Tale of a town: On Maggie Morgan’s documentary From Meir, To Meir

Amina Abdel-Halim, Tuesday 28 Jun 2022

From Meir, To Meir is a documentary directed by Egyptian filmmaker and film professor Maggie Morgan

From Meir, to Meir

What does it mean to be “from” somewhere? Which traditions stay alive and which die with their upholders? What stories make it to the screen, and why? Those are some of the questions that come to mind when watching From Meir, To Meir. Shot between 2008 and 2020, Morgan's film follows the director’s journey to the Upper Egyptian town of Meir in the governorate of Assiut, where her grandparents were born and lived up until they left for Alexandria.

From Meir, To Meir premiered at the 2021 Aswan International Women’s Film Festival, where it won the Award for Best Egyptian Film Supporting Women’s Work. The film was most recently awarded the Jury Prize for Best Film at the National Film Festival and will be made available on Netflix as of 7 July.

It was also shown as part of Zawya Art House Cinema’s annual Cairo Cinema Days programme (25 May-21 June). The screening was followed by a Q&A with the director, who introduced her work with a word of advice to the audience: that the films we see at Zawya are not films we see on TV or at commercial venues, and the people we see on screen at Zawya are not people we see on screen anywhere else.

In addition to her work as a filmmaker, Morgan teaches film studies at the American University in Cairo, where I was fortunate to take her class on cinema in Egypt and the Arab world. To those of us in the audience who were students of hers, her introductory words called to mind to the markers of her course and of the AUC film department more broadly: exposure to alternative films, frequent trips to venues like Zawya, and a theory-intensive curriculum through which we were offered the tools to help us read films like her own.

One thing I learned in Morgan’s class is that many contemporary Egyptian documentaries fall within a tradition pioneered in the 1970s by Ateyyat El Abnoudy. By turning the camera from institutional “experts” to the subjects themselves – manual workers, street performers, her own family and friends – El Abnoudy’s films set the stage for more personal, candid, and reflexive documentaries.

In From Meir, To Meir, Morgan does not seek to distance herself from her subject or audience. From the onset, viewers see and hear the director on screen, introducing the town of Meir and her family roots through personal archives. She declares that her decision to make a film about Meir is one which she cannot fully explain. In a sense, this admission makes the film doubly participatory. As viewers, we are invited to embark both on the physical journey through the town and the metaphorical journey of the question: why make a film about Meir?

Maybe the answer lies in the town’s history: from a series of interviews, we learn that Meir was once home to Benjamin Behman, founder of the Behman Psychiatric Hospital, now run by the children of his son-in-law, Fathy Loza. Meir was also once home to the Greiss family, owners of a majestic residence separate from their home for the purpose of receiving prominent visitors. Members of the Greiss and Loza families feature in the film and express great pride in their origins. Yet, as the director herself notes in a voiceover, these families still chose to leave. And From Meir, To Meir is less preoccupied with the people who used to live in Meir than with the lives of its remaining inhabitants.

Beyond the Greiss family’s luxurious residence, in 2008, Meir looks like most towns in rural Egypt, with unpaved roads, exposed brick buildings, and a withered agricultural landscape. The people who live there are predominantly Christian and from modest backgrounds. They are also the keepers of local customs: weddings, church services, and annual rituals like the mouled of the Virgin Mary. The making of kishk, a traditional Upper Egyptian dish, is another communal activity in which many of the town’s inhabitants participate.

Viewers are introduced to these customs through the filmmaker’s recording of events and interviews with locals. Three siblings in particular – Romany, Kirolos and Mariam: the children of ‘Am Abdeltawab – feature prominently throughout the film and offer their views on what goes on in the town. In a sense, the children become the viewers’ unexpected guides.

A second thing I learned from Morgan’s class is that film can become a means to record cultures eroded by imperialism. This value is often discussed in relation to Palestinian cinema, epitomised in films like Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (1987), which dedicates ample screen time to portraying traditional Palestinian weddings. However, the same is also true in postcolonial contexts, such as the one in which From Meir, To Meir unfolds. In one sequence, Romany smokes shisha with his father and gives a comical lesson on different types of maassel tobacco. In the same interview, he and his brother talk about their desire to leave the country, one shared by most of Meir’s inhabitants, who dream of leaving for the United States, Kuwait, or anywhere other than home.

