“Speak, storyteller, tell us a story… Each one of us has a story in his heart.”
These are the lyrics of a beautiful song by the Algerian singer Souad Massi, titled Raoui (Storyteller), with which producer-filmmaker Marianne Khoury chooses to end of her autobiographical documentary Ehkily (Let’s Talk).
The film starts with a dialogue between Khoury, behind the camera, and her daughter, Sara, in Paris, while Sara is on a break from her film studies in Cuba. Khoury employs a very narrow frame, as if Khoury is recording her daughter with her mobile phone, evoking the sense of a very personal conversation between mother and daughter. This dialogue is very revealing as an introductory scene, centred around Sara’s fundamental question about why her mother wants to make this film. Sara guesses the film is about Khoury herself but bursts out laughing when, after a moment’s hesitation, Khoury declares it is actually about her own deceased mother Iris, the late, legendary filmmaker Youssef Chahine’s sister. Both Khoury’s hesitation and her daughter’s laughter are revealing, since at the deepest level the film is about both Khoury and her mother. But, starting from such personal matters, she digs deep into the history of a unique Egyptian family with a multiplicity of identities.
In the first few minutes of the film, Khoury continues to move from a personal point of view – making a film about her mother – to much deeper questions of love, care and family ties. At the beginning she tries to inform her two elder brothers, Eli and Gabi, of her intentions. But their response isn’t encouraging as they feel these are private matters of no interest to the cinema audience. The filmmaker manages to record their testimonies during a coffee outing. She also conducts a traditional interview with her father’s sister, who happens to have been Iris’s closest friend before she married John Khoury, and isn’t convinced of the idea of the film. The family members share memories of Iris at different stages of her life. Khoury finds out that her mother wanted to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her, and it was her aunt that stopped her on her way to the clinic. This tells Khoury that Iris was suffering from the early stages of the depression that would go on growing in the following decades until her death in 1989.
Khoury tells her daughter that she believes Iris’s relationship with John isn’t going well. They had an arranged marriage and she didn’t actually love him. When he died in 1982, Khoury thought her mother would be much happier now she was single, but her depression went on for another 7 years.
What seems to be very important in the film is the testimony of Chahine, which was conducted before his death in 2008. Perhaps the idea of this film had been gestating in Khoury’s mind for 12 years or more. The editing mixes the interview with Chahine and his vision about both his mother, his sister and his grandmother in his autobiographical films like Iskanderija... lih? (Alexandria Why?), which won the Silver Berlin Bear in 1979, and Hadduta Misriya (An Egyptian Story), which was in the Venice Film Festival’s official competition in 1982. Through these film excerpts, Khoury tries to complete the picture of the women in the family, as Chahine represented his sister as a beautiful and lovely girl (played by Laila Hamada), though the character of his grandmother in Alexandria Why? was based on his stingy great aunt (not his grandmother), who sold part of her house so as to live normally through a financial crisis. His memory of his childhood and the loss of his brother explained how he was attached to his sister Iris. Khoury used archival photographs of him and her mother accompanying Chahine at parties with famous film actors like Omar Sherif.
The filmmaker uses these interviews to illustrate many things not only about her mother’s character but also about the living conditions of the family throughout the 20th century, both in Alexandria and Cairo. Khoury then courageously switches her focus to her own psychological experience of marriage and kids as she tries to connect her mother’s fate with her own. She too had an arranged marriage with the son of a big Alexandrian Catholic family, and after a while while working at a bank in Alexandria, she felt she couldn’t continue. That’s when Chahine interfered in support of her decision not to return to her husband, offering her a job on one of his films. For her this wasn’t only a career shift, but a total change in her life as she married a Muslim businessman, then gave birth to her son Youssef and her daughter Sara, who seems to have her mother’s and grandmother’s intelligence and talent, though she also has far more anger. In a scene towards the end of the film, Khoury tries to push Sara to express her negative feelings, and worries, and Sara says that she is confused about her identity as the daughter of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, who speaks French and English fluently but cannot write in the language of her homeland, and was born in a poor country to a rich family. All this is a source of distress but perhaps also of great (future) filmmaking.
Khoury courageously speak up about sensitive matters concerning her family in a film that was screened at IDFA and won the Audience Award at Cairo International Film Festival, weaving in her emotions, suffering and worries in a compassionate way. Those 95 minutes are not only full of archival footage, photo albums and audio tapes, but also of emotions. It seems that the audience will find the answer of Sara’s fundamental question in the lyrics to Massi’s song: Let’s Talk is nothing but a story in Khoury’s heart.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.