Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 May 2006
Issue No. 796
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Survival strategies

Samir Farid is impressed by El-Banat Dol, the documentary on street children that is the only Egyptian production to be screened at Cannes

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El-Banat Dol (Those Girls); Tahani Rached

Out of more than 1,000 films the organisers of the 59th Cannes International Film Festival (17-28 May) selected 20 to run in the official competition, 24 in the Un certain regard section, and 21 outside competition, including nine documentaries from the US, France, Italy, Germany and Egypt, the latter represented by Tahani Rached's El-Banat Dol (Those Girls).

A decade ago it was far from common for a documentary or animated film to be screened at any other major festival. In recent years, though, the voracious appetite of satellite channels, combined with the development of digital cameras, has launched a golden age in both genres. In the case of documentary films digital cameras have allowed greater freedom from censorship since filming can go ahead without obtaining permission, and production costs are minimal.

Two decades ago a long film directed by a woman was also a rare occurrence at Cannes and other big festivals, especially within competition, though nowadays we take such things for granted. Egyptian cinema -- which next year celebrates the centenary of the first Egyptian film -- began, like other national film industries, with documentaries. Yet the number of long documentaries produced in the intervening years does not exceed 20. Nor has an Egyptian documentary been screened at Cannes, or any other major festival for that matter.

It was, therefore, something of an event when a long documentary, an entirely Egyptian production (by Studio Misr), directed by an Egyptian and filmed on digital camera without permission from the Censorship Bureau, was screened on Monday at one of the Cannes festival's official venues. It was the fulfillment of an old dream of the great pioneers of the genre -- the late Saad Nadim, Salah El-Tohami, Abdel-Qadir El-Telmissani -- and their outstanding successors Ahmed Rashed, Hashem El-Nahhas, Atiyyat El-Abnoudi and Nabiha Loutfi.

Egyptian director Tahani Rached moved to Canada in the 1970s. Since 2004 she has worked at the Canadian National Film Board, an organisation that has made a major contribution to the documentary film industry in Canada and elsewhere in the world. El-Banat Dol is Rached's tenth documentary in 35 years. Past projects include a documentary on the Lebanese Civil War (1983), another on Palestine (2004), and Quatre Femmes d'Egypte (1997), her first film about Egypt in which the country's history from the 1952 Revolution is presented through the friendship between four women. These are drama critic Safinaz Qazem, professor of French literature Amina Rachid, political activist Shahenda Maqlad and education and philosophy teacher Wedad Mitri. Despite their different social, religious and professional backgrounds, the four women are close friends, having shared the experience of political detention.

In El-Banat Dol, her second film about Egypt, Rached leaves behind her experiment of distilling modern Egyptian history through the eyes of four intellectuals and takes on the task of distilling contemporary Egyptian reality through the experiences of six girls, street children in one of the nouveau riche quarters in what may be called the "third Cairo", in contrast to the first, which is the Fatimid city, and the second, which was constructed by Khedive Ismail in the second half of the 19th century.

For Touta, Maryam, Reda, Abeer, Donya and Iman there is no difference between yesterday and tomorrow: all under the age of 20, some no more than children, they sleep wherever they can and eat whatever food they can lay their hands on, sometimes salvaged from garbage bins.

It is clear that Rached followed the girls for about a year, and we follow one of them from the early months of pregnancy and through to childbirth. According to the film's editor Mona Rabei the one hour and eight minutes worth of footage was constructed from 60 hours of film.

Each of the six girls has her own story. One ran away from her family, another was born on the street, a third is asked by a family member to return home while another has already been forgotten by her family. What they share is misery and poverty, as well as an ability to resist, to overcome their conditions and at times find a kind of contentment simply in being alive. Each has fallen in love with a young man, also a child of the streets, though most of these young men are in prison for having committed a felony, either theft or trafficking drugs.

Whereas at first sight the girls may seem to be prostitutes, they suffer constantly from the threat of sexual abuse, rape being one of the many costs of being systematically denied all rights. One of the girls cuts her hair short and wears boys' clothes in an attempt to escape unwanted sexual attention.

For the girls "the government" is a mysterious entity represented by the policemen who chase them and imprison the young men they love. The only acts of kindness they encounter come from Hind, a middle-class religious woman who sympathises with the girls and in whom they confide. She becomes a kind of refuge. Hind does not try to change the circumstances of the girls or save them from street life. Instead, she gives them advice tailored to their circumstances so that they can avoid further damage; indeed, Hind seems to derive some of the energy needed to deal with her own life from the girls.

The quarter these girls inhabit is like a circus, inasmuch as it embraces people, birds and animals. Although not gypsies as such, the girls are close to gypsies in the improvised way they deal with everything, even theft, and in their scorn for rational thinking. This aspect is interpreted by Tamer Karawan, who contributed the film's musical theme, reminiscent of the circus and employed by the director with great skill.

The circus ambiance is spelled out at the beginning of the film when we see one of the girls on horseback amid the cars in the street, a scene repeated towards the end and suggesting the joy born out of pain often associated with clowns. The gypsy feel is further emphasised by singing, especially when the girls sing "muwatin wa mukhbir wa harami" (A citizen, a detective, and a thief), the theme song from Daoud Abdel-Sayed's masterly film of the same title.

Some scenes in El-Banat Dol are almost unbearably moving, especially those surrounding the birth of a baby, when a cot is prepared from a cast- off box. Is this a documentary, or should it be considered a feature film, with the girls reenacting their own lives? It doesn't really matter; such critical classifications come after the fact of the creative act and are secondary to it. The point to be made is that Rached neither asks the viewers to respond to the film as a feature, nor does she expect them to believe that she took her camera to the street and filmed with a fly on the wall technique.

She has carefully selected footage that interprets what she has seen. For example, there is a scene in which she addresses one of the girls from behind the camera and tells her that the filming could stop if she'd prefer.

While foregrounding the strategies for survival these girls are forced to adopt El-Banat Dol does not ignore the daily tragedy of their plight. Rather, the film is a plea to solve the problems faced by street children, and one that operates on a level that is at once humane and subtle.

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