no doubt influenced by her entourage, had enjoyed filming it from the side of the killers. She suffered a lot afterwards, for other reasons. When the settlement was stormed, many adults were shot dead in cold blood. And once the refugee camp was conquered, the attackers opened the champagne, right next to the corpses. Some children survived. When they came out at night, I had no lights or anything, but I followed the children’s route to find out where they were going because they could no longer go to the Karantina settlement, as it had just been razed to the ground and their parents had been executed. I saw they were going to the cottages on the chic beaches of the city, Saint Simon, Saint Michel, which had become settlements that still exist today. So I bought paper and coloured pencils and went to meet them the next day. While calling my TV cameraman, Hassan, who works with me, I tell them: I’m coming to film you on Sunday, you’ll show me your children’s games. They were playing war on the beach, but it quickly became very violent, so much so that I had to tell them to stop and had to take two of them to the hospital to get stitched up, because they were injured. Then we returned. And that was the most powerful moment. They were a little sheepish, because three of them had been injured, but it was as if they were bringing out the surrounding violence they had taken in and accumulated inside of them — remember, they had just witnessed a massacre. I found them among the cottages arranged as if in a chic little village, and I suggested they keep going. And then, the children, wounded and traumatized by what had just happened, broke free and mimed the massacre. And I filmed it. I carefully guarded my boxes of film, and I took the first plane to Paris, rushed to the television studios. That’s how we did it at the time: either we developed the film on the sly through friends there, or we followed the

Jocelyne Saab


traditional procedure, which is what I did that time. I knew the footage was strong. I went to see my chief editor (JeanMarie Cavada) and told him: “Develop the 16mm film, watch the images, and if you like it I’ll edit the film.” They developed it, couldn’t believe what they were seeing, and gave me a TV editor. Along the way, reporters came into the editing room and asked me if I had directed the children. How could I have done that? So, when the film was edited — at the time we didn’t have complete control over the montage — they asked me to add a text, which I did. Then I made a name for myself. And for Beirut, Never Again, I had the freedom to make the film entirely as I wanted. Thirty years later, I re-used the images of the war children for my installation in Singapore. The film has toured the world, has been screened in numerous festivals, won awards, even UNICEF showed it, and NBC bought it from me a year later... For my installation, I re-edited the film in order to project it on three screens, accelerating certain passages so that the viewer is immersed in the war itself. Once again, it was all about the approach. Besides, that’s the major question of documentary film: how to approach people. From 1975 on, you were living the war on a daily basis? While shooting my documentary The Rejection Front, about the first suicide commandos, I met young people between the ages of fifteen and seventeen who wanted to offer their lives for the cause of their people. Deprived of everything, without a home, without dreams or plans for the future other than to live their lives in a tent, they find meaning in their commitment. I had spent the evening with them in their underground bases dug out of rock. I had seen and heard them sing, dance and shake their hips. The revolution borrowed its songs from folklore. After the ceremony, some young volunteers came up to me, and one of them asked me if I could give him my Ray Ban glasses. I replied, “It’s a birthday present. I can’t give them to you,” a little ashamed of my lack of generosity. Three years later, I was shooting Beirut, Never Again. Every morning between 6am and 10am, when the fights were less intense, I crossed a fighter wearing a pair of Ray Ban glasses. He called me by my first name and told me that he and his group had a day off in Beirut after taking the oath. During his passage in the capital, he bought a pair of Ray Ban glasses. Then, he was supposed to take part in a special operation with his group but one of them cracked and the project did not materialize. The meeting was surreal. Two days later, I went back to the same place and looked for the Ray Ban fighter on that same barricade: his comrades told me that a shell had torn his head off. That’s an example of daily life during the war.


SAHARA IS NOT FOR SALE In 1977, you travelled around a new conflict zone for Sahara Is Not for Sale. Spain withdrew from its former colony between Mauritania and Morocco. Morocco considered Western Sahara to be an integral part of the country, while a movement supported by Algeria (the Polisario Front), claimed the independence of the territory, asserting that the Saharawis are not Moroccan. Several critics at the time highlighted the film’s concern for objectivity, and it was screened at the UN during a session devoted to this issue. Honestly, I did not try to subscribe to either thesis on Western Sahara. The funny or the most surprising thing is that both countries indirectly participated in the financing of the documentary. Both criticized me. The Algerians did not appreciate the fact that I showed archival footage containing a statement by their president Houari Boumediene. But I had bought these images, and it seemed normal to show them because the Algerians were involved in the conflict and supported the Polisario Front. On the other hand, Morocco was very angry with me for not subscribing to their point of view on the issue... Basically, I felt sympathy for the Saharawis, the inhabitants of the desert, and I have always been fascinated by the desert; I made the film for them, not on behalf of this or that State.

THE EXPERIENCE AS AN ASSISTANT DIRECTOR FOR CIRCLE OF DECEIT In 1980, you were the assistant director of Volker Schlöndorff ’s Circle of Deceit. Was it an interesting experience? The film was sharply criticized, and I must say I have mixed feelings about it. I learned a lot from the contact with the fiction film crew, which was made up of many people. The funny thing is that in a television programme called Filming the War (with a cast including Raymond Depardon, Volker Schlöndorff, Roger Pic, Michel Honorin, Jonathan Randal, Freddie Eytan, Samuel Fuller, and myself ), I was asked if my documentaries weren’t more interesting and closer to reality than Volker’s film Circle of Deceit. At the time, I didn’t have the necessary distance and thought it wasn’t up to me to answer that question.

Jocelyne Saab

They are, without a doubt, much more relevant. Armed with your experience as a reporter, didn’t you try to intervene more in the filming of Circle of Deceit, so as to fix a more precise target? Volker Schlöndorff was at the height of his fame at that time. He had won the Palme d’Or for The Tin Drum in 1979, and I was a young director without any experience in fiction. In 1980, he shot Circle of Deceit in Beirut. He opted for a classical structure and probably lost himself in the theme of the executioner and the victim and in a conflict whose complexity he couldn’t quite perceive because he had a starting point inspired by Camus. Today, it remains an important account of the war. Isn’t coming to film in Beirut during a war in itself an act of resistance against what is called “The War”?

FROM THE SIEGE OF BEIRUT TO THE BOAT OF EXILE Beirut, My City is an important film for you, isn’t it? I consider it my most important film, the one I care about the most. In 1982, my house burned down. That was certainly something. It was a very old house. 150 years of history going up in flames and disappearing. All of it is suddenly wiped out. The family home wiped off the map, off the city, turned into a pile of ruins. The war affects your own family once again? Completely. I was going to talk about it in a film afterwards, but I needed a minimum hindsight of six months to be able to make the film. Then they said to me: “Why are you offering the images of your burned house to a rival television station?” (France 3) They only saw the rivalry, which I had to digest first. In Beirut, My City, certain scenes reminded me of the terrible images of the bombings of Madrid or Barcelona during the Spanish War. Bombings that affected civilians, sparing no one, not even children. The scene with the emaciated children is really very hard, it looks like total desolation. During the siege of Beirut, we knew that no one was able to reach a school for handicapped children near the camps of Sabra and Chatila. The city was under constant bombardment by the Israeli occupation army. We talked about it among ourselves every day and wondered if the children

were still alive. The area they were in was inaccessible, and it took several days for the Red Cross to get a safe corridor and stop the bombing to reach this children’s school. This was one of our daily concerns, and it was very close to our hearts, because we told ourselves, “if the children are alive, we will stay alive as well”, and it gave us strength. When the news of the evacuation of the children came, it was as if we had won a victory. When I heard that they were going to be transferred to a school near my family’s house, which had burned down — and which you can see at the beginning of the film — I went back there with my camera, even though the area was still dangerous. They had been transferred by ambulance to the Armenian school in Honentmen. We risked our lives every day during the siege of Beirut, because the city was bombed non-stop. It was strange, but this risk of death from above was almost something abstract for us. In fact, we considered it a danger to be braved. The skinny (and handicapped) children I filmed were like images of death coming closer to us, to me. At the same time, capturing that image was a way of killing or taming death. Of turning it into an image-as-proof, of saving myself from my own possible death. I knew that with my job as a war reporter I could be killed. Yet, when I was filming and had my eye hidden by the camera, I always thought I was invincible. What did daily life look like under the bombs of the 1982 siege, when you filmed Beirut, My City? Going out as soon as the planes had passed, to film, to bear witness. Buying boxes of (La Vache qui rit-style) Picon cheese, finding gas and water. Sometimes going for dinner in the two or three restaurants that were still open, a matter of giving ourselves the impression that we were still leading a “normal” life. Saving people, filming, finding something to hold on to, keeping up to date, making sure the others are still alive. I had my car, so I went to the Palestinian headquarters every day to keep up with the situation. In the city, only the poor were left, and they hardly had anything to eat. As for our group: we were about fifty artists and intellectuals at the most. When one of us died, half of our group left. What exactly happened? One of us was murdered. We were leaving a restaurant, and a car pulled up in front of us. Some men came out and our friend was killed by a machine-gun blast at close range. He distributed water all over the besieged city.

Jocelyne Saab


Despite the constant bombing, you still went out? We went out at night. We were crazy. We went to the Commodore Hotel where the journalists were. During the day, I’d ride around on a moped, and I had my car. The Palestinians of the resistance arranged for us to be able to work and do our job as journalists and witnesses. They knew who was who, and they got us petrol so that we could get around. I went to get gas every day. We changed houses four times during the siege. The Israeli army wanted to assassinate Arafat, and they weren’t handling it with velvet gloves, destroying whole buildings thinking they could get to him. Often there were dozens of dead and wounded but no trace of the PLO leader. One time a building very close to ours was bombed.

I imagine that many reporters or documentary filmmakers would have liked to have been present on the boat to immortalize that moment, but you were the only filmmaker authorized to do so. A few months ago, I ran into Elias Sanbar in Beirut — he was signing his Dictionnaire amoureux de la Palestine [4] — and we had dinner together with other friends. When I reminded him that I still didn’t know who had given me the permission to get on the boat, he answered: “Oh well... Really, you still don’t know?” (with an air of: “it was Arafat, of course”). My house had burned down at the beginning of the siege, but I hadn’t left the country.

Was this a special time for you and your friends? Well, if you ask those who lived through the siege... They’ll all tell you it was the best time of their lives. As crazy as it may sound, it really was the happiest time of my life, of our lives. Because at that moment, your reasons for living are multiplied by 1000, as you’ve chosen to stay there, you believe you’re defending a cause. Similar to what artists and intellectuals like Capra or Hemingway did during the Spanish War. It was an act of resistance. What right do you have to come and occupy Beirut and Lebanon? That’s the question we were asking the whole world. By being present there, we were bearing witness, and we were with those who were being attacked and bombed. Everything was powerful and intense. It was an exceptional moment, but it was also destructive. Afterwards, you’re no longer afraid of anything. You go so far that you acquire a certain wisdom. And when I’m confronted with a film or a work that evokes war without sincerity, I’m outraged: that’s not the truth. So you blame yourself for being like that. I am authentic! When you’ve gone that far, with such sincerity, you’re in need of urgency in art or journalism.

Originally published as ‘Documenter et conter les tourments du monde’ in a more extended version in La Furia Umana paper#7 (November 2014). A previous version was published on www. criticalsecret.net in 2013. Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] His PhD thesis has been published online: www.111101.net/ Writings/Author/Fawwaz_Traboulsi/. It has been translated into English as A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, London, 2007). Traboulsi is the author of many political books and essays in Arabic. [2] Les moi volatils des guerres perdues (1996) and Sous le soleil d’Occident (1998). [3] The author’s first name, Etel Adnan, is sometimes spelled “Ethel”. Her novel Sitt Marie Rose was published by Editions des Femmes in 1978, and has recently been republished by Editions Tamyras. Adnan is the author of many works (of poetry and prose) in French, English and Arabic. [4] Published by Editions Plon in 2010.

Then you immortalized the departure of Yasser Arafat and the PLO fighters with The Boat of Exile. They left Beirut and headed for an uncertain place and future. When I shot these images, I really felt like I was living a historical moment. I didn’t want to leave the city, and I hesitated before getting on the boat. Besides, did those who provided the boat taking Arafat and his troops deliberately choose a boat named “Atlantis”? The name of the boat was the central theme of the filming. And now, this film is part of the history of the Palestinians. I gave them a copy. It’s dedicated to them.


Jocelyne Saab

For Jocelyne Etel Adnan, 2014 I first met Jocelyne Saab around 1972/1973. At that time, I was in charge of the cultural section of the French-language daily paper As Safa in Beirut. I’d returned from a long stay in the U.S. and was keen to encourage young Lebanese people to contribute to my pages in the paper. Jocelyne must have been about twenty then, or just over. She brought me reviews of pop records, and I was fascinated by her “scribblings”. She was a very lively and talented young woman. When the civil war broke out in Lebanon a few years later, she came to ask me if I would write a text for a film of just over thirty minutes that she’d made herself, mostly in downtown Beirut during the shelling. The strength of this film — which was shown on TV in several world capitals — lay in its innocence; Jocelyne had managed to convey the atmosphere of the early days of the war. She went on to make a second film, Lebanon in a Whirlwind — an extraordinary work that captured the Lebanese milieu in which the war began better than any other written or filmed account of the subject. With her political courage, moral integrity and profound intelligence, Jocelyne instinctively grasped the essence of the conflict. As I have just tried to explain, no document on that war ever rivalled the three films Jocelyne made about Lebanon.

Hers is a rare and precious oeuvre, valuable for the history of Lebanon but also for its relevance beyond its borders; it should be part of university courses on contemporary sociology and politics. I would also like to express my affection for Jocelyne. On the strength of her films and the way she has lived her life to date, I consider her one of the bravest, most intelligent and above all freest spirits I have ever encountered — though her freedom of thought and behaviour has sometimes cost her dearly and even put her life in danger. Few other people have suffered so much to preserve their self-esteem and survive in a meaningful way in a world as hostile and indifferent as ours. Jocelyne’s work deserves to be recognized for its true, and considerable, value; few people are as worthy of our admiration, and I am glad of this opportunity to say so.

Originally published in La Furia Umana paper#7 (November 2014). This translation was published in Jocelyne Saab, Zones de guerre (Montreuil: Les Éditions de l’Oeil, 2018).

Jocelyne Saab


With combatants of the Polisario Front while filming Sahara Is Not for Sale (1977)

Filming Khadafi (1976)


Jocelyne Saab

With Yasser Arafat while filming Letter from Beirut (1978)

Filming Beirut, My City (1982). Picture by Farida Hamak

Jocelyne Saab


Conversations with Etel Adnan and Jocelyne Saab Olivier Hadouchi, 2014 In 1975, the poet and visual artist Etel Adnan appeared in Jocelyne Saab’s first feature-length film, Lebanon in a Whirlwind. Adnan is also the author of the commentary in Saab’s Beirut, Never Again (1976), a poetic documentary and account of the implosion of a city in the throes of war and of the daily resistance of those who stayed. Saab quotes a poem by Adnan in Letter from Beirut (1979) and considers her poetry and her novel Sitt Marie Rose (1977) to be essential works for reflecting on the wars in Lebanon. We thought it would be very interesting to bring these two artists together for a double interview, as their respective works, shot through with the upheavals of a history and a region in a whirlwind, put together political and poetic issues in an endlessly relevant way.

FIRST CONVERSATION (FEBRUARY 2013) Saab: I’m jumping back and forth here, but I thought it was very brave and provocative of you to write Sitt Marie Rose. Adnan: I wrote it in a rage. I even received death threats because of it. As did you. I was sent a message: “She’d better leave Lebanon.” There were attacks on the radio. Saab: Threats from the Phalangists? Adnan: Yes. But you, Jocelyne, you also received death threats at the time. Saab: They no longer allowed us to express ourselves. There was no freedom anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully understand that I was scaring them because I didn’t realize the impact of my work. With my documentaries and my different way of looking at things, I managed to reach European and American television channels. They were afraid my images would shake the public opinion and dismantle their propaganda. Adnan: The word freedom should be put into perspective. When there is a war, it’s over. They don’t understand this notion to begin with: for them, freedom means obeying the chief and the church. Saab: Etel, do you think that, today, young Lebanese people are doing what we dared to do at the time?


Adnan: In Lebanon, there are struggles for civil marriage, people claiming the idea of culture as a form of resistance... It must be said that there’s no real coherent policy today. At the time, the socialists actually stood for something, with Kamal Jumblatt. Saab: Do you think our position was in line with the spirit of a political party? Adnan: I’ve never been part of a political party, and neither have you, but our positions coincided. A figure like Kamal Jumblatt gave us confidence. He was a man we admired, who thought like us, and who had power. So we believed there was an organized force and thus a future. Hadouchi: You too, Jocelyne? Saab: Yes. And we witnessed the reversal of alliances: the Christian camp called the Syrians to the rescue, Beirut was bombed by the Syrian army... I had this deep-rooted vision of the city in ruins in my mind. I knew that it was all over, that we had lost the war and all our illusions when I filmed Beirut, Never Again. Once the war sets in, it’s like an engine that accelerates, running at full speed. It’s very difficult to stop it. [...] Hadouchi: You never respond with hate. Adnan: There’s no hate in me. Hadouchi: Do you somehow refuse the logic of confron­ tation? Saab: I don’t have any hate in me, but the logic of confrontation was omnipresent. The war took me by the throat. It’s very real. I was hiding to get around. I couldn’t go and see my father. They put me in the trunk of the car to go to see my father. I’d see him for an hour and be denounced. I had to cross all of Lebanon to get back to West Beirut. It was always very dangerous. Adnan: Jocelyne wrote for the newspaper whose cultural pages I edited, Al Safa. She wrote about pop music, about the latest records, and it was very interesting. She wrote very quickly, so much so that she didn’t always take the time to finish her sentence, unlike Dominique Eddé who was such a perfectionist that it took her weeks and weeks to write back. Quite the opposite of Jocelyne. I liked both of them, each one had their qualities. One day, at the newspaper, someone told

Jocelyne Saab

me: “It’s not serious of Jocelyne to send you drafts.” I replied that it didn’t matter. What she was saying was interesting. [...] Adnan: Jocelyne, how did you end up making films? Saab: My parents forbade me to go to a film school; it was out of the question. I knew that by studying literature at the Sisters of Nazareth, there would only be girls. No doubt I wanted to follow my father’s example; because my mother was at home, she was not an example to me. At the end of the third year of my economics studies, I got a scholarship, and I enrolled in Paris at the École de la rue Blanche to follow a parallel theatre course. Then I returned to Lebanon. My friends assured me that American films were being made these days and that I could take part in the shooting as an assistant. So I went back. Adnan: While writing small texts, right? Saab: Yes, and I already wanted to become a journalist, and I started to film my first reports. Adnan: During the civil war, Jocelyne used to go to downtown Beirut. She brought back some images and asked me to write the text for her film. Saab: You’re talking about Beirut, Never Again. Plus, you appear in Lebanon in a Whirlwind, and I quote you in Letter from Beirut. Adnan: Those were exciting years. It’s interesting for you to meet people like us before we disappear. Hadouchi: Of course, and I am very happy to be able to listen to you both. I’m very interested in both of your careers, as they’re often bound up with History. Adnan: Indeed. People ask me why my poetry is mostly — not always, but mostly — political. I tell them that History is what’s writing my books. I’d love to think about something else; but when there are such enormously important issues, you can’t go around talking about trees and birds. We’ve been in the apocalypse since 1918, since the end of the Ottoman Empire. That’s when the apocalypse began. [Jocelyne Saab nods and looks at Etel Adnan.]

SECOND CONVERSATION (APRIL 2013) Saab: Etel, what did the screening of Lebanon in a Whirlwind (several decades after it was made) at the Cinémathèque française provoke in you? [1] Adnan: In your film, we clearly see that all young people looked alike. They all lived in a similar way, except that they all blamed the others. The Muslims spoke like the Phalangists, who themselves spoke like the Shiites, and so on. Fundamentally, they had the same problems. They led similar lives. They

suffered from the same economic and social mismanagement of the country, from the same corruption. The political parties diverted them towards ideas of fear, so that every group we see in the film says: “I’m afraid.” Instead of saying: I’m afraid, so let us talk to each other and work together. The parties had an interest in people not getting along, in not fully discussing their shared problems, because if they had faced these problems, these similar common demands, it would have created the possibility of democracy. The leaders responsible for this state of affairs, through their clientelism and feudal practices, knowingly lied, feeding hatred of the other, pitting their troops against other communities. It was an operation of propaganda and manipulation; the keys to the problem were never exposed. Foreign television stations did not allow us to speak, did not invite us to take part in debates, the French spoke for the Lebanese. Saab: Does the film still seem relevant to you? Adnan: I’d never seen it in its entirety, and I had the impression that we hadn’t made any progress, that it was a film about a burning issue in Lebanon. First of all because the leaders are the same, except replaced by their children. The discourse of the men in power has not changed. The government, the members of parliament and the party leaders use the same words. This film also showed the naivety of the common people. Poor children, young people who are innocent, courageous, maybe even admirable, but who don’t talk about the real issues. They don’t say that they’re unemployed, that they’re poor and frustrated... They tell us that they’re afraid because their boss tells them that whoever it is is going to attack them. And they are incapable of dialogue. They all had the same social background, but their political leaders stressed their religious difference in order to push them to fight. It wasn’t even a theological war like in the Middle Ages, like in the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, for example. Today, no religious group understands anything about the other: Muslims know nothing about Christian religion and vice versa. It’s not a war of religion but a war in which religion is used for strictly political purposes, against a background of corruption. The party leaders get rich, have young people who are willing to die for them, literally, and they’re worshipped, which goes right to their heads. The common youth feed this madness, this lust for power of the leaders. Saab: Do you think that a film like Lebanon in a Whirlwind can teach us something? Adnan: I think it’s necessary for people to be able to analyze it and put it into context, if we show it to a larger audience in Tunisia, Egypt or Paris, for example. A short introduction to the film to inform the audience seems necessary. At the screening at the Cinémathèque française, the audience understood. Some of my French friends were there and

Jocelyne Saab


they understood, and an American friend understood too. But if you show it to a larger audience, even an Arab audience, some might say: these people are afraid... But in reality, these people are the same. The fear was instilled by the leaders. The problem isn’t religious or theological, it’s the exploitation of religion, the way of playing on emotions. For example, for me, Beirut was murdered after the war, rather than during the war. We constructed so much. Twenty-storey buildings on roads that only allow one car in each direction. The concrete has suffocated Beirut. The rich spend their holidays abroad, and the poor suffocate without even realizing it; their windows are being swallowed up by those of their neighbours, less than a metre away. If the neighbours talk to each other, and they both find out they have the same problems, it could bring them closer together. The most beautiful mountains in the Mediterranean, the Lebanese mountains, have been devastated. [...] Saab: What is your analysis of the fact that it was a woman and not a man who felt the need to analyze what was happening in Lebanon? Adnan: Perhaps it was a coincidence. Maybe if you hadn’t done it, there wouldn’t have been another woman to do it. You were a young, innocent, courageous and intelligent woman who wasn’t looking for personal profit. I’m not saying a man couldn’t have done it, I don’t know. In my opinion, in Lebanon, and even if it is difficult to generalize about women and men, women have proved to be more interesting. In art, and even in business or journalism... Women fight more, they are happier when they manage to do something. They know they’re pioneers. I know that I was the first girl of my generation to take a taxi. I was one of the first girls to work in an office. Because of the Second World War, there were foreign offices: the French army, the British army... This period coincided with the first generation of female graduates. Historically,


women moved around much more in these countries. They took risks, and they suffered. Much more than the men, who continued on their path. When you see Saudi women going to study in America, doing PhDs and living by themselves. If they return, they’re made to wear a chador, they get locked up. They become schizophrenic and depressed, you know. It’s a happy coincidence, Jocelyne. You picked up a camera without going to film school, and you have a keen eye. You need talent as well as courage, one is not enough, you need both. And a little genius. [...] Adnan: Anyway, we had a nice conversation. Saab: Olivier, you didn’t say anything. Adnan: He’s amused by our discussion. Hadouchi: It was very interesting. Adnan: And I must say that even if the French and the Jews have left Algeria, I have the impression that the idea of diversity is still present there. The energy there is different from Morocco or Tunisia. It reminds me of Lebanon.

Originally published as ‘Conversations avec Etel Adnan et Jocelyne Saab’ in a more extended version in La Furia Umana paper#7 (November 2014). Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] Nicole Brenez and Olivier Hadouchi organized the first European retrospective of the work of Jocelyne Saab at the Cinémathèque française. It was part of a larger framework of sessions dedicated to cinema of the avant-garde. It was called Jocelyne Saab, les astres de la guerre and ran between 29 March and 24 May 2013.

Jocelyne Saab

Letter from Algiers to a Friend from Beirut Wassyla Tamzali, 2014 Dear Jocelyne, There are encounters that withstand long separations because they happened at a particular time. That goes for you, who I lost sight of for a long time, and who I met in the liveliest days of our lives. Are there lives outside of lively days? Alas, yes. Many years later, we ran into each other and caught up in the queue for a plane from Paris to Cairo, and then in Alexandria we met again, and... since then, we met again where we had parted, in the intimacy of History, the Tunisian revolution had just broken out and our hearts were cheerful. I have chosen to describe you in a letter. What could be more personal, more close? And impartial? A letter, therefore. Did I see you for the first time in 1969 at the PanAfrican Festival in Algiers during the first World Congress of Documentary Filmmakers and the first World Cinema meetings? Everything we did in those years was a first, a world event, a Third World and revolutionary event. Or at the Carthage Film Festival, which I followed passionately in the shadow of Hamadi Essid, its director, a Proustian lost in those pioneering and rather “tough” years of our small society? Or else in Paris, in one of those cafés where we used to meet, after “climbing there” from our southern cities to share our desires, our rage, our projects. We were insolent, remember? The war in Lebanon had not started; Algeria could still imagine a future. And we were young and youthful, the roads before us were many, wide open, branching off in all directions. Pleasure, love, politics, and freedom were beckoning us like so many louts lying in wait by the road. All we had to do was move forward. Then your war came, the first of our fratricidal wars, which you brought back in the reels of Lebanon in a Whirlwind, filmed in 1975, watched in Algiers immediately. At the Cinematheque, of course, the obligatory passage of the 1970s, as Algiers was the Mecca of dreamers. How many had their hearts broken there into a thousand pieces? I see you again in front of the white screen, all dressed in white, “without a bra”, you like to remind us. The spectators were mesmerized, and more than one hard-boiled member of the Communist underground party, PAGS [Parti de l’avantgarde socialiste], which formed the core of the intellectual public, puritanical like no other, was disturbed. With that

slight Beirut accent, you spoke to us about your work as a war reporter for the magazine 52 minutes. You explained to us why the film we were going to see was a pivotal film for you. You had slammed the door on French television, which refused to broadcast it so as not to disturb the Phalange. A circumstance that made you break free of the format and the diktat of television big shots. It was as a free reporter that you were welcomed by the Direction Presse Filmée et Magazine (DPFM) of ONCIC, the Algerian national film production company — in 1977? — you wanted to film the fighting Saharawi people, and you said you were leaving with the Polisario. Mustapha Abdoun, the young, very young head of the DPFM — we were all young — still remembers your demanding nature: “I want to show the fighting Saharawis, and not take sides with either the Algerians or the Moroccans.” You had warned them that it would become Sahara Is Not for Sale (1978). You went ahead, and life smiled on you. All you had to do was appear; your courage and determination did the rest. Your talent, too. Didn’t France 2 replace its evening news (shortened by five minutes) with Beirut, Never Again? A film that perfectly expresses your manner: mixing History and your own history; and adding to the magic of this tour de force, Etel Adnan had written the voice-over in one go — a text of great beauty. Isn’t that the cinema we love, the one mixing politics and poetry? Then, as close to yourself as possible, Beirut, My City, a declaration of love, a film of resistance if ever there was one, by its very existence, by its filming conditions. It was 1982, the city besieged by the Israelis was deserted. There were only 20,000 inhabitants who couldn’t flee and about thirty artists, intellectuals volunteering on all fronts. You describe how Roger Assaf, the most talented theatre maker of his generation, gave his all on the stage of life: he devoted his time, his energy, his creativity, and it was necessary in order to provide supplies to the population. You, risking your life, carried your camera to where there were still women, men and children. It was a matter of urgency for you to give an account of a city, of a people vulnerable to its disappearance. Isn’t that what cinema is? That evening in 1975 at the Algiers Cinematheque, we listened to you silently. Even the young people who were there, as always because it was the cheapest cinema in the city, were

Jocelyne Saab


silent for once. It must be said that it was a very important event. An Arab woman war reporter! An independent filmmaker! Our filmmakers, all men — Assia Djebar would not arrive from Paris until 1976, carrying The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua in her luggage — were all “socialist” state employees; and the women? Algerian women? They desperately and unsuccessfully struggled to be recognized. We were discovering another way of being Arab, of being a woman, of being an artist far from any ideology, in one word: a free woman. A meteor in our sky, which was so soft and conventional, with a revolutionary appearance that went no further than the fabulous Agrarian Revolution and the use of a Marxist lexicon. What a discovery for us, entangled in our peasant clothes, bursting with the pathos of brotherhood, taped together by the cult of heroes, and still immersed in the “drama of colonization”! There was a war going on in your country, yes, a terrifying war, a civil war, the worst of all wars, but there was also your impatience, your audacity, your frenzied will to live, to push yourself to the limit. A lesson for me and my comrades, an invitation to freedom, while we were draped in the flags of the National Liberation, that destructive myth of dreams and desires going stale. We were so different. We enjoyed comparing our ways of eating: on the one hand, the multitude of dishes on Lebanese tables, all classes combined, everyone serving themselves in the order they want; and on the other hand, the collective couscous of my country, the same seasoning for all. Weren’t all the Algerian films of that time a dogmatic illustration of the single fraternal people? Which is generally not so good for cinema nor for the people. The girl from Beirut looked at us with astonishment, sympathy, affection. She liked Beirut/ Algiers as much as we dreamed of Algiers/Beirut. Nahla by Farouk Beloufa would be the beautiful illustration of this embrace. You had passed him the virus of this city that you never stopped investigating throughout your work. “The war was approaching. Beirut left la Dolce Vita and fell into a most atrocious war. I had to go to Vietnam, but I stayed in Beirut, as I wanted to understand the reasons for this turnaround. I knew that, from now on, I had to devote myself to that.” The city of all possibilities, more alive under bullets and bombs than Algiers in times of peace, which fell asleep as soon as the evening star appeared. Your city was the emblematic city of our desire for a future, for an elsewhere, for something else, a city that touched us more than Paris or Rome or New York, near and far, unique in the Arab world. Until today, and today more than ever. So much so that Farouk, the director of a single film, wanted to shoot his film there in the midst of the Lebanese war. Would he have been able to carry out this madness without you, who led him between the shootings and the bombs, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, with that physical and mental agility to escape both, both


