Egypt: Interview: Tahani Rashed on Her Movie "These Girls"

The Egyptian director, Tahani Rashed, has highlighted through her documentary film "These Girls" the problem of street girls. The film has been awarded a prize at Cannes. Nelly Youssef conducts the following interview with the director.
Why did you choose this subject in particular for the film?

Tahani Rashed: My enthusiasm for the movie is essentially derived from the enthusiasm of the girls themselves. I had many questions about their lives in the streets amid the filth. I approached them; I came to know them and empathized with their stories; I wanted to show a few beautiful moments in what is largely a very harsh life and their innocence despite the cruelty, oppression and dangers which each one undergoes.

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.

Why does the film focus only on girls and not boys?

Rashed: I have been directing films for many years and I have come to like working with women and girls. I like the ease with which they narrate their lives, express their feelings unlike boys and men in general.

Through your experience and contact with these girls for a long time, what are the causes that drive them to the street?

Rashed: There is not one particular factor; one can say that poverty in general drives them to be out there on the street. They lack the material resources that would allow them to grow up in the way that they had dreamt of; there is also divorce or family breakups; each girl has a separate story.

What I like about them is that they did not like what life had to offer them; they wanted a different sort of life. I have been very impressed with that desire in them – rejecting one reality and looking for another. They are looking, of course, with the wrong means and they are young – the age group ranges from 10 to 22 – they want to play and to be free from all the constraints, oppression and poverty. This was obvious in the scene where they all are dancing together; dancing is a desire for liberation.

There has been the criticism directed to all cinema producers who live overseas and which was raised after this film was shown and that is that your eyes only spot the negative things in Egyptian society in order to appease foreign film festivals. What is your comment to such a remark?

Rashed: The reputation of Egypt is too encompassing to be applied in this simplistic way. All countries – whether poor or rich – have people living on the streets thus the topic is not limited to Egypt. Documenting the problem through film with its realism was a shock driving some to deny it as if it does not exist; furthermore, I am only documenting one small segment of society and not the entire society.

The problem with those who make such statements about the reputation of Egypt is that they overlook cases such as the accidental sinking of a ferry [in the Red Sea] months ago and the drowning of thousands without anyone being held accountable or the fire that broke out in the theatre of the cultural center in Asyut where people died without any security forces or ambulances nearby – these are the cases that affect the reputation of Egypt and not a film that discusses the problem of street girls.

What about the position that accepts the problem of street girls but objects to the excessive bad language in your film which has caused it to be banned from running in the cinemas, what is your position on that?

Rashed: This has nothing to do with creativity. 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.

It has often been said that the welfare organizations are what drive these girls to the street in the first place. From your pilot study before filming, how do you see these homes and what do they lack?

Rashed: 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.

What is the difference between these girls here and those in Western countries?

Rashed: In the West the homeless on the street live in a hell of their own; whereas here there is a solidarity of sorts. One of the things that I have found out was a readiness to forgive others which is not found in the West.

Interview conducted by: Nelly Youssef

Translated from the Arabic by: Mona Zaki

Tahani Rashed was born in Cairo in 1947 and immigrated to Canada in 1966. She is a graduate of the College of Fine Arts in Montreal; the titles of her documentary career include "In Order to Change", "Give me Back my Country", "A Woman from Palestine", and "In a Popular Eatery".