Culture

Stories of mothers and daughters

CAIRO: The most prestigious of the Cairo International Film Festival’s several competitive programs is its international competition. Conventionally only a handful of Arab titles are admitted.

For its 41st edition, three of CIFF’s 15 competition films are MENA works - Ahmad Ghossein’s “All This Victory” (Lebanon), Najwa Najjar’s “Between Heaven and Earth” (Palestine) and “Let’s Talk,” by Egypt’s Marianne Khoury.

Khoury is a familiar figure in Egyptian and international cinema, recognized as one of the faces of Misr International Films, the company that produced the later work of Youssef Chahine, Egypt’s best-known auteur. Khoury went on to found Zawya, Egypt’s first art house cinema, where she’s programmed a successful festival of European films. Her most recent initiative is a film incubation project, called the Dahshur Workshops.

Her small oeuvre as a director is comprised of documentaries. Co-directed with Mustapha Hasnaoui, her previous feature, 2010’s “Zelal,” examined the conditions of Egypt’s Abbasiyya mental institution from the inmates’ perspectives. “Let’s Talk,” her fourth feature, is a much more personal project - recollecting four generations of women in her family, from her grandmother to her daughter.

The film commences with a snippet of conversation between the director and her daughter Sara, one of several in which the two are overheard disagreeing about something.

“Someone must die,” the mother says in French, “so that others can live.”

“You no longer feel useful,” the daughter later interjects.

“I feel useful,” Khoury retorts, “as a matter of fact.”

A later mother-daughter exchange affords Khoury the chance to explain that this film isn’t about herself, but her mother and mother-daughter relationships generally - what mothers enable in their daughters and what they inhibit.

Conversation with her daughter, then studying cinema in Cuba, dominates the second half of “Let’s Talk.”

Preoccupied with recollecting the earlier generations of the female line, the first half of “Let’s Talk” includes archival snaps, footage and audio recordings, excerpts from Chahine’s autobiographical films, and sometimes-amusing exchanges with Elie and Gaby Khoury, the filmmaker’s brothers and professional collaborators.

Neither brother seems to welcome their sister’s burrowing into family history, Elie being particularly reluctant to air the family’s dirty laundry.

The filmmaker stressed during her remarks at the Cairo premiere - the film had its world premiere at IDFA, a few days before its CIFF debut - that she’d produced “Let’s Talk” herself, not Misr International.

Khoury’s mother, Iris, was a famed socialite and the filmmaker’s profile of her is riddled with tidbits likely to delight some, while making others feel slightly uncomfortable.

One informant, Aunt Marcel (Iris’ sister-in-law), recalled warning Khoury’s mother (who preferred boys) not to abort her daughter, as she’d considered doing.

“I remember a depressed woman,” Khoury’s daughter says of her grandmother, wondering whether Iris was capable of love.

“She loved me in her own way,” the director reflects in voice-over, later declaring to her brothers that she “didn’t have a drop of malice in her.”

“Hamdullilah,” Elie replies wryly, prompting one of several gales of laughter in the Cairo audience.

“We lived with her very little when we were young,” Gaby adds. “We have an incomplete picture of her.”

Later, Aunt Marcel alights upon her sister-in-law’s temper. When she encountered her husband having lunch with a lover in a restaurant, she recalls, Iris lashed out physically.

As a rejoinder to this incident, the filmmaker’s brothers recall their mother hitting them all the time, “with anything she could find.” From off-frame, Khoury’s response sounds shocked.

“We were raised well! Don’t you like what you see?” Gaby smiles. “Were you never hit yourself?”

“Once.”

“You should have been hit more!”

Entertaining as this banter will be for some, students of Egyptian cinema will likely be most intrigued by Khoury’s footage of her 2004 conversation with Youssef Chahine (aka “Uncle Joe”) and Chahine’s own taped conversations with his mother, Khoury’s grandmother.

A year younger than Iris, Chahine’s recollections tend to be somewhat more diplomatic. Responding to Khoury’s report of a conversation with the precocious Sara, he reflects that his mother and grandmother were very intelligent women, then remarks, “Your daughter is a young lady with a big mouth, like your mother and grandmother.”

It is through Chahine’s remarks that audiences are reminded of Egypt’s cosmopolitan heritage, as it attracted talented migrants from around the Arab world and beyond. His grandmother and great aunt, he recalls, came from the Syrian port town of Latakia - as did the family of Khoury’s father.

“Your grandmother wasn’t the brightest,” he chuckles. “She once bought some ice cream and tried to bring it home in her pocket.”

Iris, though, was bright. “Your mother was very quick-witted,” he muses. “Much more than me. Something that I needed four days to reply to, she’d snap back in a second.”

One thing the filmmaker shares with her mother is a history with cancer, and stills of Khoury in hospital with her two kids bridges the backward gaze of the first half of the film with the contemporary focus of the second.

Khoury’s daughter comes across as a figure every bit as self-possessed as the filmmaker’s mother seems to have been. As Sara herself notes, she is a child of privilege. She feels uncomfortable with this upbringing, she says, not least because facets of it - her French education, swaths of her life spent overseas - have compromised her relationship with her putative home, Egypt.

Most of Khoury’s film is projected in a conventional landscape ratio, but footage of Sara’s online conversations with her mother often appears portrait-shaped, as if to reflect the role of smartphones and social media in framing her perceptions of the world.

This modest formal gesture helps nudge the tell-some-if-not-all disclosures of “Let’s Talk” within contemporary realities. It’s as if Khoury were projecting the life of her mother, the socialite, into the ephemera of today’s social media celebrities and wondering, “What an influencer she might have been.”

For more on CIFF, see ciff.org.eg.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 29, 2019, on page 8.

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