Title: These Girls
Director: Tahani Rached
Country: Egypt, Cairo
These Girls by Egyptian Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached is an intimate portrait of the lives of several street-involved girls in Cairo who range in age from 10 to 22. The film opens with a shot of a teenage girl in jeans and a t-shirt riding a horse in the middle of day time downtown Cairo traffic. The girl riding the horse is named Fatma, but her nickname is Tata. Tata is really the star of this film. She is a vibrant, obnoxious bad-ass who makes it clear that she will fight with whoever gets in her way or threatens her friends. She doesn’t care if it’s police or a father dead-set on committing an honour-killing. All the girls in Rached’s film are tough and sometimes downright brazen in their assertions that they can defend themselves against violence with violence. And violence is a daily reality of their lives on the streets. The girls face violence from each other, their parents, the police, and particuarly men who want to rape them. The girls live with the constant threat of being kipnapped and gang raped and share stories of girls being taken and held captive for days by men who have dragged them off the street.
A lot of the violence these girls face is similar to what street-involved youth around the world, and even here in Canada face. A significant difference is that if these girls become pregnant out of wedlock, they face the possibility that a member of their family might hunt them down and kill them in order to maintain the family’s honour. Abeer, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is because she was gang raped, ends up having to hide from her father, who Tata attacks with a razor to protect her friend. Abeer’s baby is born without a birth certificate because Abeer can’t produce a marriage contract indicating who the father is.
Abeer’s situation is one of the many problems the girls face that Abla Hind, a middle-class woman who, desipite not being a social worker (she states she only has a dipolma in tourism), is in many ways an important support for the girls and someone they turn to for advise when they are in trouble. Hind’s relationship with the girls is quite fascinating and she admits that she feels she needs them more than they need her. The girls are clearly struggling with poverty, lack of family support, and violence much of which they try to cope with by smoking joints, sniffing glue, and popping pills. But it is clear that they love and support one another and so have become a make-shift family. Although the film is heartbreaking, the girls’ fiereness and resilience is inspirational.
However, as with many documentaries of this type, I had the sense of being a voyeur and wondering if, even unintentionally, if documentaries like this are not unavoidably exploitational unless they are used to concretely address the social problems they depict. As Jennie Jediny writes in her review of the film:
These Girls is a nauseating experience, and understandably so — these women appear not only powerless, but destined for an inevitably short and miserable life. They live in poverty, have little chance of escaping the street and give birth to children who are recognized by neither the state nor their families. Rached doesn’t avoid this reality — by the end of the film, many of the girls have admitted they are relentlessly sad and depressed, and that their laughter comes from a very hollow place — but she backtracks too often to a false sense of hope. Perhaps it’s easy to see the girls’ bond with each other as encouraging or as a symbol of unity, but it is also rather inevitable that a connection will be made between people forced into any particular situation, whether positive or negative. The repeated shots of Tata, one of the strongest personalities, riding in the Cairo streets on a stolen horse, is not necessarily an image of joy or freedom, but rather the very lack of it.
The subject matter documented in These Girls is undeniably crucial, and Rached’s effort at not only finding these girls, but also gaining their trust and their stories is commendable. What remains in question is her ability to convey not only the dire situation of these women, but also the political implications involved in presenting a cultural issue that affects women on a global level. While the women in Rached’s documentary had my complete attention, I had not so much the feeling of participating in a dialogue as that unfortunate tendency of not being able to avert my eyes from a car wreck.
As someone who works in the social services field with Arab girls and young women struggling with issues of violence, I found the film educational and quite relevant to my work. But I also understand where Jenny is coming from in her review. However, as the film was produced by Studio Masr, an Egyptian company, I feel that the target audience is Egyptians and the filmmakers’ intent is to humanize Cairene street girls in their eyes. As Tahani explains in a 2007 interview about the film:
Because I meet these girls in the streets like everyone else in Egypt does and I see them, I wanted to decode their private world and I started to prepare for that movie from 1997 and began filming in 2004. It was produced by Studio Misr.
Prior to the filming I did a field study with the production group that lasted for six months in order to build trust between us and the street girls. Through them I came to know a lot about the charity organizations that provide for them as well as the psychological support they receive through organizations such as Amal (Hope) to which Abla Hind was one of its members. She is featured in the film with her compassionate personality radiating love and humanity; she assumes the multiple roles of friend, surrogate mother and gives them all the love that they have missed.
In my mind, I wanted the viewer to interact with the girls, to come to love them and empathize with their down-trodden condition. These girls live hard lives; they are victims to circumstances such as broken families which they escaped from the moment they could get a chance.
After that another set of circumstances spirals into effect and that is the oppression of society to these girls and we are all responsible for that. In a sense, they are victims of a society that also suffers from poverty and need, a society where making a living has become difficult as is the preservation of one’s humanity and dignity.
Unfortunately, because of the girls use of “bad language” in the film, it was banned in Egyptian cinemas. But Tahani felt that she should not have been expected to censor the girls’ speech. She explains:
When I shoot a documentary, a realistic film, I cannot ask the girls to speak in a limited vocabulary, these are words we hear on the streets every day. I believe that reality and truth should be exposed without any intervention or censorship. I am happy that my film is being shown in festivals and various cultural centers throughout this country which proves that there are venues and other possible options to show the movie apart from the commercial outlets.
In the same interview, Tahani reflects on the girls’ plight and what is needed to improve their lives.
