With her recently released film, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2011), Lebanese-born filmmaker Rania Stephan celebrates one of cinema’s golden eras, the Egyptian cinema boom of the 1950s to its decline in the 1980s. It was an enormously creative and prolific period for the Egyptian film industry, which enjoyed the popular support and critical success that guaranteed its dominance across the Arab world. Stephan’s film focuses in particular on the story of acclaimed Egyptian actress of the period, Soad Hosni, the star known as both “Zouzou” and “the Cinderella of the Arab screen”—the latter inspired by her own rags-to-riches story.
For Stephan, telling Hosni’s story has meant dealing with a national treasure. Her film is foremost an homage to Hosni, whose career began in the 1950s, a period of great change and optimism, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 socialist revolution. Working with all the key directors, Hosni made 82 films between 1959 and 1991. Starring in comedies, musicals and melodramas, she was quickly adopted as the sweetheart of the nation. As a young actress, her charm, ready smile and benign sensuality became signs of the openness and secular spirit of the era. By the 1950s Hosni had become an icon of the new regime, its freedom from colonial ties and its pan-Arab spirit. In the 1970-80s, as a mature actress starring in social dramas and torrid melodramas, she explored the contradictions inherent in the “modern yet modest” model of femininity of the moment. The final phase of her career, in the 1980s, similarly mirrored the decline of the Egyptian cinema.
Despite being one of the most popular and successful actresses of her time, in true cinematic fashion, Hosni died a recluse and largely forgotten, in 2001, following a fatal fall from the seventh floor of the Stuart Tower in London. Her death was followed by police investigations, the naming of a murder suspect and a variety of unanswered questions about her final years and tragic end. Did she jump or was she pushed? The mystery of Hosni’s death is never openly addressed in Stephan’s film, nor does the film indulge any of the related theories. But Hosni’s dramatic end does become the hook that sets off the film’s search for a valid account of the actress’ life.
Stephan’s film, however, is not a regular bio-pic. While Soad Hosni as screen idol was already an established myth with a real-life Hollywood ending, Three Disappearances is not a conventional documentary that uncovers truths about her climb to stardom or the reality behind the glamour. On the contrary, Stephan has produced a startlingly experimental film, based on the conviction that Hosni’s “work talks about her better than anyone else could.” Limiting herself exclusively to archived films, Stephan draws freely from movies spanning Hosni’s 30-year career, like a DJ, sampling and remixing selected VHS videotapes, and excluding the rest. There are no production stills or talking heads that reminisce; no information about the actress beyond her performances. The videotape images are the real thing, blurry and scratched, with saturated colors.
In terms of composition, Three Disappearances is a total construction. In the opening scene, Hosni lies on an analyst’s couch as a male voiceover asks, “What happened? Try to remember.” Images dissolve, flashback and unfold, as she begins to remember. Slowly, Hosni’s memories turn to dreams and then converge in a delirium, when Hosni must ultimately examine her relationship to her own life. While Stephan’s own fascination for Hosni has a long history, the focus of the film is wholly limited to the actress. It also seeks to revise the history of cinema, asserting the importance of Egyptian cinema, the oldest of the Arab world.
Indeed, one of the “disappearances” alluded to in the film’s title may be the waning of Egyptian cinema. The films of Soad Hosni are rarely seen today, and the VHS technology needed to view them is obsolete. Her films are yet to be released in quality DVD editions, and televised screenings are cut by both advertising breaks and censorship—even a kiss is now forbidden. But the problem of the circulation of vintage Egyptian films today reflects an even more urgent issue: the literal disappearance of the archive itself. Ongoing neglect of the National Film Archives can be blamed on the institution’s inadequate storage facilities and two major fires, which have already caused the destruction of a significant part of the collection. Around 99 percent of the archive’s silent films and 50 percent of its sound films are already lost. In effect, the passive suppression of this film history is a heritage emergency that is linked to modern Egypt’s own crisis of identity, the unresolved issue at the core of Stephan’s film.
Writer, director and editor of Three Disappearances, Rania Stephan was born in Beirut in 1960. Like many of her generation, she left Lebanon in the midst of civil war in the 1970s, to finish her studies abroad. She studied film theory in Australia and then in France, where she stayed on for 20 years. Despite arriving in Paris too late to directly experience the events of May 1968, France’s cultural revolution and its political cinema nevertheless became the strongest influences on Stephan’s film and video practice. Besides maintaining her own practice, inspired by performance and documentary forms, she also regularly collaborates with filmmakers such as Simone Bitton (Wall, 2004 and Rachel, 2009) and Elia Suleiman (Divine Intervention, 2002). Increasingly her works have been concerned directly with the Arab world: the Palestinian struggle (Damage, for Gaza, “The Land of Sad Oranges,” 2009), the Israeli war in Lebanon (Lebanon/War, 2006) and growing up in rural Lebanon (Smoke on the Water, 7 X El Hermel, 2007).