Christians and Muslims, and all kinds of dishonourable bandits. I doubt it. After Alexandria, our meetings resumed at the rhythm of our travels, and projects imposed themselves. Very quickly and quite naturally, we made a future appointment to pursue these ideas, these projects, these desires that never cease to live inside of you, and that you communicate so well to others. I was like a sponge. First for the opening of MuCEM in Marseille, an installation on sexuality in the Arab world in which you investigate violence, homosexuality, ostracism, intolerance, but also the courage, creativity and the struggle we are waging against the demons haunting our societies and trading in fundamentalists. How beautiful and talented Walid (Aouni) and Alexander (Paulikevitch) are! And brave. They have become friends. For me, you had chosen a sequence around the “girl in the blue bra” in Tahrir Square, this young girl trampled and stripped in the middle of a demonstration by young armed men in combat fatigues and trainers. Policemen? Militiamen? Who knows? The power of Mubarak took a turn for the worse. What is certain is that whatever the origin of these hordes, they were driven by the hatred of women. We filmed in Bonifacio, in the far south of Corsica, facing the Mediterranean Sea, which is as fascinating to you as it is to me. We are the daughters of this sea, you from Tyre, the origin of all cities, and I from the crossroads of Istanbul and Catholic Spain, both heirs of the complexity of the world, bearers of this history that they want to destroy by gunfire from all sides, from the South, from the North, as well as from the East and the West, from our neighbours and our mixed families! A world attacked by all the fundamentalisms growing within our sick societies. There will always be your images to bear witness to our times. Isn’t that what cinema is? And then, you created the Tripoli Festival [the Cultural Resistance International Film Festival]. “Culture as resistance”, words that sum up your life perfectly well, as well as the lives of all those you love, have loved, and who have stayed awake, like you, on the borders of the fratricidal wars that have now invaded our Mediterranean world. People who are awake and don’t want to be seen as important because of it. A festival, because it’s not enough for you to make your films, you need to say and make it heard that history is written by Cinema that’s against the flood of images of “a poor current-affairs cinema that has to wash away the blood and the tears as one cleans the pavement when it’s too late and the army has already shot at the crowd” (J.L Godard, Histoire(s) du cinéma). Your first selection, in this respect, set the bar very high. That goes for Shakespeare Must Die by Ing K., which gained the First Prize for Fiction at the first edition of the Tripoli Film Festival (2013), a mise-en-scène in extenso of Macbeth’s text and a fine example of radical, political cinema under its gory appearance. A

Jocelyne Saab

representation of the passion of power and of the blood and madness it leads to. A film that helps us understand the apocalyptic images of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi emerging from history. A film that “explains” the inexplicable and gives it a political dimension by forcing our minds to break out of the fear anaesthetizing them, and to “reflect”. Isn’t that what resistance cinema is? If I had to choose a word to describe you, I’d say impatience. The right word to describe what you were when we first met, and the reason why that friendship still lasts. From the first exchange. Your eyes searched the hearts and souls of those you met, looking for their alter egos. The first time we spoke, I understood that, like me, you believed that we could change the world, and that images, words, poetry, music, and art were the best ways to do so and to prepare for the Great Day. We were young women in a hurry. I had found in you the utopian vision of life that I and a couple of my comrades at the Cinematheque shared. A stubborn vision that we nurtured in the dark rooms we dove into, far from the dazzling lights of the military-religious spectacle taking place. In the darkness of the Algiers Cinematheque, the beloved child of Henri Langlois, to feed our expectations, we piously collected fireflies (in the words of Pier Paolo Pasolini the Younger), the many gold nuggets in world cinema films, in the eyes of the directors, in your eyes, in the passionate harangues of the Cinematheque’s aficionados. Fireflies as so many promises. Those eyes that looked straight at us and expressed the passion of life are, today, tempered by tenderness and patience. Patience, which is the reverse side of your impatience that I found intact in Alexandria during that long walk through the deserted city on a Friday halted at prayer time. In that art deco café from another time, where a veiled prostitute was the only other customer — do you remember that story, a reality that exceeded fiction and that I will not tell, your exchanges with her, and the waiter who took a tithe from her every time she went to the toilet? In that café, we seamlessly resumed our conversation, which had stopped more than 30 years ago.

Which wasn’t obvious. There are so many old friends we met at random on the street, at a show, at a meeting and never saw again because we had nothing more to say to each other. We met again after Alexandria because in that city, after a long absence, we hadn’t come to a nostalgic halt. That’s how alive it had been. Our first words, first you to me: “What are you doing? — And you?” You had just finished Dunia, Kiss Me Not On The Eyes, that beautiful film about a young woman who discovers her body, which gradually becomes more important through a series of sinister events. I was finishing a book, Histoires minuscules des révolutions arabes. The revolution had begun in Tunisia, was expected in Cairo, and in Algiers where it would not arrive. We found ourselves in Alexandria full of hope for the Arab Revolutions. And if there was any nostalgia, it was a nostalgia for the future that we had hoped for more than 40 years. And that we continue to hope for. Dear Jocelyne, this future that has not arrived is obviously still there, in the depths of our expectation, of our impatience. There you have it. I would have liked to call this letter “Letter from the front”, but I abandoned this idea for fear of appearing excessive or conventional. Let us say “Letter from Algiers to a friend from Beirut”. Another way of saying the exact same thing.

Originally published as ‘Lettre d’Alger à une amie de Beyrouth’ in La Furia Umana paper#7 (November 2014). Translated by Sis Matthé

Jocelyne Saab



Heiny Srour

Heiny Srour “Those of us from the Third World have to reject the idea of film narration based on the 19th-century western bourgeois novel with its commitment to harmony. Our societies have been too lacerated and fractured by colonial power to fit into those neat scenarios. We have enormous gaps in our societies and film has to recognize this” Born in 1945 in Beirut, Heiny Srour studied Sociology at the French University of Beirut (Ecole Supérieure des Lettres) and went on to study Social Anthropology at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she was a student of both Marxist sociologist Maxime Rodinson and anthropologist filmmaker Jean Rouch. In 1969, while pursuing a PhD on the status of Lebanese and Arab women and working as a journalist for AfricAsia magazine, she discovered the struggle of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, which led an uprising in the province of Dhofar against the British-backed Sultan of Oman. Determined to make a film about this feminist movement, she spent two years doing intensive research and finding the necessary funds before setting out to Dhofar. From the Yemeni border, Heiny Srour and her team crossed 500 miles of desert and mountains by foot, under bombardment by the British Royal Air Force, to reach the combat zone and record the only document shot deep inside the Liberated Area. The Hour of Liberation was completed in 1974 and selected at Cannes Film Festival, making Srour the first woman from the Third World to be selected at the prestigious international festival. Including four years of restoration, this documentary

Filming Leila and the Wolves (1981). Picture Ahmad Mjarkech.

took, all in all, ten years of her life. It took her six years to achieve her next film, Leila and the Wolves (1984), in which she unveiled the hidden histories of women in struggle, in particular in Palestine and Lebanon, by weaving an aesthetically and politically ambitious tableau of history, folklore, myth and archival footage. In her words: “Why shouldn’t women be ambitious? Because men only want women to exclusively deal with women’s issues like home, family and so on, they want to ghettoize us. I resent this. We should deal with the public affairs and political issues too.” Since initiating a feminist study group in Lebanon in the early 1960s, Heiny Srour has been vocal about the position of women, in particular in Arab societies. She has written and spoken extensively about the image and role of women in Arab cinema. In 1978, along with Tunisian filmmaker Selma Baccar and Egyptian film historian Magda Wassef, she co-authored a manifesto ‘For the Self-Expression of the Arab Woman’, remaining passionately active in her feminist advocacy to this day. More recently, she shot a film in Vietnam (Rising Above: Women of Vietnam, 1995) and was the only filmmaker to film Egyptian protest singer Sheikh Imam in his home and neighbourhood (The Singing Sheikh, 1991).

Heiny Srour


The Hour of Liberation (1974)

The Hour of Liberation Interview by Guy Hennebelle and Monique Martineau Hennebelle, 1974 Lebanese filmmaker Heiny Srour shot a one-hour film in the liberated zone of the Sultanate of Oman. The film is called The Hour of Liberation, and it was selected at The International Critics’ Week of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. With regard to Arab cinema, which — despite the current revival — is often still trying to find its way politically, this film has the merit of being based on an unusually clear ideological analysis. Compared to French (and European) cinema, it has the advantage of proposing a particularly effective method and approach on which it would be appropriate to reflect in order to develop militant cinema, for example, which, as we know, is still barely able to avoid a rather boring didacticism. The filmmaker talks about the reasons that led her to make this film and about her political and aesthetic ideas. Heiny Srour, why this film? For several reasons. First of all, to break the conspiracy of silence reigning over the struggle the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) has been waging for the past nine years in a region containing two thirds of the world’s oil reserves and currently supplying a quarter of the world’s production, thus providing fabulous superprofits to imperialism.


Secondly, to underline the exemplary role of a Vietnamesestyle Arab liberation struggle. Finally, because as a feminist, I was particularly enthusiastic about the way in which the PFLO views and resolves the issue of women’s emancipation. This is, indeed, the first time in the Arab world that an organized political force has considered women’s liberation as an end in itself and not just as a means to get rid of imperialism more quickly. It is the first time in the Arab world that what is preached is actually practiced. I felt it was important to pass on the experience of the PFLO, exemplary in many respects. In which context is this struggle unfolding? Since 1965, the Front has been fighting the feudalism of Sultan Said Bin Taimur who, allied with the British empire, kept the Sultanate of Oman (2,000,000 inhabitants, east of the Democratic Republic of Yemen and south of Saudi Arabia) in a situation I would describe as “medieval” in the cities and “nearly pre-historical” in the countryside. In his desire to stop time, the sultan did not want his subjects to import modern-world products: bicycles, medicines, radios... In 1970, the English replaced him with his son Qaboos, who introduced some tiny reforms but maintained

Heiny Srour

slavery, for example. Committed to ending a revolution that risked spreading like wildfire across the Arabian Gulf, the British — as Oman is de facto a British protectorate — called on the Americans. The Americans in turn asked their allies in the region to intervene: Faisal of Saudi Arabia is giving money, Hussein of Jordan is sending his police, and the Shah of Iran has sent 3,000 men as reinforcements to the liberated zone and estimates the number of Iranians in Oman at 11,000. The liberated area (most of the western province of Dhofar, with a population of 200,000) is undergoing a genuine attempt at genocide. We must draw attention to a situation the international press is trying to hide. Hence this film. I spent three months in Dhofar, where I walked about 400 kilometres [1], together with a technical crew consisting of the cameraman Michel Humeau, the sound engineer Jean-Louis Ughetto and a Yemeni assistant, Itzhak Ibrahim Souleily. The form of your film is extremely interesting: you have managed to combine a rigorous political account with a “sense of humanity”. While many French militant films are often dull and unappealing, your film fascinates from start to finish. You seem to have really worked on the montage. The film begins with a sequence of fixed colour shots, which is a sort of summary of the situation in the liberated zone, commented on by a liberation song hummed by a People’s Army fighter. This sequence is meant to get the spectator to identify with the revolution and, at the same time, establish that in the beginning was the people. The course of the film can be divided into two parts: the first, shorter part talks about the crimes of imperialism and its local allies; the second, longer part is devoted to a report from the liberated area. The imperialism in the Gulf is analyzed through television documents. The side of imperialism is in black and white. The side of the revolution is in colour, or red-tinged. When the documents from the imperialist side happened to be in colour, I had them duplicated in black and white... It seemed dangerous to me to turn the Royal Air Force planes into a beautiful spectacle. Generally speaking, I think it’s dangerous, politically, not to distinguish between the forces of oppression and the forces of liberation in terms of image and sound. Regarding the sound in this film, it is the voice of the combatant already mentioned which comments on the images captured on the other side of the fence, and it is the same voice which is calling for unity in the struggle. So, it is clear that we only used images from the side of imperialism because the Arab people were unable to record their history on film. The Hour of Liberation is, therefore, a partisan film at all levels. In terms of the montage as well: you can’t place images

filmed on both sides of the fence in any order, and tell the viewer to choose sides; that would put oppression and freedom, injustice and justice on the same level. The film is constructed on a structure that rejects the bourgeois conception of “objectivity”: it clearly takes sides, without necessarily hiding the difficulties of the struggle, without hiding the contradictions, without ultimately lapsing into triumphalism. The entire montage is conceived to produce an analysis of what a people’s war is. We first show, through the interview with a combatant, that the beginnings of a war of this type are very difficult because there are generally few means of action and you must essentially rely on your own strengths. Then we analyze the reasons behind the strength of the revolution: mobilization of the masses, unity among the people, women’s liberation. The film sets out to illustrate the principle that in a people’s war, the army is at the service of the people. So you notice the political role of the Liberation Army. And its productive role as well. Towards the end of the film, the conference in which a leader explains that “ideology guides the gun” sums up the reasons for the Front’s success. In the film, captions guide the viewer towards a political reading: it is indeed important to contribute to a deconditioning of the Arab spectator who had absorbed film images as a drug for fifty years. The captions make it possible to break the “spectacle” by encouraging the spectators to keep their critical sense alive, to bring them to consider a sequence as a political lesson, not just as a series of images. But I didn’t add too many of these captions, as their accumulation would have become boring. You must avoid both losing the spectators by boring them and stupefying them by entertaining them. In terms of the editing, I tried very hard to avoid both excesses. On the other hand, I tried to make maximum use of the popular culture from the region, for example by inserting songs sung by the partisans into the film; apart from being politically sophisticated, they are also very beautiful artistically. And finally, whenever possible, I used the original dialogue instead of a commentary. By and large, I tried to integrate the Arab oral tradition into the sound of the film, a fundamental element of the people’s culture in our country. In a militant film, it’s crucial to refer to the people’s culture if you really want to reach the audience the film is made for. As for the image, the captions introduced the tradition of the arabesque. What is your view on the direction that Arab cinema should take? To answer this question, we must first define the historical period we are going through and the political tasks falling to every Arab person, whether or not a filmmaker. Today, the Arab world is going through a period of democratic national

Heiny Srour


revolution. Our main enemy is imperialism and its local allies: the comprador bourgeoisie and feudalism. The basis of this Arab revolution consists of the poor masses, both the working class and the peasants. The avant-garde is, of course, the working class. Right now, its allies are the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. If we want to identify the main element, if we want to hit the target with our camera gun, we must focus our efforts against the main enemy and give voice to the main basis of the revolution: the poor masses. The allies of the revolution (petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie) do not deserve to be more than just allies. All the more so because the wealthy have been the objects and subjects of art in all its expressions for thousands of years. This has been the case in cinema since it was invented. Consequently, content-wise, the enemy of the people is any cinema made by the neutral for the use of the rich and the less rich who want to keep their hands clean, their eyes closed and their ears deaf. Our enemy is any cinema that does not speak of national and social oppression in all its forms, including female oppression, and does not denounce it. Our enemy is a cinema that does not speak of the plundering of our national resources, of poverty and suffering. Our enemy is any cinema that turns its back on historical emergencies, taking refuge in a mythical past through a contemplative approach that is nothing but a flight from the present. Our enemy is any cinema that deals with so-called universal problems without giving them a social and national dimension. For example, one cannot speak of love “innocently”: it is not the same in a society where women are equal to men or in a society where she is his slave, his beast of luxury or his beast of burden.


So much for the content. As for the form, our enemy is any esoteric cinema reserved for elites and the idle. Our enemy is any vulgar cinema, any simplistic and triumphalist cinema, because it lapses into demagogy. Our enemy is any cinema that suffers the moral terrorism of the perfect and finished work of art. Any cinema that does not seek new forms to express new content. Any cinema settled in the intellectual comfort of the aesthetic canon established by and for the wealthy. Any cinema that uses the iconography, symbolism and moral values of the other side. For we cannot treat our responsibilities as filmmakers with disdain and ignore the tremendous impact of images and sounds. The imperialists, for their part, do not undervalue this. They are currently putting our entire civilization in mortal danger. We must arm ourselves with intolerance against the enemies of freedom. Our principle is: whoever is not with us is against us. Our practice: ideology must guide the camera.

Originally published as ‘L’heure de la libération a sonné’ in Cahiers du Cinéma, 253 (October 1974). Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] In fact, we walked 800 kilometres to shoot the film, as counted by the French sound engineer Jean Louis Ughetto. I must have walked an extra 100 kilometres during the preparation of the film. But, typical of my lack of self-confidence and afraid to be accused of lying, I played it down. I only dared to declare it was 800 kilometres 40 years later, after I noticed the French cameraman did so… and was believed. (Heiny Srour, 2020)

Heiny Srour

Woman, Arab and... Filmmaker Heiny Srour, 1976 This article was originally published as ‘Femme, Arabe et... cinéaste’ in the book Paroles... elles tournent! by the collective Des femmes de Musidora (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1976). It was the first book in French to survey the experience of the first wave of women filmmakers that appeared in the seventies. This article was later reproduced in CinemArabe, 4–5 (1976). To fully understand this article today, it’s important to know that Marxism was very fashionable in the seventies because of the overwhelming victory of the Vietnamese over the US. Most anti-imperialists wanted to pose as Marxists, but many of them, in the Arab World even more so, wanted to censor the subversive side of Marxism: its audacious feminism. In the prevailing moral terror against women’s liberation in the Arab World, The People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf bravely practiced grassroots feminism, positive discrimination in favour of women, and liberated them without waiting for the final victory. The PFLOAG went against the tide: most liberation movements (Algeria, Palestine, etc.) publicized token women, postponed women’s liberation until victory, used their energy to reach power more quickly and denied women their rights once in the government. (Heiny Srour, 2020) Woman, Arab and... filmmaker. A viable situation? If so, some questions: Is there even one Arab filmmaker who has provoked an explosion of scorn for asserting in front of Marxist militants — don’t laugh — his desire to become a filmmaker? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who was forced to hide from his family that he wanted to make films? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who was called mad by X number of producers for having dared to propose to go and film a guerrilla war? Is there even one Arab filmmaker who has been told from the cradle that he fundamentally wasn’t a “creative” being? To inspire the works of others, fair enough! To write novels dealing with “feminine” subjects is allowed, but barely so (and reluctantly, by the way). But to take the camera in order to talk about human dignity (especially when insisting on women’s liberation), about national dignity? Oh, no, lady! That’s men’s business. Here are some sample reactions: A “Marxist” Egyptian poet: “What a strange girl! She’s neither a man nor a woman.”

A young Algerian: “It’s impossible that she made this film. A woman can’t make films, especially political films” (in a quietly incredulous tone). A Yemeni diplomat: “Ah! So you are the filmmaker? I thought you were 45 years old” (with a gesture to say “fat” and a grimace to say “ugly”). A (disgusted) Iraqi filmmaker: “This sequence about the children is much too long” (shaking his head as if to say: when a woman gets involved in politics, that’s what happens). A female activist of the French women’s liberation movement Psychoanalysis and Politics: “It’s a man’s film; it’s full of guns.” Her comrade adding: “It’s not a coincidence that we talk about ‘liberation’ while women in the Third World talk about ‘emancipation’.” I timidly point out that we always say taharrur (“liberation”) and never intilaq (“emancipation”). In vain. I’m an underdeveloped feminist! A French Maoist: “Without this M.L.F. side [Mouvement de libération des femmes — the French Women’s Liberation Movement], the film would have been politically impeccable!” Underdeveloped once more! A Marxist-Leninist Latin American filmmaker (enthusiastically): “Now, that’s a film with balls!” And me: “No, with a uterus! Uteruses are very creative, they beget life.” X number of Arab activists: “You overemphasized women’s liberation. The enemy is imperialism, not men.” A Lebanese journalist: “Are you a real woman... I mean a normal woman? Have you ever loved a man, for example?” A Moroccan filmmaker: “Politically, it’s the ‘toughest’ film of Arab cinema. How could it come from a woman, not a man?” The worst critics were sometimes those who I was politically the closest to in Arab film circles. Witnessing their animosity, a friend told me: “You’ve done everything to set them against you: you made a political film, which is their preserve; on top of that you are young, and you’re neither one-eyed nor a hunchback. Aren’t you leaving them anything to find consolation in?” All in all, well done for that nasty female aggressor. Enough playing the victim, they tell me. The film was well received by European critics and even better by Arab critics and audiences.

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I agree, but I also note that they mainly considered it an anti-imperialist film. In the Arab world in particular, they refused to dwell on its “subversive” aspects: the decolonization of women and children. In any case, it’s not the first time that women’s energy is accepted at a time when all of Society is in danger. When the burning house needs saving, the most conservative and misogynistic societies will allow some women to go beyond the limits of their traditional role. Token women often become compensating symbols of women’s daily reality. They do not necessarily change the condition of other women who are sent back to their veils or their pots and pans once the danger has passed. Quite often, in fact more often than not, the status quo is restored after a violent upheaval during which all of the values of society have been called into question. Didn’t I tell you? some will gloat. She wants to divert from the anti-imperialist cause. She wants to convince women not to take part in the struggle because they won’t get anything out of it! Let us not mix up everything. Let us add that, while the participation of women in the anti-imperialist struggle is a necessity, it’s not sufficient for their liberation. Because they still need to organize themselves as an autonomous pressure group in order to obtain their rights, without waiting for the occupier to be kicked out. If they don’t organize themselves in anticipation of the post-war, post-independence period, when they will be less needed, their liberation will once again be postponed indefinitely. And that is not enough. The revolution’s political leadership must also be armed with a radical, clear and consistent political line. Because there has never been a long-lasting change in the situation of women without a long-lasting change in the situation of the other oppressed — the working class, landless peasants, national and religious minorities. The said political leadership must also commit itself to pushing women into positions of power and keeping them there. As long as not all of these conditions have been met, women will continue to be used, once more. The recent history of many Arab countries is significant in this regard. Arab women haven taken up arms against a foreign occupier so often! Yet most of them still live in the shadow of the world’s most retrograde laws regarding their family and personal status. Worse still, those who have shed the most blood are among the most unfortunate. This is the case, for example, in that Arab country emerging from a long and painful war of liberation in which women played a heroic part.[1] The medieval laws concerning them remain the same, but the worst is the daily hell they live through. Victims of the vengeful sadism of men, they are no longer even protected by traditional female solidarity, a very common protective structure for women in pre- and post-colonial Arab societies.


What to say about this other Arab country, where honour killings claim more victims than Israeli napalm, despite the relatively high percentage of women in left-wing parties?[2] And what about this other Arab country where women have spectacularly climbed up the professional ladder, beyond the U.S.A. in terms of the percentage of female doctors and lawyers, while continuing to be victims of the worst laws and social practices, ranging from genital mutilation to unilateral repudiation on futile grounds?[3] In short, neither the participation in the war of liberation nor the participation in the national economy has been sufficient to satisfactorily improve the condition of women across the Arab world. Without necessarily likening womanhood to class, we could say that their situation in the Third World — and elsewhere, too, no doubt — is very similar to that of the other oppressed (the working class, national minorities, etc.). Only a correct political vision could enable them to fight over reformist points in order to improve their daily lives, without losing sight of the fact that only a classless society will solve their problems as women, taken as a whole, as a disadvantaged social group. But I see our learned exegetists coming in: why is there no talk about the misogyny and anti-feminism of the King of Saudi Arabia or the CIA, for example? Why focus the attacks mainly on those who are on the right side? Answer: because I don’t expect anything good from the CIA or the King of Saudi Arabia. But I do expect a lot from those who are fighting for a better world. Unlike bourgeois feminists, I don’t gloat when I see that a liberation movement or a left-wing party is not feminist. It saddens me, and it hurts me deeply. But not everything is on the same level for me. The privileged —  imperialist, feudal or bourgeois — remain my main enemies, because class society, with its inevitable oppressor/oppressed tandem, happens to be the key component of women’s oppression. So, imperialism and a non-feminist national liberation movement, for example, are not the same to me. I denounce the first as an implacable enemy, and I criticize the latter as a comrade concerned with a healthy resolution of what is today called “the contradictions within the people”. My anti-imperialist vigilance, therefore, recommends me to crush the snake that has entered the house. Thus, I consider it my duty to point the finger at the feudal lord painted in red or in the colours of the national flag. Some are surprised at my ferocity against false Marxists. This is because they are much more dangerous than the fake anti-imperialists, of course! More than anyone else have they perverted the famous tactics/strategy dialectic in order to justify the filthiest things. I remember a Lebanese “communist” academic that justified honour killings as follows: “If I don’t kill my dishonoured sister, I won’t be able to do mass work in my village...” And the list is long.

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For me, a feminist attitude follows naturally from a sympathy for the cause of the oppressed in general, and that is why it’s inconceivable for me to be anti-imperialist — not to mention Marxist — without being feminist: a fine barometer to test someone’s solidarity and political sincerity. Because as soon as people start compromising on this crucial issue, you may rightfully wonder where political opportunism will stop. And I do mean “crucial issue”. How can one still doubt this when it concerns half of society? Is it really only half of society? Is a purely female misfortune possible? For those who believe in the watertightness of female oppression, it suffices to recall that women are not only biological multipliers. Their misery negatively affects husbands and sons, not to mention daughters... Is it the right time to raise this debate when napalm is raining down around the world? some would argue. Yes, a thousand times yes. Because it also implies the obligation to liberate the internal colonies: women and children, among others.[4] On what grounds should internal colonies accept a double standard? But it’s impossible to fight on all fronts at once! There are priorities, the red-draped feudal lords respond in unison, pretending to represent Marxism. Yet a man like Lenin even denied the status of democrat to anyone who wasn’t strongly committed to women’s liberation. He went even so far as to say that a true Bolshevik can be recognized by his position on women and ethnic minorities. Before him, Engels also said that women’s liberation is the barometer of a society. I was delighted to see last year that more and more Arab women dared to dream aloud of becoming filmmakers. Some of them are already in film schools... What will happen? Will the horde of disheveled feminists I dream of, burst into Arab cinema? Or will there be just a few careerists representing women with the same misogynistic imagery as men in order to be accepted by their system? I will not forget the shock I experienced when I saw The Girls by Mai Zetterling. Her mastery of cinema language and her talent are infinitely more remarkable than those of Liliana Cavanni. But the first is clearly feminist whereas the second isn’t. That’s probably the reason why Mai Zetterling wasn’t fairly valued whereas Cavanni’s Night Porter had everything to conquer the misogynists, the conservatives and the sadistic sexists. What will the Arab World produce? The Liliana Cavannis or the Mai Zetterlings? Will there be many female directors in the first place? Would they be able to overcome the obstacles inherent to their dual status of Third-World filmmaker and woman filmmaker? Looking back in disbelief, I often say to myself: “I had a lucky escape. Long may it last...”

What would have happened, for example, if I had been born into a family a little less well-off than mine? I still remember the Lebanese communist worker I interviewed when I was a journalist. In her tiny house, I met, to my surprise, one of our university classmates. The boy’s room was full of expensive books of impressionist painting. His very gifted sister had had to interrupt her studies after primary school to pay for her less gifted brother’s university studies. It would only have taken some financial difficulties for me to be ruthlessly sacrificed for my younger brother’s future. What would have happened if I had been born, not in Beirut, but in the stifling atmosphere of the provincial cities? I often compare myself to this Lebanese woman writer who was born into a large provincial family and was terrorized from a distance by her older brother who had emigrated to a faraway Arab country. What would have happened if I had simply been born in a more misogynistic country than Lebanon? One day, at a European festival with many Arab filmmakers, I realized the kind of atmosphere a Syrian or Algerian woman of my social class would have grown up in. I was about to cross the hotel lounge one evening to have a drink at the bar when the spectacle before my eyes immobilized me at the threshold. In the large lounge, Arab men, only men, were talking quietly. They were sitting as Arabs sit when there are no women around, tenderly leaning against one another, in an intimacy that doesn’t tolerate the presence of women. “Arabs are political homosexuals,” a Cuban filmmaker once laughed. I will add — seriously — “and mental homosexuals”, because serious conversations always fall silent when a woman appears. The intruder is punished by an embarrassing silence followed by gently paternalistic compliments or compliments of dubious taste, it depends. If she continues by some misfortune to initiate a political discussion or a serious debate, she will be called a bluestocking or a pedant. A woman’s presence should bring only decoration and entertainment to these tired warriors. That evening, I returned to my room, dying for a drink but blessing the heavens that I was born in Lebanon. So, I was able, again by chance, to escape the terrible determinism hanging over the overwhelming majority of Arab women. On this island of relative diversity called Beirut, I was able to freely absorb the incredible mix of ideas taking place in the capital. And so, unlike most of my Arab sisters, I don’t owe my political or artistic convictions to an older brother, a father, a husband or a “boyfriend”. The obstacle of social conventions I encountered during my intellectual development are certainly enormous compared to Western women. But it is relatively minimal if I compare myself to the rest of the Arab women of my class. As for those who are from a less well-off class... they are quickly relegated to the margins of history.