One of the town’s most anticipated annual events is the green card lottery, in which the people of Meir are said to be luckier than most. From Meir, To Meir therefore archives a culture which is at risk of disappearing as its keepers emigrate. It is perhaps noteworthy that most of Meir’s inhabitants belong to a religious minority, and that the US financial crisis was ongoing at the time of filming, further colouring the forces at play in the erosion of traditions shown on screen.

The director is not the only one in the film to undertake this archival project. Among those interviewed is Samir El Qommos, whose family has lived in Meir since the fourth century, and who serves as the town’s archivist, chronicling every birth, marriage, death, or other event in Meir. His intervention makes the archival process triple: the director’s documentation of Meir through interviews with its inhabitants, her own documentation of the filmmaking process, and the archivist’s documentation of comings and goings in Meir including, presumably, Morgan and the film team’s presence.

When a gruesome suicide by self-immolation takes place in the course of filming, these extensive archives also unveil a shocking phenomenon. We learn that Shenouda, the recently deceased, is one of many predominantly young people to have taken their own lives in Meir. Different interviewees offer their views on the matter: some believe the suicides are due to poverty; others that they are due to lack of piety, mistreatment among family members, or marital abuse. Romany comments that suicide is more common among young people because old people stubbornly cling to life, even though suicide by insecticide is available for the cheap price of one pound. Shenouda’s mother cannot seem to explain or understand why her son would choose to die.

A third thing I learned in Morgan’s class is that alternative films do not offer clear delineations of good and evil, of heroes and villains. From Meir, To Meir does not overtly comment on its subjects’ stances, but it does invite viewers to question their own. By reflecting openly on the filmmaking process, the film challenges its audience in more ways than one. Some are obvious: the drastic shift between Um Shenouda’s visceral grief and Romany’s comical views on the issue; or the shift from Romany’s assertion that “old people hang onto life with their hands and teeth” to his elderly grandmother’s smile. Some are more subtle: the discrepancy between the Greiss family residence and other houses in Meir; or the fact that some of Morgan’s interviewees respond to the questions in English, a language which is not accessible to most people in Meir, nor to all viewers of the film.  

The final moments of From Meir, To Meir recall the initial question of why Morgan chose to make the film, and her introductory words to the audience: the people we see on screen at Zawya are not those we see on screen anywhere else. The sudden death of one of the film’s characters prompted the director to resume filming in 2020, a decision which she noted was also encouraged by creative consultant Taghreed Al-Asfouri.

In those twelve years, many of the town’s inhabitants had left home. The buildings now stand empty, because while people spend years struggling to leave Meir, no one ever moves to the small town. The film nonetheless ends with the hopeful sentiment that places and buildings are less important than people, and perhaps this is one answer to its initial question: why make a film about Meir? Because the stories of Meir’s people are worth telling, they live on even if the town becomes deserted or vanishes altogether.

Film journeys typically lead less to a location than to a metaphorical answer. In Abu Bakr Shawky’s Yomeddine (2019), Bishay’s cross-country journey to Upper Egypt leads to his ultimate acceptance of his leprosy. In Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth By Day (2012), the protagonist’s tumultuous journey through Cairo paves her way to accepting her father’s imminent death.

But a fourth thing I learned from Morgan’s class is that there are no easy answers. During the Q&A, which was moderated by filmmaker Bassam Mortada and in which Al-Asfouri also participated, one audience member asked if the film had been screened in Meir. The director explained that, while those featured in the film had seen it, holding a screening in Meir would be difficult because there are no cinemas or appropriate public spaces. She also noted that while many of the characters enjoyed telling their stories on screen, they were unsure that anyone else would take an interest in hearing them.

This answer seems to raise more questions: why are films like From Meir, To Meir not more widely disseminated? How many of us will remember the characters’ names after leaving the cinema? How could this film be made accessible to those who would never forget, and maybe need to see it the most? Maybe one answer lies in the growing reach of streaming services: From Meir, To Meir is soon to be made available on Netflix, hopefully meaning the stories it portrays can be brought to a much wider audience. But the question stands of how accessible such platforms are to most people in Egypt, their affordability, the discrepancies in internet penetration across the country and, more simply, why films like these do not typically enjoy the same breadth of commercial distribution.

Perhaps the most important thing I learned in Morgan’s class is that truthful, unpretentious films call for truthful, unpretentious writing. I cannot claim to bring any answer to the questions posed by the film. But I do know that films like From Meir, To Meir matter because they force us to confront the fact. Because they leave their viewers with more questions than answers, and because the stories of Meir’s inhabitants need to be told —not by researchers or experts, but by themselves, and to as wide an audience as possible.

A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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