I met with Stephan in Dubai to discuss The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni after it premiered in competition at the Sharjah Biennial in March 2011. The following evening I got her call from the awards ceremony, excitedly telling me, “Zouzou has won!”
ES: Your video might look like a documentary but ultimately it’s probably not a documentary. Is this a new kind of film?
RS: I don’t think that anybody has taken someone’s body of work and reshuffled it into a fiction. It was a very strong intuition that I had and it was very difficult to articulate this in writing to convince funding bodies about it. Many thought it was whimsical, to take fictional elements and create another fiction. No one believed it would work over a longer film, more than ten minutes, but I was sure that it could be done with these images.
ES: It is a film about watching films, about watching Hosni’s films. How did the work come about? Is there also a story to tell about the making of the video?
RS: The first intuition was that I could make a film with fictional elements; the second factor was the pleasure of watching the films of Soad Hosni that brought me back to Arabic cinema. The trigger of why I am devoted to Soad Hosni was the first film I saw starring her, Al-Mutawahisha [“The Wild One” (1979), directed by Samir Seif], back when I was studying. It brought me so much pleasure that I cried, I was so involved with the film. I thought it was as well written, beautiful and moving as any Hollywood film I’d seen. Why do we ostracize our own culture, and why don’t we reclaim it? I’m devoted to her because on a fictional level, she brought me back to Arabic cinema and opened this window. So when she died I thought that I should honor her and pay homage to her work.
So Three Disappearances is a kind of bio-pic. In what I call the “London part,” she is driving in the rain. You see her driving on and on. She doesn’t look [where she is going], in a very phantom-like way. And you hear the song lyrics, “Love is far from its territories.” You hear it remotely, as if it comes from the past. For me this is why she died—for lack of love, lack of loving herself and others loving her. But who knows? In reality, Soad Hosni jumped out of the seventh floor of Stuart Tower in London. In my film there is an image of somebody falling. In the original film, the one from which this scene originates, she is not the character who falls but the one who sees someone falling. The Hosni character sees Nawal who is falling and at night she dreams of herself falling. Like when she is driving during the day in Alexandria and she sees this woman hanging onto the balcony. She doesn’t know if the woman is falling or not. By night Nawal dreams that the Soad Hosni character is falling. This is where I got the image, but in my film she dreams of her death—she dreams of herself falling, she wakes up, goes to the morgue and finds herself dead.
ES: Can you discuss the film in terms of its structure?
RS: I could divide her career in three parts, so this is why this tragedy had three parts and not five. Mainly the first act is up to the 1967 defeat of the Arab-Israeli War. The second act is to the 1973 war, then the third is 1973 to the 1991 Gulf War. It organized itself in such a way because, as historical events changed the cinema, so too did they affect her career and experience. The structure followed these three important historical moments and her three important career phases. It’s a three-act tragedy with a beginning, a blossoming and a maturity. Each act is divided into scenes: the first has five scenes, the second has four scenes and the third has three, with an epilogue and a prelude. The moods of the acts vary; the first is very peppy.
ES: Like a trailer.
RS: And the second is more a kind of fan, it opens up the kind of images of women that she represented, and the third flies away. I thought the third act should be about all the sad things, all the violent and traumatic things. So it went beyond any categorization; it went into a kind of dreamy, nightmarish, Lynchian mode. She wakes up and it’s another dream and another dream and another dream.
ES: The first question I had when watching your film was: what am I looking at? Where is the footage from? Can you explain the montage of the film and your methods, particularly for the layering of image and sound?
RS: Everything comes from VHS . . . every breath, phrase, image, scratch, the music; everything comes from the body of films of Soad Hosni. The editing was worked as much on the image level as on the sound level. I edited the sound many times; I closed my eyes to hear it, to see if the scene was the right tempo for me, the right beat of music and words. For the rhythm, I wanted my breath and my tempo. I’m kind of bouncy; I wanted it to build and accelerate, settle on a plateau and accelerate again. Sometimes the images were there but I adjusted it on the sound, on the rhythm, on the breathing, on my feeling of how much I can bear, on how I like the story to be narrated. I knew the images, so I was just editing with my ears, with sound.