Heiny Srour


But besides the fact that I was born in the right place, I was also born at the right time. My grandmother was illiterate and veiled. My mother had to stop studying after primary school even though she was gifted and had well-to-do parents. She married my father at the age of sixteen without knowing him. Her exquisite taste in fashion often makes me think that, if she had been born just a little later, she could have used her talent for something other than her dresses and cakes. She was just unlucky. My luck, on the other hand, continued. So, after three months of begging in vain, my father suddenly changed his mind and agreed to sign the authorization requested by the Lebanese authorities (the woman being a perpetual minor) to issue me a passport. And so, at the last moment, I was able to take advantage of a scholarship to study ethnology. Not film, because at the time no country granted film scholarships to women. Except for Czechoslovakia, if I remember correctly. But I was too afraid to go to a country where I didn’t know the language. This scholarship for a respectable PhD at the Sorbonne calmed the apprehension of my parents, who were terrified of letting me go alone to this den of iniquity that Paris is for Arab parents. (I was no less terrified I must say, at the idea of living alone.) And on the other hand, it allowed me to take cinema vérité lessons for two hours per week at the school founded by Jean Rouch at the Musée de l’Homme. The underfunding of the school meant that I couldn’t learn much there. But the illusion of learning something was more important. Quite fundamentally in that period of my life, my studies in France removed the danger of “forced” marriage. It’s true that such things don’t happen so often anymore in the capital. But like any woman with professional ambitions in a class society, especially in an Arab society soaked in a feudal mentality, the worst things happen when you are of marriageable age. How to resist the sometimes threatening social and family pressure when you haven’t even proved your talents to others or to yourself? One of my talented Tunisian colleagues once told me that he had received his training as a filmmaker in a club of amateur filmmakers in Tunisia. “There were no girls there?” I asked. “Yes, one of them showed a lot of promise. But she got married.” In Lebanon, too, I saw the most gifted and talented girls fall one after the other into the trap of a hastily decided marriage, “to get rid of the parents”. So, I was incredibly lucky to have “a room of my own”, to use Virginia Woolf ’s expression. During those Parisian years, I was able to think and reflect freely without paying too high a price for it. I was able to attend film festivals, watch a lot of films, which somehow compensated for the quasi non-existence of my film training, and build valuable contacts. I also had — and this was crucial for daring to film The Hour of Liberation — the opportunity to gradually chase away my


fears and terrors. For example, I hitchhiked to the Netherlands with a Lebanese girlfriend. In Beirut, I had never dared to explore a neighbourhood or even a street outside the field of home-school-university-cinema. Looking back at my personal history, I also realize that my successive political disappointments played a fundamental role in my choice of cinema as a means of expression. I could indeed have chosen painting or ballet, my two great old loves. Short-lived loves, given the contempt shown by my bourgeois milieu for this kind of thing that would lead to being “a cabaret dancer” — just like cinema, by the way — in the minds of my parents. Of course, cinema was the most complete means of expression, but I believe it was above all the most political. After the repression of my feminist demands during long years of political work, cinema was the only means at my disposal to shout what I wanted to say, without waiting for the political leaders to find it opportune or not. What a joy it is to freely decide on the subject of a film — a feminist revolution — without someone reminding you of “the main priority”. What a joy it is to decide, alone at the editing table, on the length of the women’s sequence without someone saying: “Comrade, this issue is not on the agenda.” The censor in question being most often one of those “Marxist” schizophrenics but “with a defect in women’s issues terms” who make up the majority of the leaders of the different left wing movements in our country. That said, you realize only later that the male police is, actually, still in your brain. I realized that I was only at the beginning of my internal decolonization when I saw Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin. To show the achievements of socialism, this Soviet director devoted half of the film to the liberation of women. Shot forty years later by a long-time feminist woman, The Hour of Liberation was awfully behind, comparatively. Less than a quarter of my film was devoted to the problem of women. I had only indirectly dealt with the need of socializing the education of children to ensure women’s liberation, through a long sequence on the liberation of childhood. In short, I realized that my film was feminist in relation to Arab cinema only, but very much behind what I could have done. I had allowed myself to be inhibited during the shoot by the all-male and misogynistic crew — although the Yemeni assistant was remarkably less misogynistic than the two Frenchmen. The bad mood in which the shots on women’s liberation were filmed — the exasperated sighs — hadn’t left me indifferent. When watching the rushes, I noticed in impotent rage that the military-training sequence had been sabotaged. Of the 300 recruits, 150 were women, and yet in the image only two of them were identifiable as such. The others, short-haired teenage girls, were lost among their male comrades in the wide shots. The French cameraman had simply

Heiny Srour

not done the close-ups and the medium shots that could have revealed that they were girls. I had suspected as much during the shoot, but I didn’t dare to insist, so electric was the atmosphere. This sequence could have been a shock for the Arab world. These recruits were destined to become leaders in the Militia and the People’s Army, and no one would ever know that half of them were women. During the editing, the most politically aware students of the Gulf-Yemen-Palestine Committee of Great Britain also found the women’s sequence too long and feared it would be understood as being directed against men. Their excessive sighing was ineffective, all the more so because the workers of the Yemeni Workers Union of Great Britain found it “perfectly fine”. But in retrospect, I notice that I carefully measured the attacks against men in this sequence: “We are oppressed by three sultans, the father, the husband and the tribal chief.” And the one where the women say they are determined to fight “to the last drop of blood” to ward off possible attacks. Politically, it was correct. And, above all, it was a reflection of reality to show that the women in the liberated areas based their hardline attitude on their situation of “double oppression”. But I blame myself for fearing to present men as enemies. This is often the case. It’s hard to know which one of the little voices deep inside us we should listen to the most. How to carry out my internal decolonization? The experience of the past years proves to me that, alas, it doesn’t depend on me only, but on a whole set of things. On what is called historical juncture. I remember a feminist group we founded thirteen years ago in Lebanon. It quickly died out because the best elements preferred to invest their energy into things considered more noble: working in a political party. I was the only one who voted against the dissolution of the group. Today, such groups are flourishing again in Lebanon. But during these thirteen years, I must admit that I felt extremely isolated and sometimes even doubted myself. Will the historical circumstances the Arab world is going through allow me and many others to carry out my internal decolonization? I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, I feel threatened. “After all the success of The Hour of the Liberation!” a young, budding filmmaker exclaimed indignantly. Yes, even after that. One day, for example, I was told that three Lebanese women writers had been attacked in the most petty way in a “progressive” Lebanese magazine by one of the literary — and “progressive” — celebrities of the Arab world, who used the following kind of arguments: one is divorced, the second is not a virgin and all three had to sleep with the editor. Women write books as they menstruate, etc. One of the leaders of the Lebanese Writers’ Union, a notoriously “progressive” man, scorned them: “Why do you women need to publish books?”

So how not to realize that it was the physical prowess of having walked 500 kilometres[5] on foot, under the threat of British napalm that silenced the many tongues ready to “debase” any woman who proves she has a brain? It would have been difficult for the red feudal lords to attack a woman who made the first film about a guerrilla surrounded by a conspiracy of silence. The thousands of dollars in donations the film collected proved her social usefulness. But while I feel incapable of making films that aren’t political, I demand the right for women to make books or films without any directly utilitarian justification and without having to pay for it with pettiness. Yes, I feel threatened. One day a Tunisian colleague told me that his father had become blinded by grief as a result of the short film he had shot. (His father was a religious man, and the film showed a sequence in which a German tourist was raped in a mosque.) But that didn’t prevent him from viewing his future confidently: where to go in order to become a better filmmaker? To the Centro Sperimentale in Rome or The National Film School in London? Self-effacing, shy, hypersensitive, this young man was, nevertheless, born from his mother’s womb sure of his genius, at least of his talent. As for me, such an event would have inhibited forever, or at least for a long time, any attempt to continue along this path. I realized that day that I would never stop doubting myself. I also realized that most of my energy was lost in a battle against myself, against inhibitions, against a lack of self-confidence, of which my male colleagues were spared. One day, I told a militant friend of mine about a very old project: a cinematographic and poetic anti-imperialist symphony, using poems I had just been reading to him. “Why don’t you? It’s a wonderful idea.” “Because it’s too ambitious.” “I prefer the brainless to the cowards,” I heard him reply. “If you’re 30% sure, take the plunge. We did the same when we started the revolution.” I do need more than 30% before taking the plunge. I’ve just received an Italian magazine in which a critic finds exemplary the fact of having prepared the expedition to Dhofar by two years of bibliographical research, and of having spent three months in the liberated areas. I’m sure he’s mistaking for revolutionary modesty what is ultimately the female fear of making a lousy film. He also praises — and I’m very grateful for that — the fact that I read X number of military and theoretical works on guerrilla warfare before I started editing. I’m sure he doesn’t suspect that the fear of hearing people call the film incoherent — because it was made by a woman — largely explains this revolutionary seriousness. Yes, I feel threatened. All around me, I see women writers, women painters and others on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I hear that such and such talented Arab poetess “looks

Heiny Srour


wrecked” by her situation as a woman. I see another woman writer in our country, unbalanced in her social behaviour to the point of being ridiculous and pitiful. As for me, I am considered self-confident, if not brazen. I wish... The fact remains that the shadow of May Ziadeh hangs over us all. This Lebanese woman writer, born in the past century, was full of talent. She ended up crazy...[6] She was born too early... Did I grow up too soon? Will there be others? “You’re fighting too many battles at once,” an Italian critic once told me with sadness. His head-shaking was a clear sign that this would end badly. Maybe. In the meantime, my only option is to try to carry on. What if one day there’s a general setback in the Arab world on the issue of women, as on all problems? What would happen? Will we return to the Middle Ages after having experienced a little freedom? Quite possibly. Nothing is ever acquired definitively. Because, on the other side of the barrier, losing privileges is inadmissible. I still remember that Iraqi woman who dreamily told me about her adolescence. That was in 1958, during the period of Abdel Karim Kassem, who witnessed the blossoming of a powerful communist party. The Iraqi women massively removed their veils under the impulse of the powerful Iraqi Women’s Friendship, a mass organization of the Iraqi Communist Party, the most militant party in the Arab world at the time. Under their pressure, Kassem issued the most daring and egalitarian laws in the Arab world to the benefit of women. The first ministerial post given to the Iraqi Communist Party went to a woman. The first woman minister in the Arab world. In the hierarchy of the powerful party, the women who had been veiled yesterday occupied very important positions. There was even a female theatre director, ten years before there was one in Lebanon. But what my interlocutor was evoking was, above all, the incredible atmosphere of freedom for women. In a small religious provincial town, her conservative family allowed a fifteen-year-old daughter to stand guard at night with men of the people’s militia. “Unbelievable! Unbelievable!” she repeated. Because, in today’s Iraq, that would be unthinkable. She paid particular attention to the gigantic demonstrations where thousands of women remained in the streets until midnight without ever being molested by men. This had been unthinkable before the overthrow of the monarchy, but it’s even more unthinkable today. Bourgeois and conventional today, this girl said herself that it was too good to be true. Indeed, in 1963, following a coup d’état, the Iraqi communists were savagely crushed by the Ba’athists. In the Arab world, a few voices were heard protesting against the rape and torture of dozens of female communist activists in Ba’athist prisons. Significantly fewer voices protested against the restoration of retrograde medieval laws against women — including the impunity for honour killings.


The Ba’athists are still ruling with the same reactionary laws. A young Iraqi writer, Abdel Sattar Nasser, summed up the situation of women in his country in an admirable short story; its publication cost him prison and torture (perhaps his life, as no one knows where he is): “We are a nation which has buried its women alive... and is waiting to die” (from Our Lord, the Caliph by Abdel Sattar Nasser). So, nothing is ever acquired definitively. Even if the Iraqi communists had seized power, there was the possibility of a setback for women as well as for the other oppressed — working class, national and religious minorities. But the opposite could have happened as well: permanent radicalization, a perpetual questioning aimed at uprooting the roots of class society. Who knows? Did complete setbacks happen? I don’t think so. Because, in this last example, the Ba’athists were unable to erase everything. Many things have remained: the access of women to the workplace and to university, for example. Nevertheless, I feel threatened, because I often judge things on a human-life scale and not on a human-history scale, which would be the more scientific approach to the problem. Because it’s undeniably so that the last two centuries of human history have seen definite progress in the situation of women and other oppressed, despite all the setbacks. Sometimes, I seem to feel a gravity rise from the depths of the ages throughout the world. In myself and in others, I notice a tendency to flee from new problems, to take refuge in churches or counter-churches, to rely on what has been achieved, to be complacent, to kneel before myths, to deliberately close eyes to injustice and stupidity. Yes, I feel threatened, because I know that the oppression of women was the first to appear in human history. Therefore, it is the most deeply rooted. Among the people it is often said that imperialism has gone out the door and come back in through the window. This applies to all the oppressed... to women too.

Originally published as ‘Femme, Arabe et... cinéaste’ in the book Paroles... elles tournent! by the collective Des femmes de Musidora (Paris: Éditions des femmes, 1976). Translated by Sis Matthé

Heiny Srour

[4] Practical consequence: When you’re faced with a politically advanced Arab film that everyone classifies as “Marxist”, and that film at the same time presents a feudal vision of women, it’s a matter of principle — not to mention of honesty — that it be called progressively feudal. To call it “Marxist with defects” would be a demonstration of political opportunism.

In short, my problem is that of all women subjected to the necessities of historical emergencies. In addition, more than anywhere else, men are the masters of the realm of cinema. So they decide on Marxist or simply anti-imperialist political standards. Troublemakers like me, who criticize progressive feudalism, are quickly neutralized and reduced to political isolation and inefficiency.

“If you judge them according to Engels’s criteria, there won’t even be five Marxists left in our country,” an important female leader of one of the most radical movements of the Arab left once told me, when talking about male leaders.

You need to know that this is the case with most Arab political films, although no one in the film industry notes the “defects” concerning women. If an Arab political film demonstrated racism against blacks, for example, it would immediately lose its progressive qualification. One cannot be Marxist and racist, they will say indignantly. But they easily admit that one can be both Marxist and racist toward half the human race.

In this charming atmosphere of anti-feminist moral terrorism, I once ventured into pointing out to one of my Arab colleagues the feudal vision of women permeating his film. Said colleague had kept on giving sensational, anti-revisionist statements to the press. An attack on Soviet social imperialism, a revolutionary ardour... Nothing was missing, yet it was visibly impossible for him to “swallow” or even understand such a remark. A silent animosity ensued. Another day, after a meeting with discussions about promoting anti-imperialist Arab cinema and the fight against Euro-American cultural imperialism, I incidentally spoke of the conservative and misogynist vision of so-called progressive Arab cinema.

Do you know what happened? I was the one who got neutralized. Despite my competence — and the ignorance of many of my colleagues — with regard to issues of distribution, I was no longer invited to these meetings. That’s what happens to naughty little girls.

I have very often found myself totally isolated politically for having — oh so diplomatically — criticized my colleagues on this issue. I never dared — call me a coward if you will — never dared to pronounce the word “progressive feudalism” to those who loudly wave the red flag in Arab cinema. That would be turning my most active colleagues into deadly enemies. The problem is that I want to bring together as many filmmakers as possible in a united front against Hollywood and its derivatives in the Arab world. Our battle against Euro-American cultural imperialism is already a very unequal fight.

My isolation is somehow much worse in “progressive” Arab cinema than it used to be in left-wing parties. Unlike this female leader and precisely because of the servitude to distribution and production problems, I would not be in permanent contact with the underprivileged. For, surprisingly, they are the most progressive on women’s issues as soon as the hope of social change appears on the horizon. I could only sporadically get into contact with men like those from the liberated areas of Dhofar, who in just a few years were able to change so radically their vision of women inherited from centuries of misogynistic tribalism. Only occasionally, at least if I want to continue making films, could I come into contact with men like those Yemeni workers who so easily accepted the existence of a woman filmmaker. They even went as far as to give part of their salaries to help complete the film. Yet their feudal upbringing had predisposed them to a much less cooperative attitude than the “Marxist” academics I kept coming up against. The problem is that the underprivileged are almost never the decision-makers. The leaders of political movements almost always come from the petty bourgeoisie or the bourgeoisie. These men lose all their class privileges during the Revolution and then cling to their privileges over women. The underprivileged, on the other hand, would gain a lot from any change and readily lose their privileges over women because the Revolution has much to offer them.

The progressive Arab filmmakers will, no doubt, come from the wealthy classes for quite some time, and they will continue to have the defects of their privileged class.

And so, I find myself condemned to this ultra-minority situation for the rest of my life... Unless...

[1] This is a reference to Algeria. [2] This is a reference to Lebanon. [3] This is a reference to Egypt.

Let us add that between the desire of most Arab regimes to stifle all that is alive, creative and progressive, and the narrowly utilitarian interest displayed to us by most liberation movements or left-wing parties, our leeway as filmmakers is more than narrow. The wave of talent burgeoning after the June war is in danger of crashing or ending in sporadic individual attempts. And that’s without mentioning the huge problem of the distribution of Arab political films.

[5] In fact, we walked 800 kilometres to shoot the film. See page 84. [6] After researching a film project on May Ziadeh, I need to correct this information. At the summit of her glory, she experienced  — understandably — a depression after the loss of both her parents. She was locked in a mental hospital and brutalized by the nurses, though certified totally sane by a French doctor. She finally came out, sane, but broken. Her life is emblematic of the fragile status of women artists in the Arab World of the time. (Heiny Srour, 2020)

Heiny Srour



Heiny Srour

Heiny Srour


The Hour of Liberation (1974)

“I hope and pray for a massive influx of women into all fields of the film industry” Interview by Magda Wassef, 1978 Certainly, The Hour of Liberation has arrived. But what kind of liberation is it? Heiny Srour not only understands it in the political sense of the term, but in a more absolute sense. The liberation of Arab women is at the heart of this film, which has, unfortunately, hardly been screened in our countries. The difficulties encountered during and after the shoot of the film need to be addressed. They give you an idea of what a woman has to face when she decides not to give in and to push her project to the limit... First some dates. The idea of making this film came to me in 1969 after meeting representatives of the Omani Front in Beirut. At the time, there was a conspiracy of silence surrounding this revolution. Palestine was in fashion, but Oman hardly existed for the rest of the Arab world. That’s what got me, a Lebanese woman, enthusiastic about this revolution. So I started the productional battle, and I was only able to do it because I was on a scholarship in Paris where I was preparing a PhD at the Sorbonne.


The subject didn’t seem to interest producers, and my lack of film experience and my age didn’t encourage them to trust me either. This lasted for two years. Eventually, I was able to find a producer: German television. Other difficulties arose when I started filming. First of all, the context in which the shoot took place: it’s a very hard country, without roads, etc. To make the film, we basically had to walk almost 500 km on foot and go underground for three months. It was quite an ordeal physically. I had an experienced cameraman and French sound engineer, but my relationship with them was pretty tense, unlike my relationship with the Yemeni assistant. They wanted to interfere with the production from a May 68 perspective. But I felt that they had no right to do so because they didn’t know the region, the language or the people. They were much more interested in military issues, whereas I was focused on human and social change, especially with regard to women and children. And some of the sequences, especially the one about the liberation of women, were sabotaged — consciously or unconsciously, I don’t know...

Heiny Srour

Nevertheless, the technical team was heroic because they risked their lives and filmed one month longer than the contract stipulated. And they still haven’t been paid... This experience made me realize how important it is for a woman to master the technique of filmmaking. I don’t think this problem would have arisen in the same way with a crew of only women... The attitude of the fighters was different. They were more supportive of me as a woman/filmmaker. The nomads freed themselves more easily from their retrograde ideas about women than the progressive European intellectuals did from their bourgeois culture... The distribution of the film in Europe went very well. The film was offered an enormous amount of opportunities. With a few exceptions — such as the Algerian Cinematheque — it didn’t get distributed in the Arab world, although that had been the intention... This was caused by the lack of an organized mass movement in the Arab world. The cinephiles did very little to support the film (again, with a few exceptions). I think the conditions in the Arab world aren’t yet ripe for militant cinema, because militant cinema is based on a militant movement, and that doesn’t exist at the moment. How can we encourage women’s self-expression in Arab cinema?

The fact that these women filmmakers are Lebanese is due to the fact that Lebanon is at the heart of the Arab contradictions at the moment, and this situation has made it easier for these women to escape their traditional role. There’s another reason, namely the fact that, before the war, the Lebanese society that raised us was less unfavourable to women than other Arab societies. Plus, the situation of bourgeois women in our country is more favourable. You are currently preparing a new film. Could you tell us about it? The film will be a mix of fiction and documentary. It’s a big project, and I’m going to come up against the producers’ mistrust of women filmmakers once again. As for the theme of the film, I prefer not to go into details at the moment. All I can say is that the Arab woman is the main subject of the film...

Originally published without title in CinemArabe, 10/11 (August/November 1978). Translated by Sis Matthé

For my part, I hope and pray for a massive influx of women into all fields of the film industry: production, direction, technical support, etc. On the one hand because Arab women have been silent for a very long time, so they have a lot to say about themselves, things that men have never said about them. I think the first results of women entering cinema are very encouraging. Cinema has been in the hands of men for almost sixty years, and 90% of this masculine production is a disaster. On the other hand, since women got hold of the camera, none of them have produced any mass entertainment or reactionary films... The number of films shot by women in dangerous military conditions is considerable in relation to the number of films in the cinema... But the rather limited number of women filmmakers makes each of them feel isolated, which makes them more vulnerable. There are at least three Lebanese women filmmakers, but all three live abroad. How do you explain that...? It’s very difficult for any filmmaker to make a living in our countries at the moment; and since they don’t trust women, their situation is twice as difficult.

Heiny Srour


Leila and the Wolves (1984)

Before the Wolves John Akomfrah, 1983 “I am lucky. Arab women, who in the past wanted to create, ended up in a mental hospital. Just one generation ago I would have been denied self-expression.” Heiny Srour sits in the tea room of a plush London hotel. It’s a suitable setting for celebration. She’s just returned from a bout of festivals at which her film Leila and the Wolves has often been rapturously received. The film had already collected five major international awards, including the Grand Prix at Mannheim; Heiny Srour is to be special guest at a major African festival on the Ivory Coast; she is to appear at a symposium to be held in London at the Institute of Education on “Third World Images”. For now, however, the only thing that matters to the director is the position of Arab women in the Middle East: “I am very aware that I have been saved from the fate of an ancestral silence, from an imposed femininity and from men who are themselves victims of their manhood.” Leila and the Wolves is the story of the collapse of Lebanon, told against the background of sectarian violence. Its focus is on an hitherto marginalised voice in the theatre of war: it’s a film which questions the gospel of the gun; its images flowing in search of woman’s political and historical identity in the Middle East. Leila has not been an easy film to make. Scenarios of civil war and sectarian violence very rarely allow feminist voices


to rise above the debris of mayhem and mistrust. Staying alive is difficult enough. Money for the film was raised in Britain, Belgium, Holland and Lebanon. Filming had to stop twice due to lack of funds; continual disputes with the British Film Institute took their toll and legal wranglings with Dutch bankers almost stopped production entirely. Throughout all this were the endless meeting to argue for the film’s relevance: “Why should we give British taxpayers’ money to an Arab filmmaker?”, Heiny was once asked at the BFI Production Board meeting. For Leila Heiny Srour relies on traditions of style and observation more common in Middle Eastern art and Arabian epics. Leila weaves a rich tableau of history, folklore, myth and archive material. “Those of us from the third world have to reject the ideas of film narration based on the 19th-century bourgeois novels with its commitment to harmony. Our societies have been too lacerated and fractured by colonial power to fit into those neat scenarios. We have enormous gaps in our societies and film has to recognise this.” Throughout the film an Arab woman wanders through real and imaginary landscapes of Lebanon and Palestine encountering hidden histories of struggle; unearthing voices from the peripheries of Middle-Eastern politics; uncovering submerged yearnings and testaments of Arab women’s resilience. In her wanderings she returns over and over again to

Heiny Srour

Lebanon, the “jewel in the crown” of French colonial twilight states, a country in which crimes of honour took the lives of two women a week during the ’70s. Yet, Leila is not an anthropological journey but a survey of mythic and symbolic protest. Through her “eye” comes a search for political character in a Lebanon now permanently stained by the massacre of Sabra and Chatila; caught in the throes of bitter civil war; Israel’s “backyard”. Leila prods these moments of loss and discovers ghosts of a very different life before the wolves. Lebanon follows Biafra, Cyprus and Northern Ireland in a long line of “problem” countries in the mainstream media vocabulary. But Leila questions this scenario by asking us to look more closely at the participants in the dances of death, to discover other motives for this disorder. Its slow pace may irritate a number of cinemagoers. It is a cumbersome structure which

doesn’t make for easy viewing and Heiny Srour’s sequence of events might be confusing for audiences not overly familiar with the four main decades under her scrutiny. But it’s a film which returns to scenes to constantly enrich them and you’re unlikely to hear a more articulate voice of Arab feminism this year. They certainly don’t grow on trees in England.

Originally published in City Limits (October 1983).

Heiny Srour


The Other Half Interview by Manny Shirazi, 1985 How did you become a filmmaker? As a child I was not allowed to dance, to play the piano or even to draw. I was sent to a French school, which punished me if I spoke Arabic, but I didn’t want to express myself in the coloniser’s language. Lebanon is a merchant society, a sectarian society. I was born in a Jewish community. Jews in Lebanon, being a minority without parliamentary representation, are obsessed with respectability. Being an artist wasn’t respectable. The model was Einstein. But my parents themselves unconsciously were good artists. My mother’s drawings are great, she dresses very elegantly, and has fantastic taste. My father is one of the best singers in the Jewish community, he would feel insulted if he was told he was a great artist. My grandfather was a great dancer and a singer. A family of invisible artists. Yes, and despite themselves, they helped me. Without that cultural background, I would not have been able to create those marriage scenes, songs and dances in the film. How did that sectarian society hinder you as an artist? I almost conformed and nearly became a chemist, but my teacher told me “Be a good artist, and not a bad chemist”. At the age of 18 in 1963, two films that were turning points for me were Fellini’s 8½ and Cléo de 5 à 7 by a French woman, Agnès Varda. I told myself then that painting is not a big loss, dancing is not a loss, writing is not a loss: it is filmmaking that I must do. I felt cinema was the language that I wanted to express myself with. I could understand that the cinema was the most powerful means, the most complete and the most total to express what you want. When I saw the Fellini film, I thought, “I am a woman, I can never be a filmmaker”. But when I saw the film by Agnès, first I thought, “I can make it”. Then I saw that Agnès was a European woman, I was an Arab woman, and there was no chance in hell that I could make it. Lack of models made me feel depressed too. Now I have two films behind me…


You see, Arab women historically have been silent; they haven’t expressed themselves. At that age, what encouraged me was the appearance in Lebanon of women writers, saying “I’m a woman”. For instance, Leila Balbaki wrote the book I Live in 1958 — it was like a shock to Lebanese society. For the first time, a woman was saying out loud, “I want to live my full life”, and she explains the obstacles in her love for an Iraqi communist. But film is a very exclusive and visual medium, and you’re talking about Arab women being silenced throughout history. How can you break that with films? Another example is May Ziadeh, a woman who expressed herself: I think it was in the 1920s. She was quite a gifted woman, and she ended up mad, and I find it very significant. The same happened in Iran to a woman writer. Examples like May Ziadeh show you the power of patriarchal fascism that hasn’t been challenged for something like seven thousand years, and it is so totalitarian that any woman who challenges it gets crushed. I’m so happy that I developed and started working at the time when the women’s movement started to develop and gain strength. Because that would have been my fate, being sent to a mental hospital. Until now, my father has never recognised that his daughter is a filmmaker, and you know I just received a letter from my mother in Australia telling me that “I hope that now you can behave and think of finding yourself another job”. But you have to know that in the Arab world, the moral terror and the pressure on women is terrible. In the Carthage film festival (in Tunisia), my film was very well received, and I was really surprised because, before, an Algerian filmmaker, Assia Djebar, who is a very famous writer in Algeria, made a beautiful film about Algerian women called The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua, and she was abused and insulted in a most horrible way.

Heiny Srour

When did you think of making the film?

Is your film going to be shown in Africa? I hope so because it’s very much liked by Africans. Shall we go back to Leila and the Wolves? Why did you want to show Arab history, women’s struggle through Arab history, and through Palestinian women? And through Lebanese women, because part of the film is on Lebanon. Because I was born in Lebanon, where you have half a million Palestinians out of a population of about three million. During very crucial years of my life, I witnessed the development of the Arab/Israeli conflict and the war of June, the rise of the Palestinian resistance, and all Lebanon being split right through the middle about supporting or not supporting the Palestinians until the civil war broke out. So I mean the Palestinian presence at that time on Lebanese soil was a very big issue and I would say even in the Arab world, the Palestinian woman, the token Palestinian women, were made a cause celebre like Leila Khaled… These token women are used by political parties, institutions and states to hide the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of the women. These women are made to be symbols to compensate the reality. I respect them. They are brave, but I’m saying that these women are being used. My film is precisely about silent unglamorous sacrifices of the women in Lebanon. I mean, during the civil war, each militia had its token woman. Incidentally, the Phalangists had more token women than the rest of them. If sectarianism is guiding the gun, women had better not use the gun. In the Palestinian part, it is a just war. Women should participate, but at this moment we’re not getting anything out of it. In the Lebanese part of the film I am saying that it is an absurd war; it is a power struggle between the Christian Maronites and Muslims, and women make enormous personal sacrifices. The Western-made image of Lebanon under the Christian rule was that is the only democratic country in the Middle East, The Land of Light, and The Eastern Swiss. Let me tell you about this democratic land, the same Islamic rules that have governed Saudi Arabia have governed Lebanon. The honour killing of women continues at the rate of two women being killed by their male relations in a week (these are only the recorded statistics) in a country of only 1½ million women, and the killers go free. But there is a law that if the same man kills his neighbour’s dog, he will be imprisoned for three months.

