Um Ghayeb: A Cinema Verité–Style Portrait
Long-held traditional beliefs come in for examination in this very intimate documentary that probes the phenomenon of women’s infertility. Filmmaker Nadine Salib takes her camera to the remote rural area of southern Egypt sometimes called the “forgotten region” to talk to one woman in particular (Hanan) about her experiences. The result is a cinema verité–style portrait of a sensitive, thoughtful and endearing woman carefully examining her life, looking for answers.
Hanan has been married for 12 years, but has not been able to conceive a child. In this area women like Hanan are usually stigmatized, treated as a bad omen and sometimes forced to perform old fertility rituals rooted in their culture in order to conceive the hoped-for child. Despite all this, Hanan never loses hope that she will become pregnant.
Hanan is an ideal documentary subject. She has no hesitation in talking about personal issues in front of the camera. We learn as much about her as a person as we do about the customs and traditions of the area. Despite the obvious pain she feels about her situation, she never fails to face things with a smile. Hanan talks about all the methods she has turned to, including medical treatments.
With the discussion buzzing in the village, you might expect that Hanam’s husband would have been ready to abandon her long ago. Medical tests have shown that he is not the problem. But he is a steadfast supporter of his wife. He loves her in spite of it all, and he is sticking with her. Only on camera for a few short moments, he seems almost oblivious to the controversy.
As Salib films Hanam talking and going through her daily activities in their humble home, we learn that she is obsessed with her condition, and has thoughtfully examined the implications from every angle, asking, for example, Who will take care of you in your twilight years if you don’t have any children?
The problem of infertility, or just a lack of interest in marriage and raising a family, has been solved in other traditional societies by creating relationships that go beyond the nuclear family. You can feel Hanan’s isolation when there is so much focus and pressure on her. She is trying to work it out in her mind, never giving in to the thought that there may be no solution.