ES: So you cut the images according to the sound of the scene?
RS: I know what images I want. Of course they have sounds, which are synchronized or not, and there may also be music. I have the finished film, so I had to get the music from where there is music but without dialogue over it. A lot of the time the music is constructed from many parts of the film, to get the whole of the film’s soundtrack. And often the dialogue was charged with music, so sometimes I had to deal with that. Often I put two pieces of music together from different sources to get this eerie kind of music of a dream.
ES: You have said that the film comes from the period when you studied cinema and wrote a dissertation on Soad Hosni. I see Three Disappearances as a film also about cinema studies, about watching films and about what the cinema might be, as much as it is about your particular viewing or cinematic experience. This film tradition that you bring to video is then very different to much of the video art that has been produced. Your film reflects your debt to the writing of Cahiers du Cinéma to start with. It’s a kind of celebration of the cinema, and I wonder what that means today, when the cinema doesn’t really exist as it did.
RS: This is true. You might read it through the many layers that I consciously put down. There is an overview of the 30 years of cinema that spans Soad Hosni’s career. It’s almost an essence of what she represents over these 30 years; what she represents of that cinema. There is the VHS as a support of this image, which is also a dying image. And a kind of bio-pic running underneath that is not complete because it bounces back and forth between the image and her reality.
It has to do with memory. We are reminded of these images, of Soad Hosni trying to remember, as a dead actress, her past. It’s fragmented, of course—I don’t have any comprehensive testimony or account; it’s personal, so there is nothing definitive.
Some people told me, “Yes, I remember this scene very well,” and they would describe the scene of my film, which is a constructed scene. Their memory of the film is revived, but wrongly. They now remember the scene of my film, not the original.
ES: Then your film is not only concerned with viewing but also with remembering, and the kind of re-viewing one does without the presence of the film.
RS: It is playful. I enjoyed deconstructing a cinema scene and reconstructing it in my style of editing, which is similar to that of the French New Wave. I often cut like a Godard film, cutting on the action. I cut the traditional narrative of the Hollywood-styled Egyptian film in a New Wave style.
ES: You studied and read about the cinema for years before making your own films, but your original ambition was to be an editor. With Three Disappearances you realize this in a very complete way. Film-making here is editing, there is no difference.
RS: It was very difficult to ask somebody to edit, I realized. The first and second act are quite “written,” every word was written on paper, it was structured; while the third act shifts onto another plane—it’s never happened to me before and that’s why I am intrigued by it. I knew it had moved to another plane by diving into the filmic materiality of the dream. I couldn’t have written it because it was just each image that called up another image, and then another, in the editing process. I was really engulfed in the material. It kept pushing in a very mysterious way. I flew into this weird zone and continued in fact until Hosni saw her dead image; I didn’t know it would end like this, seeing herself dead and crying over herself. It happened then and there in the editing.
ES: Here you are close to surrealism.
RS: I edited the scene for five months. I was in a bubble. Nothing else existed. I went into the material; I had to be like a monk, it doesn’t work otherwise. It was very difficult to make people understand. There is no life outside. Just eating, sleeping, editing and being in this thing.
ES: What do you do after making a video like this?
RS: I do a fiction film; after this experience I think I’m ready. But I don’t know what kind. I want my freedom in this. I don’t want to be tied. Even if I do it in Video8 or with a mobile phone, I don’t care. It’s the same kind of principle—to be as free in my head as possible.
ES: You started making this work in Australia, years ago, as a student and much later, in the last stage of production, you were editing in Beirut in early 2011, when a series of happenings erupted that we now call the Arab Spring. Is there a link for you between making this video and this revolutionary moment? The video was then released at the Sharjah Biennial, where it won its first award. How did you experience this synchrony of events?
RS: At one point while I was editing, I started sorting out my Soad Hosni files and I found a very old envelope. I opened it and saw photographs I had taken when I was writing the thesis, photographs of Soad Hosni’s films taken directly from the TV screen. I realized that they were all exactly the same frames that I eventually used in the video. They had been haunting me since that time. I was very shocked because I had forgotten completely about this envelope and these photos. It is as if once you have an image in your mind there is not another frame to take; you take the same image. I had liked an image, a particular frame, 30 years ago, in 1982 or thereabouts, and I took the same image again for editing.
ES: It is 30 years, like her career in the cinema.
