Date: Friday 30 March 2023
Venue: ICA, Cinema 1
Egypt, City of the Dead (Égypte: cité des morts), dir. Jocelyne Saab, Egypt 1977, 37 min., Arabic with English subtitles
The Ghosts of Alexandria (Les Fantômes d’Alexandrie), dir. Jocelyne Saab, France 1986, 18 min., Arabic and French with English subtitles
The Architect of Louxor (L’Architecte de Louxor), dir. Jocelyne Saab, France, 1986, 18 min., Arabic and French with English subtitles
Jocelyne Saab (1948-2019) is best known for her Beirut trilogy, shot between 1976 and 1982, in which the filmmaker tries to come to terms with her experience of the civil war in Lebanon. Initially a journalist and war reporter, Saab became a central figure in Arab cinema, documenting intrepidly the social transformations and political conflicts in the Middle East. Saab’s curiosity and relentless enthusiasm for the culture and the people of the countries where she filmed extended to the fiction films that she directed in the 1980s, and to the photographic works and installations created in her later years, before her death in 2019. In this programme, Mathilde Rouxel, author of the first monograph dedicated to the filmmaker and the person responsible for the preservation and distribution of Saab’s work, presents three films made by Saab in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s.
At the same time as she was directing her harrowing trilogy of films about Beirut, Saab made Egypt, City of the Dead, the first of a series of films shot in Egypt about different political, social and cultural aspects of the country. In this film she creates a portrait of Egypt’s culture and society two years after the introduction of Anwar Sadat’s economic liberalisation policy, and directly after the so-called Bread Riots. The affluence of the upper class is contrasted by the lives of the million inhabitants who live in the midst of the ‘City of the Dead’, a vast graveyard. Famous blind singer Sheikh Imam functions in between the scenes like an oracular chorus. The film is both a surreal representation of the harsh reality of millions of people living in the City of the Dead and an indictment of the modernisation policies of the Egyptian government.
Commissioned by French television, The Ghosts of Alexandria is an evocative city symphony dedicated to this Egyptian city, long at the heart of the Arab world, at once Hellenistic, Greek, Roman, Coptic, even known as the ‘little Paris’ of the 1930s. Saab draws a portrait of the city in dialogue with the literary texts of Laurence Durrell and Constantin Cavafy and with the memories of witnesses, originating from the bourgeoisie, who reminisce about the grand past of the city. But the film goes beyond nostalgia and the idealised image of the literary city to reveal the energy of the living place, celebrating its many cultures and the diversity of its people.
Finally, The Architect of Louxor is an intimate and affectionate portrait of Olivier Sednaoui, a disciple of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi, as he explains the philosophy behind his decision to build a house using traditional techniques and local resources, linking both the ancient to the modern and, as he says, ‘the infinitely small to the infinitely grand’.