Q&A with Rania Stephan: Souad Hosni, detectives and the future of Arab cinema
Courtesy: Rania Stephan

Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011), an intricate compilation of scenes from late Egyptian film star Souad Hosni’s 30-year career on the big screen, was the opening film at Zawya’s Hybrid Reels.

Curated by Alia Ayman, the 20-day program ranges from traditional documentaries to more experimental non-fiction. In parallel, a number of talks and workshops were co-organized with Seen Films, and Stephan gave an intensive workshop for 12 participants during the program’s first week.

Stephan, born in 1960 in Beirut, gave us insight into her approach and her decision to work on the fringes of nonfiction filmmaking. She showed snippets from the films that inspired her while editing The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosny. She discussed variants of documentary films, the nuances of working in a non-traditional manner and the creative compromises one is faced with in our particular regional context today.

Stephan also screened her latest film, Memories for a Private Eye (2015). In this 30-minute short, she interlaces historic films with found home videos, playing with visual effects to tell her story as a labyrinth through this material. A detective — Mark McPherson in 1944 Hollywood noir Laura — digs up a tragic story from Stephan’s own life. We meet her father in what seems to be their home in Joun, a village in south Lebanon. He speaks briefly of what has happened — a bomb went off near their house — but then he mostly stays silent. He dances the dabka with two children for some time, and then cut. We’re back to the detective.

Much like her films, the workshop was a layering of snippets of conversations around important questions that surround independent filmmaking today.

Here I continue the conversation as Stephan goes further into what’s beyond experimental cinema, the implications of working independently and her very optimistic view of the future of Arab cinema.

Sama Waly: The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosny has been described as the closest thing to a documentary about her life and work, although it only really shows the characters she played. Is it a documentary about Souad?

Rania Stephan: It’s the story of her dreamed life, her persona, her representation. She is telling the story from within the story, a dead actress remembering her life. That’s the founding principle  a fragmented remembrance, an actress remembering her dreamed life because there is no real life. But it’s through a real archive.

For me, the closest document to an actress is her work, because she has invested her body and some of her soul in these films, over time. It was very moving to see Souad over 30 years — it became like a family album. It’s the story of her career, of her body transforming itself through time, and of what’s happening outside in the “big history” and in the small history of her own life.

You see some main events, and when you see a film that she did around them, obviously she was affected — like she was more skinny, more marked — so that’s where it is, between fiction and documentary. The document is real but the construction fictional. I looked into her body of work and asked what it tells us about an actress over 30 years. It’s an interpretation, thus it’s fictional. It’s my own view of this history.

SW: In Memories for a Private Eye, you also use archival material to tell your story. How’s your style developed since Soad, in terms of using that material?

RS: I can never think of a project devoid of where the idea comes from, where it resonates, how it was sorted in my brain, why this image calls upon another. When you produce an image, not only are you filming something, you remember the whole process of filming, the context, the history of the filming.

However, when you show it to somebody else they don’t know the backstory, so you have to separate yourself from the process of filming. My language is tainted with all the other images: When I edit, one image calls on another, so I have to bring it in to explain the way I think.

That’s why it’s difficult to detach myself from using archival images. Soad was a great lesson that film comes charged with not only the moment the film was made, but also all the history it carries, as if the experience of cinema itself is an emotional experience, not only a cerebral one.

This surplus of charge is another layer. Laura has a special place in the history of cinema, and when I take it from that place and put it in a Lebanese film, it has to cross time but carries with it some of its emotional charge. I use this aura to add a layer to my narrative.

In the time we’re living in, it’s very difficult to go back to the original. Everything is already tainted with recycling. We’re in a pool of images. Let’s use them as that, because this is exactly how I live the world.

SW: Although the focus for the viewer is on the fictional characters, there’s also a very conscious use of the archival material, and it can be seen as a commentary on the history of Arab cinema or of cinema in general.

RS: Aesthetically, I like the hybridity of my films. More particularly, with regards to Soad, I was conscious when finishing the film in 2011 that we don’t watch Souad’s films like they were produced anymore. We know now they were censored, chopped because of television ads, or the sensual parts cut, so I wanted to revamp the image, reread it and put it into circulation. It’s important to work against censorship, and it’s a comment on the way images have been dealt with.

And, for Soad, it was also an investigation of this body of work. In 30 years, how does a woman evolve? What happens to her persona? How does she behave from the 1960s to the 1990s?

But, on another layer, coming from a more non-mainstream reference, influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and Bertolt Brecht, Soad made me realize I’m pushing this history of experimental cinema, by experimenting with film without denying its emotional power.

