CAIRO: Three years ago, Lebanese director Jocelyne Saab submitted a script to Egyptian censorship. After an initial ban, constant struggle and a great deal of perseverance, Saab was able to turn her dream of creating a film in Egypt into a reality, and “Donia’ was released.
The all-star cast includes Mohamed Mounir and Hanan Turk. It received international acclaim from different festivals and will be participating in the upcoming Sundance festival. But it stirred controversy when it was screened during the Cairo International Film Festival.
The audience and attending critics were divided into two teams: supporters and attackers. Some accused her of intentionally defaming Egypt’s image abroad by shooting scenes in Cairo’s slums, while others were eager to defend her, supporting the film’s anti-female circumcision stance and its call for intellectual freedom
“I had no messages.My message was to take your pleasure seeing this film and then if you want to think, if you want to change your mind,[if] you want to talk about it, go [ahead], Saab said.
The film follows Donia (played by Hannan Turk – translated, the name means “the world ) as she discovers the worlds of poetry and dance.Both symbolize her attempts to venture into life, breaking taboos and discovering her inner self. Mounir plays the poetry professor who “taught her not to be afraid of words and Walid Aouni plays the dance instructor, who “taught her not to be afraid of her body, as Saab described.
The film jumps from realism to symbolism, using Turk’s and Aouni’s beautiful choreography and Mounir’s poetic citations as symbols of ideas the script could not directly address. The drawback to this rare artistic approach, however, is the creation of plot holes, as some story developments are not as justified as others.
To reach international status – making a film eligible for participation in regional and international festivals and fit for commercial release at the same time – Saab faced criticism and censorship, although that was not her only battle.
Saab began as a war reporter. During the Lebanese civil war, Saab directed several documentaries, and with about 20 documentaries listed on her filmography, Saab s work was shown on French and European channels, NBC in the United States and NHK in Japan, bringing her numerous international awards. Throughout her career she has filmed in Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Kurdistan, Ex-Spanish Sahara and Vietnam.
Saab directed two long features prior to “Donia – she wrote and directed “Once Upon a Time in Beirut in 1992-94 and directed “Suspended Life in 1985.As it is her third long feature, Saab is not unaccustomed to the criticism directed toward “Donia (English release name “Kiss me Not in the Eye ) – in fact, she was expecting it.
Due to the struggle with censorship Saab experienced with the film prior to its release, she believes that audiences came prepared to watch a controversial film and, as such,were prepared to criticize. Others, however, regard the publicity preceding the event differently. Khaireya El Beshlawy, film critic and the moderator of the press conference, said there was so much fuss about the film that viewers – including herself – were prepared to see a better movie. El Beshlawy said the director wanted to turn the press conference into a promotional celebration of the film.
Having a critic of the film on the same table moderating the panel was not easy for both the director and the cast – tension was palpable between Saab and El Beshlawy. Cutting each other off or grabbing the microphone from each others’ hands took the tension to another level.
“I thought we were going to have a press conference. This was not a press conference. It was a panel and it was savage. It was really savage, Saab said.
“Second, I didn’t know that I would have a moderator which was totally against me. She was crazy. I think the festival didn’t know that this woman would be acting like this. It wasn’t professional at all and I felt destabilized and I became a bit aggressive at the beginning.
For her part, El Beshlawy said the director was “very rude [and] very arrogant, and that is why she did not support Saab. She also said the film was “not genuine and artificial, and had “disconnected script.
“Each country receives the film differently. I think here it is [mainly] circumcision.People are so focused on it that they don’t see the rest, Saab said.The film featured an extremely emotional scene displaying a girl being circumcised, and the panel discussion that followed the film repeatedly strayed to circumcision.
Mounir noted that what is more important in the issues the film raises is the “intellectual circumcision, not the physical. He plays a professor who repeatedly falls victim of physical attacks for his daring opinions about literature and freedom.
The film is “a dialogue between the body and the soul. The inquiries of a young woman who can’t find something to believe in, Saab said, adding that “In poetry there is a philosophical meaning. There’s Sufi poetry and love poetry about the freedom of body and the freedom of love, desire and ecstasy. [The lead character, Donia] knows how to dance but she doesn’t know how to go deep and look inside herself so as to be more beautiful. [The dance instructor] explains to her the meaning of the dancing which she didn’t know.