In her own words. Womanhood in Egypt and on the web
Cristiana Scoppa / مصر
Cristiana Scoppa / مصر
How do contemporary Egyptian women perceive being a woman in Egypt today? And how does their understanding interact with or challenge current stereotyped understanding of ‘Arab women’, in particular among Western audiences? Womanhood, Egyptian Kaleidoscope is a web documentary that offers a video-vocabulary of gendered concepts to answer these questions.
From A for Activism, Awareness, and Anger to U for University and Unity, through C for Culture, Challenge, Choice, Childhood, Cinema, Community, Comfort, Creativity, Capitalism... And then of course B for Body, D for Desire, S for Solidarity, Struggle, Story (but not for sex), F for Femininity and Feminist, Freedom and Faith, Friends and Feelings; and G for Gender and Generation, L for Language, O for Orientalism and W for West, but also for Waste and Writer, H for History, Home, Harassment, R for Rights and Revolution… And much more.
A total of 75 words and 80 video clips make up the vocabulary of Womanhood Egyptian Kaleidoscope, a web documentary exploring what being a woman feels like in Egypt today, after the so called “Arab Spring”. Seven hours of testimonials facing the camera, where 15 Egyptian women of different ages and life paths create their lexicon through the prism of gender. The interviews were originally recorded in English as a globalized and generational language that allows for direct exchange in a common language, and then subtitled in Arabic and French, to reach out to a wider audience.
This fascinating interactive documentary, launched in May 2017, was directed and co-produced by Florie Bavard together with Benjamin Daugeron, who joined forces to bring about the project through the creation of Womanhood Productions, a non-profit association that houses the documentary.
Its cultural, and political, standpoints are clearly detailed in the online description of the project, referring in particular with the intention of challenging “the orientalist approach, that Edward Said detailed in his masterpiece Orientalism, which operates along a clear split between a West ‘modern us’ vs. an Oriental ‘backwards them’. Such a narrative also implies a patronizing hierarchy, and therefore a form of domination. Moreover, as the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod pointed out”, write the authors, “such a narrative too often hides behind the notion of ‘culture’ to convey an image of ‘homogeneity’, and of ‘timelessness’, especially when it comes to women in the Middle East and North Africa region”.
Womanhood Egyptian Kaleidoscope, instead, wants to show the diversity of Arab (Egyptian) women in their own words, while at the same time offering every woman the possibility to mirror herself in the concepts and perspectives shared by the protagonists, in order to find common ground or possible alternative answers to their own inquiries about what it means to be a woman nowadays.
Born in Marseille, raised between Cairo, Atlanta and the southern village of Bouc-Bel-Air, Florie Bavard moved to Paris in 2007 to study Liberal Arts and Humanities. She then turned to Visual Anthropology as a new way to question the subject of gender: this is her first venture into the interactive documentary medium.
How do you conceived the project? what brought you to this idea?
I am a Literature Graduate from the Sorbonne, and I received my Master's in Anthropology at the EHESS, School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences under the guidance of Jocelyne Dakhlia. My dissertation was then centered on women's autobiographical writings - memoirs and blogs- in Egypt from 1899 to 2012. It’s for that research that I first came to Cairo in 2012, to meet female authors and bloggers. After my Master, I felt like the video was an interesting approach to continue my work on Egyptian women's “voices”.
The idea was to rethink the way current testimonies are conveyed. When I interviewed women authors in 2012, introducing myself as a French student, all quickly expressed a form of weariness about the way Western medias too often represented Egyptian women's voices. That's what triggered the idea of this interactive documentary.
I wanted to find a media platform offering format flexibility in order to underscore the complexity of individual perspectives. The free format of the interactive documentary enabled us to gather 7 hours of testimonials: divided into 80 small video clips where the 15 women participants analyse their lexicon through the prism of Gender.
The participants were not asked any questions, instead I presented them with a list of words to choose from or to add to. They analysed the ones they wanted to talk about. The user of our website will click on a word, then see all videos referring to that term: it’s an invitation to navigate through language.
In order to give context to these 7 hours of testimonials, our website will also include the following sections: “a timeline” on the history of women’s movement in Egypt, “the biography” of each participant and a “bibliography” collecting some of the literature on themes referring to womanhood in Egypt.
