"I learn something new with every documentary film … " says late Lebanese-Egyptian veteran documentary filmmaker Nabeeha Lotfy. "My films are not so much a product of my mind but of my intuition,” she added. (Excerpts from published interviews with Nabeeha Lotfy, published in The Encyclopaedia of Arab Women Filmmakers
by Rebecca Hillauer, 2005)
With a repertoire comprising tens of documentary films about Egypt, its class struggle and rich heritage, the Arab torment and the Palestine struggle, Nabeeha Lotfy — who died 17 June — was a candid teller of stories.
Nabeeha was born 28 January 1937 in Sidon, South Lebanon. In 1955, Nabeeha, then a student of political science at the American University in Beirut, was expelled, along with other students, for participating in a demonstration against the Baghdad Pact.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser welcomed expelled students to complete their studies in Egypt, and Nabeeha moved to Egypt where she studied Arabic Literature at Cairo University (King Fouad I University at the time). Graduating in 1957, she had a short encounter with journalism before joining the Higher Film Institute in 1960.
Upon graduation, Nabeeha was assistant director for television and fiction films working with directors like Saad Arafa, Mamdouh Shoukri, Khalil Shawqi, and Fatin Abdelwahab. It was not long before she joined Egyptian director Shadi Abdel Salam at the department for experimental film at the Egyptian Film Centre and shifted to documentary filmmaking.
“Intellectually and emotionally she wanted to explore intimate and unusual areas. And documentary films were going to provide the space for that, at a time when this genre was also ascending in society’s cultural thinking,” says Arab Loutfi, Nabeeha’s younger sister and a filmmaker and professor.
Besides her directing roles, Nabeeha also acted in Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed’s Rasael El-Bahr (Messages from the Sea, 2010), Ibrahim El Batout's Ein Shams (2008), and the television drama series Khawaga Abdel-Qader (2012).
In 2001, the Egyptian Film Festival honoured Nabeeha with a retrospective of her work. She received the National Cedar Medal from former Lebanese President Emile Lahoud in 2006. She was also recently honoured by the Catholic Film Centre in February 2015 and by the Egyptian Film Critics Association in April.
Neo-realist cinema and the New Cinema Group
“You feel a profound familiarity when you watch Nabeeha’s films. The way she interviews people makes you feel that you’re sitting in her house and eating kebbah [a staple Lebanese dish],” prominent Egyptian journalist Hani Shukrallah recalls.
This intimacy that adorned Nabeeha’s repertoire, and the topics that seeped into it, beginning with the Arab world’s agonies all the way to Egypt’s social struggle, were very much the product of their time. With the emergence of the Arab and international student movements in 1968 and precisely Egypt’s 1970s student movement, leftist student activists were demanding an array of freedoms across Egypt’s universities.
They were influenced by the 1967 defeat in the Six Day War and called for an end to Arab regimes’ authoritarianism, the return of Palestine, the end of colonialism, amongst other demands.
“It was a very tumultuous time, with lots of hope for a different future for the country. And it was a time of political and cultural revival, because besides the student movement, there was the filmmakers’ movement which Nabeeha was part of,” Shukrallah says.
Influenced by social, political and ideological changes of the time, and the ascension of leftist and progressive trends in the Arab region and the world, a neo-realist generation of filmmakers emerged. Members of this generation, including Nabeeha, Khairy Beshara, Ali Badrakhan, Ahmed Metwalli, Mohamed Khan, Atef El-Tayyeb and others, co-founded the New Cinema Group in 1968.
“We were preoccupied with social grievances and wanted to make films about the people. And this was expected given the political landscape of the time. Studying and graduating in the 1960s, what we encountered on the regional and global levels, the rise of national movements and anti-imperialism, fed into this,” filmmaker Khairy Beshara explains.
Taking their films away from studios and out to the street, these neo-realist filmmakers created a cinema more inclusive of nabd al-sharea (the street pulse).
“Their protagonists were real,” Arab Loutfi asserts. This, she adds, was evident in Khairy Beshara’s Tabeeb Fel Aryaf (1975) and Dawoud Abdel-Sayyed’s Wassaya Ragol Hakim Fi Sheoun Al Qarya Wa Al Taaleem (1976), amongst other films.
From the Arab torment to Egypt’s class struggle: The multiple themes in Nabeeha’s cinema
“It was an epical film, especially for my generation who intimately associated themselves with Palestine and its struggle,” Shukrallah says of Li’ann al-guzur lan tamut (Because the Roots will Never Die, 1975), one of Nabeeha’s early chef d’oeuvres, in which she narrated the Tel Al-Zaatar massacre in east Beirut.