I’m trying more and more to work experimentally but not relinquish the emotional part of the image, not to be so Brechtian about it, but re-propose putting spectators in a reflective state with the right distance so they don’t just consume, and work on this just distance but at the same time make the viewing an emotional experience. Because I think the image is very powerful in making you understand something through emotion.

Often [experimental films] are quite dry and cerebral, and I want to explore this fine line between a film that can critique something or propose the rereading of a history, and remain sensual material. It’s a bit against the tradition of experimental cinema or maybe just adding to it.

SW: For younger filmmakers still trying to find their own cinematic language, what would you say are the nuances of working on the fringes? What does it meant to push these boundaries, because as you had mentioned before, it also has very practical implications on the filmmaker?

RS: The advantage is I am master of my time. I can use my tools to reflect, not only to work on and produce a film. And I’m always working even if there is no production because I have my tools. I’m not dependent on others I can produce little films with zero budget.

There are serious advantages to being in this place. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody if they don’t choose it, because [chuckles] the price of freedom is high, you’re on the margin, not the center, you’re quite by yourself, but you’re not under this completely crazy pressure of waiting for somebody else to take the decision to produce your work. Of course it depends on the project for instance, my next film, Private Eye 2, will need production, because I will be shooting with an actor and I need equipment.

But not having anybody breathing down your neck makes you more capable of creating freely. I have other limitations — budget restrictions, I need to work in order to live, to juggle between my working films and my own films  so there’s this gymnastics going on, but when I do my films there’s nobody telling me “you should do this.” The film is what it is exactly, I don’t want to remove one frame from it, it’s absolutely me till the end. That’s a huge satisfaction.

On the other hand, because you’re on the margin it doesn’t maybe get to the right circles.

SW: Would you say there’s a growing interest these days?

RS: In these margins?

SW: Yeah?

RS: As documentary filmmakers, and more as creative documentary filmmakers, the art world is now interested in us, more so than the film world. The film world doesn’t have money anymore, so the art world is the space we’re being attracted to and that produces us.

I think my films can be watched in different ways, like Soad. I constructed it as a narrative, but it was interesting to see how people liked it also as an installation in a gallery. They liked coming in and out, watching a bit, watching it backward or forward it kind of created an experience in viewing that was quite interesting and not frustrating for them at all, so why not? But I constructed it in my mind as a three-act thing so it kind of builds up.

I think the best advice is that each filmmaker should find his own space and a place from which they want to work. There’s no judgment if a filmmaker wants to make a big-budget film and goes for the money, for the equipment to the contrary, that’s the idea. But I know the freedom of creating is unbeatable. I’d not give it up for anything, even if I’ll keep doing my films in my house.

SW: What do you think of the Q&A after the Soad screening?

RS: People were very spot on and asked really interesting questions. And toward the middle of the Q&A, three women brought it back to a very personal relationship to Souad Hosni, so it was quite funny. I loved that they decided the Q&A was finished after one hour – they wanted to do a selfie and this wrapped it up. This is cinema too, you know.

SW: Would you like tell us about your next film, Private Eye 2?

RS: Private Eye 1 was a detective investigating my private archive, bringing me to tell a personal story that is a bit traumatic through the intermediate of fiction. It allowed me to say something that’s very difficult to say. When I finished Private Eye 1, I was still fascinated by the idea of the detective, more so since in the Arabic culture we do not have the figure of the detective with one exception. So I want to push it even further. I have a few ideas I want to develop about not having a detective in our culture.

I want to invent a fictional detective. Try to push this idea of the detective, and how I can create one, since we don’t have an Arab detective.

SW: Where would you say Arab cinema is heading?  

RS: I am agreeably surprised by the young people’s creativity. It was revealed during the different revolutions, and now we’re in a counter-revolution, in a very difficult time, but I’m surprised by the dynamism. Filmmaking is a place of creativity, one of the very few places in the Arab world of renewal. I see really interesting propositions all over, from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other places.

Visual culture is an exceptionally dynamic place for young talents. There are so many young people doing amazing, sophisticated and intelligent things. It’s the only place that I don’t feel is so dark.

It won’t be easy because of funding, because of restrictions, because of the huge discrepancy between a [cinema] industry that has the means and exposure — a machine to crush any other — and us [those working on the fringes of it]. But I see it as a window of hope because on the political level it’s a disaster, economically it’s a disaster, ethically… so many places are in disaster.

I don’t know if film will save the Arab world. I don’t believe in saving anything. But it’s unbelievable that such a mess can produce such creativity.


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