At the fourth Aswan International Women’s Film Festival this week, filmmaker Amal Ramses shared the the EU’s Euro-Mediterranean Award for best film dealing with women’s issues with Marianne Khoury (Let’s Talk). Her film, You Come From Faraway, had had its Middle East premiere at the 2018 Carthage Film Festival, where it won a Silver Tanit.
Its Egypt premiere took place at the 2019 Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, and there too it won both the African Federation of Film Critics (FACC) award and the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) award.
You Come From Faraway is the third documentary feature by Ramses, who earned her filmmaking degree from Madrid, Spain, and established the Caravan of Arab and Latin American Women’s Films and the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, the latter in 2008. It follows the destinies of the family of Najati Sidqi (1905-1979), a Palestinian activist who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).
By gathering Najati Sidqi ’s three daughters and son, who are scattered across Athens, Latin America and Moscow, the film draws an intimate portrait of the history of the family with the support of archival material both from the family’s photo albums and the public archives of relevant events in Spain, Palestine and Lebanon during and after WWII. Unusual among Egyptian documentaries, which generally focus on Egypt, the film stands out in more ways than one.
“I am always curious to know how the Egyptian audience and film critics receive my films, and it is really amazing to find a very supportive feedback from both,” Ramses says. “People showed a lot of interest and even pride, and this means a lot to me. It means that we as an Egyptian audience have an interest in regional issues and that we look beyond our very local reality through films that are made by Egyptian filmmakers and not only foreign or Arab filmmakers. I believe that filmmakers need to make films about issues that really interests them and not only about things they expect the audience to welcome. It is great to share your concerns with the wider audience and to find out there is something in common between you, the filmmaker and the audience.”
The story behind the making of You Come from Faraway, which began in 2003, might explain Ramses’s bond with her subject: “I was a film student in Madrid in 2003 and I had the idea of doing a story about the Arab fighters in the Spanish Civil War. It was my first film project.” Since most of the Spanish Civil War literature refers to Arabs who fought on the side of Franco, however, “it was such a surprise to me to find out that Arabs came from faraway, from North Africa, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq to fight against Franco and the fascism in Spain. Most volunteered out of awareness of the danger of fascism and belief in peoples’ solidarity.”
It would take Ramses years to find a personal story while she researched the war and worked to identify the fighters who fought under assumed names. In 2007, through his published diary, she discovered Sidqi and found out that his children were contactable: “At last I found the missing piece of my film as I imagined it. I did not want my film to be a dry archival dry documentary of the kind that used to be screened on TV. I wanted it to be a flesh and blood film where viewers can relate to real people and real-life stories of struggle, loss, with memories and untold stories. Finding Najati Sidqi’s family was the key.”
Ten more years were required before the film could come into being, in which time Ramses made two feature documentaries, Forbidden (2011), and The Trace of the Butterfly (2015): “These two films were made on a much lower budget. Starting in 2011,” because of the revolution, what is more, “I felt that I needed to stay and focus on the changes happening in Egypt. It was clear the Sidqi project could not be done using my limited resources since we needed to travel to Athens, Beirut, Moscow, Madrid and Latin America. We also had to buy archival material, which costs a lot of money. That was why it had to wait – the lack of a budget was my main challenge.”
While she gathered the required resources, however, Ramses spent time connecting with Sidqi’s children: Hend (whom she visited briefly) in Athens, Dawlat in Moscow, and Nagy in Latin America. She also made the acquaintance of Sidqi’s grandchildren. She started filming slowly as resources became available.
Ramses, who is also the film’s writer and editor, structured it around the subtle connection between the family’s story and the history of the region between the end of WWII and the start of the Gulf War in 1990. Archival material was relied on, but it was supplemented by oral storytelling:
“I did my best to use a minimum of archival material, not only because the institutions and the TV channels that own the rights to it charge exorbitant fees for its use but also because I wanted to make the point that first-hand witness’s oral history is as credible as archives. Those who block access to archives are keeping the people out of their own history, she says, and so the people must believe in the stories their memory has preserved – the real people who were affected by events. This is part of what the film is about.”
The lives of Sidqi’s daughters and son were shaped by his choices, and it is through their testimonies that the pieces of the puzzle come together: “It’s true that the story is told from their point of view and mine as the film’s director but who said that formal history as we see it written down or recorded in a visual archive isn’t subjective? History is as subjective as filmmaking and people should have the right to recount the history they lived.”
According to Ramses, for the Spanish audience You Come from Faraway was an eye opener: “Before 2003, there was little that could be said about the Spanish Civil War. It was only after that date that the scary fascist era was openly discussed and publicly explored and revised. And the part about Arab volunteers resisting fascism had therefore been overlooked by the collective Spanish memory fighters was one of the overlooked parts in the Spanish collective memory. Today it opens a very interesting debate – and that is part of the motivation behind the film.”
Equally important however was drawing the Arab audience’s attention to the role their grandparents played in this conflict: “We should be proud of what they did, and we need to be aware that we have always been part of the world – not only as receivers and subjects but also as people who stand for justice, sacrificing everything, even the stability of our families. The story of Najati Sidqi is one example.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.