The DocuArts film festival at Berlin's Art Week featured a screening of 'The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosny,' which tells the Cinderella story of the screen and analyses Egyptian cinema from the 60s to the 80s by editing the icon's old films into a new work of fiction.
Set in three acts, a prologue and epilogue, the 2011 docu-fiction film is constructed as a dramatic tragedy - a piece that could be categorised as a documentary, feature length video art piece or an entirely new fiction film, by Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan.
Entirely edited to tell a new story from old VHS tapes, which Stephan collected over ten years, the film deconstructs the iconography of Hosny using archival cinematic footage to tell the story of her life. It also examines Egyptian cinema, which had a monopoly on cinema in the Arab world until the 90s, and Hosny's career within it.
Stephan chose an alternative route to the traditional documentary in capturing the story of an icon of Egyptian cinema. Hosny's life, both on screen and in person, has intrigued audiences for decades - especially after her 2001 death in London, which is presumed to have been suicide or murder,
"I didn't want to make a film about her real life but about her persona," Stephan told the audience at the talk following the film's screening. "I didn't want to take the route of the traditional documentary, asking people who knew her to recount experiences, because so much gossip surrounds her and I really didn't want to go there. The film is about the image; how any actress is stuck with an image and cannot escape it."
For audiences familiar with Hosny's body of work and Egyptian commercial cinema, the film presents a trip down memory lane, with snippets of footage depicting Hosny's first roles in the 1960s and in the years following the 1952 revolution, during which time she played a number of roles about love, hope, innocence and empowering women. In the 60s Egypt aspired towards modernity, and cinema reflected a certain emancipation of women - marrying for love, claiming their right to co-exist in public space and the educational sphere, and even to flirt and date boys.
In the first act, the film reveals Hosny's complicated family life, her relationship with her parents, and aspirations for stardom.
"Cinema works with layers. You feel it but you don't need to know all the information," Stephan says. "It's real information if you inquire about it. The film is based on real-life scenarios, but I used fiction as a tool to document history. I created a parallel fiction; Is it fiction? Is it a documentary?" she enquires.
The film, set as a dream, shows fragmented memories, with repetitive scenes that aren't chronological. In the second act, the film gets darker, reflecting Egyptian cinema following the 1967 defeat against Israel, which left a void in Arab consciousness, while at the same time depicting Hosny at the peak of her beauty, as a seductress, taking on more emotional depth in her roles than the girl-next-door figure.
The third and final act of the film represents a time when the open-economy started to show fruit, and Egyptian cinematic topics inquired more deeply into the polarisation of the country and corruption that was starting to manifest itself as a new reality.
"I use the black of the VHS as the base of her memory. A memory is never complete; It's always fragmented, suspended. This is how memory works. The function of repetition serves the dream I used in the narration, but also reminds the spectator that we are viewing the image of an icon. We are not talking about the real Soad Hosny. She died. I didn't meet her. The only thing we have left is her image. So what does this image tell us?" Stephan explains.
"This is the ambiguity of cinema. An actor is a real person that performs a role, often invoking confusion between the real person and the image. There is always this association between reality and the imagination. Even reality, when you live it, is sometimes confused for an imagination," she adds.
"What is real? What is reality? Cinema is the place to ask this question per-se. We are asking about the image, which is so real that it's an illusion. All these levels are at work in the film," Stephan concludes.