Filmmaker Puts a Face on Poverty in Egypt : Movies: Atteyat El Abnoudi uses ‘poetic realism’ in her films, which gracefully challenge the status quo. ‘The camera is always on the same level as the people. I love their faces, I love them.’ What can I do?’
Atteyat El Abnoudi, Egypt’s only independent filmmaker, has aptly described her style as “poetic realism,” a quality evident from her first film, “Horse of Mud” (1969-70), a study of the grinding existence of both animals and humans engaged in making bricks along the banks of the Nile. This film and six others will screen Saturday at USC and Sunday in Leimert Park in the L.A. Festival.
Only three of El Abnoudi’s short documentaries were available for preview, but they were enough to make it clear why she is regarded as one of her country’s most important filmmakers. In addition to “Horse of Mud,” also available was “The Sandwich,” a vignette showing a woman grinding meal to bake a pita-type bread--which then is consumed by a small boy. Her more recent “Permissible Dreams” presents a resilient, hard-working peasant woman who, although illiterate, is highly articulate, especially in her desire to ensure that her daughters have a better life than she has had. All of these films are at once engaged, implicitly critical of the status quo, especially in regard to women, yet are works of grace and even lightness. There is no heavy-handedness in El Abnoudi’s commitment to effect change through her work.
In a phone interview from Cairo, El Abnoudi, who is 53, said that above all “I see myself as an Egyptian citizen who happens to work in the media. I come from the theater, and I came to feel that I had to do something within the arts. I have had in my mind a long time this very big project of describing the daily life of the Egyptian people. I try to play on contradictions, and I think I have something to say within the documentary form, a way of bringing to it a sense of narrative--a dramatic way of showing life. I try to re-arrange reality in an artistic way.
“I was married for over 20 years to a poet very famous in Egypt--it’s been only two or three years that we are separated. I think that images in film can be the equivalent of verses in poetry.
“Lots of things happen in both the foreground and background of my films. I think the soundtrack is very important. My soundtracks are not merely decorative but are adding to the narrative.
“I made my first film as an amateur--I had never used a camera before in my life. It taught me what a documentary could be, and to love and respect people. I have never used a camera from above or from below.
“Anyway, after two films I decided to go to the International Film School in England for three years. Since then, I have been a professional. My work is like a mission. I don’t like to make any concessions: I choose my subjects, nobody interferes! In the theater the director, after the play opens, can go away; in film you are signing your name at the end. The film is your point of view on life. I can do whatever I want. I have made 12 or 14 films in 25 years.”
But what of the impact of censorship and also economics in her country? “Yes, of course, I have been censored,” continued El Abnoudi with a trace of weary resignation. “My films have never been shown on TV, and since they are on 16 millimeter, they can be shown only in cine clubs. There is no documentary market in Egypt. I have also been labeled a communist because my films are concerned with poor people. If you think differently, you are always called a communist!”
Only once was El Abnoudi able to get funding from Egypt’s National Film Board, and she has drawn upon aid from a wide variety of agencies and organizations, once obtaining a grant even from the Catholic Relief Service. However, she remains philosophical in regard to all obstacles. “What I really want in life is to make films and to live on the edge in relation to what I am doing. I have an apartment, I have a car--what I need is very little.”
L.A. FESTIVAL TODAY
* SUNSET JUNCTION STREET FAIR(Sunset Boulevard). A celebration of cultural diversity with entertainment, ethnic dance, disco, food, crafts and more. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
* LEIMERT PARK WALK(Leimert Park). Guided tour of an area rich in coffeehouses, galleries, jazz clubs and boutiques, plus artist talks and refreshments at Crossing LA Exhibitions. 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations required.
* AFRICAN MARKETPLACE(Rancho Cienega Park). Open-air stages, daily parades, costumed drummers, dancers and storytellers, traditional artisans and tastes of black and Afro-ethnic cuisine are featured at this eighth annual celebration of African-American creativity and heritage. Featuring KPFK’s “Roots of Rap,” at noon. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
* “WOMEN FILMMAKERS”(Norris Theater, USC). Acclaimed documentary film director Ateyyat El Abnoudi, credited with breathing new life into the Egyptian cinema, introduces a selection of her short films, including “Permissible Dreams,” the story of a traditional woman, married at 15 and mother of eight children, who though illiterate, is the mainstay of her family’s future, and “Horse of Mud,” a 10-minute short that has won 20 international awards. 7:30 p.m.