Once I defined this idea of creating an interactive ABC on Gender, I started shooting the interviews in Cairo, in 2015. At my return to Paris, Benjamin Daugeron became the co-producer. Our project is structured around our non-profit association, Womanhood, that carries out the function of production company. Together we gathered a post-production team of more than 20 members, to turn 7 hours of testimonials into a functional interactive documentary. This became a collective, and human, adventure. Our team is partly French, partly Egyptian; all live between Paris, Cairo, Marseille, Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Addis Ababa.
Which were the first reactions to the project when you started working on the crowdfunding campaign?
The French press was very responsive to our initiative and we got an amazing coverage for our crowdfunding campaign. That showed the interest triggered by such a theme in the West. We tried to use that space given to us, and that interest, to emphasize the fact that the speeches we gathered challenge a lot of the stereotypes that usually catch Western curiosity.
We always organize a discussion after our screenings, in order to engage with the audience and to open up to a dialogue on the way many orientalist clichés are debunked by the testimonials gathered. That's our “after-show” moment of reflection on intersectional feminism and post-colonialism: the audience isn't always expecting that when they come. But the enthusiastic questions people raise, after the screenings, encourage us to think that we succeeded in illustrating the diversity of Womanhood, in Cairo, and worldwide.
Who are the women protagonists of the web doc?
Our 15 participants are born between 1931 and 1992. They are authors, artists, researchers, filmmakers, psychiatrist, scriptwriters, humanitarian workers and students. Some are internationally famous, others are more active at a local scale. All come from different professional backgrounds. Yet they have two points in common: having worked on projects that tackled the question of gender and knowing at least one other participant. Those were the two criteria.
This project is not about “THE Egyptian woman”: first because we don't find relevant the use of the singular when it comes to "womanhood", and second because sweeping generalizations are what we tried to avoid. This interactive documentary is about this specific group of women, engaged at one precise time, on one particular theme. They handed over the “relay/camera” and decided who would talk next: their friendships led the path.
Where did you record the interviews?
In 2015, I recorded 14 interviews out of 15 in Cairo. The participants don't all originally come from Cairo, but we always met in the Egyptian capital. I interviewed them in their homes, at their friend's house or in their place of work. Many chose to analyse words that brought up their hometowns, issues related to their region, and the path that led them from there to Cairo. Only one participant gave her interview in Paris. She lives there and brought up many themes referring to intersectional feminism, questioning what it meant, in terms of perception, to be seen as “an Egyptian feminist” in the West.
What do you aim to achieve with this project and how will you disseminate it?
We released the full interactive documentary in May this year, and the 7 hours of videos it gathers is also a sort of “archive”. Shot 4 years after the Revolution, a few days before Sissi's election as President, it questions individual memory and can be used as material record of that historical moment.
But this project is also a very lively one and we aim at keeping it alive as long as possible through screenings and the discussions that follow. For that to happen we also screen 50 minute versions of the project, 50 minutes taken from the total 7 hours that you can find on the website. Depending on the occasion, or the theme of the event at which we are invited to screen, we select different “words” and show different videos. Through those screenings we aim to reach out to new audiences and exchange beyond the screen of the computer.
We have already screened two student-premieres: one in Paris at the Sorbonne, one in London at SOAS, School of Oriental and African Studies. We also screened a premiere in partnership with another non-profit association, "Rencontres", in the northern suburbs of Paris at Montigny-lès-Cormeilles. In September we participated in the Tunis' International Feminist Art Festival, Chouftouhounna and were screened at the iReMMO, Institut of Research on Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies, in Paris; and in October our documentary film was screened in Berlin's cultural center Spektrum, and in Marseille. Conversing with those new audiences is a way to continue the project.
How can the public contribute to the project?
The crowdfunding campaign finished last year and enabled us to release the interactive documentary in May 2017. More than 320 people contributed by giving us their economical support and we owe our independence to their trust. But this project is also possible because so many people support us by carrying out our project: talking about it, sharing it on social media and promoting our different screenings. Some also contributed just by giving us their feedback on the website: this is a collective project relying on interaction with the audience and the conversations that open up.
To explore the web documentary go to www.womanhood-egyptian-kaleidoscope.com
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