“Better the shadow of a man,” an Egyptian proverb suggests, “than the shadow of a wall.”
A few years back, fledgling 20-something filmmaker Hanan Abdalla got a commission from U.N. Women (“United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women”) to make a documentary about “women’s needs” in Egypt. 
As she was a novice making an institutional documentary for the mother of all institutions, her debut film ought to have been an earnest, overlong, stylistically arid window on a “representative cross section” of women in her country.
Abdalla’s “In the Shadow of a Man” turned out to be a far more refined piece of work. Coming in at a brisk 65 minutes, the film features a varied cast of characters but makes no effort to cram each frame with every facet of Egyptian womanhood.
The camera turns its gaze upon four central protagonists, foiled by a few minor figures. Consequently the film has time to sketch relatively nuanced portraits of its characters, making it an engaging and watchable work.
The Berlin International Film Festival  selected “In the Shadow of a Man” for its 2012 edition, providing a gracious setting for the doc’s world premiere. The film had its MENA debut at the Doha-Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Abdalla the Best Documentary Filmmaker prize.
Abdulla was in Beirut just now for the Lebanese screening of “In the Shadow of a Man” at the Ecrans du Reel documentary film festival. She took a few minutes to discuss the construction of her film and how Egypt’s ongoing revolution continues to form her work.
“The most important thing for me was to make a film that people would enjoy watching,” she said. “The goal wasn’t to get all the information in ...but to engage with the people that you’re hearing the stories from, to care about the deeper issues they’re bringing up.
“There was a battle at the beginning. They wanted 16 characters. We bartered down to eight. I did four.
“In documentaries, not everyone can be a character. It has to be someone who’s not very self-conscious but at the same time very compelling.”
Insofar as the film has a main character, it is 69-year-old Wafaa. Born among Cairo’s working poor, she matured into an independently minded, charmingly argumentative figure. At the age of 35 she divorced her husband and migrated to the U.K.
“I don’t like men,” she says, the way someone else might express distaste for the flavor of gin. “Just as friends ... They don’t like me and I don’t like them.”
The much younger Badreya is the wife of an agricultural laborer in Upper Egypt. Though she once aspired to go to art school, her life now revolves around her children.
“I knew Wafaa and Badreya very well” before starting work on this film, Abdalla said, “Wafaa was my nanny in London, so I’d heard her stories before. I knew that she had more to tell and that, like Badreya, the way she told them would get people thinking about the deeper problems.”
Shahinda, Abdalla’s third character, is a veteran political activist who for decades fought alongside her husband to secure Egyptian farmers’ rights. Now widowed and in her 70s, she continues her husband’s struggle.
The youngest of the characters, 31-year-old Susanne, says she’s been engaged six times. A native of Damietta in the Delta, she owns a shop that gives her a measure of personal independence.
“I didn’t know Shahinda and Susanne personally but ... my grandfather knew Shahinda very well, being activists at around the same time. She’s ... still very vulnerable” to her husband’s memory.
“As for Susanne,” she continued, “I asked a friend of mine if she knew someone who was new to the revolution and hadn’t been politically active. She told me about a girl who’d broken off her engagement to come to Tahrir.
“... Halfway through, before I got the really intimate stuff, I didn’t know if [Susanne] could be a character. She was aggressive, very confused and says things that are very counterproductive. But I knew there had to be some reason that someone who’s so strong has such conflict.
“The most important thing was for [the film] to feel like conversation ... [to capture] the rawness of the moment of someone telling you something for the first time and knowing you might be slightly shocked by it, or that you might laugh or judge them.”
The granddaughter of exiled dissidents, Abdalla returned to Egypt from the U.K. in 2011 to participate in the country’s revolution. She isn’t an isolated figure in the Egyptian cinema landscape, however.
Significant in positioning her work is her association with Zero Production – the Cairo film production company set up by such Egyptian independents as Tamer Said and Ahmad Abdulla – and Mosireen – the nonprofit media collective “born,” as its website masthead professes, “out of the explosion of citizen media and cultural activism in Egypt during the revolution.”
Abdalla said that because of her different relationships with her four characters, she had to “play different cards” to coax them on.
“Wafaa raised me, so she has this, ‘Oh you silly girl. You don’t understand anything.’ With Shahinda it was like I was her granddaughter. With Badreya it was like, ‘I’m your friend and what you’re saying is important.’ With Susanne it was, ‘We need to make other people understand what’s going on in this part of the world. So tell me what it’s all about.’”
Among those skeptical of documentary’s “fact-finding” premises, it’s frequently argued that as soon as you put someone before a camera, his role is less informative than performative.
“I think any social interaction is a form of performance,” she observed. “Actually, when you put a camera in front of someone in the beginning, it’s not that they’re performing: They don’t want to give anything because they’re uncomfortable. ... With Wafaa, I had her do her knitting because it helped her concentrate on the story, not the camera.”
The film’s self-conscious performers are a pair of niqabiah (face-veiled women) who frequent Susanne’s shop. Walking symbols of Islamic conservatism, both women emit statements far more radical-sounding than the four principals.
“Who says that a man can want many women,” remarks the niqab-draped Hiba, “but a woman is for only one man?”
“They were a gift from the documentary gods,” Abdalla smiled. “I was terrified when they first came in. I thought, ‘My god ... they’re going to tell us they don’t want to be filmed.’ I think they bring a brilliant texture to Susanne’s world and to our own presumptions of them.
“... [Yet] in the end, they don’t act upon what they know is right. Those psychological barriers make them far less radical than they say they are, because they’re not able to push against them.
“Susanne admits she’s confused, but she completely breaks those barriers. That’s a terrifying thing to do. This is why she’s far more radical than they are. Though she says things that are more conservative, her actions speak louder.”
When asked how conditions for women have changed since the Mubarak regime’s ouster, the filmmaker grows visibly uncomfortable.
“I don’t think it’s useful to gender it that way,” she said. “The point is that we are all still fighting for the revolution, men and women, fighting for our rights, fighting for social justice.
“Optimism is a power base,” she continued. “The more defeatist you become about the movement, the more you’re submitting to the weapon they’re using against you. The Mubarak regime ’s greatest victory was to constantly make people feel defeated.”
Abdalla’s second feature-length doc – now in postproduction – examines what she calls “the biggest turning point in post-revolutionary Egypt”: the parliamentary elections.
“It’s an observational doc, a complete [stylistic] departure from ‘In the Shadow of a Man,’” she said. “About 10 days before the polls, there were huge massacres in the streets. People were losing their eyes to police and army snipers – who were supposed to be overseeing the transition of power.
“The film follows three female candidates. One was with the Brotherhood, from Alexandria. The other was a liberal from Cairo. The third was a young socialist revolutionary from the farmland of Mansoura.
“It’s about the defining moment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s betrayal of the revolution. It’s a tough story to tell. ... The problem is that the narrative of these clashes has been distorted. It’s important to tell it right.”
By Jim QuiltyWhat kind of response do you think this film will have across the region? Please share with us your thoughts.