Nahed Nasr , Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

Nahed Nasr celebrates filmmaker Ayatallah Yusuf’s debut, which took part in the Ismailia Film Festival this week

Samar Before the Final Picture


Ayatallah Yusuf’s debut Samar Before the Final Picture, which she also wrote, shot, produced, and edited, is competing in the 25th Ismailia International Film Festival (IIFF). A long documentary made over eight whole years, the film revolves around Samar’s challenging journey to remedy the health condition of Sanaa after they both become victims of an acid attack by men in their respective families. The story begins many years before when Samar and her husband, whose relationship is in turmoil, are watching television and Sanaa appears on the screen reporting her testimony as a victim of burning acid being thrown on her face as punishment for her refusal to marry the perpetrator, a family member. Samar is surprised when her husband threatens that any attempt on her part to separate from him would meet with the same fate, which is what actually happens shortly after that.

The acid affects Samar’s face and parts of her body, and in the course of dozens of surgical operations, she begins to search for other victims to find inspiration for a way to survive. But she is surprised that those she met, including Sanaa, are suffering severely from lack of treatment. Samar has a leader’s personality that transforms her from a victim to a leader of victims. She feels lucky to have been able to travel to have an artificial eye implanted, and the film centres on her doing the same for Sanaa. During the journey, fraught with speculation and fears, the world of women who are acid victims in Egypt is gradually revealed, their difficult struggle to obtain treatment, together with their desperate and exhausting attempts to reintegrate into society.

At a crucial moment in the life of Yusuf herself, in 2016 her path intersected with that of Samar and Sanaa. “I had just left a relationship, and for some mysterious reason my obsessive fear was of being attacked by acid. Such a thing was not common in my social environment, so I didn’t know where this strange fear came from. Later, I realised that many women have the same fear because part of women’s unconscious in our society is the constant feeling of being under threat, especially when they dare to reject a man.”

According to Yusuf, when she met the two women, she had been working as a film editor since her graduation, and her ambition was to make her own film. Through a mutual friend, they asked her to produce a short video about their story to be used as part of a fundraising campaign to have Sanaa’s artificial eye implanted in the UAE.

“But when I was done with that short video, I felt I could not put down the camera. I had a great passion to follow their journey: perhaps to be rid of my own fear forever by seeing them reach their goal, perhaps because I felt that I had found the story I wanted to tell. I don’t mean another attractive story suitable for a movie, but rather the kind of story through which I could find the meaning of filmmaking, something that cannot be explained in words. But it is the reason why I shared Samar and Sanaa’s arduous journey for eight years in the absence of decent resources. It was a collective adventure, their adventure of treatment and my adventure of self-discovery.”

The film’s events take place between clinics and hospitals in Cairo and the UAE, following with great sensitivity moments of overwhelming hope and extreme frustration, but it never slips into pity. Yusuf says her film does not aim to showcase the terrible tragedy that acid victims are exposed to so much as highlight the unbridled and inspiring human power of those victims, which transform them into true superheroes.

All through the film, layers of tragedy unfold. For example, we discover the lack of development in prosthetics in Egypt for victims of severe burns, and the inability of the poor to access what limited opportunities exist for this expensive treatment. We also discover legislative shortcomings in punishing criminals who use the most dangerous and cheapest substances to take revenge. For example, Samar’s ex-husband was imprisoned for only six years as punishment for ruining her life forever, and he is now free to threaten her again. We also discover the extreme, almost impossible, difficulties faced by victims in obtaining work, the constant bullying, and the difficulty integrating into society. Yet we never feel pity for the victims. We feel responsible and inspired.

Yusuf says she was always aware of the kind of movie she wanted, something that reflects the true personalities of Samar and Sanaa. “Very often, I derived from Samar and Sanaa the strength and support not only to continue the film, but also to continue my daily life. That tremendous positive energy that radiates from them in the face of all forms of eternal cruelty to which they are exposed is infinitely inspiring.”

The camera moves smoothly from one character to another, and sometimes one of the characters takes over filming and the director turns into a character instead. There is nothing artificial about the intimacy connecting Aya, Samar, and Sanaa, which is an organic aspect of the whole process. There are many sad and poignant moments, but there are many more moments of laughter and hope. There are moments of weakness, hesitation, and doubt, but the spirit of determination and persistence that informs the characters’ personalities predominates.

Samar, the main character, says that when she was exposed to what she calls “the affliction,” she felt like she was not just a victim. “I had, and still have, a great conviction that God put me to this test because there is a much bigger role for me to play. And I am actually playing it. To help others explore the path, to discover new spaces, and to preserve the inspiring part of me, my heart, without being poisoned by the violent rejection of everyone and everything.”

When Yusuf began filming Samar Before the Final Picture she was determined to follow the story no matter the cost, including the costs of equipment and travel outside Egypt and across the governorates. “The real challenge was to make the film with limited, almost non-existent resources, even if I had to play more than one role on the film such as director, editor, writer. Producer. And director of photography. We received very little financial support and some consulting grants, but the real producer of this film is passion. I’ve learned hundreds of lessons along the way. It will definitely be a source of inspiration for me in upcoming films.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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