Advocate of the people

The Egyptian filmmaker Atteyat al-Abnoudy gave a voice to those people the state had forgotten – and preserved their pride and integrity. Her work provides a picture of social injustices in Egypt since the 1970s. By Christopher Resch

By Christopher Resch

Umm Said would have been only too happy to send her daughter Ferial to school, as the second daughter in her large family. But when the Six-Day War forced her to flee in 1967, Ferialʹs birth certificate was lost. Umm Saidʹs husband had no real interest in applying for a new one, and her uncle, the patriarch of the family, was against it in any case.

Women had to work in the house – from the age of about four, they could help out with easy work. And so the number of girls in school remained at one. One out of 48 in the family.

In the 1983 film "Permissible Dreams", Umm Said tells a story of lifeʹs hardships and the everyday existence of a peasant in a small town on the Suez canal. As you watch Umm Said and the other women fetching water, kneading dough, baking bread, washing clothes, not even able to think about taking breaks, you understand why some families still want to have as many children as possible: to help with the work.

And as you listen to Umm Said talk uncomplainingly about this day-to-day drudgery, performed without recognition or even her own income, you are filled with respect. For Umm Said herself, first and foremost, but also for Atteyat al-Abnoudy, the filmmaker who allows us such insights in the here and now.

Atteyat al-Abnoudy died in 2018. She was born in 1939, into a family of labourers in a small village on the Nile Delta – and she was lucky: education was important to her family and she was able to go to university in Cairo, where she studied law. She financed her degree through acting jobs. Later, she worked as a journalist, studied at the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema and, in the early 1970s, began making documentary films – the first woman in Egypt to do so.

A pioneer in the Egyptian film industry

"Atteyat was a pioneer," says Tamer el-Said, himself a filmmaker and joint founder of the Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre in Cairo. "She developed her own production model, which was completely new at the time, and inspired a lot of filmmakers with it, me included."

Filmmaker Tamer el-Said (photo: Tamer el-Said; private)
"Atteyat was a pioneer," says Tamer el-Said, himself a filmmaker and joint founder of the Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre in Cairo. "She developed her own production model, which was completely new at the time, and inspired a lot of filmmakers with it, me included"

There are two things that make Atteyat al-Abnoudyʹs work so important, says el-Said: firstly, she understood that finance from outside sources, as welcome as it may be, comes with dependency. And that meant a model was required that might not cover all the costs, but would allow important artistic freedoms.

"For instance, Atteyat owned all the technical equipment herself, so she could keep the production costs down," Tamer el-Said explains. Until the mid-1960s, Egyptian film was dominated by a propaganda-heavy, didactic style. Al-Abnoudy was part of the generation of – male – filmmakers who changed that, and simply showed people and things with no script or direction. "At that time, it was a visionary approach."

Focussing on the poor and the disadvantaged

Her choice of subject matter was visionary, too: Atteyat al-Abnoudy focused on the poor, the disadvantaged, the afflicted – people at the edges of society. The 1971 film "Horse of Mud" shows the hard and monotonous work done by young women in a brickworks.

Winding the course carrying-cloth around their heads, placing a board on top, piling on one brick after another – younger girls manage 16; older and stronger women can carry up to 25, as a voice off-camera notes soberly. Three piastres a day for the older women; one and a half for the young ones. No one can even think about school. 

In a later film, "Buyers and Sellers" (1992), Al-Abnoudy explored the relationship of the Egyptians to the Suez Canal. Following its nationalisation by the-then President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, the canal was intended to serve as a shining example of the power of the Egyptian people and bring prosperity for all.

Unscrupulous property traders – from private firms, but with the stateʹs wholehearted support – told the rural population a pack of lies: their land was worth nothing, and it was over-salted in any case; better for them to sell it right away. And on that land, which had been sold off at a knock-down price, hotels were built, making their owners rich.

Gradually, the entire coast was privatised in this way. The fact that fishermen were losing part of their living was of no interest to the government, nor to the Suez Canal Authority, which was established when the canal was nationalised. 

A documentary advocate for social justice

Still from "Buyers and Sellers" (photo: Cimatheque)
Im späteren Film "Buyers and Sellers" (1992) erforscht Al-Abnoudy die Beziehung der Ägypter zum Suezkanal. Vor allem seit seiner Verstaatlichung durch den damaligen Präsidenten Gamal Abdel Nasser im Jahr 1956 sollte der Kanal als leuchtendes Beispiel für die Kraft des ägyptischen Volkes dienen und Wohlstand für alle bringen.

Films like this, criticising the government or individual institutions, naturally prevented Atteyat al-Abnoudy from ever receiving state funding. But she shaped her reputation as a documentary advocate for social justice. Tamer el-Said says of her motivation: "She wanted to give a voice to those people who never had one in the official narrative. She always defended disadvantaged people, but at the same time she didnʹt present them as victims; she saw their strengths and showed them."

Atteyat al-Abnoudy left her film estate to the Cimatheque initiative. Its archive in downtown Cairo is open to film studies academics and those interested in film for research. Cimatheque is also home to a small cinema, a cafe and a co-working space.

"Itʹs a place where film fans and industry professionals can meet, discuss, argue and work together," says its co-founder Tamer el-Said. "A place that celebrates cinemaʹs diversity." And where filmmakers can develop solutions to problems – the difficulty of attracting international funding, for example. Cimatheque was officially founded in 2014, but the idea came into being years earlier.

Atteyat al-Abnoudy had heard about it, and convinced the makers back in 2011 to create a film archive as well – which had not initially been part of the plan. Following al-Abnoudyʹs death, her works were first shown in Cairo, and are now coming to Berlinʹs Arsenal Cinema.

"The world is ugly without people," says the poet Abdel Rahman al-Abnoudy, Atteyatʹs husband, in her 1972 film "Sad Song of Touha". And in fact, the world has grown a little uglier following her death. But her objective – to show the strengths of disadvantaged peopled and not to make them into victims – remains. In her work, but also in the host of filmmakers who have been inspired by her.

Christopher Resch

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Berlinʹs Arsenal Cinema is showing a retrospective of Atteyat al-Abnoudyʹs works on four days between 2 and 7 July. Tamer el-Said will give an introduction to each film.