Ideas came to me very early on. Since I was a kid, I heard my mother say, I am the only servant who is not paid and doesn’t have holidays, and she was from the upper classes, and had two servants to serve her. Such things were brewing in my head. How long did it take you to make the film? It took me six years of my life, from scriptwriting, fundraising, shooting and completing and doing nothing else. It finished in the summer and was then shown at the Edinburgh Festival. Why did you have to include different historical periods? Firstly, why shouldn’t women be ambitious? Because men only want women to exclusively deal with women’s issues like home, family and so on, they want to ghettoize us. I resent this. We should deal with the public affairs and political issues too. I brought in the History of Palestine since the Balfour Declaration in 1917 up to the massacre of the Deir Yassin in 1948 which was the turning point for Palestinians. As for the Lebanese part, I chose the Civil War. This enabled me to select examples, samples of history which show women; the spontaneous uprising of a town in Palestine in the 1920s; women in armed struggle in the countryside in Palestine in 1936-39; women in a massacre in Deir Yassin; women in the civil war in Lebanon. The pattern of women’s lives in all the above situations are nearly the same. And in all these situations, if women don’t bargain for themselves from the beginning, they will be the ultimate losers, like in the French revolution, Russian revolution, Iranian revolution. How do you feel as an anti-Israeli Jewish artist meeting other pro-Israeli Jewish artists like Chantal Akerman? Do you feel an outsider even among the women filmmakers? When I saw her at the Thessaloniki festival ten years ago, she was speaking in defence of Israel, saying no matter what Israel must exist. Perhaps she has changed now. I heard that she didn’t like the Sabra and Chatila massacre, thank God. But I haven’t spoken to her since. I like some of her films, especially their forms. Je, tu, il, elle, I think is her best.

Heiny Srour


I loved that film too, especially the last 10 minutes of it. But she doesn’t go far. I want women to invade men’s empire, their political, economical basis, not like Indira Ghandi or Golda Meir, but to change men’s laws, change the game of politics, and say to hell with your rules, games, we want to set different rules, and play different games. I want my films to express this intervention. How has your film been received by the Jewish community? I am a freak in the Jewish community. I think all the Jewish thinkers and artists became so when they make a decision to leave the Jewish community. Because the community is warm and supportive but stifling and self-destroying. What is the difference for women? There is a tradition of Jewish radicals being expelled from the community which I benefited from, but most of all I benefited from the cosmopolitan life in Beirut which before the Civil War was culturally and politically very fertile and exciting. And being Jewish was a hindrance because your family didn’t want you to mix with the gentile in case you married them. Once, after my first film, I was being interviewed by a journalist, a gentile, in a café, one of my relations saw me, if a look could kill or assassinate, I would have been dead…

Did you see a few articles in oob (off our backs, an American feminist periodical) last year on the oppression of Jewish community in the Arab countries? Can you tell us how Jewish women are specifically oppressed in Arab countries? I don’t like the trend of thought among the Zionists that your Jewishness is your first identity. I feel I am first a woman, then an Arab, Lebanese and Jewish. I fight viciously against anti-Semitism and all types of racism. I hate Zionism and what Israel has done to the Jews as well as the Palestinians. I don’t think Jewish women in Lebanon are more oppressed than Arab women. I don’t think this is true of any Arab country that I know of. The Jews in the Arab world have suffered less than any other minorities, the Druze were butchered, Christians, Armenians and Kurds were massacred. And this is not because Arabs love Jews but because Jewish communities were smaller and they didn’t join the power struggle. At the time of my grandmother the Jews allied themselves with the Druze which were strong at the time, they sided with the Christian Maronite rulers and it will change, the rising power is now Islam and they will side with them. Also what the Arab Nationalists say about Jews and Arabs living together alright is wrong. I admit that the creation of Israel has damaged the harmonious relationship between the Jews and Arabs and Iraq is well-known case. I am at odds with Western feminists because I am prepared to understand their special condition in their society, but they are rarely prepared to meet me halfway to understand my special condition in my society and my right to struggle for women’s liberation in my society the way I want to.

Originally published in Spare Rib, 152 (March 1985).


Heiny Srour

Financial Times, 11 May, 1987

Heiny Srour


Between Three Stools Heiny Srour, 1998 I experienced the first day of the Lebanese Civil War in a very symbolic way: I was driven out of my family home by my father, after he had humiliated me to the core in the presence of a colleague who had regarded me as a heroine for having made the film The Hour of Liberation among the freedom fighters in Dhofar. To be precise, I left the house after my father had humiliated this colleague in my own bedroom and thrown him out of the premises. As a sign of protest, I left with him rather than submit to what had been more than just a slap in the face for me — I, who considered myself an intelligent being after having returned in glory from Cannes, Paris, and New York. What sin had I committed in my bedroom with this colleague? I had gone into the room to fetch a poem by Muddaffar Al Nawwab, which I had wanted to show him. My colleague — the Algerian film director Abdelaziz Tolbi, who was visiting Beirut — had innocently followed me in, and we had lost ourselves in our poetic-philosophical discussions while the rest of the household dozed off into a well-deserved siesta after a long Middle-Eastern lunch. “Sayakuna kharab! Sayakuna kharab! Hadhihi al-umma, la budda laha an ta’khudha darsan bil takhrib” (“There will be destruction! There will be destruction! This Arab nation must learn a lesson in self-destruction!”), I recited fervently. It was the end of Al Nawwab’s poem. Exalted, Tolbi lapped up my words. ln them, he had found the creative answer for which he had been searching in connection with the fiction film he had been dreaming up. Dazzled by Al Nawwab’s prophetic poem, neither of us knew that my father wasn’t asleep. That he was spying on our noises. That he was wondering what this goy (the word used by the Jews to designate non-Jews) was doing in his daughter’s bedroom. And that he was saying to himself: “It’s one thing to let a goy into the house — I couldn’t deny this to my daughter, whom I haven’t seen for three years. She assured me that he was married and the father of four children. Furthermore, while we were eating lunch, the whole family could keep an eye on him. But this goy had the audacity to stick around after dessert and coffee; to linger in the living room all afternoon, alone with my daughter, without anyone to supervise them, apart from the kitchen maid! And now he dares to enter her bedroom! That is crossing the lines...” Sayakuna kharab... Sayakuna kharab... I couldn’t have put it better myself...


We were soaring high in the rarefied atmosphere of aesthetics and Marxism when my father, still in his pyjamas, burst into my room. Fuming with rage, he insulted my colleague and threw him out, in the most humiliating manner possible. Poor Tolbi was flabbergasted. He had believed himself to be in the home of a guerrilla filmmaker, of whom he had read in the press that she had walked 400 kilometres [1] amid falling bombs to film the most radical guerrilla warfare of the Arab world. Something no man had dared to do... And now, before he could even register what was happening, he had been thrown out of this supposedly modern house. “Ya ard, insha’i w-ibla’ini!” (“O Earth, open up and swallow me!”) Alas, the earth did not grant me my wish. Beside myself with shame and humiliation, I found myself in the street alongside Tolbi. When he had recovered his breath, my poor colleague stammered: “Your milieu isn’t even feudal; it’s tribal.” I had been hoping to repay his kindness as he warmly welcomed me when I was his guest in Algeria! I had landed myself in a fine mess. But this was not the last time I would be torn between the harsh pressures and stimulating atmosphere of my peers — among whom I surpassed myself and gave off my best — and my family environment, which was light years away from my public life. It was a warm family, admittedly, but within it... “I suffocate in the Malay community,” my cousin from Singapore told me. This cousin, who belongs to my Muslim extended family, is also an artist, and like me she suffocates within the narrow confines of her religious community. I have often asked myself whether her feelings of suffocation have to do with her being a woman or an artist. Like me, she married outside of her social milieu. But let us go back to our Beiruti subject of the Civil War. So Tolbi and I found ourselves in the street, still stunned and incredulous over the resounding slap in the face that my father had dealt to our avant-gardism and universalism. We had believed that we had wiped our slate clean of old-fashioned religious things, of such backward traditions, of the old patriarchal order we blamed on imperialism and Arab regimes. And bang! We had barely taken a few steps down the street when we received a second slap... or rather a truncheon-blow, in this case! Bullets started to whiz by. They were the very first shots of the Civil War, and this made them terrifying. In Dhofar,

Heiny Srour

among the guerrillas, I had grown somewhat accustomed to that — although not before literally shitting my pants the first time the British Royal Air Force bombarded an area close to us, and not before my sound engineer had dubbed me a “crap director” because I compulsively screamed “Ya mami!” (“Mama!”) every time I heard small arms fire at close range, thereby ruining his wonderful sound recordings. Of course, I had carefully hidden all this from the press, from Tolbi, and the rest of my colleagues, for fear of being rejected — I, who was the first woman director from the Middle East to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival. I was much too afraid of hearing “Look what happens when a woman tries to make a film. And in guerrilla warfare, of all places! We told you so.” But in Dhofar, with the military escorts, the desert, the rocks, the armed women and children, the shooting formed part of the soundtrack of life. In Beirut, the bullets that were flying amid the Lebanese dolce vita were all the more harrowing. The confessionalism that we had so ridiculed would show us that it didn’t give a damn about our intellectual contempt for it. We had ignored it? It was going to show us it was alive and kicking. We had been guilty of using moral terrorism against the “scumbags” who adopted it? They would pay us back by terrorizing us in a much more physical manner over the next seventeen years. I should have suspected the presence of this confessionalism, since I spoke Arabic with two different accents, like most Lebanese: one in my family and regional environment (Lebanese Jews speak with an accent close to the Syrian accent) and another in the cafés of Hamra and in cultural circles (a kind of standardized journalistic Arabic whose slight classism masked religious or regional particularities, “the poisoned heritage of the Ottoman Empire”, as we liked to say). The house of the friend where I had planned to seek refuge for myself and Tolbi was still quite far away. To hell with the bullets! Returning home was out of the question. The patriarchal, imperialist, capitalist order was one and the same, was it not? Avanti Popolo! “Al mawt, wa la-l-mazalati” (“Death rather than a life of humiliations”), chanted at that time the fedayeen, whom we supported with such fervour. I was determined to prove to my father that I was an intelligent being and not an eternal minor, the status in which his Judaism, institutionalized through Lebanese laws, had confined me. We arrived safe and sound at my friend’s house, and in the course of our ensuing discussion Tolbi discovered that even though I spoke classical, journalistic Arabic fluently, when it came to reading, I was only semiliterate in Arabic — thanks to my French school education. “And I had thought that it was out of the depth of reflection that Heiny had spent hours poring over the document produced for the congress of documentary filmmakers!” Ah, this conditioning power of the press! O dear! Yet another indignity!

Well, they wouldn’t be the last of my career. I continued to cross borders. Every time professional success made me fly high above the weight of tradition, the long arm of my family brought me crashing back down to planet Earth, where the laws of gravity are merciless to an Oriental woman, particularly if she happens to be Jewish in an Arab world showered with bombs thrown in the name of Judaism. So, after I was awarded 400,000 francs as Grand Prix for the Best Scenario of the French-speaking world — I who never went to film school –, I had my suitcase opened and searched in my absence by a member of my family, in the best tradition of the Spanish Inquisition. I’m exaggerating: I wasn’t burned at the stake, as were tens of thousands of Jews at the hands of Torquemada. But I was thrown out of my own sister’s house, so scandalous did family censorship find my screenplay. Not to mention the public pogrom-like lynching my family subjected me to after my film on Vietnam (Rising Above: Women of Vietnam, 1995). And so on... I shot half of Leila and the Wolves in Syria, thanks in part to the active solidarity of my Syrian colleagues, who begged me to hide the fact that I was Jewish. As a child, I had grown up with the notion of the “Chosen People”. As an adolescent, I had earned a very physical slap in the face from a Hebrew teacher at the French Jewish School in Beirut for having dared to state that this Jewish God was unfair to non-Jews. So it was asking me too much to conceal my Jewishness as if it were a venereal disease. I bowed, nevertheless. My Syrian colleagues already had a lot of troubles with their government themselves, and I didn’t want to add to their problems. In Lebanon as much as in Syria or anywhere else in the Arab world, as soon as I leave the milieu of my tiny left-wing circle, my Jewishness casts a chill, a wave of unease, or worse upon any gathering of people. And I don’t always know what to do, because I cannot identify with this religion, in which the fairest of the fair, the wisest of the wise, King Salomon, kept a harem of a thousand women (700 princesses and 300 concubines, according to the Bible). And the only thing which attracts the wrath of this Lord so righteous and so good is that some of the women are pagan and that Solomon built temples dedicated to their idols, an intolerable offence to a monolithic system of monotheism. After all my crusades — anti-patriarchal, anti-clerical, antidespotic, anti-anti-anti... — both globally and in my family, I recently surprised myself by painting and repainting the Star of David on the mortuary lanterns dedicated to my late father. The Star of David? I had gotten to the point where I found the sight of it on television unbearable, so great was the swath of death and misery that the tanks and airplanes emblazoned with this symbol had spread over the course of the Israeli wars. I had gotten to the point where I sometimes felt ashamed of my Jewish origins.

Heiny Srour


As a child, I had loved this star when it was explained to me that it was composed of two perfect geometrical figures — isosceles triangles. One pointing upward and the other downwards to signify the equilibrium between the spiritual and the temporal. A Lebanese friend, who is fond of macrobiotic cooking and Buddhism, told me that this Star of David “is the universal symbol of Tao, and of Yin and Yang, throughout the whole Orient”. Jewish tradition dictates that prayers of consolation that are specific to the period in which the person died, be read to relatives of the deceased. And so it is that Isaiah is read to me in an annual ritual; indeed, it will be read to me in a few days to console me over the death of my father. These prayers begin quite symbolically by thanking the Lord for having sent good prophets to the Jews, as there are also false ones. According to the Bible, Isaiah was one of the good prophets. What does Isaiah say in addressing himself to the children of Israel when the Eternal speaks through his mouth? “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that deal corruptly!” (Isaiah 1:4) And later on, “Every head is sick and every heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is no soundness in it...” (Isaiah 1:5-6) And: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense of abomination they are to me. As for new moon and Sabbath and the calling of assemblies, I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn meeting... Even when you make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Seek justice, relieve the oppressed; defend the orphans, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1317). This is how my father speaks to me, beyond his death; he who was a passionate supporter of Menachem Begin. “Human beings have so many hidden treasures.” That’s what my macrobiotic friend tells me, who is always there to show me the unsuspected beauties of Life. And that is not all. For Isaiah continues: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isaiah 2:3-4) Wasn’t this what had attracted me to Marxism, this hope that wars would disappear with the end of capitalism? This love of peace and justice is another hidden treasure left to me by my father; he who tore up the Marxist books that I read surreptitiously, by the light of a torch, beneath the covers of my bed.


I burdened my male colleagues with sarcastic remarks about their representation of women. “Arab filmmakers clearly have problems with their mothers,” I wickedly wrote. And when I found the courage to look at myself in the mirror, I saw a woman filmmaker who had just as many problems with her father. For from Dhofar to Vietnam, passing by Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt, I always found myself siding with the David of the moment against the Goliath of circumstance. For even in the Bible, the lovely little shepherd boy who brilliantly defeats the iron-clad monster, armed solely with his faith and his slingshot, abuses his power when he becomes king... And is sharply reprimanded by his Lord, “as the Eternal is always on the side of the oppressed”. My father, a man of good, did indeed pass this on to me. He who suffered as many discriminations as any Jew could expect to encounter in Lebanese society. He who had so discriminated against me, this female child he hadn’t wanted and had so hoped would replace the male child that had died before my birth. For him, it was a discrimination by divine order, inflicted with all the good faith that his Bible gave him and the object of so much suffering for me, in my private and professional life. So, I reinvented my Star of David. All this to explain why I have compulsively found myself making films that are so much more difficult to make than those of my male colleagues. London, 16 October 1998

‘Assise entre trois chaises’ was written in September 1998 for an unpublished book on Lebanese cinema. Please note that the mistranslation published by Rebecca Hillauer (in: Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2005.) is not approved by Heiny Srour. Only the present one is faithful to the original French text. Translation edited by Sis Matthé

[1] In fact, we walked 800 kilometres. See page 84.

Heiny Srour

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York (1974)

Heiny Srour


Dhofar for Memory Heiny Srour, 2008 The following text belongs to the first part of a book still being written, conceived as an extension of my film The Hour of Liberation. This passage appears after my crew and I had already walked four hundred kilometres. Earlier, I would have explained that we had arrived at the famous “Red Line” combat zone. Just when we were filming the bombing of the English base protecting the Sultan’s capital, our camera broke down. The one promised by the Yemeni Minister of Culture, a hand-winding Bolex, has in the meantime arrived with a local cameraman, Is’hac. It is outmoded though useful but not synchronous. We have to walk four hundred kilometres to go back to Yemen and try to find a screwdriver to repair ours, a synchronous Coutant. If it can be repaired, it will be necessary to go back to Dhofar to start filming again in Dhofar. Apart from the physical exhaustion, the morale of the French crew is very low. Cameraman Michel Humeau and sound engineer Jean-Louis Ughetto had a one-month contract. Most of this month has been spent walking rather than filming. Essential scenes are still missing from the film. I’m afraid the French crew will break down and drop everything.

FLYING TURTLE With their usual delicacy, the People’s Army soldiers placed Al Nachita [“The Dynamic One”] in the vanguard of the caravan. Everyone knows that after three hours of walking, “the journalist” invariably finds herself at the rear of the caravan. The guerrillas are experts in the art of sparing my self-esteem. Against all odds, they keep showering me with bravos. Well, I will eventually live up to my nickname. A nickname that I refrain from translating to the French crew to avoid mockery. I have to admit that “turtle” would be more appropriate. I had hoped that all those grueling walks would inject some steel into my muscles. But the wings so desired refuse to bud. “It will come, it will come ... We had the same problems as you, at the start of the Revolution,” the combatants assure. I have no choice but to believe them. Tonight’s caravan is made up of more camels than I have ever seen in Dhofar. Camels loaded with weapons. Camels loaded with ammunition. Camels loaded with other material. Camels loaded with provisions. Camels that spontaneously disperse in good order when the Royal Air Force drops its bombs. Camels that listen religiously to those in charge


before shaking at night. Camels synchronized with the military leader’s wishes. “The seventy camels make less noise than one,” the sound engineer notes. Camels even more disciplined than their guerrilla masters, who are already terribly disciplined for “The Dynamic One”. Night briefing before departure, in a very low voice. The deep tone hints at a difficult expedition. The caravan takes note of instructions for absolute silence, I take note of the magnetic attraction of the military leader, his physique radiates an overwhelming force. The combatants think of the pitfalls of the dangerous zone to be crossed tonight. Me, I think of the risk of depriving the film of this attractive local Guevara. “As beautiful as the moon,” Arabs say. They must be talking about full, shining moons. Here, a poor quarter moon illuminates the perfect oval face of our commander. How to film him with this damn 16mm film insensitive to his charm? How to avoid the risk of being taken for an irresponsible person slowing down the convoy for a film? For “revolutionary duty first, journalism second”.[1] But also, how to avoid the fury of an exhausted team that keeps repeating: “Either we film or we walk.” Okay, another heartbreak... Bewitched by the military commander, the sound engineer seems to be going through a heartbreak of a different kind. “When there is tenderness, everything is justified,” Jean-Louis sometimes says at the stops, explaining male homosexuality to me. “Absolutely,” Michel adds, who, thirty years later, still calls me “Bécassine in Dhofar”.[2] That’s when I understand that they would not have refused an affair with a military-escort Apollo. Together, they discuss the coquetry of the soldiers. “They shave at dawn, very carefully.” But tenderness or not, emotions most often remain unfulfilled in the life of guerrilla warfare. Frightened by the gap between the sexual revolution of the West and the tribal reserve, I repeat like a mantra: “The Dhofaris are very austere.” “I trust the masses to meet behind the rocks for a date,” Michel invariably retorts to me. “The masses!” This fetish word of Mao’s is definitely in fashion, even at Dior. Nevertheless, Jean-Louis has broadened my moral horizon: in love with a French actress, married to another woman, and father of two children, this blond man with blue eyes knows how to look at men. We are totally synchronized in spotting male beauties. My heart started to beat more intensely when my troubling Guevara gave me a

Heiny Srour

bewitching look and said: “I want to have human relations with you.” What does he mean by that? Another fantasy, because as soon as the camels set off, there’s only one obsession for the convoy: to arrive at their destination “in one piece”. Once again, the guerrillas did not tell me about the difficulties of the coming ordeal. This strategy increasingly infuriates me. It’s secrecy plain and simple. Yet an intellectual had warned me: “They say it’s a two-hour walk. It takes me five or six hours.” Yet the Yemeni cameraman exclaims when they go to fetch us water: “But these men are like goats. They don’t walk. They are jumping on the rocks.” I still get angry when their “few hours of walking” become ten or fourteen. Be gallant, my muscles. Do like the carabinieri in the song. Ah, you don’t know that song? Well, I’ll sing it to you, my darling muscles: “The best way to walk is to put one foot in front of the other, then start again.” Easy, isn’t it? My muscles, please have mercy... But what had to happen, did happen. Slowly but surely, “The Dynamic One” turned into a turtle. They insist on hoisting me on a camel. I comply and let myself be tied up. Half an hour passes. Who is the charlatan who said, “The camel is the vessel of the desert”? To make you seasick as hell, sure. To tear your bowels apart with nausea, sure. To make you want to smash your skull on the rocks, sure. But to cross the desert, no! Lies. I ask to get off the camel. Nothing can be worse than this machine to foment overwhelming vertigo. My muscles will obey me. Come what may. Ah, it’s good to be back on the ground. To feel the ground. Solid or not, it’s ground. No vomiting sullies the satisfaction of moving forward. I’m walking, I’m still walking. Beloved muscles, thank you for your loyalty. The caravan is further and further away. A tiny stop, worried whispers in the Himyarite language.[3] I soon find myself with a special escort for myself alone, me the dynamic rearguard of the rearguard. My troop is made up of ten hardened guerrillas. They give me breaks from time to time in an ever softer, more embarrassed tone. They are more and more considerate, more and more concerned. The stops are getting shorter and shorter. I am dreaded to discover that the breaks only serve to make the feeling of exhaustion more intense. My muscles, please take a pledge of allegiance... An hour later, they stab me in the calves, the heart and the head! The fateful moment has arrived. For the first time in Dhofar, my muscles categorically refuse to move! They will no longer obey. They belong to someone else. To whom? Collapsed on the sand, I ask to sleep. - “Impossible comrade, look over there at the enemy base. The shadows of the mercenaries are moving. Can’t you see? We’re very close to them.” - “But I can’t walk anymore, I swear”.

- “Don’t worry comrade, I’ll carry you. Otherwise everyone’s life is in danger”. The one who spoke is a heavy-set, stocky combatant. He has the rough face of a man who had no childhood. Who has known only suffering in life. He’s the one carrying the 30-kilo goatskin of water, and I don’t know what bulky weapon, much bigger than a Kalashnikov. Like many soldiers in the People’s Army, he has no shoes and walks barefoot. His soles are terribly cracked. Stones get into the notches. Like so many others, he spends his stops digging brambles and pebbles from his bloody feet. And me, I have boots, good 100%-cotton socks. I only wear a light cashmere shawl as a blanket. Not even my own food. And he also wants to carry me? I have reached the depths of indignity. Desperate, I stare at the ground. The ground must help me indeed. The ground must be able to produce quicksand. Sands capable of swallowing the infamous person that I am. Why doesn’t it swallow this scatterbrain who relied only on her will to make this film? This frivolous woman who didn’t even have the right mind to practice cross-country or bodybuilding like Michel? This reckless woman who insisted so much on going to the Red Line. Ah, Talal Saad![4] You weren’t kidding when you said: “One month of Heiny Srour gave me more white hair than all the British paratroopers.” Quicksand, help me! My legs, my own legs are agents of imperialism. Sands! But they remain frozen, and leave me there, alone with my decay. I hear myself say calmly: - “Please, let me die.” Death! That place of bliss where torture, dishonour and abjection no longer exist. - “Let you die? Never comrade! Out of the question!” The tone is final. - “Let us carry you,” begs another. The third one is the worst: - “In an hour and a half the sun will rise. Look, the horizon is already getting pale around there. And we’re out in the open. They will destroy us all, you see. Allow yourself to be carried.” What? Let me be carried on their poor battered feet which are already carrying both food, water, arms and ammunition? And they want to carry me too? Me? Let myself be carried by foreign men? By men I don’t even know? All the conservatism of my oriental education is protesting. I find the strength to beg: - “I’m begging you, let me die.” Stunned silence. Whispers in Himyarite. Sighs. Dismayed silence ... Finally, a voice drops death into the soul: - “Okay. Sleep a little, comrade.” I collapse on the sand.

Heiny Srour


Nawm’ al’atil! I now know what this Arabic expression means. Yes, the sleep of the deceased, I have experienced it. A sleep of indelible ignominy. A thick, colourless sleep. Not even black. A sleep without the slightest dream. You don’t even dream that you’re dead. A sleep of the deceased. Deceased, but not dead. - “Get up quickly comrade.” A purple sky opens my eyes to a supernatural landscape. Huge pink, yellow and orange flowers adorn cacti separated by giant pebbles. The enchantment transported me to a magical planet.. - “Hurry, hurry, before the Balouches[5] wake up.” This time, a rough hand grabs mine firmly and pulls me away. The splendour nevertheless grips my gaze. The fighters drag along a disembodied filmmaker. I walk in a fantastic universe. I hurry, while looking behind me at the panorama which disappears at a gallop: - “Hurry, hurry, comrade. I’m begging you.” Here we are, sheltered in a precipice. By grabbing me at the last minute, dragging me along, they almost fell into the abyss more than once. They redouble their attention. I arrive alive and well in a rocky valley. Pause. When I meet their eyes, I see no anger or resentment. Only the relief of a mission accomplished. I’m alive. So are all the comrades. Eventually, we join the caravan. The blazing sun has brought me to my senses. My pride, my fuss and my oriental modesty almost cost the lives of a dozen remarkable fighters. But it will take me seventeen years of Lebanese Civil War to fully appreciate their sensitivity. In the ranks of the Lebanese left, rudeness and brutality towards women activists was common. On a Beirut barricade, I would quickly have been knocked out with a punch preceded by: “Your mother’s an idiot and your sister’s a whore.”


Barefoot guerillas, I still haven’t met more distinguished, more refined gentlemen than you. If one of you is dead, I could not flower his grave. Because I haven’t even tried to get to know your names. Thirty years later, in an interview with an American-Arab essayist, I call this episode of my life “the shame of the shame”.

This chapter won the Draft of Dream of Writing Prize of The French Multi Media Civil Society (La SCAM). Translated by Stoffel Debuysere

[1] Elsewhere, I explain that the guerrillas treat us as guests of honour and make immense sacrifices for our well-being, but have no media awareness whatsoever. [2] Bécassine is a French cartoon character, a young naive peasant girl from the province of Brittany. [3] This very old language — which I don’t understand — is in danger of disappearing in Yemen and Dhofar. [4] Talal Saad is the member of the Central Committee who welcomed me as soon as I arrived at the Yemeni border. He’s a great champion of women’s liberation. I found him bright, but he did not trust me: “You are a bourgeois woman, you only suffer from your oppression as a woman. And on that you abdicate so quickly. How can I trust you to be sent to the Liberated Zone?” [5] The British use Balouche mercenaries.

Heiny Srour

“My loyalty is always with the oppressed. Whether in Africa, the Middle East or Vietnam” Interview by Olivier Hadouchi, 2020 A LEBANESE CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE... You were born and raised in Lebanon. What language did you speak within your family? At home, in my family, we preferred to speak French, because it was the language of social advancement. My mother was an Egyptian aristocrat, my father a Lebanese of humble origin, and both of them insisted we speak French for reasons of good manners. Which, at times, leads to the famous “self-hatred” of the colonized. Fortunately, my grandparents were illiterate and, thanks to them, I enjoyed the advantages of the Jewish and Arab musical heritage and the wonderful tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which greatly influenced my cinema. But I’m going to reveal a military secret to you that I haven’t revealed to anyone else, because the Tricontinental is as dear to you as it is to me. Thus, your interview will not be like others. People wonder why Heiny Srour has always been a pioneer, a groundbreaker, both in substance and form, why she has always gone off the beaten track. Why, in all of Arab cinema, was she the first to shoot in Dhofar and, also, to go to Vietnam? Why has she been innovative in various domains? The reason is that I was fortunate enough to be born in Lebanon, part of an ultra-minority, unrepresented in Parliament. That immediately offers you a wide-angle view of the world, which the Anglo-Saxons call “strategic thinking”. When you’re liberated from the local, silly and petty “politicking”, you tend to rise high and see far. But being born into an ultra-minority suffering from discrimination, as was the case with the Jewish community I was born into, could have made me narrow-minded — as is the case with so many Lebanese Jews, Christians or Muslims living within the narrow horizon of their communities. At best, I could have been un âne savant, a “learned donkey”, like some of those

top-of-the-class at the Alliance Française Israélite in Beirut where I studied until I was fifteen. I was lucky to be born into an authentically Jewish and Lebanese family, but with windows wide open onto a great variety of religions and nationalities. All this thanks to mixed marriages with a Lebanese Muslim, a British Protestant and a French Catholic. It created dramas and earthquakes in a family so deeply rooted in its religious community: my great-uncle’s Moussa Srour family synagogue, a well-known rabbi being the father of my maternal grandmother, my father being among the best cantors of the synagogue. My family was firmly rooted in its national soil: The Star of David is engraved on the fountain of my great-grandfather Daoud Srour in the central square of Deir al-Qamar, once the capital of Lebanon at the time of the Druze rule. These distressing ideological shocks liberated me very early from the blinkers of social hypnosis; what was normal or sacred to my Muslim or Christian uncles and aunts was anathema, or even blasphemous in our Jewish family, and vice versa. People who grow up in a single system of values generally do not keep a critical distance from the dominant ideology or ideologies. Before the age of ten, I was lucky enough to discover what the French philosopher Blaise Pascal discovered only in his maturity: “Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side.” At the age of thirteen, my torments as a Jewish adolescent made me discover what the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, founder of Western philosophy, only realized at an older age: the fundamental contradiction in Judaism between the Universal God (who loves all his creatures equally) and the concept of God’s Chosen People (a tribal god who prefers a particular category of creatures). Thirteen is the age of the Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish community, a Jewish coming of age ritual for boys and an occasion for endless celebrations and surprise parties. I was continually invited to them because I was very popular with the boys. I loved the frenzied rock’n’roll Bar Mitzvah dance parties on Saturday and Sunday night. But it was also the

Heiny Srour


age when the beautiful boys I liked would recite a morning prayer that began: “Blessed are you, God, who has not made me a woman.” At the French Jewish School, they wanted to produce good, submissive wives because, by definition, “men are more intelligent than women”. It was a time when teachers and rabbis hammered home absolute male supremacy, presented as eternal and normal because of God’s will, a supremacy ritualized in Jewish religious ceremonies: to this very day, a six-year-old boy in my family drinks the blessed wine before his 85-year-old grandmother at every Shabbat! At the age of thirteen in Beirut, one discovers the double morality of Mediterranean societies: kissing a boy reduces an adolescent girl to the status of a “loose girl”, while sleeping with a girl turns a mediocre male into an important guy. So I was “a very serious girl” smitten with rock’n’roll and good-looking boys. But, at thirteen, I discovered to my horror that all the beautiful dancers of my age were intellectually inferior to me. I was several years ahead of them. My mental range was vast, theirs was narrow. At an equivalent age, I had learned an additional language — English — and discovered with amazement the splendour of ancient Greece, the pharaohs, Babylon... I had left my village through geography; I had explored another world through algebra, geometry, chemistry and physics, and literature. The brainwashing by the school and the Jewish religion in order to make us believe that men were superior to and more intelligent than us girls was, therefore, false. Along the lines of Spinoza, I became aware of the fundamental contradiction of this good and just “God of compassion”, who used his “infinite mercy” to grant exorbitant and unjustified privileges to... creatures far less deserving than I. That’s why I understand the fundamentalists of today: I went through a fundamentalist period myself. When the Other is too powerful and you don’t have the tools to defeat him, you praise him. I wanted the Messiah to come — the Messiah the Jews had been waiting for, for thousands of years. Because, when the Messiah comes, the souls are resurrected. And souls transcend gender. I went through a period of great intolerance; I didn’t want my father to bring ham into the house. Were you trying to find yourself at that time? Was it a quest for identity? No, you don’t try to find yourself; you find false solutions and discover qualities in your oppressor — unfortunately so. But at the age of fifteen, things were getting better: I read Voltaire, who provided me with ideological weapons; I stopped believing in the coming of the Messiah. I moved away from my religion definitively.


