Class Difference, Nation and Subjectivity: Two Egyptian Documentaries

By Shafik, Viola | Framework, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Class Difference, Nation and Subjectivity: Two Egyptian Documentaries


Shafik, Viola, Framework


Class difference is one of the most recurrent topics of Egyptian cinema. Questions of class underpin almost every genre; mainstream fiction as well as more committed, so-called 'Middle Cinema.' The motifs of an aspired but often thwarted social ascent and the threat of a humiliating social fall have intersected with a multitude of other problematic issues, for instance with gender relations in melodrama, with anti-colonialism, with the critique of capitalism and feudalism in realism, with consumerism, corruption and materialism in New Realism. They are even addressed in the Mafia and gangster film. In fact, the motif of material along with moral endangerment is crucial to the narratology of a large section of mainstream as well as of committed cinema since the 1930s (Shafik 2001b, 719). In the 1970s social criticism and questions of class reached out for the non-fiction and culminated in a wave of leftist and anti-imperialist documentary filmmaking.

Two recent full-length Egyptian documentaries, Ayam al-dimuqratiyya/ Days of Democracy (Egypt, 1996) by Attiat al-Abnoudi and Sibyan wa banat/ Regarding Bays and Girls and the Veil (Egypt, 1995) by Yousry Nasrallah, may at a first instance help to exemplify the difficult production and distribution conditions of the politically interested Egyptian documentary. But most importantly, they indicate also the strong interplay of questions of gender and class with the idea of the nation, not in the literal sense of a nation state of course. For the latter 'was never simply a political entity. It was always also a symbolic formation-a system of representation'-which produced an 'idea' of the nation as an 'imagined community' (Hall 1993, 355 and cf. Anderson 1991). During the process of modern nation-formation in which colonialism became a major catalyst, the nation has been 'imagined' as something that 'possessed a unitary self and a singular will that arose from its essence and was capable of autonomy and sovereignty' (Prakash 1995, 360). In the process all was disregarded, assimilating and, at worse, displacing what was considered as different or other from within.

Thus, the politics of representation of the two films in question is strongly interdependent with, first, the way they relate themselves and the audience to their nation and, second, to the West as the former colonizer. Primarily, this implies the omission of or allusion to social, sexual, religious and cultural diversity as well as their specific mode of subjectivity. They prove also how difficult it is in a time of post-colonial globalization to reformulate the idea of the nation in a way that its symbolic character is made clear and a concept of variety replaces that of unity.

In general, documentary filmmaking in Egypt has undergone, for economic and political reasons, an only rachitic growth (Shafik 2001a, 72-75). Neglected by commercial cinema and state-run television, strangled by the constraints of public production and political censorship it lacks any commercial or non-commercial distribution outlets. The more astonishing is that the Egyptian documentary was able to develop at all and it is more than natural that it is a rather dependent and marginal way of filmmaking. Its marginality and dependency affected not only its technical standard but also the space for its filmmakers to introduce innovations or to develop progressive self-conscious texts.

The Egyptian documentary as such has a long genesis. The first Egyptian documentary was most probably De Lagarne's The Streets of Alexandria, shot in 1912 (al-Nahas 1990, 6). Towards the end of the 1910's Muhammad Bayumi, pioneer director and cameraman, started shooting short newsreel items published in his Amun news reel, documenting places as well as political events including the return of the national leader Sa'd Zaghlul from exile in 1923 (Qalyubi 1996,44). Yet, it is only after 'revolution' or, in other words, the coup d'etat in 1952 that the documentary developed out of the confinement of newsreel and occasional production. …

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