Samir Farid reviews a very special documentary
Wednesday 1 August at the opening of the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland - and another anniversary celebration is underway, Locarno's 60th. Last May Cannes had celebrated the exact same birthday but included no film from Egypt. Locarno, for its part, boasts the feature-length documentary Salata Baladi (Maison Salade), Nadia Kamel's debut, outside the official competition. Kamel had worked as assistant director for over 10 years, with Youssef Chahine among others, before writing and shooting this film with cameraman Ibrahim El-Batout, as well as directing. She is the daughter of writer and political activist Saad Kamel, who took part in founding the cultural palaces and presided over them for a time, and journalist Naela Kamel; the fact is noteworthy because they are the central characters in the film.
Produced by the Egyptian Taasila Productions in collaboration with some European countries, the film was edited by Catherine Mabilla with music and songs by Kamilya Jubran. The second Egyptian documentary ever to screened at a major international festival - the first was Tahai Rashed's Al-Banat Dowl (These Girls) at Cannes two years ago - it is certainly among the most important. This is not only because it is feature-length, a rare thing in Arab cinema - so was Al-Banat Dowl which, like Salata Baladi, was directed by a woman, shot on video and privately produced - but also because it is a stunning expression of the new Egyptian cinema, which was born with the new century seven years ago and characterised by the artist grabbing her freedom rather than waiting for a people or an institution to bestow it on him. Shooting started in 2002 and went on for five years; and it was premiered at the independent Rawabit Foundation on Wednesday 1 August.
Salata Baladi, without being a family documentary, is about Nadia's family; it is also about the homeland in the most profound sense. At first glance it may strike one as being about the past; it is not. Taking place in the present, it actually expresses a vision of the future firmly rooted in the past. Nadia's sensibility was such she became aware that her family would provide her with the best subject matter for expressing her view of the world. From her father's side, it straddles the Egyptian countryside and Cairo; from her mother's, it extends from the Italian countryside to Rome and, through a Jewish father, to Israel. From her sister Dina's side it reaches to Safad at the heart of Palestine, as she was married to Ali, the son of the well-known Palestinian activist-turned- politician Nabil Shaath.
The director chose her family for her documentary because in the diversity of its origins and religions, its roots covering urban and rural space, it embodies a particular vision of tolerance gathering races and religions all over the world: the basis of modern Egypt since the rule of Muhammed Ali, epitomized in the people's revolt in 1919 and in the 1923 constitution, and a major characteristic of the liberal Egypt of the 1930s and 1940s, when Saad and Maria (Naela) Kamel were young.
The film opens with Nabeel, the son of the director's sister Nadia (named after Shaath) going to the Eid prayers in Cairo. The Eid sermon encourages war between religions, claiming that there is a war against Islam waged by Christians and Jews. The director driving her car wonders where the Egyptian tolerance is. The events of the film follow through Nabeel visiting his (half-Christian, half-Jewish) grandmother in hospital. Between beginning and end, said grandmother, Naela, who was arrested three times and spent seven years in political detention for belonging to the communist movement like her husband, visits relatives in both Italy and Israel. This is the first Egyptian film with some scenes shot in Israel and Palestine (Tel Aviv and Ramallah) Kamel acting as both camerawoman and director.
The film seems a microcosm of humanity's different races and religions and exposes the full spectrum of political positions: the extreme right in the mother's cousin, who emigrated from Egypt to Palestine in 1946 to fight for the establishment of Israel; and the extreme left in the two parents who equate people in the desire for peace and co- existence despite political regimes and ideologies that use religion to political ends. Needless to say the visit to Israel causes a debate within the family in the film: the director's veiled cousin and her sister Dina reject the idea of the visit, for instance.
The film's realism is influenced by Bertold Brecht, who believed that the most complicated political questions should be addressed through the very ordinary everyday activities. For instance, while she trims her hair, Nadia asks her mother if they have relatives in Israel. It is the question that introduces the whole idea.