Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan’s experimental film, “The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni”, being screened at Khoj, is as much about the iconic actor as the Egyptian cinema

It’s only in the realm of creative arts, that one can revisit the past and re-contextualise it like artist Rania Stephan has done in her heavily layered work, The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni. The Lebanese filmmaker Stephan reinterprets the iconic Egyptian actor Soad Hosni in her first feature film, awarded a Sharjah Biennial Prize in 2011. Now Khoj International Artists’ Association in collaboration with Sharjah Art Foundation presents the Indian premiere of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, where it will be screened till August 17.

Stephan, a graduate in Cinema Studies from Latrobe University, Melbourne, and a degree holder in Cinema Studies from Paris VIII University, France, has worked as a sound engineer, camera person, editor and first assistant with several renowned directors. The filmmaker, who is “very excited to screen the film in this other land of cinema, India, and eager to have the feedback of Indian viewers” has earlier produced creative videos and raw documentaries. She talks about her seminal film in an email interview. Edited excerpts.

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni doesn’t fall into the category of a typical documentary, nor is it a bio-pic. Do you bring your sensibilities as a video artist to this effort and make it an experimental work?

Each work creates its own form. This was about a dead actress trying to remember her life on screen. In reality, she died in a mysterious accident in London. The question is still pending whether it is a suicide or a murder. So the film was constructed as a tragedy in three acts, with scenes composing each act, along with a prologue and an epilogue. I thought that the best way to investigate an actress’s life on screen was to go back to her body of work, her films. The whole film is pieced exclusively from extracts from her fiction films. The film is a documentary because it uses this archive but this material is re-constructed as a fiction. This is why the film has this unusual and complex form.

It seems a very metaphorical work where Soad Hosni comes to represent many things…

The film works on several layers. I like the fact that viewers can have different interpretations and experiences of it. It is open. One can read the life story of an actress on screen, one can also experience the parallel between dreaming and watching a film or navigation on this thin line between fiction and reality. The experience is emotional too, because the viewer can see, how despite all the glamour and glory, time passes and an actress remains stuck in her image. She can’t escape it.

The treatment is also quite interesting with the footage of her film reconstructing her story. What led you to use such footage?

Since Soad Hosni is gone, the second best thing to get to know her was to investigate her work. The film is constructed on two fundamental principles: that the best document about a dead actress is her body of work. This is why I only used excerpts from her fiction films. The second intuition is to imagine that using fiction elements only, can create a new fiction that is self-sustained. In the film, every sound, image, music, effect or scratch is taken from a Soad Hosni film.

Isn’t it also a tribute to a particular noteworthy period of Egyptian cinema?

Soad Hosni’s career spanned from 1959 to 1991. It epitomized the kind of cinema that was produced after the 1952 Revolution led by Abdel Nasser. This cinema was not “revolutionary” per se, it was made in five Hollywood type studios, but it reflected the concerns that were at stake at the time - relations between girls and boys, romance, etc. but also films about social issues and the relation between the city and the rural area etc. However, the state created a cinema funding body that produced socially engaged and visually daring films that flourished in the 60s until the 1967 defeat. After this major shift in Arab history, films changed form and content and became more critical, complex and dark. The next phase could be set after the 1973 war and the liberalisation of the economy. The films became more critical even cynical, showing the corruption of businessmen and reversals in the social values of society. Towards the end of the 80s, Egyptian cinema went through a major crisis losing ground against television and satellite channels. It stopped being the sole purveyor of fiction for the whole Arab World. It is not surprising that Soad Hosni made very little films in the last period of her career. She spent her last years in London, before she died falling from the seventh floor of the Stewart Towers in June 2001.

Where do you place the work in the context of Arab spring or the desire for change that’s sweeping West Asia?

A very strange coincidence happened with this film. I finished the editing on the day that saw the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution - 25th of January 2011. The 26th January also happens to be Soad Hosni’s birthday. These days were amazing and full of hope. Later, Soad Hosni’s figure was used in Tahrir Square as a rallying icon. I was not surprised. I’m sure that if she was still alive, she would have been down there with the Egyptian people.