Egyptian filmmaker Nesrine Lotfy Al Zayat’s debut documentary feature On the Fence was selected to take part in the competition at the 27th FESPACO (Pan-African Film & TV Festival of Ouagadougou) in Burkina Faso (16-23 October). Having premiered in the Cairo International Film Festival’s Horizons of Arab Cinema Competition in 2020, last August the film won a special mention in the feature documentary competition of the second Amman International Film Festival (Awal Film).
On the Fence is the journey of the director back and forth between her hometown in a small village called Tima in Sohag, Upper Egypt, and Cairo, the big city she moved to after graduating from South Valley University in 2001 – looking forward to a career in journalism. “Maybe I’m still on the fence, between two completely different worlds. But now, after this film, I feel more confident in my choices and the way I decided to face the challenges that both worlds impose on me,” she says.
After graduating from the Faculty of Arts, Department of Sociology, Al Zayat’s only option in Upper Egypt was to work as a teacher, but she protested such limited opportunities and firmly told her parents, “I will move to Cairo.” She was fond of colourful images from her school trips to the big city, with its huge neon signs, wide streets crammed full of people and cars. “Cairo was to me the meaning of pure freedom. My older brother, who is also a journalist, has been living here for years. I had no trouble convincing my parents.”
Al Zayat says that her father, a civil servant, was unlike most of his peers. He believed in his daughters, “He allowed us to reach advanced stages of university education, and at no time did he stand in the way of my ambition in a life.” However, when she told him one day after moving to Cairo that she had removed the hijab, the relatively liberal father did not hesitate to ask her to keep wearing whenever she came back to her village.
“This is how the idea of the film began, or rather my journey in search of my identity. Am I the liberated Cairo girl whose freedom is not limited by anything, or am I that Upper Egyptian girl who is forced to consider people’s perception of her?” This question kept her occupied during her early years in Cairo, before she discovered that she lived in a grey area separating the two worlds. “Cairo was nothing like my perception of it. In time I realised how stifling that city is. In Cairo I felt like my head was buried in a big black garbage bag I couldn’t escape. But then again, that girl who had to wear a headscarf as soon as the train reached Sohag station did not look like me.”
A few years after she moved to Cairo, Al Zayat’s family decided to join her in the big city. “At the insistence of my mother, my father decided that the family should move to Cairo to stay with me. It was such a great sacrifice for my parents to leave everything behind just to support me in my new life.” But the family’s presence with her in Cairo deepened her questions about her identity. “They became closer to my daily life which was adding to my confusion between the two worlds.”
At one point Al Zayat participated in a demonstration in the vicinity of Cairo University. Despite the considerable risks of participating in a protest, her father’s only concern was that she was a girl, and girls should not take part in a demonstration. “I felt that no woman could even live in Cairo without breaking free of the siege of prejudices and stereotypes.”
As a result, a few years later, in 2008, Al Zayat made her first short documentary film WARD NO.6 about two female political activists who were arrested at a demonstration and detained in 2006. “Why can’t a girl participate in a demonstration because she is a girl? I tried to explore the question by going through the story of the two girls with my camera”. The film won the jury prize for best short documentary from the National Egyptian Film Festival in 2009.
But in 2006 she had also lost her biggest source of support, her father. “Grief overwhelmed me. I felt that in addition to being divided between two worlds, by losing my father, I lost an important part of my personal history. I decided to go to our village in Upper Egypt and collect fragments of his story. My loss was heavy, and the remedy was to recreate his image.”
This journey required her to meet influential figures in her late father’s life including a woman named Badra, a cousin of his who had once been his fiancée. But the old lady plunged her even deeper into the question of identity and what it means to be born a woman. “Badra had lost her husband, her son and other male members of her family. She was doomed to wear black in mourning for the departed. Badra was not talking but mourning. As if she had adapted to the state of blackness and sadness imposed on her so well that it began to feel like a choice even though it wasn’t.”
That is how Al Zayat’s second short documentary, The Black Dress (2013), a poetic piece about the eternal mourner in her black outfit, was born.
Meanwhile, the first contours of the film project On the Fence were beginning to take shape, albeit in a vague way. “I decided to interview a large number of girls who had decided not to wear the hijab, including myself. My questions to others led me to more questions about myself. I spent many hours shooting and asking questions. I was exploring my film at the same time as I was exploring myself, exploring Cairo at the same time I was rediscovering Tima.”
Over time, the shape of the film began to become clear. “I realised that this movie is about me and that the question and answer was inside and around me and not in the answers of the girls I spent hours shooting with.” Thus, the director decided to immerse herself more in her own story and the story of her family.
In 2014, the director found a cassette tape from 1982, among the belongings of the family that had been in Tima’s home. Her father’s voice can be heard at a family gathering in their home. “My father loved to gather family members in this house and record the intimate conversations that took place among them. The house was a very important element in my memory of my father. It was very important for him to keep this house, our home.”
Through much of the film, indeed, Al Zayat struggles with family members to prevent them from selling their home in Tima. The mother, brothers and sisters want to exchange the big house for a little rented flat in the village, appropriate for their short visits. But the house for Al Zayat was compensation for the absence of the father. She explains how she and all her siblings were born in rented apartments. The father had sold the house he had inherited from his father, a mistake for which he had never forgiven himself. Only when he retired and was able to buy this house on severance pay did he have a sense of victory.
“I felt that protecting the home was part of protecting my personal history and identity. But something happened that turned things upside down. In 2019, my mother became seriously ill and I nearly lost her. At this moment I realised that while I was trying so hard to freeze the past, I let the present slip through my fingers. I was leaving my mother who gave up her whole life in Upper Egypt to stay with me in Cairo, and going for many days at a time in search of the traces of my late father in Upper Egypt. What if she too left forever?”
Only here does the director reach the balance she has been striving for: “I spent many hours shooting my mother. Even when I decided to finish filming and start editing, my mother took over the bulk of the construction of the film. By the end of the film, I felt recovered. I did not find definitive answers to my perplexing questions. But I became more accepting of the nature of both worlds. Acceptance does not mean surrender. Rather, it is a deep understanding of myself, the strength within me, and the belief in my choices. For example, I feel proud that I became a role model for the many daughters of the family in Tima who tell their mothers that they want to be like Nesrine. And I feel prouder because I have a huge number of stories that no one else knows and that have a place in the cinema.”
Al Zayat says that the essence of the issue lies in a person’s confidence in their choice, regardless of losses. “The women in Upper Egypt have great strength and tremendous potential, but they do not trust their ability to rebel against social restrictions and be faithful to their choices. This is the core round which my films will revolve. Upper Egypt is part of my culture and my identity despite my lack of a sense of belonging to both worlds. I have the ability to tell stories through my own perspective on both worlds. This is what I believe indespite all the obstacles and challenges.”
One such challenge, according to Al Zayat, is the limited financial opportunities an emerging filmmaker has for her projects. “It took me over nine years to finish On the Fence. If only the proper production was secured, I would not need to work as a cinematographer, sound recorder, and editor in addition to be the director and writer. I had almost no crew, and I could not hire an editor, which is why I edited my film myself. All the other post production requirements such as sound mixing and colour grading were gratis contributions by professionals who believed in me and my film”. If production money was forthcoming, the work could proceed nonstop.
On the Fence is the production of Hassala Film, co-produced by The Cell, with sound mixing by Ahmed Gaber.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly