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Hidden Faces (1991)

Courtesy of Kim Longinotto

Main image of Hidden Faces (1991)
For Without Walls, Twentieth Century Vixen for Channel 4, tx. 5/2/1991
52 minutes, colour
Made byKim Longinotto
 Claire Hunt
WithSafaa Fathay
ProducersKim Longinotto
 Claire Hunt

Family life and traditions in Egypt as seen through the eyes of an Egyptian woman who lives in Paris returning to meet the banned feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi.

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Hunt and Longinotto's film belongs to a growing genre of 'reflexive documentaries' which incorporate the circumstances of their own making into their narrative structure. Setting out to document the life and work of a prominent feminist intellectual through the eyes of an admirer, the film ends up exploring the situation of ordinary women caught up in the ideological contradictions of modern fundamentalism.

Poetic structures and devices give Hidden Faces a lyrical quality: the image of the veiled woman, shot in a brightly-lit studio against a black background, punctuates the film at intervals like an insistent question, while the loosely connected sections of the film are linked by a system of travelling shots. Composition and editing stress contrasts and contradictions, especially those between modernity and fundamentalist neo-traditionalism, with images of women in veils or loose robes appearing beside those of women with chic short hairstyles and smart city clothes.

The most striking images of contradiction in the film are provided by mothers: Nawal El Saadawi, the activist and intellectual, presents herself for the film as a mother and justifies her attack on her assistant by saying that she acts like a grandmother; Safaa's own mother regrets the brutality of her late husband yet accepts her son's patriarchal posturing and the family's exploitation of servant Saida; Safaa's aunts cheerfully describe the mutilations to which, from love and confused piety, they have subjected their daughters.

The loose structure of the film allows a constellation of interconnected issues to emerge through the women that the filmmakers encounter, although the tracing of these connections is curtailed by the film's central conflict with its intended subject, Saadawi. The result is a fascinating if flawed documentary which offers many insights into women's experiences in a contemporary Islamic society.

In the years since the film was made, the issues it touches on have become ever more pressing. Saadawi spent much of the 1990s in exile from Egypt after being named on a fundamentalist death list, and she and her husband Serhif Hetata became an international cause cĂȘlebre when a third party attempted to use religious law to impose an unwanted divorce on them because of Saadawi's opinions. Longinotto, in the meantime, has made a string of well-regarded documentaries on women in several cultures, including, with Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Divorce Iranian Style (1998), and Runaway (2001), in which she has developed a distinctive observational style.

Alison Butler

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Video Clips
1. In search of Nawal El Saadawi (4:13)
2. The narrator goes home (3:30)
3. Illiteracy and dependence (3:06)