The Arab filmmaker discusses capturing The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.
One film made up of bits and pieces from 65 films (on VHS) exploring the complexities of one iconic woman, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni is a piece of art, a documentary, an investigation, a celebration and a revival all in one. Director Rania Stephan’s obsession is clear and contagious, it is impossible that anyone could not have become more curious about the image, the attraction and the tragedy that befell Soad Hosni. LWLies spoke to Stephan recently about the making of her extraordinary film.
LWLies: Your film is like a love letter to a deceased movie star, Soad Hosni, to Arab pop-culture and to cinema in general...
Stephan: That’s right. They say being at the cinema is like dreaming with your eyes awake. With this film, I am talking about an image, a representation, not a 'real' woman; I worked with hundreds of images of an actress, Soad Hosni.
What is it about her image that compels you?
I could identify with her. In the Arab world, we are so used to being confronted by western models, which we can identify with because certain stories are universal, like love, loss, passion and other stories. But seeing Soad Hosni was a revelation, for the first time I can identify with an actress because she was speaking Arabic, looked like family, worked within a space that I recognised. This was a real shock. Before, our idea of Arab cinema was warped. Intellectual circles didn’t encourage watching these Egyptian films because they were part of an industrial machine producing popular cultural, they weren’t considered worthy content. Arab critics didn’t consider this Arabic cinema either, unless it was Egyptian auteurs like Yousef Chahine or Salah Abu Seif, directors that engaged with realist films about the people, struggles, rural issues – but not mass culture films. My own ideas of cinema changed during my studies when I saw Soad Hosni films and I started to question: why did these Arabic films have such a demeaning reputation? Why does western popular cinema seem superior to ours? What is the difference?
Your residency at the Serpentine Gallery’s Edgware Road Project was just a year ago. Being the location of Soad’s death, how did it affect the process of your filmmaking?
For the first time I had time to reflect about my work, without the pressure of earning a living. This reaffirmed my intuition that it was indeed not the person, Soad Hosni, that I wanted to focus on, but her image. But being around the Edgware Road, I was completely obsessed with the building where she died. I kept going there to film it. But I couldn’t ever take the camera and go interview people in the neighborhood to ask about her; that was impossible, I couldn’t engage with any kind of reality having to do with her. So that was helpful to me, being so close to her reality of her final years and not engaging with it confirmed that my work was about her work. That was the closest I was going to get to her.
Why do you think that Arab cinema isn’t studied so much? The auteurs that you mentioned and the '50s era Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser produced great cinema.
Yes, there are some great and amazing films. But it is so widely considered 'low-art', part of an industry, a machine. There must have been problems of distribution also or maybe these films didn’t transcend culturally; they weren’t making films that were universal enough for people to understand them beyond the area of Arabic cultural influence.
Now though, things have really changed. Arab art is considered very hip. You started your project with a mission to overcome the presupposed ideas of what is considered Arabic cinema and here you are presenting it at Shubbak, arguably a height in what people are seeing in Arab culture in the West.
Right now, Egyptians are reclaiming the good parts of their culture. The whole purpose of the film is to recycle the image. To move these images from being hidden, despised or disconsidered, and bring them back, maybe in a new way, to allow them to be reseen, to recirculate them, within Arab culture and outwards. I want people to see Arabs differently too. Challenging the stereotypes is a battle. But it is also about Arabs views towards themselves. What is revolution, after all; it’s not just a step forward, things have to move, to revolve, to turn. I am pleased that what was in my mind as an obsession is now being perceived on the outside.
Experimental documentaries are coming out quite a bit from the Arab world now. It's been said that movies coming out of the Arab world are often experimental because of the need to rethink or reimagine stories to be able to tell them once again. A lot of work based on memory for example, or questions that start with 'what if...'
The film starts with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with the sleep". It was a suitable quote to introduce the viewers to the fact that we are talking about a fleeting image. We are not here to uncover stories from behind closed doors, we are reflecting on cinema: what kind of images did Egyptian cinema produce? What emotions can these images express? What does this body of work tell us about this 30-year period of the Egyptian cinema? How were women represented? How was love represented, dating, flirting, kissing, the relation to the parents, girls and boys, the [previous] revolutions, etc. And also to talk about Soad Hosni as an actress: what is the work of an actress? What emotions does she produce? How does time change her? Some people had reservations about the format. They could’t understand that one can make a documentary with fictional elements taken from already existing VHS material. They have to understand that this is about the work of Soad Hosni, an homage to her as an actress, a tribute to her work not about the person, otherwise they don’t get it.