Retrospective of Egyptian film director Atteyat al-Abnoudy

Advocate of the people

The Egyptian filmmaker Atteyat al-Abnoudy gave a voice to those people the state had forgotten – and preserved their pride and integrity. Her work provides a picture of social injustices in Egypt since the 1970s. By Christopher Resch

Umm Said would have been only too happy to send her daughter Ferial to school, as the second daughter in her large family. But when the Six-Day War forced her to flee in 1967, Ferialʹs birth certificate was lost. Umm Saidʹs husband had no real interest in applying for a new one, and her uncle, the patriarch of the family, was against it in any case.

Women had to work in the house – from the age of about four, they could help out with easy work. And so the number of girls in school remained at one. One out of 48 in the family.

In the 1983 film "Permissible Dreams", Umm Said tells a story of lifeʹs hardships and the everyday existence of a peasant in a small town on the Suez canal. As you watch Umm Said and the other women fetching water, kneading dough, baking bread, washing clothes, not even able to think about taking breaks, you understand why some families still want to have as many children as possible: to help with the work.

And as you listen to Umm Said talk uncomplainingly about this day-to-day drudgery, performed without recognition or even her own income, you are filled with respect. For Umm Said herself, first and foremost, but also for Atteyat al-Abnoudy, the filmmaker who allows us such insights in the here and now.

Atteyat al-Abnoudy died in 2018. She was born in 1939, into a family of labourers in a small village on the Nile Delta – and she was lucky: education was important to her family and she was able to go to university in Cairo, where she studied law. She financed her degree through acting jobs. Later, she worked as a journalist, studied at the Cairo Higher Institute of Cinema and, in the early 1970s, began making documentary films – the first woman in Egypt to do so.

A pioneer in the Egyptian film industry

"Atteyat was a pioneer," says Tamer el-Said, himself a filmmaker and joint founder of the Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre in Cairo. "She developed her own production model, which was completely new at the time, and inspired a lot of filmmakers with it, me included."

Filmmaker Tamer el-Said (photo: Tamer el-Said; private)
"Atteyat was a pioneer," says Tamer el-Said, himself a filmmaker and joint founder of the Cimatheque Alternative Film Centre in Cairo. "She developed her own production model, which was completely new at the time, and inspired a lot of filmmakers with it, me included"

There are two things that make Atteyat al-Abnoudyʹs work so important, says el-Said: firstly, she understood that finance from outside sources, as welcome as it may be, comes with dependency. And that meant a model was required that might not cover all the costs, but would allow important artistic freedoms.

"For instance, Atteyat owned all the technical equipment herself, so she could keep the production costs down," Tamer el-Said explains. Until the mid-1960s, Egyptian film was dominated by a propaganda-heavy, didactic style. Al-Abnoudy was part of the generation of – male – filmmakers who changed that, and simply showed people and things with no script or direction. "At that time, it was a visionary approach."

Focussing on the poor and the disadvantaged

Her choice of subject matter was visionary, too: Atteyat al-Abnoudy focused on the poor, the disadvantaged, the afflicted – people at the edges of society. The 1971 film "Horse of Mud" shows the hard and monotonous work done by young women in a brickworks.

Winding the course carrying-cloth around their heads, placing a board on top, piling on one brick after another – younger girls manage 16; older and stronger women can carry up to 25, as a voice off-camera notes soberly. Three piastres a day for the older women; one and a half for the young ones. No one can even think about school. 

In a later film, "Buyers and Sellers" (1992), Al-Abnoudy explored the relationship of the Egyptians to the Suez Canal. Following its nationalisation by the-then President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, the canal was intended to serve as a shining example of the power of the Egyptian people and bring prosperity for all.

Unscrupulous property traders – from private firms, but with the stateʹs wholehearted support – told the rural population a pack of lies: their land was worth nothing, and it was over-salted in any case; better for them to sell it right away. And on that land, which had been sold off at a knock-down price, hotels were built, making their owners rich.

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