I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
Just returned from The Cornerhouse screening of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, a film made by Lebanese director Rania Stephan, who was present for a post-screening Q&A.
Soad Hosni was an Egyptian actress who worked mainly from the 1950s to the 1970s, in her early career cranking out massive numbers of movies as part of the state-run film industry under Nasser, and then apparently – as Stephan put it – getting ‘more picky’ and working with more respected directors, including Yousef Chahine, later in her life. She died in 2001, after falling from a building on the Edgeware Road in London. Although her death was officially put down to suicide, it’s widely believed – especially in her home country – that the Egyptian secret services were involved.
I was really looking forward to this film, although I had pretty much no idea of what I was going to see. It was interesting, consisting entirely of cuttings from a large number of her films, assembled to create some kind of narrative or thematic progression. Some points worthy of mention might include:
— the (in some cases) spectacularly risqué costumes and amount of flesh on view, probably a considerable surprise to people with current stereotypes of ‘the Arab World’ (also the extent to which creating the ‘modern’ image of Egypt was apparently tied up with sexualisation and exploitation of the female body);
— the range of themes addressed even by this very popular medium, including mental health, rape, judicial corruption, polygamy and changing gender relations in 60s Egypt;
— the range of roles which Hosni herself took on, ranging from flirtatious comedy to dark, tragic parts.
However, although I felt like I ‘got’ a reasonable amount of the film, and it was obviously technically excellent and visually striking, with hindsight it’s hard to know how much that is actually owed to the Q&A afterwards, which rather raises the issue of what someone without that privilege would get from it. The film has, however, won at least one major prize and has attracted rave reviews like this, so maybe I should be feeling more enthusiastic.
The Q&A itself also raised a few issues. Some of the questions were interesting enough enquiries about the inspiration and process behind the film, although as is common with ‘arty’ screening some of them did descend into slightly cringemaking sycophancy.
But one question – by a man whose name I missed, if he gave it, but who introduced himself as a critic and as ‘an Arab’ (not more specific than that) – raised a bunch of issues. Part of the problem was that the question itself was poorly phrased and rambling – not really a question at all, but an invitation to comment, and not expressed (or by the look of it, understood) terribly well. The questioner summed up his point by saying that it was that ‘there was a conspiracy of art and politics against the man in the [Arab] street’. Actually, the rest of what he had to say made a more sense – that Soad Hosni was apparently used by the Egyptian secret services for much of her career; that the Egyptian film industry was dominated by the regime; that it was used to propagate certain ideas aimed at ‘modernising’ Egyptian society, especially (in this case) vis-a-vis women – but the summary rather killed much of that.
More disappointing, however, was the reaction of the chair – curator Omar Kholeif – and that of Stephan herself. You could literally see them stiffening up at the mention of politics. Perhaps they simply didn’t get the question, but if that was the case it may well have been partly because of the level of defensiveness that seemed to rigidify them before the questioner was half-done. And so the question was never answered. Stephan talked mainly about the fact that it wasn’t a biography of the ‘real’ Soad Hosni but of her image – which in a state-dominated film industry is surely the point? There was what seemed a terrifically naïve argument put forward that this was ‘art’ (and therefore entirely separate from politics?!). Kholeif argued, I think, that one can’t assume that messages put out in films are somehow blindly accepted by the public. True, but to go no further seems disingenuous. A pity.