THE PRECOCIOUS AWAKENING OF POLITICAL AWARENESS At sixteen, I discovered Marxism at the Lycée franco-libanais in Beirut, thanks to a Communist teacher of French literature. I prefer to call it Radical Socialism myself. I distanced myself from any form of religion. Alas, I didn’t yet know that many people practised Marxism as a religion, in spite of the very fact that Marx had said: “Under these conditions, I am not a Marxist.” I have to admit, in all honesty, that I prefer Engels to Marx. Perhaps I don’t have the right to say so, because I haven’t read Marx’s masterpiece Das Kapital in its entirety, only excerpts. And I have only read excerpts from Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, a dazzling text. Marx talked about the dictatorship of the proletariat, and you have seen the disasters that has led to. Engels remains relevant and keeps his modernity because he dealt Patriarchy a fatal blow by proving the existence of Matriarchy, a social system in which women maintain economic, social, political and religious pre-eminence. Patriarchy draws its strength from its totalitarian nature. Wherever you go on this planet, to Brazil, England, the United States, Spain, the Arab World, the geniuses are invariably men. The monotheistic religions call it the Divine Order. You end up believing it’s Nature. Engels proved that Patriarchy is only Culture. Based on the work of an American anthropologist, Morgan, who had lived among the Native American tribes, Engels proved that Patriarchy is just a social construction, and that it can, therefore, be deconstructed. Engels called for the synthesis of the two, Fratriarchy, a system in which women and men are brothers, lovers, equals. And I agree: I don’t want the injustice of Matriarchy either.

THE TRICONTINENTAL YEARS... In the 1960s and 70s, the Left didn’t really address religious issues, did they? During the blessed period of the Tricontinental, full of hope for a better world, we talked about what united us, not about what divided us. Radical Socialism functions through horizontal solidarity: we workers, we peasants, we students, we women... As soon as you introduce vertical solidarity, we Druze, we Christians, we Jews, we Muslims... you’re splitting the ranks. It didn’t occur to us to talk about it. Everybody was talking about much bigger and more strategic things. However, apart from the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and some honourable exceptions, the Left has acted in a cowardly manner in regard to my Jewishness. I have been subjected to many

Heiny Srour

discriminations as a Jew and as a woman. This provided me with a ‘saving’ critical distance from the historical and geopolitical context of my time. It has helped me to turn my handicaps into privileges.

TOWARDS THE HOUR OF LIBERATION I wanted to film in Dhofar because the PFLOAG, which led the struggle, was one of the rare movements in the Arab world that openly took the side of women. I had just spent a horrible summer working on my doctoral thesis at the Sorbonne, under the guidance of the magnificent Maxime Rodinson, a thesis about the situation of Lebanese women in relation to that of Arab women in general. When I interviewed the leaders of the political parties of the Lebanese Left, all of them dismissed the women’s issue, except for the Communists, who recognized the problem but did not do much about it because they were too weak anyway. For the left-wing Arab nationalists and the Ba’athists, the problem did not exist. “We all have a mother, a fiancée or a sister we love. How could we oppress someone we adore?” they said, with a victim’s face ... You could have died laughing. According to them, women were more respected in the Arab world than in the West. It’s true that Arab men are much more gallant than European men. I objected: “But the life of a woman is worth less than that of a dog in Lebanon: according to Lebanese law, a Lebanese man is condemned to only one day in prison when he kills his sister, his wife, his cousin or his mother in a so called ‘crime of honour’ when he finds her in an ‘ambiguous’ situation — in the eyes of the judge. Alone with a colleague in a room is enough! Whereas, if a Lebanese man kills a dog, he could serve up to three years in prison! We have more than two ‘crimes of honour’ per week!” The recurring response: “It’s due to the underdevelopment imposed by imperialism, but it will all disappear once the great Arab revolution will triumph.” But, for my doctoral thesis, I had read two books by this Algerian woman... Fadela M’Rabet. Yes. She showed that, despite the enormous sacrifices by Algerian women during the Revolution, little had changed concerning their specific oppression. For these men, the absence of women in important positions in left-wing parties was normal, “as women do not have a political mind”. I observed that, when the Iraqi Communists were able to obtain a single ministry under the rule of Abdelkarim Kassem, they immediately gave it to a woman, Nazira Al-Dulaimi, who subsequently tried to abolish the Muslim Sharia... and had to resign following the massacres

caused by the reactionaries. My interlocutor’s reply, ogling my curves: “The ministry was offered to Nazira Al-Dulaimi because she was ugly and had complexes. Feminism is an ideology imported from the West.” And behind my back: “Heiny Srour invents this story of women’s oppression in order to divide the Arab Left... She’s a crypto-Zionist... A spy probably...” It was 1969, two years after the June War of 1967. The war had been a terrible humiliation for the entire Arab world. My experience of that war was very bad because some of my best friends got dragged into the lowest kind of chauvinism. Including some ex-nationalists and ex-Ba’athists who had shifted to Marxism before the war! They did not flinch when Syrian radio called for jihad. Whereas the Ba’athists of that time, very different from today’s criminals, were secular and progressive, they had courageously stood up to the reactionary sheikhs during the land reform. My friends didn’t blink when Nasser’s radio station broadcast appalling anti-Semitic comments. Not a single criticism. I felt horribly lonely during the June War. All the more so as I was fortunate enough to have had a crucial founding experience on the subject of war at the Lycée franco-libanais in Beirut. A wonderful history and geography teacher, André Ropert, had revealed to us that, during the Second World War, both English and German bankers would come out winners whether an English or German plane fell. And for a very good reason: English bankers had shares in the German military industry and their German counterparts had shares in the English military industry. This was a conflict in which it was a matter of defeating the Great Evil — Hitler — but in which the rich, even those who were enemies, were the ultimate winners, while the death of the poor on both sides filled the gun merchants’ pockets. All the more so when religion gets involved in underdeveloped countries... But in the midst of nationalist hysteria, one cannot say this without looking like a spy in the pay of Israel. Nor can one say this to the Jews without being accused of being a Nazi. I had respected Nasser for his industrialization of Egypt, his land reform, the Aswan dam, his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, his opposition to the veil, his nationalization of the Suez Canal. To see him and the Syrian Ba’athists stoop so low into chauvinism and anti-Semitism... I crossed out the entire Arab left. Except for the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which professed a fraternal discourse: one secular, democratic, socialist Palestine for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Alas, the DFLP would turn out to be terribly disappointing.

Heiny Srour


And then, in 1969, you met a representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf ? Yes, two years after the June War of 1967. At first, I thought he was telling tall tales because he was talking about Oman, a totally unknown country that no one had ever heard of. The country was living in the Stone Age but had oil, which was forbidden to the people of the country. When he told me about their social programme — roads, hospitals, schools — I thought to myself: we’ve already seen that with Nasser and the Syrian Ba’athists, … and it ended sadly. I was about to leave when he declared that what the Front was most proud of, was the liberation of women. His boring voice had suddenly come alive. The weather was blazing hot. Had I hallucinated? In disbelief, I asked him to repeat what he had said. To my great surprise, he said that women were not only oppressed by imperialism and class society (the traditional discourse of the Arab Left), but also by fathers, brothers, husbands, uncles, cousins, tribal chiefs (an unexpected and innovative discourse). To my bewilderment, he said that women are more revolutionary than men because they are the most oppressed persons of society! It was unheard of, since the “political conservatism of women” was a dogma in Western sociology and even more so in the Arab Left. I asked him to repeat everything he had said about Oman. It was unlikely that an archaic country would produce a political movement with men of such feminist awareness. Embarrassed, I then started to take notes. And to give you an idea of the extent of my colonized mentality, it was only later, in Paris, when I read an article by Jean-Pierre Viennot in Le Monde diplomatique, followed by his personal confirmation of the Front’s statements on women, that I began to believe it. The truth is not always very likely. I also went to Dhofar because the Front had moved beyond issues of identity and religion. I later discovered they had another kind of problem: tribalism, the equivalent of religious communities, which played some nasty tricks on them afterwards. Who introduced you to the Dhofar struggle? It was a friend and colleague, Nagy Abu Khalil, a journalist for Al Hurriya. He also corresponded for two years with the South Yemeni Minister of Culture, Abdullah Al-Khamiri. So, the latter co-produced the film by offering plane tickets, covering the air freight for the filmmaking equipment, domestic transport and hospitality. He also saved the shoot by lending us a second camera and an excellent second cameraman. Fawwaz Traboulsi, the first Lebanese journalist to enter Dhofar, pursued the contacts with the Front for me. Of all Arab filmmakers, and perhaps even of all filmmakers in the


world, I have been the only one to openly discuss the issue that makes and breaks the Middle East and the Arab world: oil. There have been entire series of films on oil, but even my most left-wing colleagues or friends have lied, or lied by omission, while admiring my film in private. No filmmaker has dared to tell the whole truth about the “curse” this strategic raw material has been. Namely, that the discovery of oil has resulted in a genocidal war of aggression against the poor people of Oman, the division of the Gulf into artificial mini-states, the flourishing of foreign military bases to protect puppet governments — governments that, today, crush peaceful revolutions such as in Yemen. To my knowledge, I am the only one in the world to have said this, and it has cost me dearly, very dearly: it has stirred up a lot of hostility and created many enemies among decision-makers in the film industry, in England and elsewhere. It has prevented me from getting scholarships at film schools in England. So I remained illiterate on a technical level. The film was banned for 45 years in Lebanon and continues to be in most Arab countries. All Arab video-on-demand platforms refuse to distribute the film, and Arab television as well, of course, including the supposedly “audacious and objective” Al Jazeera, which pirated certain parts of my film nevertheless. Even worse: as no film today is made without the money of the Gulf Sheikhs, progressive colleagues and friends ban me from taking part in festivals specialized in the Middle East or the Arab world. I’m on the blacklist of many media and film organizations in the Arabian Gulf. Luckily, I was the first Third World woman to be selected at Cannes, and then I distributed The Hour of Liberation worldwide. Otherwise, I could have been executed by the henchmen of the oil companies. It saved me from a car pulling up, a gunshot (Heiny laughs) and an assassination. The more-than-45-year ban has caused me many years of living in often crippling poverty. It has prevented me from making other films... and affected my health! But it has also provided me with incomparable joys and given meaning to my life. By helping to save human lives, for example, because people sometimes left the cinema and came back with bags full of medicine. The film collected tons of medicine and thousands of cash donations from all over the world. Another example: on the occasion of an armistice in the mid-1970s, soldiers from North Yemen (then supported by Saudi Arabia) came to see my film which was projected across the border for the soldiers of South Yemen (Democratic Yemen). The North Yemenis subsequently refused to shoot their South Yemeni brothers and even braved the court-martial. This was all the more impressive as the army was the only job opportunity of these starving people! Another example of this film saving lives: exiled Iranians in London produced a dubbed version, which they showed all over Iran after the fall of the Shah. When Khomeini saw the film, he agreed to

Heiny Srour

withdraw his troops from Dhofar. It was too late to save the Revolution after the deadly blows it had suffered, but it saved lives on both sides. Just like the North Yemeni soldiers, Khomeini had realized that the brainwashing against “the evil atheist Communists who want to poach women” was a pure lie: the women fighters of the Front do not wear veils, and you can see their legs up to their knees, but it’s in order to better fight social injustice and foreign domination. It didn’t prevent the Iranian police from confiscating the film once repression descended upon any progressive discourse. To my great satisfaction, my father, a good man with reactionary ideas, was stunned after seeing my film and said to me: “These Arabs are not like the others! They fear God. They are good and they want to help the unfortunate. You must help them, Heiny.” Another source of pride is to have contributed to changing the course of some human lives. For example, Mognis Abdallah, who is half-Danish and half-Egyptian, told me that, after seeing the film, he refused to return to Egypt because it would have forced him to do his military service and, thus, contribute to crush the Revolution. He stayed in Paris and made films together with his brother Samir. The film broke new ground in many ways. Aesthetically, it was the first time that popular songs were used as commentary. It was the first film in the Middle East that gave a voice to those “without a voice” through the use of synch sound, thanks to the innovation of cameraman Michel Humeau, who was the first to use a solar battery to power a 10kg synchronous camera that he carried in person. A dangerous solar battery, because it attracted airplanes... The same goes for the dedication of sound engineer Jean-Louis Ughetto whose Nagra weighed 12kg. They crossed 800 km on foot under military threat. It was the first time in Arab cinema that a director left the comfort of the studios to lead a crew under the bombardments. Plus, it was a woman! The film’s production broke new ground, too, by using donations from Arab workers and students, help in kind from militant English and European filmmakers, and help in kind from Arab activists to finance it. In particular from the Iraqi Student Society in England, which was the real co-producer of the film. Progressive Iraqis went to Birmingham, Sheffield and Cardiff every weekend to do political work with the South Yemeni workers. They also collected donations for the film. They gave me a roof over my head for three years while I was looking for funds and editing (without an editing table!). They wrote the commentary and introduced me to the British filmmakers of Cinema Action. Guy and Monique Hennebelle from the French CinémAction magazine gave me bed and board for more than three months while I was working in the lab. And Guy was a paralytic, with young children and an old mother-in-law in his care. Nonetheless, a great sadness remains, the fact that I was only able to fulfil half of

my dream of militant cinema in the Latin American sense of the word. Hundreds of thousands of Argentinian workers watched Fernando Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces in secret, risking arrest by the police and imprisonment. They deprived themselves of cigarettes for a month in order to pay for their tickets to the clandestine screenings. My film The Hour of Liberation is needed in places of despair: prisons, refugee camps and homes for battered women, rather than preaching to converted intellectuals. So in my distribution contracts, I always include a clause that stipulates that my film must be offered, free of charge, to the refugees and the deprived, and this entirely at my expense, without any financial loss for the distributor. But, in the Arab world, militant cinema must be served on a silver platter to the well-off. Even worse, former wellto-do members of the Bahrain Liberation Front (which has split from the Front) have pirated the film and are giving it to millionaires in Bahrain and rich people around the world, despite their full awareness of my precarious financial situation. Such is the case of Abdulnabi Alekry who wrote — don’t laugh — a book on Human Rights. He knows, therefore, that his recurrent thefts are a blatant violation of a number of articles of the Declaration of Human Rights. I have been telling him for years that his dishonesty desecrates the memory of the men and women who died in Dhofar before reaching the springtime of their lives. These martyrs never heard of cinema or copyright. But they knew they were giving their lives for a better world. And a world in which the needy are robbed in order to brag in front of the rich, is a world worse off. A world in which progressive culture is murdered by economic censorship is a world much worse off. The great laws of History are always reflected in small incidents: after the repeated thefts by Abdulnabi Alekry, we’ve had Mosul, Nimrud, Palmyra, Daesh, Netanyahu and Trump. But this moral decay is not inevitable: each one of us can help to turn the tide. That is where our freedom lies.

LEILA AND THE WOLVES In Leila and the Wolves, you wanted to evoke the history of the Palestinians... It was rather an archaeological excavation of the collective memory of women of the Middle East. I wanted to rewrite History from a female and feminist point of view. Palestinian women were a part of it, but they were not the only part. There were half a million Palestinians in Lebanon, which had contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. The reactionary position said the Palestinians were cowards, that they had fled their country and had come to make trouble

Heiny Srour


in our country. My film reveals that they resisted with the means at hand, but also that they were oppressors of women. So, it’s a critical portrait of Palestinian history. Moreover, when they tell me that I am on the side of the Palestinian cause, I respond that I am first and foremost on the side of a just and enduring peace, on the side of the oppressed, wherever they are — in Africa, Vietnam or the Middle East.

favour of justice, but I remain lucid, without idealizing the oppressed. Opening our eyes wide to their faults is the best way of helping them.

Did some branches of the anti-imperialist Left in the Arab world and elsewhere at first think that the Palestinian movement would revolutionize things and shake them up?

Yes, but a year on, they’re back at their pots and pans, in forced marriages, suffering domestic violence, taken out of school, and so on. What I liked about Dhofar is that the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf did the exact opposite of the Algerian and Palestinian revolutions. The latter two publicized a few token women (Djamila Bouhired and Djamila Boupacha in Algeria; Leila Khaled, Hanan Ashrawai, and recently Ahed Tamimi in Palestine); and, after that, the Muslim Sharia descended on them! In areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, today, one third of the Palestinian people are polygamous. In Dhofar, the Front did not wait until victory. It liberated women right away. It abolished polygamy, the mahr (the Muslim dowry that turns women into commodities and allows the father to sell a his little daughter to an often old man). The Front practised positive discrimination in favour of women 30 years before the West. Instead of the token female stars who hide the oppression of the majority of women, the Dhofaris chose to massively raise awareness among women, men and children on the issue of women’s liberation. Another thing I liked about Dhofar was the absence of the hate speech so common in all the world’s conflicts, the refusal to demonize the enemy. Che Guevara had said that one cannot defeat one’s enemy if one does not hate him. But the Front was different. One day, during a break, an unsophisticated fighter asked me to teach him English “because the English working class is our friend and ally”! This soldier was repeating what the political leaders taught their troops. Alas, as far as I know, this “friendship” was non-reciprocal! The British working class has been infected by the imperialism of its ruling class and provided the soldiers who were killing the poor people of Oman.

At first, yes. Like most people, I too believed that these authoritarian, corrupt, anti-Semitic Arab regimes would collapse under the blows of the Palestinian Resistance after the June War of 1967. But the Arab regimes turned out to be stronger than expected. And although the Palestinian Resistance hated them, it depended on them to feed, care for and educate its refugees, who were living in poverty and humiliation. The Resistance also needed weapons. On the other hand, the Arab Left never had the necessary fighting spirit to bring down the Arab regimes. One of the reasons being that the Arab Left was made up of nationalists painted in red. The Left wasn’t that leftist after all! Thus, during the Lebanese Civil War, Palestinians stole things, kidnapped people, sullied their reputation and disappointed many people, including me. However, the Palestinian Resistance must be credited with the protection of the Jews in Lebanon: they made it a point of honour to prove that “living together with Jews” was possible, a sort of rough draft of the coming “secular and democratic Palestine for Jews, Christians and Muslims” that they preached. The kidnapping of Jews did not take place in Lebanon until the Israeli invasion of 1981, which drove the Palestinian Resistance out of the Lebanese territory. But for me, this positive side of the Palestinians was not at all enough to exonerate their serious mistakes in other areas. The Lebanese Left was not exactly clean either. Once they started kidnapping and killing people on the basis of their religion, they sullied their reputation and disappointed many people. Including you? Including me, of course. My generation has failed. Leila and the Wolves is a disillusioned film. But I remain faithful to the cause of justice in spite of immense political disappointments. Because, when there is injustice, there is violence and war. And in that case, it is invariably so that the vulnerable pay the price: the poor, the women and the children. And the rich and arms traders inevitably win, always. Thus, I am in


In Leila and the Wolves, the women throw oil on the British occupiers. They take part in the struggle.

Why didn’t you make films for several years after the documentary on the Dhofar struggle? Were you living in London at that time? Yes, I was living in London, but not by choice. The airport in Beirut had suddenly closed because of the Lebanese Civil War. I was unable to return to Lebanon. I was forced to survive in London and make ends meet by teaching in a country whose language I didn’t know very well. The militant distribution of The Hour of Liberation ruined me financially. Surviving was very difficult.

Heiny Srour

The narrative structure of Leila and the Wolves, with its circularity, is very modern... I would rather say it’s a “mosaic” structure with recurring visual and sound leitmotifs. I wrote the scenario under conditions I still consider incredible: one generally writes a scenario in six months to two years. I only had three weeks. I wrote the scenario in a kind of trance; I hardly slept... The reason is that Tahar Cheriaa yelled at me, saying: “You haven’t made a film in ten years! There’s a script competition at the Agence de coopération culturelle et technique (ACCT) and I haven’t received anything from you...” Tahar Cheriaa had played a central role in completing The Hour of Liberation — a film he adored — when he was at ACCT (now called OIF, International Organization of La Francophonie). Tahar had just got out of prison, where he was put by Bourguiba, who considered his position in favour of National Cinema too radical. Cheriaa had young children, but he risked his job as director of ACCT to finance the film’s costly completion. Without his help, The Hour of Liberation would never have been finished in time for Cannes. As a very leftist film, it would never have got any money if Tahar hadn’t helped me to disguise it as an anthropological film — which it is, but only in part. I absolutely wanted to send Tahar Cheriaa a scenario worthy of the man who had been a father to all of us young Arab and African filmmakers of the Tricontinental era. But how to proceed when you’ve never spent five or six years at a film school? Fortunately, the Tunisian filmmaker Ridha Behi helped me to overcome my terror and anxiety by explaining how to do it technically. I don’t know what I wrote... When I read it after I had sent it, I thought the committee would take me for a madwoman, as ACCT usually awarded prizes to well-crafted, neo-realist scenarios. Mine was the opposite, avant-garde in content and form. Neo-realism is an artistic form adapted to societies that have developed endogenously, such as Western societies. Former colonized societies, on the other hand, such as in the Arab world, have been horizontally and vertically fractured by an exogenous agent: imperialism. They are profoundly destructured societies... In the countryside, there are people who still live in feudal or even tribal times. And in the cities, people use the Internet and the latest technology. There are huge differences between the beginning and the end of the caravan, to borrow an expression from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. To my amazement, I won the Grand Prix du Scénario of ACCT, 400,000 francs, a lot of money, not to mention the prestige. And I have the feeling that Tahar Cheriaa probably had something to do with it. This honest man would never have allowed himself to influence the members of the jury, which must be independent by definition. But Tahar must have read the scenario, as he — a cinephile of great

finesse — put many women on the ACCT jury. He hit the nail on the head: in festivals with women on the juries, Leila and the Wolves wins the Grand Prix, otherwise it’s not selected or only awarded secondary prizes. Another reason why the scenario won the Grand Prix is that it predicted the future. When I wrote the script, Lebanon was the land of bikinis and miniskirts. So the recurring leitmotif of black-veiled women sitting on the beach in a semi-circle was totally incongruous, and might have seemed false to educated people. But between the moment I sent the script and the moment the jury read it, Iranian feminists fighting against Khomeini took to the streets and Western feminists (Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, etc.) made headlines by going to Teheran to lend their sisters a hand. The jury must have thought that I was prophesying. And that is what Leila and the Wolves has been doing ever since. At the Cinematheque of Tangier, which recently honoured me, a woman opened the discussion by saying: “Ms. Srour, you are a liar. You say that you made this film 30 years ago, in the Land of Olive Trees. That is not true, you shot it yesterday on the beach in Tangier.” That’s how modern the film still is today, even though it was written in 1979, filmed in 1980-81, and finished in 1984 because the British Film Institute dragged its feet to finish it. Nowadays, Leila and the Wolves is travelling the world again, more relevant than ever: my unconscious and the collective unconscious of the women of the Middle East spoke together throughout the extreme conditions of making this film. Paris, 20 January 2020

Translated by Sis Matthé

Heiny Srour



Selma Baccar

Selma Baccar “I consider what I do as, primarily, bearing witness to my society by way of cinema, with everything that it comprises regarding the contradictions between man and woman, law and practice… I don’t isolate the problem of women from the whole of the society.” Selma Baccar was born in Tunis in 1945. After college, she studied psychology from 1966 to 1968 in Lausanne, Switzerland. At the age of 21, Baccar began to create films with other women at the Hammam-Lif amateur film club. Her first short film, made in 1966, was a black-and-white film called The Awakening that tackled women’s emancipation in Tunisia. She moved to Paris to study film at the Institut de Formation Cinématographique (IFC), after which she worked as assistant director for Tunisian television. In 1975, the same year as the UN’s International Women’s Year, Baccar directed her first feature film titled Fatma 75, which is considered to be the first feature film directed by a woman in Tunisia. In this “analytical film”, as Baccar has defined it, three generations of women and three forms of awareness are related — the period between 1930 and 1938 and the creation of the Union of Tunisian Women; the period between 1939 and 1952, which marks the relationship between the national struggle for independence and the

Filming Fatma 75 (1975)

women’s struggle; and finally, the period after 1956 to the present, concerning the achievements of Tunisian women with regards to the Code of Personal Status. “I conducted a series of historical researches, in particular on the participation of women in the struggle for independence and its achievements. I then measured the gap between the Code of Personal Status and its application in practice. Through this film, I wanted to demystify what is called “the miracle of the emancipation of Tunisian women”. Despite being funded by the Tunisian government, Fatma 75 was censored and subsequently banned from screenings in the country for thirty years. In 1990, she became the first woman producer in Tunisia with her production company Inter Médias Production. Selma Baccar’s activism for Tunisian women’s rights led her to an active political career. She also sat on the Assemblée Constituante that rewrote the Tunisian constitution in 2011 to include changes that were heralded by the UN as “a breakthrough for women’s rights”.

Selma Baccar


For the Self-Expression of the Arab Woman Heiny Srour, Selma Baccar and Magda Wassef, 1978 There are numerous obstacles which limit the self-expression of the Arab woman, among them: A feudal culture now fused with a bourgeois culture which represents the woman as a sexual object and an inferior, immature being. This image is reproduced through all means of expression, including progressive ones. In this way the woman is conditioned from birth and prepared for a subordinate role. As a result, she loses confidence in herself and society fails to help her develop her intellectual capacities. The economic dependence of the woman, trapped at the bottom of the professional ladder, further interferes with her intellectual development. The legal social status of the Arab woman reinforces this state of dependence; family pressures are followed by marital pressures. In such conditions it is not surprising how few Arab women have succeeded at realizing themselves through the cinema. The few films which they have made have been produced under very difficult circumstances. Producers are doubly hesitant when it comes to entrusting millions of dollars to a woman. The difficulties faced by a woman who has decided to express herself through image and sound can be enormous, especially if she is working on her first film.


Given this situation, the three of us — a filmmaker, a critic and a technician in the Arab cinema — have decided to establish an “Assistance Fund” for the self-expression of the Arab woman in the cinema. A yearly prize of 10,000 ff (about $2500) will be awarded to the best script for a short film from those proposals submitted by Arab women undertaking their first film. The prize money will be raised by donations from all those who support women’s right of self-expression. Contributions can be sent to Magda Wassef, 32 rue Lecourbe, 75015 Paris, France.

Originally published as ‘Pour l’auto-expression de la femme arabe’ in CinemArabe, 10/11 (August/November 1978). Published in English in Cineaste, 9, no. 4 (1979).

Selma Baccar

Fatma 75 (1975)

“The men in the street were a little amused to see a woman giving orders” Interview by Magda Wassef, 1978 Fatma 75 is the first feature-length film by Tunisian director Selma Baccar. Trained within the framework of the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers, which produced several well-known filmmakers, Selma Baccar improved her technical and theoretical knowledge at the Institut de formation cinématographique in Paris. The Awakening was her first short film, made in the context of the Federation of Amateur Filmmakers in 1968. The film won awards at the Film Festivals of Kelibia and of Sfax and tackled the same subject as her second film: Tunisian women’s awareness of their situation as women. Fatma 75’s approach is quite original. The film is based on essays and histories written on the Tunisian feminist movement, using fiction to make its message accessible to the general public. The presentation that Fatma, a university student, has to prepare serves as a pretext to plunge into ancient history and revive the famous women from Tunisian history: the wife of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal, who, at her husband’s

defeat by the Romans, prefers to kill herself and her two children rather than fall into the hands of the enemies as a slave; Sophonisba, a Carthaginian princess, who renounces her financé when he allies with the Romans; Kahina, the great figure of Berber independence; Jelajil, wife of Ibrahim Ibn Aghlab, who founds the first girls’ school in her palace in Kairouan, etc. The modern movement for the emancipation of Tunisian women began in the 1930s following the publication of Tahar Haddad’s essay Our Women in the Shari’a and in Society. This book roused a passionate response and set a lot of tongues wagging. The fierce opposition by the traditionalists did not, however, prevent the birth of the Tunisian feminist movement and the creation of the Tunisian Women’s Union in 1938. Fatma 75 tries to reconstruct this period of turmoil through fiction and documentary. One name deserves attention: Bchira Ben Mrad. She was one of the most important leaders of the Tunisian feminist movement, and her testimony in the film (she’s interviewed by Fatma in the context of her research) really clarifies this quite unknown period.

