Birds Eye View 2013 Film Festival ‘Celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers’

A discussion of The Three Disappearances of Soad
Hosni (2011) and Yema (2012) at the BEV Film Festival
‘Celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers’, 3-10 April 2013

by Angela Martin

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni posterAlthough the films shown in BEV’s impressive 2013 Festival, ‘Celebrating Arab Women Filmmakers’, were made recently (2011/12), several, understandably, have historical concerns: the Lebanese civil war, the demise of the old city of Damascus, Palestinian refugees twenty years after the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, the reuniting of Muslim and Jewish musicians of Algeria’s popular chaabi music who had been separated by the war of independence. Two of the films shown, though, also have particular interest for women’s film history: Les trois disparitions de Soad Hosni/Ikhtifa’aat Soad Hosni el-Thalaathat/The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (Rania Stephan, Lebanon 2011 70mins) and Yema/Mother (Djamila Sahraoui, Algeria/France 2012 90mins).

The earliest Arab film industry was Egypt’s, with a comparable structure and major studio, Studio Misr, that matched Hollywood’s. Soad Hosni (1943-2001) was one of its most sought-after stars, and one of the most loved by the public. She appeared in 82 major features between 1959 and 1991, including the famous and popular Khali Balak min
Soad Hosni in Khali Balak min Zouzou (1972)Zouzou
(Watch Out for Zouzou, dir. Hassan al Imam 1972, adapted from the novel by Naguib Mahfouz; there are several extracts on YouTube). Her career began in the ‘golden age’ of Egyptian cinema (1930s to 1960s), passed through the period of its nationalisation (from 1966) by Nasser’s government, and the 1970s when there was a concern to combine politics and entertainment (Khali Balak min Zouzou is a prime example of this period), and into a period of decline. 

Rania Stephan’s film is, as a Variety reviewer previously noted, “beautifully conceived and expertly edited”. The film has no commentary but is, rather, a montage of sequences from Hosni’s films, and weaves their images and sounds – sometimes synchronously, sometimes not – into three sections: teenage ups and downs; love and marriage; drama and heartbreak. The Three Disappearances … is a refreshingly visual study of – or “meditation on” – stardom and stereotype as expressed by Hosni’s film roles, beginning with the period that was “using old vocabulary while keeping pace with international cinema” (The Golden Years of Egyptian Film 1936-1967, edited by Sherif Boraïe, The American University of Cairo Press 2008).

Hosni’s personal life occasionally followed a similar path to those of the various characters she played. She died, tragically, in a fall from a 6th floor apartment in London, in 2001, according to the film, from suicide, though this was contested by members of her family, who believed it was murder. In any case, her death shocked the Arab world and her funeral in Cairo was followed by thousands.

Rania StephanStephan is credited on the film not only as director, but also writer, cinematographer, editor and composer. She studied film in Australia and Paris. Previous films include DAMAGE, for Gaza the land of sad oranges (2009 with Ashkal Alwan), Lebanon/War/Lubnan/Harb (2006), Terrains vagues/Wastelands (2005). She was voted Best Arab Documentary Filmmaker at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival 2011 following the screening of The Three Disappearances … Stephan has also worked in various roles on several other award-winning films: as an editor on Fi itizar Abou Zayd/Waiting for Abou Zayd Mohammad Ali Atassi 2010; camera and editor on Le Cortège des captives/The Procession of the Captives (Sabrina Mervin 2006; and was Assistant Director on Elia Suleiman’s Yadon Ilaheyya/Divine Intervention (2000-2002) and Simone Bitton’s Le Mur/The Wall (2004) and Rachel (2009).

Yema posterThe important historical note about Yema/Mother, also shown at the BEV Festival, is that the first film by its director, Djamila Sahraoui, Houria (1980 26mins), was only the second Algerian film by a woman filmmaker. There was no Algerian cinema until the mid-1960s, following Independence in 1962, and the first film by a woman was made only in 1978. La Nouba des femmes du Mont Chenoua/The Song of the Women of Mount Chenoua (115mins) was made by the already known novelist, Assia Djebar.

Sahraoui was born in 1950 in Algiers and studied directing and editing at the renowned Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris (where she now largely lives), coinciding with the second wave of feminism. Her films have engaged with Algeria’s history – the struggle for independence and the more recent context of political Islamic fundamentalism – and most often particularly in relation to women. Her other early shorts were Avoir 2000 ans dans les Aurès 1990 (Being 2000 years old in the Aurès) and Prénom Marianne 1992. Documentaries were La Moitié du ciel d’Allah 1996 (Half Allah’s sky), Algérie, la vie
Djamila Sahraouiquand même
1999 (Algeria, life, even so), Opération Télé-cités 2000, Algérie, la vie toujours 2001 (Algeria, life, always), and Et les arbres poussent en Kabylie 2003 (And the trees grow in Kabylia). Sahraoui was made the Lauréate de la Villa Medicis in 1997 for her documentary work. Her first feature, Barakat!/Enough! (2003), follows two women on a dangerous search for the younger’s disappeared husband during the ‘troubles’ in the 1990s. It won 11 prizes at various festivals.

Yema (‘mother’), Sahraoui’s second feature, has already won 5 awards at international film festivals. It’s a moving portrayal of Ouardia, a widow (played by Sahraoui herself), whose grown-up sons are on opposing sides of the conflict between armed Islamist fighters, hiding in the surrounding harsh and mountainous countryside, and the military.

The BEV festival programme was curated by Elhun Shakerifar and comprised:

  • 6 fiction features (with an earlier preview for IWD of Wadjda, Haifa al Mansour, Saudi Arabia/Germany 2012 93mins);
  • 9 documentaries (52-128 mins) and 8 shorts.

BEV Film Festival 2013 posterAlso screened were 2 silent films with live scores by women composers: Sumurun/One Arabian Night (Ernst Lubitsch 1920, score by Amira Kheir) and The Adventures of Prince Ahmed (Lotte Reiniger 1926, score by Bushra el-Turk.

See the festival programme and list of prize-winning films

Angela Martin is currently one of the WFTHN’s Network Co-ordinators.
Previously, she was an editor of publications at the British Film Institute
before becoming a film and video editor, including, for Channel 4 TV,
Spinster 1990, Bringing it all Back Home 1987, Refuse to Dance 1986
and Coal not Dole 1984. Later, she taught film studies and film production
at Sheffield Hallam University. She is the author of ‘Refocusing Authorship
in Women’s Filmmaking’ in Jacqueline Levitin et al (eds) Women
Filmmakers Refocusing (UBC Press 2003); ‘“Gilda didn’t do any of those
things you’ve been losing sleep over”: the central women of 40s films noirs’
in E Ann Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir (BFI 1998); African Films: the
Context of Production (BFI 1982); ‘Chantal Akerman: a dossier’ in Feminist
Review n3 1979. She programmed NFT film seasons in the 1970s on the
films of ‘Mai ‘68’ and the films of Ousmane Sembene.

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