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Hidden Faces (1991)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Safaa Fathay reads from the feminist classic, The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi, a feminist critique of the veil. Initially, Fathay is so fully veiled that her face and body are quite invisible; subsequently she reads the text in Western dress. Fathay discusses her plans to return to Egypt after ten years of exile to interview the writer, whose work she has admired since student days.

Fathay arrives in Saadawi's village to find her intellectual heroine embroiled in vociferous dispute with the members of a women's bee-keeping project, started by her in order to promote economic independence. Saadawi has provoked the wrath of the villagers by slapping her assistant for arriving late to work. Another (predominantly male) camera crew is already there, making access to the charismatic matriarch difficult.

Safaa interviews Saadawi and her daughter Mona, and feels attacked when both women stress the crucial importance, for a writer, of daily contact with one's own cultural roots. Disillusioned with Saadawi and longing to see her mother, Safaa travels to her hometown Minia.

In contrast to old family photographs showing a Westernised couple in modern dress, Safaa's widowed mother has returned to the veil, while her brother Mustafa rules the family with patriarchal rigour. The saddest member of the household is Saida, a young girl who has worked for the family as a servant since the age of four. She expresses her desire for an education, and describes how, until recently, she sat in on the children's lessons with a home tutor. Now that Mustafa has put a stop to this, she faces a future of illiteracy and dependence.

Safaa returns to Saadawi, sitting in on a psychiatric counselling session with a woman made suicidal by her perception of her own uncleanliness in menstruation. Safaa visits an old friend, who is getting married in a Westernised white dress, after which she intends to wear the veil. With Saadawi, Safaa attends a conference where delegates discuss the intensification of patriarchy in everyday life by the resurgence in Egypt of religious fundamentalism. She arranges to take Saadawi to Hor, to meet her aunts and cousins, but ends up making the trip alone when Saadawi changes her mind at the last minute.

The aunts and cousins discuss virginity, marriage and female circumcision. Their varying opinions reveal a muddle of religious, social and aesthetic ideas which the women perceive as their own. Two of Safaa's three cousins are circumcised, and they give bewildered descriptions of the trauma involved, not least that of betrayal at the hands of their mothers. The aunt who has not had her daughter circumcised belligerently describes it as mutilation. Safaa returns to Paris, reflecting that "we had wanted to make a film which linked Nawal's life with the kind of woman in her stories, but the issues seemed so much more alive in my family than around Nawal."