RS: Exactly. And the other interesting coincidence is that I finished the image editing on Soad Hosni’s birthday, the 26th of January, the day after the revolution began. The revolution, her birthday and the finishing of the film were linked. It was a very strong moment.
ES: Three births . . . One of the reasons it took 30 years to make was the challenge of financing a film that you had difficulty explaining to funding bodies.
RS: What is interesting in freelance filmmaking is that there is so much invisible work. When I finished the film I had to document the expenses for the funding bodies, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and the Sharjah Art Foundation. I felt I also needed to do a “real” budget, for myself, of all the invisible work and costs that went into the film before it was funded—like getting the VHS cassettes, the digitization of the tapes, the research in Egypt . . . This is the invisible part of the iceberg that disappears when the film is finished.
ES: Because you take Soad Hosni as a symbol of the Egyptian revolution of 1952, I want to draw out this question of the actress as a political symbol and a tool of nationalism. How do you see her fall and the outcome of the revolution, the so-called failed modernism of the Arab region? You adopt a tragic frame for both.
RS: What has always interested me in the time span of Soad Hosni’s career is that it accompanied this wave of the 1952 revolution and its aftermath: from the enthusiastic beginnings, to the stupor that followed the 1967 defeat and finally to the staleness and cynicism of the Sadat era, which was in turn intensified by the Mubarak regime. While opening society to capitalism to benefit the restricted circle of the regime and a class of young entrepreneurs, there was a severe crackdown in the political field, accompanied by an over-Islamization of society, the product of Gulf money and proselytism.
If we go back to Hosni’s career, it clearly covers these three main periods and, interestingly enough, stops in the early 1990s, when Egyptian cinema had collapsed. It was ruined by the withdrawal of state support for the cinema industry, which hadn’t renewed itself technically. This coincided with the arrival of satellite television networks across the Arab world. They overtook Egypt’s role as the main purveyor of Arabic popular culture. From that moment, each country produced its own cultural contents. On the other hand, the spreading Islamization of Egyptian society makes one think that perhaps the imposed modernity of the 1960s was too quick, not solidly anchored or well-assimilated.
During the Egyptian revolution, the young people of Tahrir Square created a tag of Soad Hosni saying “I’m going down to the square.”
I wasn’t surprised. Her Pygmalion was the leftist poet, Salah Jahin, who wrote in the Egyptian dialect. If she were alive, I’m sure she would have been down there with the revolution.
ES: Many Lebanese filmmakers and artists have been focused on Lebanon’s civil war and its aftermath and other questions related to Lebanese subjectivity. Your work seems different in its perspectives. For example, your interest in film history that we see in Three Disappearances addresses the media culture of the region, its popular culture and other pan-Arabic matters. How do you understand where you have placed yourself?
RS: As a cinema-studies person—let’s say as a “pupil” of Godard—I have always felt free to appropriate all kinds of images from Western culture regardless of their national origins. In fact, Western culture doesn’t have strict national boundaries. New Wave cinema in France, for example, was influenced by Hollywood film noir, and so on. I feel that this practice expanded my own culture. This is why I’m interested in the larger scope of Arabic culture, not just the Lebanese experience. Our reality in the Arab world is linked, even though we have different histories, regimes, societies and cultural specificities. Palestine, for instance, remains at the heart of Arabic consciousness, regardless of which Arab country you come from.
Generally in Lebanon, artists used to look toward Western culture for influence and regard Arab culture as a secondary source; they also tended to consider Arabic pop culture as a lower kind of culture. Why should our pop culture be of less interest than any other? It’s an interesting question that has to do with a colonial past. But I think that things are changing and the Arab Spring is accelerating this change. Younger artists are expanding their interests beyond a strictly Lebanese experience.
ES: The problem of colonialism and the question of decolonization that you are working with recall the efforts of the “third cinema” to decolonialize culture with the weapon of a counter cinema. Is yours counter cinema? Does the term still have meaning when your video has been purchased by Museum of Modern Art, New York? Is film still a revolutionary tool?
RS: I don’t think that films make revolutions. But they can open consciousness; eyes, ears, hearts and desires. They are windows to the world, to other landscapes, like invitations to imagine. And of course they can be used in other, very different ways. This video was homemade, single-handedly by myself, with no production and against the grain. Is it revolutionary? I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. But I’m glad that it is kept somewhere, somewhere like MoMA. Being Lebanese, with my history, I always think that anything I have can disappear forever in some twist of history. This is why I’m glad that the film is carefully kept somewhere where people are able to see it.