Ateyyat Al Abnoudy
Text: Ali Hussein Al-Adawy
Ateyyat El-Abnoudy (1939 – 2018) is considered a pioneering documentary filmmaker in Egypt and the ‘Third World’. She studied law and worked in the theater in addition to studying documentary filmmaking in both Cairo and London. Her political and artistic consciousness was shaped at a time when national liberation movements were flourishing; it was also the time when the Third Cinema movement was rising producing films and manifestos. Her generation’s ‘dream’ shattered with the defeat of 1967 as it revealed the government of national independence in a postcolonial moment for what it is: an internal occupation and corrupt and authoritarian regime which functions until this very moment.
Ateyyat’s journey in the world of cinema began with the early 60s and continued until the early 2000s. She strove to capture a dynamic altered image of the lives of those existing in the margins through the perspectives of less privileged bodies, namely women and children, in the outskirts of cities and the villages of the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. Add to that the Global South as Ateyyat made films in the Senegal and Ethiopia producing a cinematic image that was very different than the stereotypical and conventional image produced by regime propaganda, the commercial market or touristic clichés. All the former examples being images that are produced in central cities which are centered around available opportunities, privileges and capital.
Throughout her career, Ateyyat El-Abnoudy was able to maintain an independent production model for most of her films from the beginning of the 70s until her final works. She managed to produce independently with support from community work, civil society, international commissions or by signing up friends. She did all that without compromising her aesthetics thus turning her films into democratic spaces for those denied political representation who are by subsequently denied visual representation to express who they are, their geography and their contexts.
Despite the obvious ethnographic element in Ateyyat El-Abnoudy’s films, her artistic methodology went against all the Western and colonial rules for ethnographic representation. She moves intimately around the issues and faces of her subjects taking intense close-ups that exceed the strict rules of proximity as dictated by ethnographic cinema which claims ‘an objective representation of cultures/places being studied.’
Because she does not care for producing images/knowledge from a superior position about people/societies/cultures for the sake of colonizing or dominating them. Nor is she producing work to marvel at the ‘primitiveness’ of her subjects. Rather, she wants and strives for producing personal images of her subjects whom she treats as peers: images that are built on storytelling, playfulness and intimacy. Add to that the closeness and friendship which she is well aware of. Her close-up shots do not fetishize her subjects or present them as ‘strange’ or ‘exotic’ in the moving image. She presents them to deconstruct and question the natural composition of her shots in a manner that transcends and disturbs the traditional Hegelian dialectic of subject and object.
By the year 1975, the policies of the late president, Anwar El- Sadat, were directed towards the Western world and the USA and shifting to a market economy and consuming internationally produced goods. This was against the policies of his predecessor, Gamal Abd El-Nasser, whose politics were closer to a planned economy and whose ally was the Soviet Union. That same year, Ateyyat El-Abnoudy decided to travel 600 kilometers south away from the capital where she lived to make her new film, “Sandwich”, in the village of Abnoud: the village which shechose to be affiliated with through her name. She also chose to affiliate her production company with the village calling it ‘Abnoud Film’.
The film starts with a factual statement saying that “luxury touristic trains travelling to Luxor do not stop at Abnoud,” clearly referencing the unequal and unfair development policies that were apparent during Sadat’s rule.
The credits come up, in unorganized black font, imitating the writing on the exteriors of village houses. The sound in the background is a recording of Upper Egyptian “ʿdīd”, a certain manner of singing performed by women in Upper Egypt and some Arab countries that is connected to death, the memory of those lost, anger and grief over death and separation from a deceased loved one. The singing sounds like a free dialogue between the deceased and their kin, similar to a dialogue between life and death. This tradition of singing for the dead has ceased to continue in current times.
Ateyyat commences the film with a long shot of the bread-baking process from beginning to end, filming it as domestic work, where a group of women and children cooperate as part of the division of labor within the rural community in Upper Egypt.
We follow the baking process of a kind of bread specific to Upper Egypt through medium shots in a house made of clay. Starting from milling the wheat in the millstone to sieving the flour, to mixing it with water to make the dough and then kneading it to lighting the fire in the clay oven and then putting the kneaded bread-dough inside it to rise and bake and be ready for eating.
After that, we move to the flow of the goats’ scene in the narrow alleyways of the village. The goats are led by a man to the field where they can eat and drink which reveals to us another part of the division of labor related to men: primarily tending to the goats in addition to farming. Right after, we reach the most important and most beautiful scene in the film. This pivotal scene makes us think of how the film is edited so that all scenes prior to it were only a preface to this scenic climax.
In several closeup shots, we see a child breaking a dry loaf of bread into two and puts one half into his pocket. Laying himself out under a goat, he takes the other half of the loaf and milks the goat’s udder into the bread to make a milk sandwich. While he eats his milk sandwich, the goat extends its neck and takes the other half of the loaf from his pocket to eat it.
Ateyyat El-Abanoudy’s lens was able to capture the pulsing cycle of life and an exchange process that isn’t based on money but rather complete equality and unity between all elements: the goat, the boy and the surrounding environment. It is not a production process based on exploitation, exhausting toil and accumulating profit and surplus value that we see in her first film “Mud Horse-1971”.
“Mud Horse” is a film about a brick factory where young girls have to drop out of school and resign to the difficult labor of carrying the bricks. Moreover, the worker has to exploit the horse that lives and works with him. A number of horses are made to turn around in endless cycles that are similar to turning around a water wheel to mix and prepare the mud necessary for making the bricks. The horse turns until it experiences a moment of estrangement and rebels against this exploitation to escape at the end of the film.
My claim is that we cannot reach that poetic illusion and this aesthetic of counter pedagogy by redistributing roles so that the child and the goat are teachers from whom we learn the lesson of basic equality and integration through Ateyyat El- Abnoudy’s method. Her camera melts into her subjects – the boy and the goat – as if it were fixed on top of the legs of another goat. This turns the topic into a very subjective one. It also allows her to move very close to the identities of her characters turning them into topics to be deconstructed and questioned.
As the film is about to end, we need to transcend this poetic illusion and return to reality creating a paradox, giving birth to questions and denying any suspicion of delusional glorification or fetishizing of poverty. The children who were playing as they waited at the station for the train to pass through their village are running around. The train does arrive – the train symbolically and cinematically stands for modernization whether as education, health services, infrastructure or any other problem which Upper Egypt as a region and the rest of the country suffer from. The train speeds by and does not even slow down and does not ‘see’ the villages. The film ends with a medium and static shot where Ateyyat El- Abnoudy’s camera captures the image so that we see the train station declaring “Abnoud”.
Translated by Zainab Magdy
The text was originally commissioned by Vermilion Sands for the exhibition Draining of the Tanks.
Ali Hussein Al-Adawy (Egypt, b.1985) is a curator, researcher, editor, educator and critic of moving images, urban artistic practices, and modern & contemporary cultural history. His practice lies mainly in the intersection between cinema and contemporary art. He curated a number of exhibitions, film programs and seminars such as Serge Daney: A homage and retrospective (2017) and Harun Farocki: Dialectics of images…Images that cover/uncover other images (2018). He also curated, together with Paul Cata, the exhibition The Art of Getting Lost in Cities: Barcelona & Alexandria (2017). He was one of the founders of Tripod, an online magazine for film and moving images criticism (2015-2017) and was part of the editorial team of TarAlbahr, an online platform and a publication for urban and art practices in Alexandria (2015-2018).