Selma Baccar


Three generations of women and three forms of awareness are recounted by the film: (1) the period between 1930 and 1938, which culminated in the creation of the Tunisian Women’s Union; (2) the period between 1938 and 1952, when a rather close relationship was established between the women’s struggle and the national struggle for independence; (3) the period after 1956 and up to the present day. The transition between these different periods occurs through Bchira Ben Mrad. The achievements of Tunisian women with regard to the Code of Personal Status are considerable compared to those of Arab women elsewhere. Yet, the situation remains rather ambiguous. Under the cover of perfect liberation, each woman continues to suffer her specific situation as a woman, both within her family and outside it: the authorization of the father, brother or husband to obtain a passport and to travel, inheritance laws, etc. The last image of the film shows a peasant woman with a bag on her back. Nothing in the life of this woman makes her different from her ancestors; she continues to suffer the same injustices and face the same status as a woman. I met Selma Baccar in Tunis and, after seeing her film on the editing table, we talked about the circumstances of the shoot, the difficulties the film is currently facing with regards to its commercial distribution in Tunisia and abroad, and about her situation as a woman filmmaker in an Arab country… “The idea of making a film about Tunisian women came from another filmmaker during the International Women’s Year in 1975. He suggested that I write a scenario on the subject and present it to the National Union of Tunisian Women to get their moral support, as they were an organization concerned with women’s issues. The union president agreed, so then I had to find the means to finance it. The Ministry of Information offered to finance one third of the film (the budget I presented was too high for them). That’s when my problems started: I had to find the rest of the money. I knocked on every door: family planning, the agency of cooperation, the technical services of the SATPEC [Tunisian Company for Cinematic Production and Expansion], which was managing the funding by the Ministry of Information. The film only cost 16,000 francs, which is about the cost of a news magazine or a short film. The shoot lasted for three and a half weeks on end. I had a crew of professional technicians as well as professional actors for the fictional scenes and people who recreated their own life for the other scenes.


The film you’ve just shown on the editing table seems to have quite a coherent structure. We’ve heard that certain cuts were required by the producers of the film... What reasons did they give for this? What is your position on it all? The film was ready in September 1976, and I was thinking of presenting it at that year’s Carthage Film Festival. But the workprint was blocked by its main producer, the Ministry of Information, for three full months. In the end, after a meeting with the person in charge of cinema at the ministry, I realized I had to make a different film that had nothing to do with the one I had made and that fully respected the script accepted by the ministry. Some parts of the film were controversial, for example the sex education scene that I filmed in a school — although it is exactly as it takes place in reality — the importance given to the work of Tahar Haddad, and the interview with Bchira Ben Mrad, etc. The CEO of SATPEC proposed I make two versions of the film: one in colour, to which I give my name and for which I take full responsibility, and the other in black and white, edited from the rushes and about 20 minutes long, to meet the requirements of the film’s producers. But I couldn’t make two contradictory versions of the same film myself. So, I finished my film as I conceived it. The SATPEC is taking care of its distribution after having made a standard print in May 1978. I’m currently working on the subtitles with Abdel Guélil El Bahi. But the film hasn’t obtained its certificate of approval by the censors yet… Fatma 75 will be shown in the retrospective “Women in Arab Cinema” in Carthage. What’s your position on the policy of ACT [Association of Tunisian Filmmakers], the FTCC [Tunisian Federation of Film Societies] and the FTCA [Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers]? I don’t want my film to be shown at the Carthage Film Festival for reasons analyzed in the declaration of these three associations: the condition for participation in the festival was for the Ministry of Culture to address the case of cinema. For example, we asked for box office figures, because we’re proposing that the cinema be self-financed through a part of the taxes on the box office, which would then be turned into a production fund. The work of the committee stopped more than a month ago and it’s still waiting for these figures. It’s not gratuitous blackmailing we’re doing here by refusing to allow our films to participate in the Carthage Film Festival, but we find it absurd that Tunisia is organizing such an important film festival while Tunisian cinema is almost non-existent: each film is just a coincidence…

Selma Baccar

This is your first feature-length film, but you were a television assistant director. Could you tell us about the relationship you had as a woman with the world of film and television? When I started working as a television assistant, some of my male colleagues were offended. One of them even told me: “You’ve come to take a job from us while there are already so many of us in need of work. You don’t need to work; you have a husband to support you.” On the other hand, the directors I worked with wouldn’t let go of me. At the beginning, the TV managers wanted to hire me as a scriptwriter or editor. They said the job of assistant is a man’s job… In any case, I personally didn’t find it particularly difficult to do my job, and the relationship with the technicians was excellent. Some men from outside the industry were hard on me. The men in the street were a little amused to see a woman giving orders…

As for my experience as a woman director, I think it was very important for me. My relationship with the crew and the actors was excellent. The shooting of Fatma 75 was “all roses”. On the other hand, in order to obtain the necessary funding for the production of the film, I felt a great mistrust from some of the people in charge, although I had a special card up my sleeve: a film about women made by a woman. But the problem of film production in Tunisia is the same for men and women: it’s negative for both of them. At ACT, we are fighting the same struggle so as to make sure that Tunisia will have a film policy.

Originally published without title in CinémArabe, 10/11 (August/ November 1978). Translated by Sis Matthé

Selma Baccar


Fatma 75 (1975)

An Uncompromising View Interview by Wassyla Tamzali, 1979 Selma Baccar’s film [1] opens with a series of portraits of women who have marked the history of Tunisia through the ages. In a theatrical way, Sophonisba, Kahina, Jelajil, and Aziza present themselves to us as the predecessors, through their courageous actions, of this young girl, Fatma, in 1975. A student at the university of Tunis, Fatma Ben Ali will cast a conscious and demanding look on the status of women in her country on the occasion of a presentation about the different phases of women’s emancipation. As her search progresses, she will project herself into past situations and relive the stages of this awareness in the small scenes of the first part of the film, the second part dealing with the current situation, which starts in 1954. Combining fiction and reporting techniques, the film will very clearly state the problems faced by Tunisian women today and the difficulty of turning their lawful rights into everyday habits — Tunisia has been the first Muslim Arab country to adopt secular family laws and to have clearly distanced itself from the Koran. Selma Baccar addresses these topical problems with great acuity. And we could add that the strength of the film lies in the clarity of its intentions and the insightful way of demonstrating them. A whole set of techniques is placed at the service of her views, displaying a know-how that betrays a true filmmaker’s temperament. No temptations, gratuitous prowess or


sloppiness. Sound and image are there to serve the leading idea of the film at all times. I am thinking, for example, of the sequence that precedes the film’s opening titles, the portraits of historical women that announce the portrait of the student in 1975. They are interconnected by crossfades, in order to project the image of one woman. The use of the same face in these scenes, which reconstruct the stages of Tunisian women’s awareness through the ages, reinforces the idea of historical continuity, which is one of the most powerful ideas of this filmmaker (the liberation of Tunisian women does not begin with their “granting” of the Code of Personal Status by the current government, but is the result of an ancient struggle). A similar way of working on the image is used in the scene of the woman in the countryside under colonial rule. It is not a coincidence that we see the peasant couple side by side in the fields, just like at home. This unity is reinforced by their distance from the colonial, from the eye of the colonial, who’s watching over the peasants for the whole sequence. It perfectly shows that there is no gender segregation during the struggle against colonialism. It’s this idea that Mohamed Bouamari wants to express in the sequence in L’héritage (1975) in which the teacher’s wife tells the dignitary that during the struggle, when they killed and tortured, “I didn’t keep quiet, well now I won’t stop”.

Selma Baccar

To this mastery of cinematographic language, we need to add the sequence that illustrates the 1952 riot in Beja, a small town in northern Tunisia. Some women had founded the first female Destourian cell. They were arrested; then university and high school students went on strike, and women demonstrated in the streets. The student from 1952 recalls this demonstration: a stone thrown, a chair knocked over in an empty space, an abandoned blackboard, so many evocations that make us relive the violence of the event. The film owes its strong homogeneity to the relentless use of different means of expression — intertitles, reporting, documentary, fiction. The work on the image and the sound erases the boundaries between genres. For example, Selma Baccar’s montage of a sex education class only includes the questions asked, as it was more appropriate to show that teenagers today dare to tackle certain subjects than to offer a “truthful” depiction of the lesson. Here, the questions are asked in French, because the young teenagers do not dare to tackle this subject in their mother tongue? Is this a last barrier? Another instance of the reporting technique used here: Fatma Benali investigates the wages of male and female workers in a factory. She serves as an interviewer in this report. Thanks to a parallel montage of the workers’ answers and the skillfully asked questions, we discover the slightly ironic and mocking rhythm of the fictional scenes. All this evidently brings together these initially very different techniques. This creative authority gives the film a great fluidity and harmony, despite the diversity of the means employed. The film also owes its cohesion to the fact that, throughout the development of the story, we look at the screen with a woman’s gaze, that of the heroine — or the filmmaker. A gaze with a strong female subjectivity, which manages to be polemical and effective without ever losing a certain humour. This polemical tone and the effectiveness of the display are the very reason the producers were so critical of the film. Benefiting from the International Women’s Year, Selma Baccar had her script accepted by the Ministry of Information. It is obvious that the result is far from triumphalist. Moreover, the discreet tribute paid to Tahar Haddad, pioneering defender of women’s and workers’ rights — those intimately linked struggles — as well as to the founder of the women’s movement Bchira Ben Mrad — who displayed a certain reticence towards power — was not appreciated. The same goes for the general approach of the film, which is a demonstration of the historical continuity of the women’s struggle and not of a neo-Destourian “miracle”. The fact is that the film proposed by Selma Baccar, the first work on women’s struggles in a Maghreb country, is proof of this ancient awareness of Tunisian women. This first cinematographic work on the problems of women made by a woman must be hailed as a success.

Selma Baccar, you have been assistant director for four years. This is your first film. Did you experience any difficulties because you are a woman? In the difficult situation Tunisian cinema finds itself in, being a woman certainly didn’t help. Especially in terms of financing. They only entrust the budget of a film to a woman with considerable reserve! They put a couple of millions at your disposal reluctantly. As for the technical crew, everything went well. At the beginning, of course, I had to make my presence felt, more than a male director has to, no doubt. The boys were a bit paternalistic, but things gradually became clearer. They accepted the fact of working with a woman. In terms of directing, why did you take this approach of using several means of expression? Initially, I wanted to make a documentary. But a documentary is difficult to swallow, especially if you want to reach a large audience. So, I introduced a few fictional notes, also because I think there are no boundaries between genres. For example, for the use of intertitles. Apart from the financial reasons — as newsreels are quite expensive — it’s a choice, too, because I didn’t want to introduce pre-filmed, pre-fabricated elements. I wanted there to be a certain homogeneity. I think that was the biggest concern formally; I wanted the film to be homogeneous despite the different genres used. And that corresponds to the essence of the film, which had to tackle many different but interrelated issues. And the fictional scenes allowed me to edit in didactic support for an idea in a less heavy way. For example, we see the student visiting Tahar Haddad’s exhibition and a voice commenting on his texts, which remains a very intellectual kind of approach. So, then, I introduced a fictional scene that will illustrate the situation of this woman with powerful dramatic elements. Your film ends with the faces of peasant women, with worn-out faces and bent backs. Is that a coincidence? Not at all. It’s the rural women that interest me, because they suffer two kinds of oppression: gender oppression and economic oppression. These women are not aware of their fate because they are subjected to such economic conditions that they do not have time to wonder.

Selma Baccar


How can we make them aware of the injustice they suffer when they are thinking first of feeding their children? Is your film aimed at them?

Originally published as ‘Un regard sans complaisance’ in Wassyla Tamzali, En attendant Omar Gatlato: Regards sur le cinéma algérien ; suivi de Introduction fragmentaire au cinéma tunisien (Algiers: éditions E.N.A.P., 1979).

My film speaks to women, and to Tunisian women in particular. I hope I can show it to women who do not usually go to the cinema, get out of the traditional circuit and present it as a starting point for discussions with women; there will no doubt be women who are against the film... Today, only a few female intellectuals are mobilized for the struggle; but, in general, there is no dialogue between those who are aware and those who are not. I put a documentary part in this film, about the difficulties of the daily life of a housewife, about a peasant woman, and about the high cost of living, in order to help open a dialogue between women and offer the women elements for discussion.


Translated by Sis Matthé

[1] In the original French interview, Selma Baccar was called Selma Bedjaoui, presumably her maiden name. We’ve adapted the name for reasons of clarity.

Selma Baccar

“I made Fatma 75 because, despite everything, women are still not equal to men.” Interview by Farida Ayari, Férid Boughedir and Guy Hennebelle, 1981 Selma Baccar, how did you get into the cinema? Through the Tunisian Federation of Amateur Filmmakers. I was part of the Hammam-Lif club, where I was able to direct the short film The Awakening that won an award at the Kelibia festival in 1968: it was already a film about women’s liberation. Then, I followed courses at the Institut de formation cinématographique in Paris. When I went to Tunisia, I became a television assistant for five years. Is Fatma 75 your first feature-length film? The International Women’s Year provided me with the opportunity to make it. I figured that, for the first Tunisian film entirely devoted to this subject, I must not resort to fiction but make an analytical work. I did historical research, in particular on the participation of women in the struggle for independence, and then on the resulting achievements for women. Then, I measured the gap that existed between the Code of Personal Status and the way the code is practiced. Through this film, I set about demystifying what is called “the miracle of Tunisian women’s emancipation”. I showed that this situation, which was indeed better in certain respects, was not the result of a “miracle” but of a logical outcome. Of the work of one writer in particular, Tahar Haddad, who worked as a sociologist on the social and family structures of Tunisia in the 1930s and denounced the unfair fate of women. He showed that, although women often played an important role in their families, they had little opportunity to express themselves, to go out and practice what they were nevertheless entitled to according to the law. Tahar Haddad wrote many articles and one book, Our Women in the Shari’a and in Society, which caused a general uproar at the time (at the instigation of religious men who represented the privileged class of society). In an attempt to discredit him, they formed a cabal against him, calling him irreligious, a classic

technique. Tahar Haddad died, more or less banished, in 1935. Not until after the independence did they begin to recognize his role in the liberation of Tunisian women. Yet the Koran recognizes him… It is said that Islam has offered women a lot of freedom, yet it does not consider women equal to men. A woman is someone to protect, to care for, etc. Not an equal, not someone who is able to think for herself and solve her own problems. What is the structure of your film? It consists of a pre-opening titles part in five sketches and is then subdivided into two main parts. These five sketches feature five famous female characters from Tunisian history: 1) Sophonisba, the Punic princess who organized the resistance against the Roman invasion, 2) Hasdrubal’s wife (another princess, but history hasn’t remembered the names!) who preferred to kill herself and her two children rather than surrender to the Roman invaders, 3) Kahina, a Berber princess who resisted the Arab invaders, 4) the wife of an Aghlabid prince, who created the first girls’ school in Kairouan in the 9th century, 5) the humanist Aziza. The transition to the film itself occurs through the shot of a student preparing a presentation on the different stages of the liberation of Tunisian women. Then the first part begins, which in turn is divided into three sections: a) the Tahar Haddad period (1930-35), b) the establishment of the Union of Muslim Women of Tunisia in 1938, c) the demonstration against colonialism of the women of Beja in 1952. The first of its kind, this movement, whose leaders had been imprisoned, caused a mobilization of solidarity in Philippeville and Bizerte, also among men, merchants, etc. The second part describes the current situation, focusing, as I said, on the gap between the Code of Personal Status and its application.

Selma Baccar


What about the form of the film? The didactic playlets…

of view! I think that, if I were a man, I would be unhappy not to be able to speak with a woman.

It’s through these fictional tableaux that I analyze the situation. I told myself that making a one-hour documentary film on such a subject would be rather boring and offputting: hence my choice of fictional tableaux, acted scenes that summarize the facts of the problem, but evoked through a small story. What kind of audience did you have in mind? Television? Not exactly. I knew that this film would not be a commercial production intended for the big theatres but that it could introduce discussions. I had a budget of 160,000 French francs at my disposal, and in addition I received services from SATPEC (the state company) equivalent to 40,000 francs. I was financed by the Tunisian Ministry of Information, Family Planning and the Agency for Cultural and Technical Co-operation. Which women’s issues are discussed? There are three types. First, education: statistics show that, in rural areas, schools receive many more boys than girls. The further you go, the fewer girls there are. When there is a choice to be made, the boy’s studies are given priority: the girl will marry and her husband will provide for her. Second, the issue of sex: in Arab civilization, perhaps more than elsewhere, adolescent girls live their sexual issues in complete solitude. “These things” are never openly discussed. It is typical that, during the round table discussion among high school students on this subject, they only speak French because they are afraid of pronouncing the same words in Arabic, a language in which taboos are stronger. Third, work: between two people of equal competence, men are generally chosen over women in an administration. Generally speaking, women often play a secondary role, just as their salary is usually lower than that of men. Did you intend Fatma 75 for women, in order to raise awareness, or for men, in order to provoke them by showing them the injustices they inflict on women? I intend it for both. I think men are as much victims as women in this society. In my film, there is no simplistic and reductive division of executioner-men and martyr-women. In what ways are men victims? Because they are isolated. It must be sad to live the life of a man, without a partner with whom to share a certain point


Fatma 75 could be considered as a historical report, from the point of view of both men and women. Absolutely. The period of Tahar Haddad is crucial in the evolution of Tunisian women, and yet he was a man! I think there is no sexism in my film. It responds to this thirst for memory and collective history that is felt everywhere and by everyone. Do you intend to continue making films about women? You have to start by expressing yourself on the subjects that affect you and that you know best. There are lots of other subjects that interest me, but at the moment I give priority to women’s issues because I live them every day. As a woman filmmaker, I feel I have a mission that I cannot escape. In a few years, when I will have made four or five films about women, I will have exhausted this need. But I think that I am, above all, making film accounts about my society, including all its contradictions between men and women, law and practice... I do not isolate women’s issues from those of society as a whole. What kind of trouble have you got into? The banning of the film in Tunisia, even before it was seen by the board of censors. So far, only a few people have been able to see it during a screening at the Carthage Film Festival in 1978, and from time to time, at the discretion of the producer-distributor, which is SATPEC... The film that was commissioned in a particular form by the Ministry of Information and Cultural Affairs has not been accepted in this version. The National Union of Tunisian Women also rejected it, arguing that the film was subjective, distorted history and was too pessimistic about the current situation of women. Too pessimistic? A year ago, a new law banned women from travelling abroad alone, while more and more “Muslim sisters” have taken on the veil, no longer speak to men, no longer touch them and no longer want to be touched... They don’t even shake the hands of relatives! Don’t you think this fundamentalism is part of the quest for identity? No, it’s not! In my opinion, specificity and authenticity are something else entirely. Plus, these women are deforming Islam. This phenomenon reveals a certain malaise. These women don’t recognize themselves in our bastard society full of contradictions…

Selma Baccar

You were also criticized for a sequence on sex education… That’s one of the contradictions! Sex education is an official program of the national education system. But the authorities don’t want us to talk about it in a film, because it could shock those who are not aware of it, especially parents! By including this sequence, I wanted to denounce this kind of taboo. Why not inform parents that their children are following sex education classes? In high school, the teenagers adopt a certain language, a certain spirit, they allow themselves to ask any question. Within the family circle, they are confronted with linguistic taboos: you must not say this, you must not ask questions about that, etc. It is worse for the new generation than it was for us — we did not have any sex education at all — because they are confronted with two different ways of thinking. With this sequence, I wanted to explain that, before educating children, we had to inform the parents, so that the kids are not disturbed by the differences between school and home. A woman should not, in principle, talk about sex? To my knowledge, few men want to talk about it. Because men live their sexuality more simply. Whereas women need to talk about it. When a woman undergoes her “conjugal duty”, it’s simply because she doesn’t know her body. What are your future projects? I have two. The first will be inspired by the daily reality of a village in northern Tunisia. It will be the starting point of a fiction film which will have a woman as its central character: the “Aïcha al-Kadira” of the village, both midwife, matchmaker, beautician... All the other women will gravitate around her. This woman will be, in a way, the core of female life in the village. By participating in the destiny of all the women, she will be involved in all sorts of adventures: those of a mother, and of a young girl that flees to the city, gets herself pregnant and returns to the village to have an abortion carried out by Aïcha, and ends up in prostitution of course. Or of a little schoolgirl who steals her mother’s eggs and goes to sell them on the road so as to buy herself some notebooks. One day, she disappears… For what kind of audience is this film intended? I would like it to be accessible to any woman. The structure will be very simple. The fictional element will make it easy to receive at different levels. Intellectuals will receive it on more complex levels. The romantic side could make women in very

modest situations think. I am aware that this is not the case with Fatma 75. In retrospect, that’s my main self-criticism. By its very structure, with the passage from fiction to documentary, Fatma 75 is far from accessible to everybody. The abortion scene will certainly shock… Maybe, but it’s really important because it denounces another contradiction. Officially, abortion is free, but only for married women. When it concerns a young girl, it’s still taboo. What film language are you going to use for this next film? It won’t be classic or linear. The events and the characters will be intertwined. I think I’ll adopt the same approach as Ahmed El Maanouni did for Oh the Days! (1978). The everyday will prevail over the dramatic element. Yet, these films are much less popular with the public… Yes, but maybe it’s a next step towards a situation of pure fiction. How will you write the script? I would like to go and live in this village for a while and then write it with two or three other people. I was very interested in the experience of the members of the Nouveau Théâtre who collectively wrote La noce. I would like to do the same thing. What about your second project? That would be an adaptation of Aïcha Lemsine’s La Chrysalide, if the author agrees. I really like the first part of the novel, but I find the second part a bit dangerous, because it lapses into self-contemplation.

Originally published as “J’ai fait Fatma 75 parce que, malgré tout, la femme n’est pas encore l’égale de l’homme” in CinémAction, 14 (spring 1981). Translated by Sis Matthé

Selma Baccar


An Encounter with the Doyenne of Tunisian Film, Selma Baccar Interview by Stefanie Van de Peer, 2010 Selma Baccar was the first woman in Tunisia to make her own films. Part of a group inspired by the bohemian atmosphere of the southern suburb of Tunis, Hammam-Lif, she became interested in cinema at a very young age. After college, she studied psychology in Switzerland and had the chance to go to Paris for film studies. These influences remained vital throughout her life as a filmmaker and producer, as her approach to directing a film is very hands-on, probes into the psychological lives of her characters and her inspiration lies in a hybrid of Tunisian stories and French philosophy. Tunisian cinema is known throughout the world for popular films like Férid Boughedir’s Halfaouine and Moufida Tlatli’s Silences of the Palace. As a consequence, it has become stereotyped as a cinema that deals with women’s sensuality and the magic and beauty of the old Tunis: palaces and labyrinthine medinas feature prominently as a setting that determines the plotlines. Tunisian filmmaking then has been identified as being a cinema of the mythical feminine. Boughedir, a film scholar as well as a director, is one of the male theoreticians who have extensively commented on this. Nevertheless, there is a much more problematic spatiality going on in Tunisian cinema than the most well-known films dare to illustrate. The identity politics in the films foregrounds women as the bearer of the nation’s troubles, while Tunisia’s liberal and democratic status in the Arab world denies even the existence of any troubles. Women’s rights in Tunisia are still a topic of hot debate, within the country and its women’s movements as well as abroad. As Tunisia’s role in the UN and in the Arab world is taken so seriously partly because of the country’s proliferation as a liberal and democratic country respecting women’s rights, one needs to question whether the theory matches reality. Fifty years ago, women received legal rights including the right to divorce and equality to men regarding citizenship. The president of the newly independent republic, Habib Bourguiba, also opposed the wearing of the hijab, polygamy and he set the legal age of marriage for a girl at 17. The pro-Western stance Bourguiba took during his


presidency resulted in general modernization and the rejection of militant Islam. Yet at the same time, during those first years, Tunisia was a one-party state and the president had dictatorial powers. The cult surrounding his personality and charisma is directly related to his role in the fight for independence, and his powerful image as the father of the nation, especially of the women. [1] In well-known speeches held by Bourguiba, he recalls his childhood as the youngest in a big family of women and particularly the position of his mother whom he adored. As he grew older, he said, he realized the unfair situations of women, and the gravity of the problem. His insight into the problem was great: as a statesman he could not change the situation easily as it was linked to history, tradition, religion and habit. He would have to change the mentality of a whole population in order to provide women with equal rights. The fact that so soon after independence he assured the Code of Personal Status for women (1957) still has an enormous influence on how Tunisians see the strengths of their country’s democracy. While pioneering filmmaker Selma Baccar acknowledges the power of Bourguiba on Tunisia, she also allocates some of the important modernising changes that have been made in the country to be the result of women’s activism in the past. In the late 1960s, when protest marches and activism engulfed the world of politics as well as art, a crucial manifesto was inaugurated in the Arab film world, most directly as a protest against the domination of the film industry in the region by Egyptian melodramas and imported Hollywood films. After the defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, a general malaise entered the political and public spheres in the Arab world. Nouri Bouzid refers to 1967 as the date of the “alarm bell that aroused the dormant Arab consciousness from its long slumber” of cultural degeneration. [2] It is possible that this kind of traumatic experience was needed to put the potential of cinema truly in the public consciousness. The “defeat-conscious” cinema found its culmination in the 1968 New Arab Cinema Collective, and their manifesto. The new generation of young filmmakers

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adopted an organized, collective new outlook on realist cinema. The emphasis was on an artistic exploration of authenticity of form and content. As Bouzid points out, the individualistic, personal, and autobiographical were vehicles to question the person behind the camera and his or her identity, identified as a “step that must be taken before they may begin to question others”. [3] The director was thus equal to the characters, processing an internal self-reflexivity that reflects the nation’s dynamic. By invoking a personal memory and challenging it to become a collective memory, viewers managed to find themselves and their contemporary reality in these new films. The 1967 defeat then was a wake-up call and a point at which the frustrations of young filmmakers who were limited in their artistic freedoms culminated. The power of the collective was necessary to find ways to overcome the strong censorship problems. It was at this precise time that Selma Baccar made her first short film — The Awakening — a film entirely produced by a team of women, which won a prize at the Kelibia amateur film festival, and that led to her own blossoming certainty that filmmaking was the direction in which her life was going to take her. Férid Boughedir’s film Caméra arabe (1987) illustrates that New Arab Cinema thrives on a multiplicity of themes and that this results in each director having his or her own genre. The diversity was evident in the themes and content, but automatically also found its outlet in the vision of reality. Throughout the Arab world, filmmakers were working towards what was real and urgent for the people. Cinema was more than ever concerned with contemporary reality, which was — since 1967 — a different and more self-conscious reality. Emphasis was on a truthful representation of everyday life, and this came across in documentaries, which — due to this renewed interest in reality — were explored with more enthusiasm in the Arab world. Perhaps New Arab Cinema, like any other subversive collective in cinema history returned to the origins of cinema to explore the possibilities and opportunities within reality and its representation. With the advent in the late 1960s of New Arab Cinema, women burst onto the film screen in North Africa and the Middle East. New Arab Cinema became more concerned with the position of women and the violence they still suffer in some Arab countries. “Many male directors expressed in their films the need for female emancipation but often simply as a means to achieve national goals, such as technical and cultural progress, or political independence”. [4] This is an interesting trend, as female film directors still did not feel those films adequately represented women. More and more female directors found their topic of choice and their focus to be on “correcting” male representations of female issues. In Caméra arabe, Férid Boughedir’s argument centres on the fact that this New Arab Cinema provided a new

space for women’s voices. In the film he interviews Néjia Ben Mabrouk, a Tunesian filmmaker living in Brussels, who problematises men’s representation of women’s psychology (the whore versus saint imagery) and assures us that women should be representing themselves. Boughedir has also written numerous articles on why he calls Tunisian cinema a female cinema. It is intriguing to read that for him, men as well as women in Tunisia seem to focus solely on the influence women have had on the content of the cinema, whereas the “feminine” style of films is left untouched. As the pioneer of female Tunisian filmmakers, Selma Baccar has first and foremost also answered back to men’s representations of women in her own films. From The Awakening (1966) to Fatma 75 (1975), The Dance of Fire (1995) to Flower of Oblivion (2006), the historical detail, contemporary relevance and concern with women in a much wider context have gained her the reputation of the “grande dame” of Tunisian cinema: a feminist activist. As a filmmaker she attaches a great deal of importance to the voice of her characters telling the stories she has written, but also to the representation of those voices on the two-dimensional screen. An eye for detail has always resulted in an extensive period of intense research preceding the filmmaking process, as outspoken subtlety, sartorial details and the intensity of the actors’ and actresses’ faces speak for themselves. She has strong and interesting viewpoints on women’s issues, and on other Tunisian filmmakers, and makes for a forthcoming, entertaining and intriguing interviewee. On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in central Tunis in early March 2010, I am meeting Selma Baccar at the shopping centre on Rue de la Liberté where she has parked her car. She has a busy agenda, so invites me to have lunch with her and her daughter and grandson. The conversation is very informal and entertaining. We talk all the way through lunch: Selma likes to chat, and speaks with conviction and authority. How did you start out in filmmaking? The first film I made was an independent production in collaboration with my female friends of the Hammam-Lif amateur film club. The Awakening is a silent short film in black and white, made in 1966 when I was 21. The film club was an amazing circle of friends; we did everything together and supported each other’s work. There was absolutely no funding available for us, so we did everything ourselves. In the 1960s, there were quite a few of these types of cinéclubs present all over Tunisia, but the one from Hammam-Lif was the most active and the best known one. It also proved to be the breeding ground of a lot of talent in production, people that are still working in the film industry today.

