7 - Atteyat Al-Abnoudy - Horse of Mud / Sad Song of Touha / The Sandwich / Seas of Thirst

4 April, 2020 - 16:00
SPHINX CINEMA

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 suffered 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, 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.

 

In the presence of Nadia Kamel

Copies and texts courtesy of Asmaa Yehia El-Taher, Yasmin Desouki and Cimatheque — Alternative Film Centre in Cairo

Husan al-Tin (Horse of Mud)

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
,
EG
,
1971
,
video
,
12'

In her first film, made on a shoestring with borrowed equipment, Atteyat Al-Abnoudy captures the basic process of mud-brick making on the banks of the Nile. The film was refused by the censors, who didn’t like to show the people as very poor after twenty years of revolution in Egypt. Eventually, they gave permission for non-commercial screenings, after which the film went on to win more than thirty international prizes.

For the first time, the people talk about themselves, and we listen to their voices, not a cleverly written commentary on what the people are doing, like strangers coming from the sky, telling us what we are seeing now ... The brick factory workers dominate the screen: their faces, their hands and their suffering ... I worked on this 10-minute film 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 to complete it.

 

Arabic spoken, English subtitles

Ughniyat Touha al-Hazina (Sad Song of Touha)

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
,
EG
,
1972
,
video
,
12'

In many ways the sister film to Horse of Mud, Al-Abnoudy’s second film, her graduation film at the Film School in Cairo, is a portrait of Cairo’s street performers. The artistry of this community of fire-eaters, child contortionists, and other performers is captured through the lens of Al-Abnoudy’s unobtrusive camera, accompanied by the spare and haunting narration provided by poet Abdel Rahman Al-Abnoudy.

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. We always tend to see lovely houses and lovely hills, the decor and other fantastic things before us on the screen. 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 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!’”

 

Arabic spoken, English subtitles

Al-Sandawich (The Sandwich)

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
,
EG
,
1975
,
video
,
12'

The Sandwich explores the daily life and work of children in Abnoud, a rural village located 600 kilometres to the south of Cairo, where the trains that carry the tourists to the south of Egypt pass through without stopping. A boy outsmarts the meagerness of his circumstances by dripping goat’s milk on a piece of stale bread and turning it into a special sandwich.

I believe film is a language I can use to say many things, a poem, a short story. I once made a film without a single word in it about one day in the life of children in the village of Abnoud. At lunch, you know, they take their bread and go to the cow’s udder for milk, just to have something on the bread! That’s how poor they are.

 

Arabic spoken, English subtitles

Bihar al-’Attash (Seas of Thirst)

Atteyat Al-Abnoudy
,
EG
,
1980
,
video
,
44'

In Seas of Thirst, Al-Abnoudy moves away from her usual exploration of Egypt’s south to the north of the country, wherein she captures communities living near the salty lakes of El Borrolos during a treacherous drought. Bearing a stark contrast to the barren landscape around them, the richness of the local characters provides the moving narrative of a struggling class in its entirety.

As a human being, one can learn a great deal about people when working on a documentary film. I learned to wait for others and not have them wait for me. Watching the young girls and women carry tens of bricks on their heads passing before the camera one after the other, I considered capturing them from different angles but immediately stopped myself. I felt it was a form of injustice to exploit the labor of others as it happened before me for the sake of filmic content. I learned to respect them, to respect their presence, and to ensure that the camera is always brought to their level.

 

Arabic spoken, English subtitles