Director Nadine Salib’s first feature documentary, Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn, 2014), is a deeply moving and engrossing portrait of Hanan, a woman from a countryside village near Assiut who is incapable of having children.
In a community obsessed with conception and a closed society that sees a woman’s role in life as a bearer of children, Hanan’s reality as a woman who cannot have children is worse than many places in the world. However, while this is the plot and setting for Um Ghayeb, the documentary goes far beyond its heroine’s story. Shot over four years, it asks questions about life and its meaning, happiness and death, and how at the end, it’s all relative.
Salib told the audience at the downtown Cairo cinema Zawya on Wednesday that it took a year of filming before she even realized that Hanan would be the film’s main focus. Originally she had set out to make a film about women’s infertility in rural Egypt and the folk remedies and traditions used to counter it, such as rolling around over graves, stepping over snakes or elaborate rituals involving burning elders’ hair. We do see some of this in the film.
But Salib was taken by Hanan’s presence and her ability to express her thoughts, and it’s easy to see why. The character is any filmmaker’s fantasy — she is charming, has great depth and engrosses the viewer in her stories.
While Hanan is a major element in the film’s success, various other factors also combine to create this whole experience. Through the sheer time the crew spent filming and the intimate conversations they capture, we are slowly but surely invited into their world. I found myself completely captivated.
Sara Yahia’s camera work is particularly worthy of mention. She uses interesting angles and pays close attention to details, whether shooting in interiors, at the farm or in the graveyard (where much of the story takes place), as we listen to Hanan’s story and those of the people around her. Yehia’s long, essay-like sequences of flowing water, plants, insects, animals, playing children and settling dust bring a poetic visual depth to Um Ghayeb’s theme.
According to Salib, over 200 hours of footage were gathered, providing a daunting task for any editor. This was handled brilliantly by Micheal Yousef Shafik. Salib told us that the film changed many times over the past four years, and that she and Shafik had continual conversations to find the right feel for the story. In spite of its seemingly slow development, the content is rich enough and edited tightly enough that we can take our time to fully grasp its story, visual poetry and contemplation on life.
Salib has greatly developed as a filmmaker from her previous self-portrait film, Dawn (2012), and presents a truly moving contribution to Egypt’s independent cinema scene.
The first thing we came across was older women talking about private parts and popular fertility tips. To a middle-class small-towner like me it’s always a bit shocking how blunt people from the countryside can sometimes be. I believe Um Ghayeb is aware of this expectation and is communicating with it. As you watch, the movie makes you think a lot of the other and of what you expect them to be.
Cinematically, I found it amazing how much the shots served their purposes. I’m always fascinated by how documentary filmmakers manage to hide themselves and allow their characters to just be themselves. I can’t imagine how much material it takes to find the shot where a person is perfectly being the character you want to have on film.
The film suppresses its presence and delivers the beauty it sees in things without too many unnecessary filmmaking flourishes, which keeps the focus on people’s feelings and thoughts.
The exoticism of the people, location and characters is a very difficult trap to ignore when you’re making a movie like this. On my way to the cinema, I was praying that it would not be what I call “another brown movie that white people like,” but at the end of the day we have to figure out a way to make movies about people and things we live with in this country without having to worry all the time about Europe and what it thinks of it. Um Ghayeb handled this with confidence and simplicity. It all comes down to the beliefs and motives of the people contributing to the filmmaking — both the makers and the subjects, and an agreement whereby everybody knows exactly what’s happening.
Inevitably there is a voyeurism, as with any film that follows someone’s life. This is perhaps especially true because of the pity the film encourages, with shots for example of Hanan’s face as she looks at other people’s babies, and because of its documentation of superstitious fertility rituals that are no doubt exotic for a majority of this film’s viewers.
The life of Hanan’s community seems to be characterized by hard work, weddings, births and funerals. Children run around everywhere throughout. But despite her longing, and despite her infertility appearing to define her personality and image in various ways, she also grapples with the fact that pregnancy and children don’t necessarily bring happiness.
There are many scenes in the village’s beautiful graveyard, where Hanan likes to spend time. We hear of people declaring that a person who does not have children represents a wasted life, like wasted water. An old man wonders who would perform the funerary rights and stand next to the grave of a dead person who was childless. But in the graveyard Hanan points out that, at the end of the day, people don’t take anything to their graves.
The film rests on how thoughtful, articulate and photogenic the protagonist is — her monologues take up a large part of it, which is a strength. Its power also lies in the fact that it clearly and uncomfortably shows how, just like anywhere else, women’s private bodily issues are lived out very publicly, because fertility is seen as a public good.
I would be interested to know what Hanan feels about the film. If she did it not just because she liked the filmmaker, but because she felt it would be an important project that might help other people get through what she was going through, it would be empowering, which would make my worries about exoticism and voyeurism rather insignificant.
Um Ghayeb is screening at Zawya every day from Wednesday, November 4-Tuesday, November 10. Check their website for screening times and contact info.