‘We don’t always end up marrying the one we love’. This, the half-hearted response to broken hearted youth is repeatedly transmitted by mothers to their children. I was initially reluctant to watch ‘Bride of the Nile’ sceptical that a documentary film on the trials of a young Egyptian woman, Heba, could be successfully executed by two men who I wrongly feared may either pander to a critique hungry audience or flatten the complex experience of the young protagonist. Situated roughly 70km North West of Cairo in a relatively rural village of about 30,000 inhabitants, Sherif El Ramly leads us through this unfortunately familiar family saga directed by Edouard Mills-Affif. I was pleased to discover that this sensitive topic had been dealt with delicately and graciously. A critical voice was present, but was not judgmental proving the value of this documentary.
Heba and Ahmed were due to be married having been together for years, but their relationship ended. Only a few weeks later, proposals for marriage poured in and she became engaged due to be married to someone else it appears she barely knew. She made it clear that she did not love him, but her family continued to inform her that love would blossom in time. Her uncle, Sherif, clearly perturbed and concerned with the happiness of his niece took it upon himself to intervene and initially prevent the marriage from occurring. In a private discussion with her uncle, Heba divulges that she does not want to marry Ahmed and that she would prefer to remain single until she meets the one she loves. Frighteningly, she reveals to her uncle that she had often thought of ending her life and even harmed herself. Whether this is solely due to the brouhaha surrounding her impending marriage or a combination of other issues is unclear. The weight of cultural expectations are not borne solely by Egyptian women. Sherif also divulges his own experience of separating from a woman who did not satisfy his family’s expectations.
Heba’s virginity is a recurring theme throughout ‘The Bride of the Nile’. On four separate occasions the status of her hymen is questioned. Firstly, her mother asks and then takes her to a male doctor who still believes that he is able to find out by physical examination. Sherif also asks her after Ahmed told him they had had sex claiming she ‘was no longer good for anyone’, and finally on her wedding night as she is told to wear a pad and keep it as evidence to report on later. This is an invasive and imaginably humiliating experience likely to be not entirely unique to her family.
‘The Bride of the Nile’ exposes the multifaceted and contradictory nature of this family’s culture and communal life. Egyptians are overwhelmingly warm, caring people and this family is no exception. It is clear that their intentions arise from the abundant love their have for their daughter, believing their impositions will be the best for her future. As the documentary ends with the morning after the wedding, one feels deeply disappointed that culture and the love for her family forced her to take a serious life decision that did not make her happy.
I interviewed Sherif El Ramly about his motivations behind co-creating Bride of the Nile and the differences in reaction between his Western and Eastern audience.
Pourquoi avez-vous décidé de réaliser ce documentaire? / Why did you decide to create this documentary ?
« J’avais décidé de coécrire (et non de réaliser car c’était le rôle d’Édouard qui assurait aussi la prise de vue pendant que moi j’étais à l’image), pour dénoncer la répression familiale et sociale en Égypte qui mène aujourd’hui la plus large majorité du Monde Arabe à la frustration sexuelle et la violence conjugale après des simples contrats de consommation sexuelle que l’on nomme, à tort, mariage. »
I decided to co-write [this documentary-film] to condemn the pressure imposed by families and societies in Egypt affecting the largest majority of the Arab world that has led to sexual harassment and domestic violence in marriage as a result of contracts of sexual relations mistakenly labelled as marriage.
C’était quoi, le message que vous voulez transmettre avec votre film? / What message did you hope to impart in making this film?
« Nous ne prétendions pas vouloir passer un message, il s’agissait simplement de militer pour que les jeunes couples puissent jouir de leur amour loin des exigences matérielles imposées par leurs familles respectives. J’insiste, c’est un film sur l’amour et la haine et non sur la sexualité et la virginité et tous ces mythes auxquels s’attache la majorité les hommes qui vivent dans des grottes. »
We do not purport to having wanted to send out a message, but it served as a campaign calling for the youth to be able to enjoy their love far from the materialistic demands imposed upon them by their respective families. I insist that it is a film about love and hate, not about sexuality, virginity and all the myths that the majority of ‘cavemen’ have attached to it.
Est-ce qu’il y avait une grande différence entre la réaction du public occidental et oriental? / Has there been a significant difference in the reaction between your Western and Eastern audience?
« Alors que le public Occidental n’a cessé de saluer le film et pleurer le sort des jeunes amoureux et notamment Heba, le public de mon village qui n’a même pas vu le film, a hurlé “ô scandale” pour la seule raison d’avoir vu un extrait qui évoque la nuit de noces dans une émission télé où j’étais invité. Ils m’ont déclaré la guerre, on m’a traité de tous les noms et harcelé ma famille; notamment les filles que l’on traitait de “putes” car elles ont participé au film! Cependant, lors d’un festival au Maroc, donc un public arabe, le film a été largement apprécié par les spectateurs. »
The Western audience has continued to hail the film and decry the fate of the young lovers – notably Heba. The audience of my village who haven’t even seen the film have declared it a scandal for the sole existence of a scene referring to the wedding night on a television show I was invited to speak for. They have declared war against me, hurled insults at me and harassed my family; notably the girls, calling them prostitutes because they participated in a film! On the other hand, the film was largely appreciated by an Arab audience at a festival in Morocco.
En concernant la situation de Heba, est-ce que c’est une situation vraiment commune ? / Is Heba’s situation really that common?
« Quant à la situation de Heba, croyez-moi, elle est très très commune seulement l’hypocrisie sociale contre laquelle nous nous sommes levé, vaudrait qu’il y ait une certaine omerta assez pesante et qui censure tout esprit rebelle et distance critique pour ne pas “nuire à la réputation” des jeunes femmes, des garçons, familles ou encore de l’Égypte! »
As for Heba’s situation, believe me, it is very, very common, only the social hypocrisy against which we have risen would like that a certain oppressive code of silence censors all rebellious souls and critiques young women, men, families and even Egypt, to not cause “ruin to their reputation”.
Voyez-vous la possibilité d’un changement pour les jeunes égyptiens ? / Do you see a possibility for change for Egypt’s youth ?
« Enfin, pour que la situation change en Égypte, il faudrait une autre révolution, une vraie, et sur tous les niveaux et notamment l’éducation. Il faudrait une révolution intellectuelle et laïque qui ne soit pas volée ni par les islamistes ni par les militaires qui occupent littéralement le pays depuis plus de soixante ans maintenant. »
We would need another, real, revolution on all levels – particularly in education for the situation to change in Egypt. There must be a secular and intellectual revolution unhindered by Islamists or the military who have literally occupied the state for over 60 years.
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