Personally, what they lack is love; these girls need love and warmth such as one would find in the character of Abla Hind; she does not attempt to change the circumstances of these girls and offers pragmatic advice. These homes and welfare organizations should basically change the way they operate; they also need funding from the government and support from society at large beyond the mere slogans. Each one of us should reconsider the way we treat these girls; the film screams to solve their problem.
These Girls has won critical acclaim and made the official selection of the Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, and New York Film Festival.
Director Tahani Rached was born in Egypt in but settled in Quebec in 1966. She worked as a National Film Board of Canada staff filmmaker form 1980 to 2004. Rached never studied film but learned by doing with the support of other filmmakers.
Review of These Girls in Slant Magazine available online
Review of These Girls in Al Ahram Weekly Online available online
Interview (2012) with Tahani Rached by Mai Serhan available online
Interview (2007) with Tahani Rached by Nelly Youssef available online
Film: I Sing of a Well (2009)
Director: Leila Djansi
Genre: Historical Drama
The film opens with the following words, written by Ghanaian actor J.O.T Agyeman, who also stars in the film, and narrated by Jimmy Jean-Louis, the Haitian model turned actor, who is best known for his role as The Haitian in NBC’s Heroes.
In a time long ago, before Christopher Columbus, before the first ships made their way across the shores of Africa; before Asanteman and the Ashantehene, in the time of the Mali Empire and Mansa Musa, his influence and affluence. In the days when the dust of the ground rises with the crackling sound of the hoofs of horses and camels. When men flee the comfort of their homes for the deep of the forests. Torn from their holds and sent off into the sunset never to return. Running from the four corners of the earth, pursued by their own brothers. Their limbs severed from flesh to flesh in their bid to flee the hand of those who by-pass the will of the gods and make themselves gods. Through the darkness, their shadows encompass village after village creating widows and orphans. Emptying kingdoms of men and relieving kings of their stools and skins. In these times, the dry earth lived in fear. Everything, anyone, anything is an enemy. But in the kingdom of Kotengbi, a dwelling in the Ghana Empire, there are those whose spirit preserve in contentment and in soreness the instructions of reason about what he ought and ought not to fear. They are men of faith, men who still believe that will rule not in the space provided by the toil and suffering of their courage. Their fortitute exists not only in their resistance.
“I Sing of a Well” is the first installment of the trilogy Legion of Slaves. Written, directed and co-produced by Leila Djansi, the film aims to give the African perspective on the West African slave trade. This first film is set in the Kingdom of Kotengbi, in the Ghana Empire, in the time of the rise of Mansa Musa in the Mali Empire. The Kingdom has begun to be troubled by slave raiders and the elderly king is at a loss about what to do and so decides to allow his son, Prince Wenambe (J.O.T Agyeman) to become king in the hopes that he will be able to find a solution. Prince Wenambe decides to build a stone wall around the Kingdom and pledge allegiance to Mansa Musa in the hopes that he will protect the Kingdom from slave raiders.
Within the Kingdom of Kotengbi, Soraya (Akofa E. Asiedu) and Dume (Godwin Kotey) are in love but Dume is a poor hunter and cannot afford the Bride Price that Soraya’s uncle Yohannes demands. From the start of the film, we meet the seer, Alaka, who has predicted that Dume will be the father of kings and Soraya will bear princes.
After saving her from being wiped for raising a false alarm about slave raiders, Prince Wenambe falls in love with Soraya and desires to marry her. Prince Wenambe is jealous of Dume and has him killed. Soraya, already pregnant with Dume’s son, is forced to marry Prince Wenambe. Prince Wenambe is driven to depression by Soraya’s indifference to him and the fact that his plan to protect his village has backfired now that Mansa Musa is enslaving his people.
I really enjoyed watching a historical drama written by Africans for Africans. It offers insights into the dynamics of the slave trade and resistance to the slave trade in West Africa before the arrival of the Europeans. We often do not discuss this aspect of our history and so I commend Djansi for taking the risk of exploring this subject matter.
The film, shot on a mini 35mm camera, was technically at a higher standard than is usually seen in Ghanaian films, bringing it closer to the level of cinematography seen in Francophone West African Art House films. The acting was excellent, although I felt that well-known Ghanaian actress Akofa Asiedu, who also co-produced the film, was miscast as the character of Soraya really should have been younger to make it believable that the Crown Prince would desire her from among all the possible women who he could marry.
There were also some serious historical anachronisms that troubled me. The opening narration clearly sets the story in the time before Christopher Columbus, during the reign of Mansa Musa, however, in one scene, Soraya’s mother is making cassava to eat, and even talks about cassava with Dume. But cassava is indigenous to Brazil and was only introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders, obviously after 1492. I also wonder if Djansi has made the common mistake of thinking that the Ghana Empire had anything to do with the present-day country Ghana-it doesn’t. The Ghana Empire was located in what is present-day South-Eastern Mauritania and Western Mali. The Ghana Empire had also fallen before the rise of the Mali Empire which actually contained the remains of the Ghana Empire.
I Sing of a Well Website
I Sing of a Well Trailer available online
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Ancient Ghana (article available online)
BBC The Story of Africa: West African Kingdoms: Mali (article available online)
I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review).
The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.
Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film.
The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink.
The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself.
Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film:
There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm.
The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected.
A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive.
Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath.
In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states:
Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t.
According to Wired.com, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states:
We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films.
Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said:
I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through.
It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects:
The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous.
Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says:
I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours.
Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following:
To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree.
Website for the film Pumzi
Trailer for the film Pumzi
Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online
Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in Jamati.com available online
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Wired.com
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View
Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black
Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper
Trailer for the film From a Whisper
Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online
Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu
Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program
Website of the African Movie Academy Awards