This year the 43rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF, 26 November-5 December) bid three of Egypt’s best loved cinematic figures farewell. The opening ceremony paid tribute to the legendary comedian Samir Ghanem, the renowned screenwriter Wahid Hamed and the iconic actress Soheir El-Bably. Also honoured were actor Karim Abdel-Aziz, who received the Faten Hamama Award of Excellence, and the versatile performer Nelly, who received the Golden Pyramid for her Lifetime Achievement, presented to her by veteran media figure Samir Sabri.
This year there are three Arab films in the International Competition: Egyptian filmmaker Nadine Khan’s Abu Saddam, Tunisian actor-turned-filmmaker Dhafer L’Abidine’s Tomorrow, and Jordanian filmmaker Zaid Abu Hamdan’s debut Daughters of Abdul Rahman in its world premiere. Written by Hamdan, it stars Saba Mubarak (also the executive producer) alongside three remarkable woman performers. A feminist drama involving four women, the film is humorous and irreverent; and it introduces us to the women-types through thorough, well-rounded scenes.
It opens with Amaal (Saba Mubarak), the mother of four children, putting together some lunch for her children as they prepare to leave for school. Waiting in the car is an angry man who doesn’t stop blowing the horn until all four children are in the car – this is the perpetually furious father, and Amaal is seen telling her 15-year-old daughter to wear her hijab properly so as not to anger him. Once the children are gone Amaal, who as it turns out wears the niqab, seems relieved as she treats herself to a cup of coffee. The role of a niqab-wearing woman was a challenge for Mubarak, as she told the media at CIFF: “The whole film is different from the usual high-heels-in-fancy-houses we so often play. It was a good challenge and I didn’t hesitate to accept it.
Next comes Amal’s sister Zainab (Farah Bsieso), a quiet woman in her fifties who works as a seamstress in the Ashrafia neighbourhood of Amman and, still living with her father, has the inevitable love-hate relationship with him even though she only shows love. She is seen directing the electrician to install a light in front of the house and trying on the dresses she makes, including her cousin’s wedding gown which her father sees her in and disappears. In contrast to the first two characters, Zainab’s sister is the bold, troublesome but charismatic Samah (Hanan Hillo), who wears high heels in the morning, starts the day with excessive makeup at the hairdresser’s, and pays her husband’s secretary to spay on him. Finally, at an infinity pool on the roof of a skyscraper that looks like Dubai, appears the arrogant and angry Khitam (Mariam Basha), who has asked Zainab to help secure her father’s blessing for her matrimonial plans. All four sisters end up outside the house when Zainab announces that said father has disappeared.
The four women’s lives are so precisely constructed and interwoven that they reflect almost every patriarchal problem faced by an Arab woman, from the controlling religious husband who wants to marry off his 15-year-old daughter to the neighbourhood gossips finding out that Khitam is living with a man whom she has not married abroad, and from the father’s consequent fury to the journey of self-discovery all four sisters embark on in their search for him. Abu Hamdan brilliantly intertwines the four characters’ hopes, fears and despair in the face of a society intent on killing a woman’s dreams, inserting a master scene for each: in one of the film’s most brilliant scenes, Amaal rescuing her daughter from a premature marriage, for example. The screenplay coherently and grippingly carries through its premise, benefiting from earthy humour and powerful acting.
According to Abu Hamdan speaking to the media, the film was inspired by a survey his of 300 Jordanian women from different social and religious backgrounds conducted by his own mother: “The screenplay took me seven years of writing and rewriting in order to make it come together in this way, though of course the pandemic contributed to the delay as well.” Casting his four heroines was very hard, he says, and it started with his executive producer even though it would prove hard to make her play an overweight housewife with her face covered in many scenes. While in the writing process he was thinking of the Kuwaiti-Syrian actress Farah Bsieso for the role Zainab. Bsieso was hard to reach and when Abu Hamdan got through to her she had retired, but once she read the script she was willing to come out of her retirement for the role. The film received a standing ovation after its screening; it is likely to receive CIFF’s audience award.
Also in the International Competition, the Ukrainian filmmaker Peter Kerekes’s 107 Mothers is a kind of documentary-fiction fusion set inside a woman’s prison. Offering insights into the real life stories of incarcerated women, it opens with Leysa (Maryna Klimova), a newcomer, giving birth under the supervision of the consellor Iryna (Iryna Kiryazeva); the correctional facility allows a woman to keep her baby until the age of three, as we find out in the interviews with which it starts and which give it a rather documentary feel, then if the child is unclaimed by a relative or a friend it is handed over to an orphanage. Many women request parole to be with their children; few are granted it. Leysa, who is serving a seven-year sentence for killing her husband due to jealousy, grows colder and colder as she faces the prospect of being separated from her newborn, whom she is only allowed to see for a limited time. This comes to a head when her request for parole is rejected.
During one-on-one interviews with their counsellors, the women are vocal about their experiences, explaining the logic behind their crimes, the horror stories and mixed emotions. Iryna has grown closer to Leysa after a workshop she gave in which the women write letters to those they harmed to ask forgiveness, and now she advises Leysa to try to contact her mother-in-law and convince her to take the child rather than giving him up to an orphanage. The mother-in-law agrees on condition that Leysa can never see her son any more, and so Leysa says no and returns to square one. The film ends with Iryna herself taking the child home with her, but only once we’ve seen a vast amount of detail about the lives of incarcerated mothers. All in all the film fails to deliver a coherent narrative despite its abundance of strong moments and fascinating details, but being a relatively long film it could have done a better job of weaving together the material and making sense of its genre.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.