Director/Screenwriter: Rania Stephan
By Marilyn Ferdinand
For the record: I don’t expect there to be a more exciting film at the Chicago International Film Festival this year than Lebanese video artist Rania Stephan’s The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni.
After viewing a number of ho-hum and near-miss films during my prefestival screenings, I literally bolted forward in my seat as I watched this fascinating experimental film—a rarity itself for this festival—that in the simplest terms could be called an interpretive biopic of the popular Egyptian actress Soad Hosni. However, Stephan’s assemblage of nothing but film clips from among the 82 feature films Hosni made from the 1960s through the 1990s offers more than a portrait of the artist. Hosni’s roles are arranged by Stephan to progress from the freshness of youth and ambition to stardom, through to adult pains and a dramatic death, thereby illustrating how the flickering images of our most cherished stars reflect back to us the archetypal dramas of our own lives. You’d have to watch Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart for anything close to a similar experience.
The popularity of Golden Age Egyptian cinema throughout the Arab world made Soad Hosni a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East. With the decline of the Egyptian film industry, the loss of many films through decay and fire, and the 2001 death of Hosni herself from a suspicious fall from a balcony that was ruled a suicide, Stephan felt three distinct losses, or disappearances, that she wished to note in her film. She used images from available copies of Hosni’s films, without trying to restore, color-correct, or remove any of the faded subtitles (she simply superimposes new ones) from the VHS tapes that bear witness to these disappearances.
Soad Hosni, in looks, figure, career, and influence, reminds me very much of Elizabeth Taylor, the last great Hollywood goddess. Like a goddess who represents something immutable in all women, Hosni is shown being greeted by the many different names of the characters she assumed in quick cuts that enliven and add humor to the early part of the film, exemplifying the energy of youth. Stephan does not shy away from Hosni’s sensuality. She emphasizes through scenes of Hosni emerging from the sea in a wet bathing suit and provocatively dressed to sit for an artist the importance of the actress’ “attributes” in launching her career. It is through her own determination to become a star, signaled in a number of scenes in which her characters voice that ambition, that we learn it takes more than a gorgeous face and body to get to the top.
Romance and marriage soon follow, with steamy kisses (some complete with censor cuts) and highly suggestive bedroom scenes that offer the kinds of fantasies both men and women long for at the movies. In a sly commentary on Hosni, some of her characters are shown getting married to the pictures’ leading men, suggesting the four marriages Hosni entered into herself. In a cliché of the serially married movie star, Hosni’s characters descend into unhappiness, with one ending her marriage by saying she no longer respects her husband. At the end, to show the complete degradation of the memory of a fabled movie goddess, Stephan cuts together several brutal rape sequences, all the more harrowing for their rapidity and the struggle Hosni puts up in each of them to maintain her honor.
Throughout the film, a character Hosni played is shown laying on a psychiatrist’s couch trying to remember events of her life. This clever device amounts to something like the voiceover narration given by Natalie Wood, Hosni’s contemporary in time, career, and mysterious death, as she chronicles her life in the rise-and-fall show biz picture Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Thus, whether or not one is familiar with Hosni and her body of work, moviegoers will have no trouble recognizing her story.
The shocking ending of The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni packs an emotional punch that I would not dream of spoiling here. I will consider my reportage on this film festival successful if I induce any of my readers to seek out this original, finely crafted example of experimental film at its best.
An excellent article about the film and an interview with Rania Stephan can be found here.
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni screens Sunday, October 21, at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 4 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)