Let’s Talk and Be Honest: Marianne Khoury, Egyptian film maker, Tackles Arab Women Taboos

Film Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent

‘Let’s talk’ (Documentary film, directed by Marianne Khoury, Egypt, 2019, winner of best documentary film in Cairo International Film Festival 2019)

Showing at ‘The Time is New: Selections from Contemporary Arab Cinema’ at BFI Southbank and on BFI Player from 27 August–5 October. Tickets on sale now at https://whatson.bfi.org.uk/Online/

George Orwell famously said: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats”. In ‘Let’s Talk’, Marianne Khoury, delivers a no-holds-barred narrative of four generations of her family riddled with traumas and disappointments. In a series of soul-searching conversations with Sara, her daughter, Khoury revisits the history of women who made an impression on her life, namely her mother Iris and her grandmother, Marika (Nona). As a child, Marianne grew in a family heavily involved with the film industry, her father, John Khoury was the director of Universal Film and later Fox offices in the MENA region, and her uncle was the legendary film maker, Youssef Chahine. Simulating Chahine’s autobiographical focus in his Alexandria feature films trilogy but going a lot further, Khoury uses an investigative documentary approach through interviews with her brothers, Elie and Gaby, her aunt Marcelle, and uncle Youssef Chahine as well as footage from home videos and family audio recordings. Her journey down memory lane turns into a probing exercise into the reasons why her mother was a deeply unhappy married woman, why was she profoundly depressed especially during her later years, and what triggered the compulsive drinking habit. In Iris’s world, depression was a stigma; any vocal expression of its existence would have been misinterpreted as a sign of weakness or un-gratefulness. How could a woman who has everything, a rich husband and an extended loving protective family be unhappy! More traumatic truths emerge when Marianne comes to find out from her aunt that Iris wanted to abort her as an unborn baby.

Adverse childhood experiences defined Khoury and her daughter Sara’s lives; both suffered maternal neglect, both had an identity crisis being born into mixed cultural and social heritage, and being dominated by varying degrees of patriarchal and matriarchal influences. Marianne married at the age of 22 to please her parents and avoid the social stigma of being ‘single’.

In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, Sara confronts her mother blaming her for being a Christian woman marrying a Muslim man in a traditional Arab society that frowns upon such marriages. Born into a bourgeois family did not protect neither mother, nor daughter from feelings of unfulfilled potential. Both had to conform, but paid the price by being miserable when they could not abide by the ‘rules of society’. In Marianne’s case, running away from an unhappy first marriage to a Christian man, and for Sara trying to identify as an Egyptian when she can hardly speak any Arabic language. Being rich in a predominantly poor community induced feelings of guilt and shame in Sara, and those emotions were later exacerbated by her inability to identify as a French woman when living in Paris either.

Loss and bereavement seem to define the Chahine’s family legacy; Marianne’s wedding was accompanied by her father’s death, and her mother’s wedding was similarly saddened by the death of Iris’s mother-in-law. Marianne comments in the film: “A life has to end to allow a new beginning to happen. Iris lost her desire to live and died before she would become a burden on me”.

Honesty is the name of the game in Marianne’s reflections; her breast cancer scare is one chapter which shows her vulnerability. Visiting Sara in Cuba where Sara is studying film illustrates a strong bond connecting mother and daughter. Admittedly they quarrel and annoy each other most of the time, yet a deep sense of mutual understanding and inquisitive personalities bring them closer as independent creative women.

The wide age difference between wife and husband was a shared experience between Marianne and her mother; both endured marriages that were devoid of passion, and both suffered in silence. Fleeing the household of her first marriage was a rebellious act and a scandal for Marianne’s family. While Marianne found an outlet in her film career, her mother succumbed to depression and self-neglect.

For Marianne, trying to comprehend the essence of her family’s journey is far from self-indulgence or self-pity. She is genuinely seeking answers for disturbing questions; she wants to restore a sense of peace and emotional balance for herself and for her daughter. Their candid dialogue provides an opportunity for psychological and professional maturity. Those milestones are not an impossible feat; they can be achieved through conversation, but most importantly an honest one.

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