Selma Baccar


I was not born in Hammam-Lif, but my parents moved here when I was seven years old. Before that the family came on holiday here at every opportunity. I still live here today because it is conveniently located close to Tunis where I work. My house is at the top of one of the hills surrounding the town, and I feel like I am the queen of the village looking out over my kingdom. The people also know me and forgive me for being outrageously dressed because I am “the artiste” of the town... I love this town, it is always full of artists and initiatives. There is, for example, an old and now derelict cinema for sale, where I think we could set up great events. I think someone needs to buy or rent it and with some renovation it could become a really interesting and beautiful cultural centre. I used to and still do know all the cineastes that live here or in the surrounding areas, so maybe I can get their interest in this idea and get a project going. My parents raised me in the Islamic faith and I have done the pilgrimage to Mecca twice, with them, but I am an agnostic person myself. I certainly believe in goodness and generosity, but not in a religious context. I would consider myself to be a spiritual person, it’s just that I believe faith is a very individual matter, and organized religion is not concerned with personalities. I worry about the increasing amount of young girls choosing to wear the hijab. I really feel powerfully about women’s freedom in Tunisia. From my very first film, The Awakening, I was concerned with these issues surrounding women’s personal status. The Awakening was a very early manifestation of my concerns and shows how important it is for me to include optimistic or at least ambiguous endings. The choice of a woman to lead her life as she wants to is of vital importance to my activist tendencies. I must say I have calmed down a bit over the years, but I am still as passionate as ever about the women in my films. Does your audience relate to these passions? I would say that, like most Tunisian and other African or Arab filmmakers, I choose to make films for my own people. So the Tunisian audience is most important to me. From my very first film, I chose to confront my people with a representation of their own society in a realistic way. As an activist for women’s rights, I have always felt that women are the cornerstone of society in general, and as a child of the age of protests in the 1960s I felt that I could be not only a spokesperson for the Tunisian woman but also an informer and critic of the contemporary atmosphere in Tunisia. In the past, we have been fairly lucky as filmmakers here in Tunis to reach the audience that we want, as filmmaking is still quite a popular art here. After independence we had the infrastructure available, and there were many cinemas in Tunis. Regrettably, in recent years many of the cinemas have been


left to decay, and now I only know of eight functioning cinemas in the centre of Tunis. I always make sure that my films travel around Tunisia: we visit cinéclubs everywhere we can, where the films are usually accompanied by events and talks. Partly due to the bi-annual Carthage Film Festival the Tunisian audience is used to watching Tunisian films, and we have learned that films accompanied by events are usually more well-attended than films being screened on their own. This tells us that the Tunisian film-going public is quite critical and informed about its own cinema. Do the films have the same success abroad? They are not well distributed in the West or the Arab world, where the success of the Egyptian cinema prevents the distribution of any other kind of film. It is a great pity that Tunisian films like mine do not get properly distributed outside of the Arab world. I am not impressed with European and American distributors’ lack of vision and risk taking. While our films receive critical acclaim at festivals like Cannes and Venice, we do not get opportunities to show our films more widely in the cinemas. There is a real need to open up the horizons of European distributors, to make them appreciate the storytelling of other cultures without having to give it a niche space of the Third World. I detest that word; it is so irrelevant, especially in the film world. New stories need to be told, new spaces need to be opened up and I find that a cinema other than the Hollywood or European one is the best candidate to successfully achieve this. While outsiders get interested in Tunisia, it is usually still as a backdrop of exotic stories or European customs. From The Awakening to Flower of Oblivion there is a preoccupation with Tunisian women living in the space between their own ambitions and passions on the one hand and the limitations of the surrounding society on the other hand. Yet there is always space for optimism in your films. Thematically there is definitely a constant in my work. From The Awakening onwards I have clearly had an interest in representing women, and their (lack of ) options and choices. I suppose that the freedom I have experienced in my life as an artist, and as a student studying abroad, have taught me a lot about emancipation and women’s rights. From 1966 onwards, my films have dealt in a social and cultural way with this choice that Tunisians struggle with. Emancipation is all good and well but if you cannot practice what is being preached I see no harm in reacting against oppressive traditionalisms. That is why in The Awakening I show an intelligent girl who graduates and wants to study.

Selma Baccar

Her father however protests against this option: she ends up compromising her ideals to find a job and independence as a secretary. Again it is a senior man who limits her future perspectives: her boss sees her as a sexual object and she is forced to leave. When she makes the decision to live independently in her own flat, and offer private lessons to students, the men in the street disapprove and sabotage her plans once more. The ending is ambiguous on purpose: I refuse to solve the problem for her. Instead I film her sitting on the beach contemplating her options and end with a focus on her face, expressing determination and resilience. I aim to incorporate a grain of hope and optimism at the end of all my films, indicating that even though it is difficult for women to fight an uphill battle, there are ways of coping with these: courage and strength is what I most admire in Tunisian women. With Fatma 75 I continued along this path, but the film is more openly feminist. It is a docufiction film, a genre I love. It has also been called a didactic film. I made it during the UN International Year for Women, which in Tunisia was a very important event. President Bourguiba had contributed extensively to the rights of women in Tunisia, and his inspirational personality and speeches had changed traditional and conservative attitudes amongst the population. But with Fatma 75, I wanted to show that it was not only Bourguiba that had changed history. For him it was a matter of expressing these sentiments at the right time and the right place. Yet the historical context and women’s activism needed to be valued as well. Tunisia was ready for it at that moment in time due to historical evolutions explained in the film. Women’s organization had already been established in the 1930s. The three epochs discussed in the film are knitted together through the fictional story of a female student at university discussing the historical relevance of women’s movements throughout the 20th century. I believe this film was very educational for all youngsters in the 1970s in Tunisia. The Dance of Fire is set in my favourite era: the 1920s and 1930s. She was a very popular Tunisian singer and dancer, constantly surrounded by men who adored her. The biopic includes the historical circumstances such as colonialism and fascism, again to portray the historical relevance of this strong independent woman’s story. Poetic, romantic and tragic, the story also incorporates the choices she is unable to make due to an increasingly suffocating atmosphere. Her powerful struggle to remain independent and successful culminates in a tragic dance spectacle, which she has chosen to express her anger. Once again I chose to discuss the difficulties for a woman to choose, to decide on her own destiny. The constant presence of adoring men first encourages her, later stifles her and eventually kills her. Legend has it that her lover murdered her, but I did not want to show this: in the film I decided to show that she made a conscious choice to

“burn” like the butterfly, attracted by the hot light, knowing that reaching that goal will burn its wings. It is this insight into her own situation, this consciousness of her own self-destructive tendencies that reflect her testing nature when it comes to her own destiny. In Flower of Oblivion this choice that women have is also the culmination of a lifetime of struggle and bitterness. The main character, Zakia, is a very sensual woman who becomes sexually frustrated because her husband does not desire her. She suffocates in her wish to be loved and becomes more and more determined to teach her daughter to be free to make her own choices. Her addiction to opium (khochkhach) however turns her into a selfish creation unable to cope with life. Paradoxically, when she ends up in an insane asylum, she becomes truly free. In this irony lies the power of the film and of Zakia: she is finally free and able to make her own decisions within the confines of an asylum. Her choice to stay when she is declared healthy is of vital importance to her self-confidence. In the asylum, she is confined physically but not mentally. So yes, my topics are usually concerned with women and their personal freedoms, choices and limitations, but as I said I always try to include a sparkle of hope towards the end. I believe a positive ending is not necessarily the same as the stereotypically Hollywood happy ending. I am convinced that the optimism linked to freedom of choice is the only way forward towards a future in which women will be able to make their own decisions. What inspires you to keep including these optimistic but ambiguous endings to your films? You are pointing towards the ideals of women’s rights versus the reality in a conservative society — where does the inspiration to remain positive come from? When I was still studying, I read a philosophical essay by Albert Camus, about Sisyphus. He adapted the ancient myth of the man defying the gods and being punished for it. It inspired Camus’ theatre and novels of the absurd. For me, life is like that as well. I engage with this philosophical worldview in a personal way. Sisyphus embodies the absurd hero facing eternal punishment from the gods who have condemned him to a hopeless struggle. As Sisyphus has defied death and has disrespected the gods, his punishment consists of pushing a rock up to the top of a mountain, only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top. The gods believed that for a human being, there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. However, Sisyphus knows himself to be the master of his days. Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus

Selma Baccar


happy.” Camus is preoccupied with the absurdity of life. Living with the absurd and maintaining a constant awareness of it allows us to live life to its fullest. Only when a person can see and accept their lot in life for what it is, can they ever truly achieve happiness and fulfilment. The women in my films are all in a similar situation: they find themselves in circumstances that are absurd, and while they struggle in daily life, they also decide to get on with it and not despair. This optimism is necessary in any absurd situation. According to me it is what makes life bearable and worthwhile. The subjects of your films are always women and their problems and choices. Would you agree with Férid Boughedir that Tunisian filmmaking is saturated with feminine themes? Férid Boughedir posits Tunisia as part of the Mediterranean and of Africa. He writes about the absence of the father in the family and the dominance of the mother in Mediterranean culture. He points out Bourguiba’s influence on the nation with his speeches and his charismatic personality, the Code of Personal Status for women and the Ministry for the Family. He is right of course. My inspiration for stories always comes from myself as a woman and from my past amongst women. Women are the ones within the family that spend the most time with the children and impart stories. The children are determined in their imagination by these stories. The subjects of my films will always be women. I am most interested in the psychology of women within the structure of the family or the community. I get inspiration from everyday life: I see stories unfolding everywhere. I believe that the smallest and most insignificant events deserve my full attention: I like to talk and I like making stories out of everything that surrounds me. The women that inspire me are moreover mostly members of my own family: my mother, aunts and grandmothers. I used to listen in on their storytelling and gossiping, and it made me a very curious child. I am still a curious person and create the women in my films from composites of the women that used to be in my life as a child. The stories they told about other women were always filled with intrigues and self-irony. They had an intelligence I did not always grasp when I was younger. Obviously there are amazing films being made by men, but I feel that men may not possess the power and the insight into the complex psyche of women. Certain Tunisian films that discuss the virginity of women without understanding anything about it, merely manage to reproduce ancient and irrelevant clichés. I understand their intrigue with the topic, but I see so many things they should do differently. A woman director could add an extra dimension to the psychology in the representation of women on the screen.


Would you call yourself a feminist? I do not care all that much for the term “feminist”. I respect the movements of the 1960s, and I accept that I may be perceived as a feminist. I lived through the summer of 1968 in Paris so I appreciate the importance of the movement. Every woman really is a feminist and an activist deep down inside, but the word has become detested throughout the world. It is one of those words that gain a bad reputation through the ages. I myself am indifferent about the terminology. Things get labelled to make the world more comprehensible, but I do what I do because it is my passion, not because I follow an agenda. As I said, my films clearly deal with women, specifically female stories and cases representing women in every situation. As such, I am representing the different stages in my own life. From The Awakening to Flower of Oblivion my preoccupation is clear, but I also aim to represent more widely the nation, national concerns and national identity. Is there a specifically Tunisian cinema aesthetic that could perpetuate this? I do not believe in such a thing as a national Tunisian cinema. I prefer to speak of Tunisian films because there is such a wide variety of individual genres, themes, filmmakers, etc., it seems implausible to attribute a few overall aspects to the thematics and genre-choices of Tunisian filmmakers. Moreover, the government does not really support what could be named a “national cinema”. Getting funding is extremely difficult because by law 40% of the total budget for a film must come from the Tunisian Ministry of Culture. And it is hard to please them. I also think the problem lies with production. I have made four films that have received serious distribution over a period of more than 40 years. That shows that being prolific in Tunisia is relative. At most two films get made every year here. I agree you can definitely speak of a national cinema in countries like Egypt, where production is so high that hundreds of films are made and distributed widely yearly and where the government actively supports a certain type of filmmaking, but not so in Tunisia. It used to be different, we used to make more films, and we were more successful internationally than we are now. It is reflected in the decline of the cinemas. This does not mean that the quality has dropped, but the quantity of films being made is at an all time low. The problem really is the financial situation. There are so many creative people in this country wanting to make films, so much talent, but there is simply not enough money to fund all of these initiatives. Making films is expensive and if our films are not distributed internationally we stand no chance at sustaining ourselves financially. Even if the Tunisian

Selma Baccar

public and the critics like the films, there is still the problem of there being so few cinemas. What do you think might be the solution? Maybe the answer lies in international co-productions. My last film, Flower of Oblivion, was a Tunisian-Moroccan co-production. Twenty-five per cent of the costs of a production is usually spent on editing equipment and suites. The Moroccan co-producers of Flower of Oblivion, the Moroccan Film Centre, provided us with their infrastructure for the editing process. I am very proud to be able to say that this popular film was made entirely out of Maghrebian time and money. Nevertheless, the film did not receive a serious distribution in Morocco. Does the state interfere too much in filmmaking in Tunisia then? Do you feel censored or controlled? In my own experience, the Ministry is quite strict yes. Maybe the word censorship is wrong as we are usually allowed to show nudity or scenes of a sexual nature. That used to be more of a problem in the past. I do not feel censored as much as I feel controlled. Scripts have to be accepted by the ministry before the film is allowed to be made. The budget for Tunisian films is also dependent on the ministry: 40% has to be supplied by the government, before filmmakers are allowed to look elsewhere. It is very difficult to get through this, as there seems to be only money for a small amount of films a year in Tunisia. Even for established and famous filmmakers it is hard to get through this. It is time consuming, stifling and frustrating. Personally, I spend years researching a project because I attach so much importance to the correctness of the details in my films. If after several years of research and being immersed in a project, it is not accepted by the ministry and you do not receive the support you need to bring the project to a good ending, then that is devastating. Sometimes we also have to wait several years to hear back from the ministry. What is your own experience with this ministerial control? In my case Fatma 75 was censored and forbidden for 30 years. The authorities had seen the complete script and all the details about the production and given it their approval. I knew about the issues the ministry had with changes to scripts they had accepted, so I stuck to the script. Yet they were still surprised when they saw the final product, and forbade it to be screened. Officially, the film did not leave

the country until 2006, but it is travelling widely now. Unofficially, two Dutch women who had read about the film in the French newspaper in the late 1960s, came to Tunis in the late 1970s to buy a copy for their film festival. They visited the ministry personally and convinced the bureaucrats to sell them the film for distribution and screenings in the Netherlands. The ministry accepted that the film could be screened outside of Tunisia. This is also why the original subtitles on Fatma 75 are Dutch. Luckily I can see the irony now: the controversy clearly proves to be beneficial for the popularity of the film all these years after it was first made. Since the film was made available for public screenings in Tunisia in 2006, it has become very popular. I travel around Tunisia with it, to screen it to illiterate and poor women in rural areas. I realise it is a very didactic film, but it is also a historical document, recording women’s strengths and power over the course of the last century. It is invaluable material to show women in rural areas the truth about their rights and struggles. The discussions that usually follow the screening of the film are inspirational. Do you see this rural screening of Fatma 75 also as a storytelling event in itself ? I really like being a storyteller. I love being the one that brings these forgotten truths and stories back to the women who were the actual source of the stories. Storytelling is a sort of teaching. I teach at a private university and a private school in the heart of Tunis. I teach young filmmakers the art of scriptwriting. I always draw parallels between La Fontaine’s stories, the stories in 1001 Nights and my own way of storytelling. Stories need to have a goal: they need to be clear and simple and straightforward. As a filmmaker you have to take elements from daily life and reality, but they are not enough: so you add imaginary aspects to give it a twist worthy of film. Films need to be accessible to as wide an audience as possible. Scriptwriting as the first step towards a film seems very important in your experience as a filmmaker. Where and how do you find the inspiration for the stories you wish to bring to the screen? For me, storytelling is a universally female occupation: women tell stories to each other, they gossip and they tell stories to the children. I myself love to talk and tell stories. Everything that happens to me is worthy of a story. Storytelling is also something that has always been of great importance in my family. Stories are ways to transmit memory and knowledge. As a young girl I was always around my

Selma Baccar


mother and my aunts. I have based many of my films on stories I remember from that time when I used to sit and listen to them. My latest film for example, Flower of Oblivion, is based on a story that I heard many times when I was a little girl: a member of my mother’s family went through the same difficulties as Zakia, the main character. Her addiction was always talked about in a secretive manner so I became extra curious. I started asking questions about why someone would destroy themselves so completely but no one could really provide an answer. This incomplete story mystified me for years until I decided that the answer must lie within me, as a woman myself. I started to understand that in old times, when men had multiple women, women competed with each other, but they would not destroy themselves. Instead, they would strive to be the prettiest, smartest or funniest. But if a man is plainly not interested in you because you are a woman and not because there is competition from other women, it is insulting, frustrating and soul-destroying for a sensual woman like Zakia. Her frustration became so all-encompassing that self-destruction seemed like the only way out of her life. So even though the story is very specific about one woman in my family, I tried to make it a universal story about a sensual but frustrated woman. Eventually the power to decide where she is going is what liberates her: freedom of choice is something that must interest everyone. How is the power of the story and the manner of storytelling reflected in your relationship with your actors? I would say that the voices I use come from my past, from the stories I heard before, and the voice in my films is most definitely my own. I bend and break the rules of storytelling, I add things to the reality in order to make films that are unusual. My films are my stories, and the stories are told through actresses that inspire me. They speak with my words. Film and storytelling is a transmission of knowledge. I have to completely trust my actresses to do so and they have to trust me to tell the right story. The relationship between us is crucial for the development of the work we do on set but also for the success of the film. I feel I have to get the best out of them, so I treat them really well. They are my creations. I am quite well known in film circles for this: I always retain strong bonds with my leading actresses long after a film has finished. Just as the research I do before I start shooting the films, casting has become a long and painstaking process for me. It just has to be completely right. The relationship between the actors and myself is absolutely of primary importance. We could for example not find an actress that could carry off the charisma of the aunt in The Dance of Fire. We could not find what I had in mind, not even when we dressed the actresses


up and did their make-up. So a friend of mine said that she thought she knew what I was looking for, and the next day she brought along a friend. This woman, who had never acted before and was actually quite shy, took me completely by surprise and I cast her immediately. She was due for shooting a few weeks later and came up to me to say she was too nervous, she was going to mess the film up. I insisted that she try and I said “no, it has to be you, and if you are not in the film I will not make the film”. So really I put a lot of pressure on the actress, but from the very first shoot it went wonderfully and our collaboration has become very important for me. I discovered her and she has become really well known in the Tunisian film industry. She is a very famous lady now. This passion for detail and charisma, and the research you put into the preparations for your films suggest a preoccupation with the visual as well as the verbal. Do you like handling the camera yourself ? I usually make use of a cameraman, but sometimes there are instances where I do the shooting myself. I find the visual extremely important. The charisma of this woman inspired me, and I focus often on the faces, the eyes and the mouth of my actresses. Looks can say even more than words do sometimes. The importance I attach to details like jewellery, make-up, costumes, props is well known among actors and actresses in Tunis. I love beauty and style, I love expressing things that maybe add something to the story I am transmitting. Their dress says so much about them, and it enables the actors to find the character more easily and to find the voice I have in mind. I suppose I guide them in the direction I want through these details. Something interesting happened in this respect while we were shooting the last few scenes of Flower of Oblivion. This film is extremely personal and very important for me because of the family bonds with the characters. Another reason why it was so important for me was that I felt like it was an opportunity to get closure on some past things that had happened between my mother and me. That is why I wanted to shoot the last scene of the film myself, because it felt so personal and it had to be right from the very first attempt, otherwise it would have been too difficult for me. I took the viewfinder and focused in great detail on the faces of the actresses. Because I was behind the camera at that point they were also possibly under more pressure to get it right from the first time. And it worked. We were such a close community of friends at that point that I felt they were able to convey what I wanted them to, immediately. And I felt like I was the only one permitted to gaze so closely upon this moment at this crucial first take. It was perfect and so intense that I had to take some time to

Selma Baccar

myself after we finished shooting this. I stayed in my office for a while, and thought about my past, my mother and my family: I was very emotional. Time went by so quickly that I did not realise that I had left the crew on their own without instructions, so they came to find me. We finished shooting that day and I knew the film would be exactly what I wanted it to be. What are your hopes and wishes for the future of Tunisian filmmaking? We must keep on taking initiative, more cinemas need to be brought back to life and I really hope some inspirational international distributors will mitigate the distribution problems. The new generations are always the hope of the future so I am pleased I get to teach them. We need to work on alleviating the intrusions of traditionalism that weigh heavily on Tunisia and on the rest of the Arab world. It would be such a shame to lose sight of the modernizations and positive changes Bourguiba’s generation brought to the country and of which all Tunisians are so proud.

Published in The Journal of North African Studies, vol. 16, 3 (2011).

[1] For more information on Habib Bourguiba: Derek Hopwood, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia: The Tragedy of Longevity (Basingstoke: Macmillan and St. Antony’s College Oxford, 1992). [2] Nouri Bouzid and Shereen El Ezabi, “New Realism in Arab Cinema: The Defeat-Conscious Cinema,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 15, (1995), p. 242). [3] Ibid., p. 248. [4] Viola Shafik, Arab Cinema: History and Cultural Identity (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2005), p. 201.

Selma Baccar



Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy “I don’t want to be labelled a women’s filmmaker because I make films about life, and women are only a part of this life. I make films about people who I know, who I relate to (class-wise speaking) — humble and poor people. About their struggle to live, about their joy, and about their dreams. I still learn from them, from what they are doing and of their wisdom about life. I give the floor to my people to speak out. That is why they call me ‘the poor people’s filmmaker’.” Atteyat Al-Abnoudy (1939-2018) was born Atteyat Awad Mahmoud Khalil into a family of labourers in a small village along the Nile Delta. A child of Nasserism, she studied law at the University of Cairo while supporting herself financially by working as an actress and assistant director at the theatre. At the beginning of the 1970s, she decided to study film at the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema, where she created Horse of Mud, which was not only her first film but also Egypt’s first documentary produced by a woman. Her graceful focus on the disadvantaged and the unrepresented in Egyptian society would earn her the nickname “the poor people’s filmmaker”, but it also enkindled a confrontation with censorship. “The censors didn’t like to show the people as very poor after twenty years of revolution in Egypt. They think cinema, especially documentary, should be propaganda for the state. In a way, it’s the fault of the filmmakers who were making documentaries over the past twenty years. They made at least eleven films about the construction of the Aswan High Dam, but they spoke only about the machines, the tractors, the engineers. Nobody talked about the working people who died and suf-

Filming Rolla Tree in Dubai (1985)

fered to help build this Dam.” Despite its limited circulation, Horse of Mud went on to win numerous international prizes, after which Al-Abnoudy made her graduation film, The Sad Song of Touha, a portrait of Cairo’s street entertainers — which she created in collaboration with her husband, poet and songwriter Abdel Rahman Al-Abnoudy. She continued her studies at the International Film and Television School in London until 1976 and persisted to document the daily lives and struggles of economically and socially marginalized groups in Egypt, while exposing the structural inequalities within the socio-economic system. In films such as Permissible Dreams (1983) and Democracy Days (1996), she attended to the lot of Egyptian women, a choice of subject matter which has frequently invited the displeasure of government authorities. Against the grain, Atteyat Al-Abnoudy managed to produce more than thirty films which were shown worldwide, albeit rarely in her own country. Before her death in 2018, she left her film estate to the Cimatheque — Alternative Film Centre in Cairo, which continues to advocate her legacy of independent and committed filmmaking.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


Horse of Mud (1971)

Everyone Wears a Mask Interview by Jim Pines, 1973 Atteyat’s first film, Horse of Mud (1971), is a twelve-minute short. It’s a series of simple images of workers involved in the remarkably primitive and tortuous process of brick-making. At one point in the film, we see a scrawny, blind-folded horse being guided by a man, sluggishly trampling the mud pit round and round and round… until after some three hours the wretched beast is finally given a break; collapses on its back rolling and kicking its legs about, enjoying a precious moment of freedom. Women and children are especially prominent, working as “conveyor-belts” humping loads of mud and carting slacks of bricks on their heads. They make as many as 135 journeys a day. A woman tells how she tried to quit this soul-destroying drudgery and do something humanising and worthwhile — only to find there is no way out. And always in the background is the endless grinding monotonous sound carrying on, and on. The film’s theme has an in-built glibness about it, but Atteyat’s treatment of them is striking and impressionistic.


The woman you spoke to in the film actually realises there is an alternative to the factory existence, but she isn’t in that “fortunate” position which allows someone to make such a move into the alternative. No. She said the only alternative for her is to marry, to find a man who will marry her and tell her to stay at home and promise to bring her the basic needs of life such as food. But she said at the same time that if she married it would not be to just anyone. It will naturally be to someone from the factory (the village) who would not, of course, be able to give her anything. So she would have to work with him. There is no way for her to go. She has dreams, but there is no way for those dreams to be fulfilled. She tried in the beginning, she went to the school for three months, but that meant buying books and papers and at least a dress and shoes to go to school in. She couldn’t do this, so she couldn’t escape the factory life… there’s no way.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

Did you have any problems getting the film shown? Yes, a few. It has been shown only three or four times in Egypt (in the cine-clubs, of course) because the censor refused the film at first, but later gave me permission just for non-commercial showings. They didn’t like to show the people as very poor after twenty years of revolution in Egypt. They think the cinema, especially the documentary film, should be propaganda for the State. It’s not their fault in a way, it’s the fault of the filmmakers who were doing documentaries over the past twenty years. They made at least eleven films about the construction of the Aswan High Dam, but they spoke only about the machines, the tractors, the engineers; nobody talked about the working people who dies and suffered to help build this Dam. So Horse of Mud was a new thing for them, they were shocked to see this poverty (someone even suggested that I was making a film against my country, which I wasn’t of course). Atteyat’s second film — The Sad Song of Touha (1972) — was made with the Cairo film school. It contrasts with Horse of Mud only to the extent that it deals with the community experience through community entertainments (e.g. puppet theatre, acrobatics, belly dancing, all incorporated in street theatre). Thus, on the surface the film does not imply any sense of glibness. If you like, it’s lighter in effect. The film was important for Atteyat because it affirmed her particular interest in documentary filmmaking. In fact, the film went radically against the film school’s filmmaking tradition, Atteyat told me, by being the first documentary in ten years… Are the puppet shows and the various other street activities political in the sense of having an underlying “message”, or are they pure and simple entertainment? They’re entertainment, but with a great deal of suffering for the people. Especially when I look at their songs, I found they were really expressing their life. For example, in the song I used at the beginning of The Sad Song of Touha, the man says, “They put me in prison and they took the keys. And there is no little window in this prison that I can receive air and send to my lover my best regards.” — i.e. that they imprisoned them, took the keys and went away, and so they will spend all their life in this prison. Maybe they are unconsciously saying these words, it is folklore, a folk song. But if they chose this song to say something about their lives then it means something important.

In The Sad Song of Touha we see a little girl being trained in acrobatics and another girl in belly dancing. Is this part of a family tradition? Not exactly. It involves neighbours in the same community or block. The little girl for example is a member of a family, she goes with the troupe just to collect 5 or 6 pence a day to give to her mother. Families give their children to these groups just to get money. What do you feel are the differences between your films and the national image of Egypt which one gets from the national (established) cinema? I don’t want to make films because of some beautiful subject or because there’s something fascinating me in the colours or anything like that. It’s at least 50 years now making films in Egypt and always we see on the screen lovely houses and lovely hills, the decor and other fantastic things for us. But the poor people and the working class are not on the screen, when they have the right to be. When I talked to the young belly dancer in The Sad Song of Touha, for instance, she said she really would like to be a dancer in a cabaret because she always goes to the cinema and sees these belly dancers and beautiful girls. She said “I would like to see myself on the screen.” So I said, why not! Is the established cinema in Egypt basically an escapist cinema then? Yes. We always copy American films, sometimes Italian or French or English. Sometimes they have these foreign films and copy them shot-for-shot, scene-for-scene, only with Egyptian actors. Just three hours of escapism, like morphine injections. Has that changed any? Yes, after the nationalization of the film industry in 1961 under President Nasser. Then some intelligent directors came who wanted to combine commercial filmmaking with good filmmaking, films with ideas. They really tried to get some benefits from this system, so they made films not necessarily with happy endings, or with the belly dancer making a marriage, or with the hero always going to the cabaret to drown his sadness in whiskey (lushy melodramatic films). They tried to make adaptations from good Egyptian novels as well… We had at least ten good films during this period, e.g. The Night of Counting the Years and A Question of Honour which were made with the State Organization of Cinema.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


But now they say the cinema in Egypt is finished, there is no money to give to the film industry. They want to return to the old system, so we are fighting and they are fighting. I think it is very difficult for a filmmaker from a non-industrialized country to come to an industrial country and feel at ease. Because we have our image from the newspapers of London, Paris, New York, etc. I came here with the thought that I would learn a lot about this society and gain experience which I could use when I go back to my country. But when I got here I found myself lost… The difference between the two societies is vast: in the human sense because we are very rich humanly in our countries. Here I felt a lack of emotions, a lack of involvement with each other’s lives… everyone wears a mask… these are very difficult and complex feelings for me. So I said OK I will make a fiction film to try and learn through that. But the compromise I chose was great: i.e. a story from my own life re-enacted in this country. Consequently, when people saw the film The Nineteenth of October (about an intellectual young couple, both political, who are arrested) they didn’t believe the story. They said it doesn’t happen like that here, that we couldn’t see people involved in such situations because there is a democracy here etc.


I wonder if you had used, say, black actors or a black situation, whether your story would have been believable. Yes, they told me if I had used foreign actors, Egyptian or Greek actors, it would have been. I made the mistake of using English actors and not understanding the differences between the English accents (i.e. the working-class accent from the middle-class ones). I made the mistake by saying that cinema language can talk with any accent about anything that can be expressed. I learnt a lot from this film… at least not to make such a compromise again.

