With her dreaming gaze, brunette face, and chubby figure, Zeinab might look like millions of other Egyptian girls who passionately seek out their lifelong dreams. However, her story, which has been documented in a film that bears her name, clearly tells audiences that she is nothing close to normal.
“Zeinab”, directed by Mourad El-Sayed, was recently awarded the best documentary in the 20th Egyptian National Film Festival that took place in October. The film tells the story of 32-year-old Zeinab who was born in a small village in Upper Egypt, where people are conditioned to follow traditional societal roles and values.
The pursuit of freedom from these conditions was Zeinab’s ultimate dream. She had to valiantly resist pressures from the surrounding society to achieve her goals, starting with the simple wish to be able to ride a bicycle and complete her education, to the more complex ones of travelling to Cairo and starting her own business.
“Young women in Upper Egypt have a strict line to walk by and they can’t move away from it,” says the protagonist during the documentary. “At the age of 12 or 13 they learn how to cook, how to take over the daily responsibilities in their homes, and get married by the time they are done with education. Afterwards, they are completely dedicated to their husbands and children,” Zeinab tells the viewer.
Nonetheless, Zeinab never let these social taboos bury her indomitable will. “I’m not obliged to follow that path,” she said. “It’s not a religious order I have to blindly follow.”
Despite poverty, her mother’s death at the age of 15, and her role of being primarily responsible for her seven younger siblings, she started learning how to create handmade products. Soon after, she started selling them and established her own business while working as an instructor at a centre for handmade products in Luxor, near her hometown.
“What Zeinab has is very unique and special,” El-Sayed said. “She decided to rebel against social taboos that try to convince girls that they only exist to get married and against people who believed that she could not achieve her goals because of her gender.”
El-Sayed felt the urge to place a spotlight on Zeinab’s passion towards fighting against the circumstances life had thrown at her and her drive to obtain what many take for granted: freedom. “She personally influenced me, and I believed I should let people watch and observe what overcoming difficulty looks like. Her life and her story are all about changing for the better and that spirit of personal revolution is my biggest passion in life as well.”
On a personal level, El-Sayed has been fighting his own battle. He was laid off from his job as a producer due to what he believes was redundancy. He feels that his decision to make the career change and begin directing was to prove to both himself and the world that his work still holds value. “I knew I still had so much to give and Zeinab opened the gate for me. Documenting her path was necessary for me in order to introduce my work as a director,” he explained.
In the 20-minute documentary, Zeinab talks about her journey through life. She mapped out her path from being the little girl who came from a small, underprivileged neighbourhood in a village to how she became the strong, independent woman who now dreams of internationally expanding her business despite all odds.
“From the moment I met her, I knew I wanted to make a film about her. Convincing a girl as opened minded as her was not a hard job; however, her biggest fear was shooting in her hometown. She kept on asking me, ‘How will you hold a camera in the alley where my house is located?’,” remarked El-Sayed.
He travelled over 20 hours to reach Zeinab’s hometown. “When we started shooting, all the neighbours gathered as if there was a wedding being held. I believe it was the first time they saw a camera and they were even more astonished when they saw that the camera was recording a woman,” he said.
This was only the beginning of the problems that the two of them faced during their seven days of filming in her hometown. El-Sayed admits that Egyptians have developed a camera-phobia after the 25 January Revolution.
“Every time I held a camera, random people would stop to ask me what I was filming, the purpose beyond it, the association I worked for, and the message I wanted to deliver,” he described when talking about the throngs of people who would disrupt his filming. “At first I had to explain myself hundreds of times in order to shoot a minute of Zeinab randomly walking down the street. After a while, I started answering their questions rudely with ‘it’s none of your business.’ Yes, it wasn’t the nicest thing to do but it got the message across,” he recalled.
After many failed attempts to record amidst the crowds they would draw, the two of them decided to do that in the early morning in order to avoid any human interaction. “Shooting at 5am was the perfect solution. Egyptians don’t understand the meaning of privacy; a thing we could not change, so we found a new way to deal with it.”
Despite El-Sayed’s youthful age and his limited experience as director, his work has gone on to compete with films that were produced and directed by prominent directors. “Zeinab” was highly favoured by the jury at this year’s festival.
“I did not expect the award. I knew my film was nominated for the award along with many other more professional films. I was just satisfied that it was good enough to be accepted at the competition,” said the young director. “However, after hearing some of the jury’s comments, especially when they said that the film ‘revived the cinema’s golden age’, I felt over the moon,” he exclaimed.
Zeinab is currently competing in the BBC documentaries competition as well as Tripoli Film Festival in Lebanon.