Nabeeha had initially intended to film life dynamics and the Palestinian woman’s role in the Tel Al-Zaatar refugee camp, but the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war brought the project to an abrupt halt. When the massacre of the camp followed, Nabeeha became more determined to resume the project and tell the camp’s story. The end result was an amalgam of scenes filmed before the camp's displacement, and scenes unearthed after, supplemented with testimonies from women and children who survived the massacre.
In her grief for this Palestinian agony and her unbounded intimacy with her Arabness, Nabeeha spoke for a whole generation of leftist student activists and progressives like Shukrallah.
From the Palestinian struggle, Nabeeha turned her focus to Egypt society, delving into society and poignantly molding cinematic material with topics that were familiar to the audience.
She wandered about Upper Egypt producing more than 20 films that spoke of the Egyptian people, their social struggle and their infringed rights.
In Ila ayn? (Where To? 1991), she discussed the issue of girls dropping out from schools. In La’b ‘iyal (Children’s Games, 1990), she observed the imagination of children in Upper Egypt as they create toys out of everyday objects.
“Her works capture your heart very deeply. Because of this raw portrayal of the people, regular people become heroes in her films,” Shukrallah says.
Not only did Nabeeha capture raw life, but she also was a fervent documentarian of city culture and it vicissitudes.
In Sala min nawahi Misr al-atiqa (Prayer from Old Cairo, 1972) she embarked on a spiritual journey via the churches of Mari Gerges. In Sharia Mohammed Ali (Mohammed Ali Street / Remains of a Certain Time, 2003), she took a tour of one of the oldest streets in Cairo, focusing on the changes that unfolded in the street that once hosted Egypt’s artists and dancers in the 20th century.
“When you create a list of Nabeeha’s films, you’ll find that all of them plunge into these particular areas — whether the Egyptian social struggle or the city’s cultural heritage,” Arab Loutfi explains.
It is Nabeeha’s familiarity with Egypt’s particularities that perhaps best explains the harmony that characterised her dual identity as a Lebanese and an Egyptian.
She expressed this dualism poetically in the following excerpt from her 1995 interview with Rebecca Hillauer:
“Lebanon has my childhood, the years of my youth, and Egypt has my womanhood and the rest of my life, and my children and grandchildren. If I look ahead, I see myself staying in Egypt. It’s my country now. And maybe I understand it much better now than before — my documentary films have certainly played a role in that.”
Nabeeha also celebrated and took pride in Arab women. In 1990, she founded the Association of Egyptian Women Filmmakers. She produced Nisa (Women, 2000) for television in which she presented a series of portraits of significant contemporary Egyptian women in different fields. Amongst the featured women were Suad Rida, general director of the Rose Al-Yusuf Institute, Najwa Mustafa, general director of streets and bridges of Ismailia, and Aida Guindy, Egypt’s representative to the United Nations.
She also delivered two tributes: one to Egyptian singer Tahia Carioca (Cairoca, 2008) in which she renegotiated Carioca’s legacy, unearthing how behind this renowned dancer and actress there was a formidably strong woman. Her other tribute, Aalam Shadi Abdel Salam (The World of Shadi Abdel Salam), was about the late director and was completed shortly before her own death.
A beautiful soul and loving home
Nabeeha’s aptitude at creating raw and real documentaries was a result of her loving personality and ability to understand and cherish human relationships.
Equally, Nabeeha’s home embraced everyone.
“I remember how Nabeeha and Ali Mokhtar’s (her husband) home welcomed us. In fact, this generation of the 1950s and 60s — of whom she was part — was very supportive of our group and of the 1970s student movement,” Arab Loutfi explains.
Of this support, Shukrallah shares the following heart-warming anecdote.
“I was among a couple of hundred students from all Egypt’s universities who were wanted by the police in January 1973. I managed to hide out. I was on the run for nine months, and moved between different places, among which was Nabeeha’s house where I stayed for a whole month. When you hide out in someone’s place, you immediately put them in danger. But not a second did I feel I was a burden.”
At the heart of her bayt al-karam (house of generosity) was Nabeeha's kitchen with its delectable Egyptian and Shami (pertaining to the Levant, including Lebanon) food.
“She was known for her good food and incredible generosity. Her house brought together many friends of our generation. She was a beautiful and lively soul with much love for her friends,” Beshara states.
“I think what made her special is her childlike character: how much she loved people and how she always had an interest in exploring life,” Arab Loutfi adds.
Nabeeha maintained this inexplicable beauty and love of life into her seventies.
“She still insisted to be part of everything. I remember how during the revolution, they would bring her home from Tahrir to rest. And how she’d take a taxi back to the square only a couple of hours later,” Arab Loutfi says.
“She never confined herself to one art form. She was a lover of cinema and literature, and an avid reader. What she enjoyed, she did,” she adds.
“When I come to remember Nabeeha as we bid her farewell,” Shukrallah says, “I remember an enormous amount of love and a lot of joy.”