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Filmmaker Puts a Face on Poverty in Egypt : Movies: Atteyat El Abnoudi uses 'poetic realism' in her films, which gracefully challenge the status quo. 'The camera is always on the same level as the people. I love their faces, I love them.' What can I do?'

Los Angeles Festival. "Home, Place and Memory" A city-wide fest

August 21, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Atteyat El Abnoudi, Egypt's only independent filmmaker, has aptly described her style as "poetic realism," a quality evident from her first film, "Horse of Mud" (1969-70), a study of the grinding existence of both animals and humans engaged in making bricks along the banks of the Nile. This film and six others will screen Saturday at USC and Sunday in Leimert Park in the L.A. Festival.

Only three of El Abnoudi's short documentaries were available for preview, but they were enough to make it clear why she is regarded as one of her country's most important filmmakers. In addition to "Horse of Mud," also available was "The Sandwich," a vignette showing a woman grinding meal to bake a pita-type bread--which then is consumed by a small boy. Her more recent "Permissible Dreams" presents a resilient, hard-working peasant woman who, although illiterate, is highly articulate, especially in her desire to ensure that her daughters have a better life than she has had. All of these films are at once engaged, implicitly critical of the status quo, especially in regard to women, yet are works of grace and even lightness. There is no heavy-handedness in El Abnoudi's commitment to effect change through her work.

In a phone interview from Cairo, El Abnoudi, who is 53, said that above all "I see myself as an Egyptian citizen who happens to work in the media. I come from the theater, and I came to feel that I had to do something within the arts. I have had in my mind a long time this very big project of describing the daily life of the Egyptian people. I try to play on contradictions, and I think I have something to say within the documentary form, a way of bringing to it a sense of narrative--a dramatic way of showing life. I try to re-arrange reality in an artistic way.

"I was married for over 20 years to a poet very famous in Egypt--it's been only two or three years that we are separated. I think that images in film can be the equivalent of verses in poetry.

"Lots of things happen in both the foreground and background of my films. I think the soundtrack is very important. My soundtracks are not merely decorative but are adding to the narrative.

"I made my first film as an amateur--I had never used a camera before in my life. It taught me what a documentary could be, and to love and respect people. I have never used a camera from above or from below.

"Anyway, after two films I decided to go to the International Film School in England for three years. Since then, I have been a professional. My work is like a mission. I don't like to make any concessions: I choose my subjects, nobody interferes! In the theater the director, after the play opens, can go away; in film you are signing your name at the end. The film is your point of view on life. I can do whatever I want. I have made 12 or 14 films in 25 years."

But what of the impact of censorship and also economics in her country? "Yes, of course, I have been censored," continued El Abnoudi with a trace of weary resignation. "My films have never been shown on TV, and since they are on 16 millimeter, they can be shown only in cine clubs. There is no documentary market in Egypt. I have also been labeled a communist because my films are concerned with poor people. If you think differently, you are always called a communist!"

Only once was El Abnoudi able to get funding from Egypt's National Film Board, and she has drawn upon aid from a wide variety of agencies and organizations, once obtaining a grant even from the Catholic Relief Service. However, she remains philosophical in regard to all obstacles. "What I really want in life is to make films and to live on the edge in relation to what I am doing. I have an apartment, I have a car--what I need is very little."

L.A. FESTIVAL TODAY

* SUNSET JUNCTION STREET FAIR(Sunset Boulevard). A celebration of cultural diversity with entertainment, ethnic dance, disco, food, crafts and more. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

* LEIMERT PARK WALK(Leimert Park). Guided tour of an area rich in coffeehouses, galleries, jazz clubs and boutiques, plus artist talks and refreshments at Crossing LA Exhibitions. 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations required.

* AFRICAN MARKETPLACE(Rancho Cienega Park). Open-air stages, daily parades, costumed drummers, dancers and storytellers, traditional artisans and tastes of black and Afro-ethnic cuisine are featured at this eighth annual celebration of African-American creativity and heritage. Featuring KPFK's "Roots of Rap," at noon. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

* "WOMEN FILMMAKERS"(Norris Theater, USC). Acclaimed documentary film director Ateyyat El Abnoudi, credited with breathing new life into the Egyptian cinema, introduces a selection of her short films, including "Permissible Dreams," the story of a traditional woman, married at 15 and mother of eight children, who though illiterate, is the mainstay of her family's future, and "Horse of Mud," a 10-minute short that has won 20 international awards. 7:30 p.m.

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