* GETTY MUSEUM CONCERT SERIES(J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu). Jihad Racy, a master of the Egyptian nay (flute), melds the mysterious world of Middle-Eastern antiquity with contemporary Arab life and the yearnings of the electronic age (advanced tickets required). 8 p.m.
* “CROSSING LA: VOICES OF EASTERN WOMEN” (Vision Complex, Leimert Park). The passions, frustrations and longings of women in traditional Islamic society are portrayed through dance and song as curator Anthony Shay and Avaz International Dance Theater, the Silayan Philippine Dance Company, Persian vocalist Zoya and dance soloists Carolyn Krueger, Aisha Ali and Emily Mayne span traditions from North Africa to Central Asia, India and the Philippines. 8 p.m.
* “WE’VE COME THIS FAR BY FAITH: THE WEST COAST GOSPEL TRADITION”(Vision Complex, Leimert Park). 8 p.m.
* “THE SERPENT’S TALE”(Melnitz Theater, UCLA). a film by Kutlug Ataman (1 p.m.). A modern Turkish aristocrat feels trapped in Istanbul and finds herself on a desperate search for her identity and survival. With Arby Ovanessian’s “THE SPRING,” a story of two lovers who cross the divide between Muslim and Christian. “IRON, EARTH, COPPER, SKY” by Zulfu Livaneli (3 p.m.). This award-winning Turkish film turns a story of conflict into a metaphor for the ways in which myth is created. “MANHATTAN BY NUMBERS” by Amir Naderi (7:30 p.m.). A New York Times reporter loses his job and begins a search for his friends and his identity. With “THE CABINET OF DR. RAMIREZ” by Peter Sellars. With a score featuring John Adams and the Tibetan monks of Dharamsala but no spoken voice, Sellars explores our ability to communicate through color, sound, light and emotion.
* “AFRICA, I WILL FLEECE YOU”(Vision Complex, Leimert Park). A film by Jean-Marie Teno. A personal meditation offering solutions for what Teno describes as “our present-day quagmire.” 2 p.m.
* “KILLER OF SHEEP”(Vision Complex, Leimert Park). A film by Charles Burnett. Explores the effects of a father’s work in a slaughterhouse on his South-Central family. 4 p.m.
* “TA DONA!”(Melnitz Theater, UCLA). A film by Adama Drabo. This film links the story of a modern African hero to the fate of a nation. 1 p.m. “RABI” by Gaston Kabore. Portrayal of a friendship between a little boy and an old man. 3 p.m. “BLACK TO THE PROMISED LAND” by Madeleine Ali. A group of inner-city African-American teen-agers join their Jewish high-school teacher on an Israeli kibbutz, experiencing insight and heartbreak as they contrast lifestyles. 7:30 p.m.
* “SACRED LANDMARKS”(Wilshire Boulevard Temple). The Sweet Singing Cava-Leers’ a-cappella four-part harmony mixes traditional and contemporary gospel, while Shashmaqam’s Bukharan Jewish classical melodies and folk songs draw upon Central Asian history. 2 p.m.
* “SOMETIMES WE NEED A STORY MORE THAN FOOD”(Pierce College Performing Arts Pavilion). By the Traveling Jewish Theatre. Solo performer Corey Fisher weaves together the words of 18th-Century Hasidism, Talmudic sages and Sufi mystics, stories of Prague’s Jewish Quarter and the sights and smells of his grandmother’s New York deli. 2 and 8 p.m.
* “WOMEN FILMMAKERS”(Vision Complex, Leimert Park). Egyptian filmmaker Ateyyat El Abnoudi introduces her “Rhythm of Life” and “Buyer and Sellers.” 2 p.m.
* “WOMEN’S VOICES”(Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood). A dialogue and exchange between African-American writers Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks and Ntozake Shange, moderated by poet-playwright Akilah Nayo Oliver. Known for their outspoken commitment to experimentation, the writers discuss the avant-garde, both black and white. 4 p.m.
* NTOZAKE SHANGE reads from her work (Sisterhood Bookstore, West L.A.) 7 p.m.
* CONTINUING EVENTS: Sunset Junction Street (Sunset Boulevard), African Marketplace (Rancho Cienega Park), Leimert Park Art Walk.
Readers are advised to call the Los Angeles Festival, (800) 6-LA FEST, for specifics regarding hours and events, which are subject to change. Tickets are available at (800) FEST-TIX. narrative.”
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