Born in Beirut, Rania Stephan obtained a degree in Cinema Studies from Australia’s Latrobe University and a graduate degree from Paris VIII University. She has worked as a first assistant, a camera operator and editor with renowned filmmakers such as Simone Bitton and Elia Suleiman. Recent films include “Smoke On the Water, 7 X El Hermel” (2007) and “Lebanon/War” (2006). Her latest film, “The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni”, chronicles the life of Egyptian actor Soad Hosni, who died in 2001. The film won the Best Arab Documentary Filmmaker at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, 2011.
DFI: Your documentary on Soad Hosni is comprised purely of archival footage from her films. Why have you chosen to document it this way? And why Soad Hosni?
Stephan: I’ve been interested in Soad Hosni’s work since I was a cinema studies student. When she died in 2001, I was stunned like many in the Arab world. I wanted to pay homage to her talent. The only person I wanted to meet was her… and since she disappeared, the next best thing was to look at her work. She was a cinema creature who did 82 films. I had the intuition that her images would reveal something essential about her.
DFI: Why three disappearances?
Stephan: I constructed the film around three disappearances which I weaved into the narrative: the disappearance of Soad Hosni as an actress, of what she represented in Egyptian cinema over three decades, and the disappearance of VHS as a format, where her films were disseminated and viewed.
DFI: There are lots of controversies around the tragic death of Soad Hosni in London. Some say she committed suicide, others that she was killed. What is your opinion?
Stephan: It seems like it’s impossible for many people in the Arab world to imagine that someone like Soad Hosni – with such beauty and talent – could commit suicide. I always say that my film is about her life and work, not about her death. My film doesn’t settle the matter. The question remains suspended.
DFI: To document Hosni’s life from old black and white reels must proved a difficult task. How long did it take you to gather archive, and where did you find the films?
Stephan: I found nearly all her filmography at a local Cairo video store. They were all cheap VHS cassettes. There are three films that are missing, they were produced by foreign production companies and seem lost. It also took time to finalise my film because it took time to convince funding bodies to give money to such a strange project.
DFI: What condition were the films in?
Stephan: A lot of the VHS tapes carried the VHS marks typical of this format: blurry edges, colour spills, grainy images, snow and scratches. But what started as research material quickly became the material of the film itself. The film is about an actress who remembers her life and work: the black snowy grid of the VHS became her memory from which the remembered images emerge.
DFI: Should we be worried about the archiving process of Arabic movies?
Stephan: There are no national or professional archiving practices for film in the Arab world. Egypt itself, with such a rich cinema history, has no archives of its own cinema. We should be extremely worried about that because such negligence is a tragic and irreplaceable loss of our history.
DFI: What did this film teach you about Soad Hosni?
Stephan: Having seen nearly all her work, I feel that I know her somehow, even though I’ve never met her. She’s like family now. She moves me tremendously.
DFI: You’ve done both editing and directing. Where do you see yourself more?
Stephan: I’m a filmmaker who generally shoots and edits her own films, because this is how I comprehend the world around me. My thinking is constructed by my practice. Sometimes I edit other people’s work for a living, but I don’t feel like a “real” editor… maybe because I think as a filmmaker.
DFI: Are you working on any other projects?
Stephan: I’m writing a fiction film which will have documentary elements in it. I like to use different kinds of images and sources in the construction of my work.
DFI: What film or filmmaker has inspired you the most in your career?
Stephan: Jean-Luc Godard. He’s the master. He’s like an old samurai from whom one learns his art, and I always come back to him. But I’m influenced by many other filmmakers from different times and places. I am also inspired by artists who use images in their work and fascinated by photographers.
DFI: Describe the most extraordinary moment in your career?
Stephan: Wednesday 26 January, 2011. It was Soad Hosni’s birthday, the second day of the Egyptian revolution and I finished editing my film, all in the same day. It was amazing.