Originally published in Time Out London, 29 November 1973.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

“The only way for me as a filmmaker to express my feelings for them was to make a film” Interview by J.-F. Camus, 1973 Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, a young Egyptian filmmaker, has won the Grand Prix du film documentaire in Grenoble and the International Federation of Film Critics prize for Horse of Mud. And for her film The Sad Song of Touha, she has won the Novais Teixeira prize: a prize founded in memory of our colleague who died last year and who was much loved by French critics. We met Atteyat Al-Abnoudy before she was awarded these important prizes, important for the direction she wishes to give to her work. These films produced by the Cairo Institute of Art, are they school films? After my law studies, I went to the Art Institute, and I was able to finish film school in two years. Whereas when you go right after high school, it takes four years. The Sad Song of Touha is the second film I made for my graduation. I co-produced the first one with Film Society in Cairo. Your films very much cling to the characters and their gestures. In Horse of Mud, it’s brick factory workers and in The Sad Song of Touha street artists. Were you trained as a “researcher”? When I start a film, I don’t think about its form. When I became friends with the people in the factory, the only way for me as a filmmaker to express my feelings for them was to make a film. Did the artists in the second film perform especially for you? No, they performed their usual act. At four o’clock in the afternoon in Egypt, it’s hot and I sleep. I kept hearing the same music from this troupe every day; I was waiting for that noise. I loved the show, so I met with them.

I had a lot of problems with the artists during the three days of shooting. They didn’t have identity cards. The police often put them in jail for two or three days. That’s what happened during the shoot. Or even, for example, the mother of the young child in the film who told me that they had gone to visit her brother in a nearby town. Didn’t you choose the decor, though (which is very beautiful)? Yes, and I deliberately chose Friday for the shoot because all the clothes are washed on Thursday and they hang them out to dry on the balconies in this narrow street on Friday. Because of your attachment to the people, you feel that the film is political, but it’s hard to pin down. In The Sad Song of Touha, I would have liked to say that society produces three or four-year-old little girls leading a very hard life. Why don’t they go to school? What are the dreams of these people? Why do they live like that? I want to ask a thousand questions. The spectator has to compare and give answers. I wanted to make a “stronger” film but it is only sad; just like the Egyptian character has been for thousands of years. Are you going to continue working with documentaries? The next film I would like to make at the National Film School in London will be a short film describing the day and night before my husband was arrested, accused of Communism, in 1966. It will be my story: the wife’s point of view. After that, I hope to make documentaries again, a film about the Palestinians. The National Film School has accepted the project as an ethnological film.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


It seems that it would be very useful for the current over-dramatized Egyptian cinema to make films like yours… Yes, with dancers! There are five or six young filmmakers, but there is no way of making them known. The bourgeois cinema has a lot of money, but the filmmakers of the working and peasant classes do not. There are no educated bourgeois in Cairo who would give us money to make progressive films. The bourgeois are landowners who are far removed from cultural life.

Are you from a peasant family? I’m a shopkeeper’s daughter, but my husband is a popular Egyptian poet from the poorest region of Egypt. We met in Cairo, and he transferred his entire world (the people, the street, the peasants ...) to me.

Originally published without title in Jeune Cinéma, 71 (June 1973). Translated by Sis Matthé


Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

The Sad Song of Touha (1972)

Atteyat – the Egyptian Interview by Johanni Larjanko and Riitta Santala, 1991 Why do you make films? I am socially concerned but I don’t make political films. People have to think for themselves; I don’t make commentaries. I make provocative films: When you see a film, you start to think and then you do something — but I don’t tell you what to do. I gave myself a task, because I think an artist has to have something to do in his or her society. My task is to describe Egypt. Whenever I make a documentary, I deal with the social aspect. You film mostly common people from the lower social classes. Why? I look at life in a poetic way. I love to live and I think that poor people in my country are all doing their best to work and to create life. I try in all my films to convey this love of life, even if the people live in very poor conditions. I treat them with great respect. I love to see their faces on the screen. I come from the working class, but film is a middle-class medium, so you have to be strong in order to maintain your relationship to your class. Otherwise you are lost. What kind of family did you come from?

I was the youngest girl; there were four girls and three boys in my family. I was the only girl who finished school. I always succeeded in my classes, too. When Nasser came to power I was about twelve years old. He opened the doors to dreams; poor people were encouraged to attend universities and get an education. Otherwise I could not have gone to university. I was very young when I went there — sixteen years old; I was the youngest in my class. I started studying law in Cairo and of course I couldn’t really buy the books; they were too expensive for me. So I worked at the railway station in some office jobs and at the same time I completed my studies at university. I read a lot, even politics. My mother was a very decent and ambitious woman. She always talked about me as her hope in life. You were married to a poet? For twenty years. I worked in a theater as an actress, in small parts, and as a stage manager and an assistant director. I was looking around to see what I really wanted to do. I found myself in filmmaking and went to the Higher Film Institute in Cairo for two years. I made my two first films while studying there. Horse of Mud received twenty-eight prizes all over the world. However, I was an amateur; it was not a professional film.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


What kind of changes happened to make you a professional? I worked on this ten-minute film, Horse of Mud, for two years, because I had no money, and also because the bricks have to be dried in the sun. I shot the film at the end of the summer, and I had to wait till the next summer. We had no professional cameras; we recorded the sound separately — but I remember thinking: how can I wait another year to accomplish what I want to do? Then I realized that what I really wanted was to express my opinions about life around me in documentaries. This is my tool. Did the success help you? Yes, it helped me to discover myself and to see that I needed more education. At the Film Institute in Cairo we were mostly taught theory. I made The Sad Song of Touha as a graduation film at the school and it was the first documentary there. They used to give the students a location on the roof of the institute: here is the dining room or bedroom; write a scenario and shoot in this area. That year I said: I want to make a documentary. We had heated arguments but I insisted. Then you went to London? Yes, I discovered I had to learn more. Making films is a profession; it is not enough to be talented. It was easy at that time to go to the Soviet Union or Poland, but I didn’t want to waste my time learning a new language and I knew English well, so I preferred to go to the National Film School in London for three years. I made three films there. So, what happens to a young girl from the Third World who wins international prizes and comes to London?

Whom do you make your films for? (laughing) For my friends, the critics! Unfortunately our television does not believe in cultural films, especially not documentaries. My films are not propaganda and I do not make tourist films either. I have no chance to show my films on our television. It means making films only for European television, because my films have been shown there more often than in my own country. Sometimes I do not know how to respond to people who accuse me of making films that spoil Egypt’s reputation in Europe. “Why do you have to show poor people?!” Those who ask this lack an intellectuality. They are interested only in propaganda films. They don’t see the human aspect of their people. I have a chance in Egypt to show my films in film clubs, but my aim is to reach a broader audience through television. Since my production is in 16 mm, I have no chance in big theaters. Your style has been called poetic realism. How would you define poetry? Poetry can say very deep things in a few words. This is poetry. In my films I say a lot of things in one shot. I think my films need to be seen twice, and every time you discover something new. Many people have told me so. I never show you the same shot twice. I never deceive the spectator. This is very important — to be honest. I never make fake shots. But isn’t film always manipulation?

I was feeling very lonely, very strange, very cold — not the weather, I mean the environment. We are very warm people; we like to touch each other, to talk, to kiss, anything, but all my movements were misunderstood. If I would for example embrace a male friend at film school, everybody would say: “Atteyat has a new boyfriend!” Those kinds of moral things. And I was wondering, I come from Egypt and yet I can understand the difference between sex and friendship. But people living in the so-called First World can’t. A relationship between a man and a woman seems always to mean sex. This bothered me very much. I encountered another culture and I was disappointed by it. I had expected to come into a free society not looking at everything in terms of sex. So I decided to take what I wanted to benefit my life, my


profession. I was a very good student. But I told myself, as soon as I finish I have to go back to Egypt and work there. I was given a permit to work in England, but I just left.

Manipulation is another thing. I am not manipulating the people for my sake. And I never ask them to do something for me. I follow them with the camera. I was taught this at the very beginning, when making Horse of Mud. The girls carried heavy bricks on their heads, twenty-five kilograms on the head of a little girl. I was a beginner and wanted to take some beautiful shots, asked them to stop for a moment, asked the camera man to jump on something, and take a nice shot. After one minute the girls started shouting insults at me. I was manipulating them; I had never thought about their having to balance that on their heads the whole time.

Altered version of an interview published in Festivaaliuutiset/ Festival News (Tampere Film Festival, 1991).

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

The Sandwich (1975)

“My mission: to depict Egypt. And my request: democracy.” Interview by Samar Salman, 1991 Atteyat Al-Abnoudy returns victorious from the 21st Tampere Film Festival in Finland, where she received an honorary mention and attention from the Finnish media and the American news channel CNN. During the festival of the second largest city in Finland, four of her films were screened: Horse of Mud, The Sandwich, Permissible Dreams, and Rhythm of Life. In her nineteen years of continuous work, she has succeeded to give Egyptian documentary cinema a place in the international film scene, while winning over 32 awards for her films. It was Al-Abnoudy who entered Egypt as a member of the Third World Cinema Committee in London in 1986, a body searching for a new form for Third World cinema, away from European and American effects. In 1985, Egypt won a grand prize for the very first time at the Francophone Film Festival with Al-Abnoudy’s film Seas of Thirst. Her debut film, Horse of Mud, won a prize at the International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, as it did at all of the other film events in which it was competing, garnering a total of twenty-four prizes. In 1990, Al-Abnoudy was selected to be the president of the jury at the 22nd edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in Germany. Today, after nineteen years

of independent production, she has finally, and for the very first time, received support from the National Centre for Cinema in Egypt for the production of her latest film, Sellers and Buyers, about the area of the Suez Canal. In the following interview, we listen to Atteyat Al-Abnoudy speak in a loud voice about her vision for art, life and reality; and we get to know her inimitable, riotous character in return. Atteyat Al-Abnoudy, how would you describe documentary cinema in Egypt today? First of all, I would not be exaggerating when saying that documentary cinema, in its truest sense, meaning the cinema that deals with the lives of peoples, or that looks at events from a people’s perspective, is absent and is in a state of absolute stagnation. There is the media, or state cinema, that expresses the state’s point of view of all the events… There is even cinema that looks at important figures, addresses subjects recognized by the state. Al-Abnoudy goes on to clarify that the National Centre for Cinema was founded in order to play a cultural role in the lives of our people. But, instead, it is yet another institution

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


led by the intellectual direction of the person in charge of it. Reactionary directors support reactionary cinema, and progressive directors support progressive cinema, but only within the limitations approved by the state. In your opinion, what has led to this regression, especially since documentary cinema saw its days of prosperity beginning with the nationalization of cinema during president Abdel Nasser’s rule and the establishment of the National Centre for Cinema, all the way to the mid-70s? This very important branch of cultural production called documentary cinema, the cinema of social reality and the pulse of daily life in the streets of Egypt, does not exist today because it needs a high level of culture and a true social consciousness, and an utter faith in the importance of documentary cinema and its role, as believed by its pioneers. And here I would like to stop to mention the artist Hasan Fouad, who was in the administration of the National Centre for Cinema during Tharwat Okasha’s mandate as minister of culture. Hasan Fouad was the chief editor of the magazine Sabah Il Kheir [Good Morning] and a visual artist who played a key role in the revival of the centre, which was, doubtlessly, built on his shoulders. During that period, documentary cinema was trying to be a realistic expression of people’s lives without any fabrications. Film directors had clear and specific positions regarding the society from which they drew their subjects and faced it with them. Documentary cinema was able to make significant progress until it reached its period of maturity in the early 70s, during which we witnessed great documentaries, such as The Blue Nile by Hashem Al Nahhas, and The Village Doctor by Khairy Beshara, and The Advice of a Wise Man on the Affairs of the Village and Education by Daoud Abdel Sayed, and so many more. Today, however, our conception of documentary cinema has retrograded significantly because so has our concern with people’s lives and their true hardships. Instead, there is interest in the cinema of the hero, even if it’s built on the heritage of the “contractor films”! It’s known that your films have garnered tremendous success in many of the world’s capitals, and that they have won over thirtytwo international prizes, and yet neither the Egyptian nor the Arab audience know or have heard of these films? I’ve been making documentary cinema for almost nineteen years. I work independently and the things I am interested in


are the concerns of the poor and simple people. In Egypt, I haven’t made a single film about an important figure, as my first and last cause is depicting Egypt. And so, the cinema that I produce is oppressed and powerless. My films are not screened anywhere in Egypt or in the Arab World, which is truly sad. I am on the edge of my fifties, and I am a woman who has struggled to strengthen an active role of documentary cinema in Egypt and the Egyptian society. I say struggle, because, to me, documentary cinema is a cause and not a way of making a living or a luxury. If I wanted to, I could now be directing fiction films, or be a journalist, or direct TV films and series. Instead, I chose a more difficult road. And thus, with all this, I face a fierce war. How and why are my films not shown in Egypt and neither, therefore, in the Arab world? Only once did the [Egyptian] television broadcast three minutes of my film Rhythm of Life after it had won a prize at the Valencia International Film Festival in 1990. And I think it was only by accident, because I had met Yousef Sharif Rezqallah, who was reporting on the prize that the film Aragoz had won, and of course it would have been very awkward had he chosen to ignore me. So, he interviewed me and screened three minutes of the film on Egyptian television. There was another time, before then, when three of my very first films were broadcast as part of an unknown TV programme called Sinema Fi ‘Elab [Cinema in Boxes] presented by Shafea Shalabi. My film Rhythm of Life won the first prize at the Ismailia International Film Festival, and so Egypt has finally recognized me after nineteen years of continuous work. Yet no one has cared about the film. The TV hasn’t tried to broadcast it, even out of curiosity or wanting to discover why the film won a number of local and international prizes! I am not complaining, but what I want is to state the facts clearly. This reality, however, has not and will not affect my work, and it will not frustrate me because I am in no way ready to surrender. It would be all too easy to make promotional films, or to ride the wave of the so-called women’s cinema, in order to gain fame and popularity. I will, however, with every chance possible, do nothing other than depict Egypt. The National Centre for Cinema and other official cinema institutions had financed and supported most of the films by colleagues and comrades, except the films of Atteyat Al-Abnoudy. Why is that? In the field of documentary cinema, there isn’t anyone who is working independently of all the official and state institutions. I tried to do so, and I believe I’ve succeeded. I looked for resources outside of Egypt, just like writers who had doors slammed in their faces and were unable to work

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

and create in their own countries. Or like countless directors of Third World Cinema, which deals with hot topics, who had found funding from French TV, or German, or Belgian, or British TV. German television approached me to direct episodes on the “Egyptian woman” as part of a long running series on women from around the globe. The Second German Television (ZDF) channel also financed one of my films because its programming was focused on the issues of the Third World. But this way of funding is not a reliable and steady source. There are bodies that fund documentary cinema without requesting any returns, but their budgets are minor. My last film, Interview in Room No. 8, about the late poet Amal Danqal, was on standby for eight years waiting for funding, until I decided to complete it with my very humble savings. I still owe money to the Cinema City labs. The officials have to realize the importance of documentary cinema and its necessity. They must realize the importance of the beauty of the history of our peoples, not only our military history but also the social daily life in its finest details, and to learn from our ancestors, the Pharaohs, who painstakingly recorded everything, because they were civilized and had faith in the coming generations. We, today, are not producing this, because we are not as civilized. The foreign funding, does it come with conditions? Foreign funding is not controlling, intellectually or culturally, not even financially. I have been given freedom to move and think. The actual problem is the accusations and criticism we receive in Egypt for merely filming and offering an honest artistic expression of the life of the people. I have been accused of tarnishing the image of Egypt because the subjects of my films deal with the lives of the poor and the sufferings of the Egyptian people. This untruth only goes to show that culture is at its lowest level. But wouldn’t you agree with me that the West takes away all the possible and the impossible opportunities in order to prove that the Third World, and the Arab World in particular, is nothing but a bunch of thugs and gangsters, and this is so obvious in their cultural production, from cinema to literature? This is a thorny road to go down. They produce and present their malicious perspective, and we produce and present our own honest and constructive perspective. I don’t like discussing this issue so much, because it touches on our essential problem, which is the issue of democracy for which

we fight and aspire to, and this might be the weapon for suppressing freedoms. I believe that everyone is entitled to their freedom to create and produce. We are in the age when satellites can capture an image of one sleeping in their bed. What is left is the fact that we cannot enter people’s minds. Cinema, specifically, contains something called editing, and there is no power or preventive force that can do anything about it. I believe this issue should not be addressed as a cultural issue. I believe we are all free to express our opinions. And I wonder: is Egypt a toy that can be picked up by a film and then dropped by another? What is this bizarre weapon that they have aimed at people’s necks? If one writes an article discussing the collapsed economy, she is accused of defaming the economy and Egypt. What should we say? Politicians and officials talk about the economic crisis, but a filmmaker does not have that right? It contradicts reason. I can’t discuss it. My mission is to make films; the mission of censorship is to prevent them. But this prevention is historically temporary. History will bring these works out of their hiding because we are working for the dream of history and the dream of the future. However, the urgent question remains: can every filmmaker remain steadfast in the face of attempts to be subdued? So the core problem is with censorship? Well, it is rather a part of the problem. There are other elements that affect our creativity and slow us down in catching up with the speedy advancements in the world of film technology. Let me tell you about this small incident: In 1972, Fareed Al Mozawi, a film historian, nominated Horse of Mud, my first film, for the Academy Awards, in the documentary category. The film was submitted and then was refused for many technical reasons, the sound was poor and the picture wasn’t clear. This Arab historian and intellectual dared to nominate an Egyptian film for the Oscars with such confidence. This shows that we do not lack in talent, and we can reach internationalism, granted possibilities are provided to us and, most of all, that there is democracy. Until that time comes, I will continue to work with the same momentum, and I will not run after people to show my films because I am certain they will be shown one day, and I will continue to find those who will finance the films that I dream of, like the film about Nouba. I don’t make films to mark occasions, and that’s why I am not worried. Every single one of my films sends a message and is entrenched in a valuable patch of the soil of this country. I stand on the margins of cinema, and on the margins of slogans, but I am very proud that the name Atteyat Al-Abnoudy is identified with serious documentary cinema. And I think your choice to have this conversation with me speaks to that.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


This great pride that you have, is it because of the many international prizes you received as a representative of Egypt in the many film events?

Originally published in Al-Arabi Magazine, 8 April 1991. Translated by Reem Shilleh

I don’t care for the prizes as much as I care for my films to be shown in my own country, because I am offering pure Egyptian cinema to the Egyptian people, and I am addressing the existence of the authentic Egyptian human. Regardless of how many prizes I win around the world, their entire sum is not as worthy as one single glance of a pair of Egyptian eyes that give my films their glory and true worth.


Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

Permissible Dreams (1983)

Making Movies, Marking Time Diana Digges, 1998 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 twoyear 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

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


Filming Cairo 1000, Cairo 2000 with videographer Mohamed Shafik (2000)

Filming Egyptian Heroines in Qena governorate in Upper Egypt (1997)


Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

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

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


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.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

Rhythm of Life (1988)

Poetry of the Real Amina Hassan, 2007 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

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


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

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy

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. Translated by Sis Matthé

Pages 156-157: Akher Saa, 14 October, 1992.

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy


Selected Filmographies Assia Djebar La nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua [The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua] 1977, 16mm, 115’

La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli [The Zerda or the Songs of Oblivion] 1978-1982, 16mm, 60’

Jocelyne Saab La maison libanaise [The Lebanese House] 1970, 16mm, 30’, lost film Bombardement dans les quartiers palestiniens de Beyrouth [Bombing in a Palestinian Neighborhood] 1970, lost film La guerre en Orient : Égypte [War in Orient: Egypt] 1973, 16mm, 8’ La guerre d’Octobre (ou La Guerre en Orient) [The October War] 1973, 16mm, 8’ Les Palestiniens continuent [Palestinians Keep Fighting] 1973, 16mm, 10’ Proche-Orient : Égypte [Middle East: Egypt] 1973, 16mm, 8’ Khadafi: l’Islam en marche (ou la Marche Verte) [Kadhafi, The Green March] 1973, 16mm, 28’

Spécial Proche-Orient: Israël [Special Middle East: Israel] 1976, 16mm, 16’

Muhandis al-uqsur / L’Architecte de Louxor [The Architect of Luxor] 1986, 16mm, 20’

Pour quelques vies [For a Few Lives] 1976, 16mm, 17’

L’amour d’Allah (ou La montée de l’intégrisme) [Allah’s Love] 1986, 16mm, 17’

Lubnan fil-dawwama / Le Liban dans la tourmente [Lebanon in a Whirlwind] 1975, 16mm, 75’ Sud-Liban: histoire d’un village assiégé [South Lebanon, History of a Sieged Village] 1976, 16mm, 12’ Atfal al-harb / Les enfants de la guerre [Children of War] 1976, 16/35mm, 10’ Beyrouth, jamais plus [Beirut, Never Again] 1976, 16/35mm, 35’ Le Sahara n’est pas à vendre [Sahara Is Not for Sale] 1977, 16mm, 75’

Les fantômes d’Alexandrie [Phantoms of Alexandria] 1986, 16mm, 17’ Les Coptes : La croix des Pharaons [Copts: the Pharaohs’ Cross] 1986, 16mm, 16’ La tueuse [The Female Killer] 1988, 16mm, 10’ Al-‘alma’ / Les Almées, danseuses orientales [Bellydancers] 1989, 16mm, 26’ Fécondation in video [Fertilization in Video] 1991, video, 26’

Kadhafi, l’homme qui venait du désert [Kadhafi, The Man Who Comes From Desert] 1973, 16mm/35mm, 60’

Madina al-mawt / Égypte, cité des morts (“Chaque année en janvier”) [Egypt, City of the Dead)] 1977, 16mm, 35’

Kan ya ma kan, bayrut / Il était une fois Beyrouth, histoire d’une star [Once Upon a Time in Beirut] 1994, 35mm, 100’

Portrait de Kadhafi [Portrait of Kadhafi] 1973, 16mm, 5’

Lettre de Beyrouth [Letter from Beirut] 1978, 16mm, 52’

Les femmes palestiniennes [Palestinian Women] 1974, 16mm, 12’

Iran, fil-yutubia / Iran, l’utopie en marche [Iran, Utopia in the Making] 1980, 16 mm, 52’

Sayida Saigon / La Dame de Saïgon [The Lady of Saigon] 1998, 35mm, 60’

Le front du refus ou les commandos suicides [The Rejection Front] 1974, 16mm, 10’

Beirut madinati / Beyrouth, ma ville [Beirut, My City] 1982, 16mm, 52’

Le Golan ligne de front ou le refus syrien [Golan, The Frontline] 1974, 16mm, 10’

Le Liban: état de choc [Lebanon: State of Shock] 1982, 16mm, 6’

Café du genre 2013, video, 27’ (6 x 4’)

Le bateau de l’exil [The Boat of Exile] 1982, video, 12’

Imaginary Postcards 2016, video, 7’

Les Libanais, otages de leur ville (ou Bilan de la guerre : destructions au Liban) [Lebanese Hostages of Their City] 1982, 6’

Un dollar par jour [One Dollar A Day] 2016, video, 6’

Irak, la guerre au Kurdistan [Iraq, War in Kurdistan] 1974, 16mm, 16’ Les nouveaux croisés d’Orient (ou Portrait d’un mercenaire français) [New Crusader in Orient] 1975, 16mm, 10’

Ghazl al-banat / Une vie suspendue (Adolescente, sucre d’amour) [A Suspended Life] 1985, 35mm, 90’

Dunia: balash tibosni fi ‘ainayya [Dunia, Kiss Me Not On The Eyes] 2005, 35mm, 112’ Shu ‘amm beyseer? [What’s Going On?] 2009, HDTV, 80’

My Name Is Mei Shigenobu 2018, video, 8’

Heiny Srour Khubz biladian [Bread of Our Mountains] 1968, 16 mm, 3’ Film was lost during the Lebanese Civil War. Sa‘a al-tahrir daqqat, Barra ya isti‘mar [The Hour of Liberation] 1974, 16mm, 62’

Leila wa al-dhi’ab [Leila and the Wolves] 1984, 16mm, 90’ The Singing Sheikh 1991, video, 10’ Les yeux du cœur [The Eyes of the Heart] 1994, video, 52’

Nisa’ fitnam [Rising Above: Women of Vietnam] 1995, video, 52’ Woman Global Strike 2000 2000, video

Selma Baccar Najet mabaoujet [The Awakening] 1968

Le sécret des métiers [The Secret of Crafts] 1996, a TV series of 24 documentaries

Nouassi wâateb 2006, TV Ramadan sitcom

Fatma 75 1975 , 35mm, 60’

Femmes dans notre mémoire [Women in Our Memory] 1997, a TV series of 15 docudramas

Assrar âailya 2006, TV Ramadan sitcom

Le mannequin [The Model] 1976 De la toison au fil d’or [The Golden Fleece] 1985, 35mm, 16’ Au pays de Tarayoun [In the Land of Tarayoun] 1985, 35mm, 51’ L’histoire des coutumes [The History of Customs] 1985 Habiba msika [The Dance of Fire] 1994, 35mm, 124’

Farha al-‘umr [Joy of One Life] 2002, TV Ramadan sitcom Raconte-moi le planning [Tell Me About Planning] 2004, docudrama Chaara al hubb [The Train] 2004, docudrama Sha‘ban fi ramadan 2005, TV sitcom Khashkhash [Flower of Oblivion] 2005, 35 mm

Layali el bidh 2007, TV film Kamanja salama 2007, TV film series La Bataille de Dhibat 2011 Solidarité à Tataouine 2011 Réfugiés des 2 rives 2011 El jaida 2017

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy Husan al-tin [Horse of Mud] 1971, 16mm, 12’

Bihar al-‘atash [Seas of Thirst] 1980, 16mm, 44’

Rawya 1995, 15’

Ughniya touha al-hazina [The Sad Song of Touha] 1972, 16mm, 12’

Al-ahlam al-mumkina [Permissible Dreams] 1983, 16mm, 31’

Ahlam al-banat [Girls Still Dream] 1995, video, 28’

The Nineteenth of October 1973, 16mm

Rolla Tree 1985, 16mm, 30’

Ayyam al-dimuqratiyya [Days of Democracy] 1996, video, 70’

Jumble Sale 1973, 16mm, 12’

Iqa‘ al-hayat [Rhythm of Life] 1988, 16mm, 60’

Egyptian Heroines 1996, 10 x 2’

Two Festivals in Grenoble 1974, 16mm, 30’

Year of Maya 1989, 60’

Al-sandwich [The Sandwich] 1975, 16mm, 12’

Interview in Room No. 8 1990, 30’

Al-qahira 1000, al-qahira 2000 [Cairo 1000, Cairo 2000] 2000, TV, 40’

London Views 1976, 16mm, 45’

Illi ba‘a wa illi ishtra [Sellers and Buyers] 1992, 30’

Al-taqaddum ila al-‘umq [To Move into Depth] 1979, 16mm, 45’

Diary in Exile 1993, video, 55’

Qitar al-nuba [The Nubia Train] 2002, Digital Betacam, 35’ Athyubya bi-‘uyun misriya [Ethopia through Egyptian Eyes] 2004, Super 8, 30’

Nisa’ mas’ulat [Responsible Women] 1994, video, 30’ These filmographies have been compiled based on available information.

Colophon Compiled on the occasion of the Out of the Shadows programme, originally conceived for the Courtisane festival 2020 (Ghent, 1- 5 April). Programme curated by Stoffel Debuysere, in collaboration with Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi (Subversive Film), Christophe Piette and Céline Brouwez (CINEMATEK), with the support of AFAC - The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. This publication was compiled, edited and published by Sabzian and Courtisane, with the support of KASK & Conservatorium (HOGENT – Howest) and the HOGENT Arts Research Fund. Compiled by Stoffel Debuysere and Gerard-Jan Claes, in collaboration with Pieter-Paul Mortier and Pepa De Maesschalck. Translations by Marjolijn de Jager, Sis Matthé, Veva Leye, Reem Shilleh, Stoffel Debuysere. Copy editing by Rebecca Jane Arthur, Sis Matthé, Heiny Srour, Michel Euvrard, Richard Wagman, Suzanne Kallalá. Graphic design by Gunther Fobe. Printed by Graphius. Thanks to Mai Abu ElDahab, Mireille Calle-Gruber, Sylvia Dallet, David Depestel, Marjolijn de Jager, Yasmin Desouki, Asmaa Yehia El-Taher, Olivier Hadouchi, Mary Jirmanus Saba, Lucien Logette, Natasha Marie Llorens, Monique Martineau Hennebelle, Colleen O’Shea, Mathilde Rouxel, Reem Shilleh, Heiny Srour, Wassyla Tamzali, Stephanie Van de Peer, Katrien Vuylsteke Vanfleteren, Magda Wassef, Mohanad Yaqubi, Debra Zimmerman, and many others without whom this publication would never have come to fruition. Images: Assia Djebar: courtesy of Mireille Calle-Gruber, Women Make Movies. Jocelyne Saab: courtesy of Association des Amis de Jocelyne Saab, Mathilde Rouxel. Heiny Srour: courtesy of ©Heiny Srour, Michel Humeau, Ahmad Mjarkech. Original calligraphy by Ahmad Dari. Selma Baccar: courtesy of Stefanie Van de Peer, Martine Bouw. Atteyat Al-Abnoudy: courtesy of Cimatheque - Alternative Film Center, Asmaa Yehia El-Taher, Yasmin Desouki, Ahmed Youssef archive. The publisher has sought to observe the statutory regulations in respect of copyright, but has been unable to ascertain the provenance of the reproduced documents with certainty in every case. Any party believing he retains a right in this regard is requested to contact the publisher. Sabzian is supported by Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, KASK / School of Arts Ghent, Vlaamse Gemeenschapscommissie and Beursschouwburg. www.sabzian.be Courtisane is supported by the Flemish Community and KASK / School of Arts Ghent. www.courtisane.be