From Dance to Transcendence

Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes. Directed by Jocelyn Saab. Egypt/Lebanon/France, 2005.

Anny Gaul

[Image from]
[Image from]

It might seem that a dance film about female circumcision can only devolve into a cliché-laden take on an over-exhausted (and over-analyzed) subject, but Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes manages to encompass both the drama of dance and the complexities of female circumcision without being hijacked by either. Refreshingly, Dunia is less about female circumcision (or khittan, as it is referred to in the film) or rigidly defined gender categories than it is about mothers and daughters and contestations of sexuality and the body.
Although Dunia was written and directed by a Lebanese filmmaker and set in Cairo with an Egyptian cast, controversies over its subject matter have meant that the film has been screened most widely for non-Arab audiences – including at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema, Dramatic) in 2006. Its positive reception perhaps points to the dearth of stories written by and about Arab women that are accessible to those outside the region. Given the amount of attention paid recently to the role and status of women’s bodies in Tahrir Square, Dunia offers an antidote to the Western media’s focus on sexual harassment and assault on the streets of Cairo – issues that are by no means unimportant, but which do not hold a monopoly on the experiences of Egyptian women.

The film takes a clear stance on (or, I should say, against) the practice of khittan without preaching or apologizing, and presents a coming-of-age story unencumbered by dull or formulaic plot elements. Although nominally the title character, Dunia (Hanan Turk), is preparing for a dance competition, the event quickly recedes into the background of a much more human drama. There is no Big Day, Important Audition, or Talent Showcase towards which all the action is driving. The performance world (to say nothing of life itself) is much more complicated and chaotic, and accordingly the film focuses on the journey of its title character rather than on an overly elaborated plot. Cairo itself, with its traffic, skyline, markets, and even its haze, plays its own role – a significant feat, as Egyptian censors and conservative groups made it difficult to fund, film, or screen the movie there at all. Transitions between scenes often involve a shot panning across young boys selling underwear and chanting about their wares in the market, or a gaggle of modestly uniformed schoolgirls walking through the streets. The entire film sings and dances, from the splish-splash of a woman pounding laundry with her feet to the murmur of city traffic.

Director Jocelyn Saab has a background in documentary filmmaking and journalism, and it shows. Her series of vignettes connects a loose constellation of characters more akin to the way that a documentary crew might catch them in chance moments than the way that an omniscient director would direct and display her subjects. Lines of Arabic poetry, both said and sung, punctuate and connect many of the film’s scenes.

The story follows Dunia, an aspiring Egyptian dancer and a student of Arab poetry, throughout the city of Cairo (and occasionally beyond). The camera trails her as she studies dance with the instructor who taught her late mother (an accomplished dancer in her own right); receives advice on life and love from two independent and bold women (her literature professor and taxi-driving aunt); plays literal and figurative games with her boyfriend Mamdouh (Fathy Abdel Wahab); and engages in increasingly smoldering dialogues about poetry and the nature of love with her new mentor, the professor and public intellectual Beshir (played by Egyptian star Mohamed Mounir).

Dunia’s mother, though not a character, is present throughout the film – whether in the black and white image hanging in the background of the dance studio where Dunia rehearses, in the chatter of neighbors, in her red scarf, which Dunia always wears tightly bound around her wrist, or in the fact – only alluded to – that Dunia was subjected to khittan as a girl, perhaps at her mother’s bidding. In the end, the film is not about a dance competition, a thesis, or a relationship, but about Dunia coming to terms with (and moving beyond) her mother’s legacy and memory. This is especially fitting in a broader sense, as the latest statistics indicate that rates of female circumcision are gradually decreasing in Egypt with each new generation of daughters.

The alternation of episodes that advance plot or character development with more impressionistic, slice-of-life scenes gives the sense that one is watching a video-collage loosely gathered around a plotline. We see, for example, Dunia wrapping herself in bubble wrap and filling her journals on a rooftop that overlooks the city, and witness her dance teacher instructing her to take an enormous bite out of a full red rose (she complies). It makes for a somewhat slow start to the film, but as the characters emerge from the mundane routines of their everyday lives into situations that test their resolve, the quieter moments take on greater meaning. The scenes that do advance the plot manage to take stock scenarios (a dance audition, a wedding celebration) and add a twist that keeps them unpredictable. The result, after a somewhat slow beginning, is a pattern of action and reflection that is almost operatic in timing. Like a good opera, the film is highly evocative, with choreography, music, and lyrics taking on the work of communicating its message (which itself is deeply concerned with artistic representation and expression) more than a tightly woven or overly clever story. Details are painted with broad but colorful strokes.

Amidst the color, dance, and poetry, the film grapples with female circumcision, censorship, and sexual repression. These are heavy themes, and unsurprisingly, its handling of them is a bit heavy-handed at times. Dunia wears red in nearly every scene, admittedly a fitting color for a woman who refuses to blend in and who is on a quest for passion at the same time she is dealing with the fears of a very visceral trauma (and one that is being played out on the next generation before her eyes). The red-clad Dunia frequently finds herself surrounded by gauzy green veils – perhaps an allusion to the trappings of an overly strict interpretation of Islam that is encroaching upon the film’s Egypt in the form of censors who threaten to ban classic literary works like Alf Layla wa Layla. To Saab’s great credit, however, the film does not draw a direct connection between khittan and Islam. The relationship between female circumcision and religion is complicated, but there is no recognized mainstream Islamic authority that requires or promotes the practice.

The only time Dunia does not wear red is on her wedding day, when she dons a gown made of white paper – a dress as stiff and unbending as her red skirts are fluid and expressive. The predictability of the parallels between the clothing styles, and the contrasting nature of her disappointingly cold marriage to Mamdouh and the more heartfelt dancing through which she seeks inspiration, is redeemed somewhat when she writes a farewell note to her husband on the very dress she wore when they married – an example of the way that Saab rescues scenes that threaten triteness but then turn on a quirky detail. The colors make the film vibrant and exciting to watch, and Hanan Turk is so stunning in red that she steals every scene she is in. But because the colors are so ubiquitous, they eventually detract from the film’s subtlety – like the use of two exclamation marks where one would be perfectly sufficient.

[Beshir (Mohamed Munir) and Dunia (Hanan Turk), Image from]


Perhaps the most overt symbolic element of the film centers on the blinding of the professor-intellectual Beshir. The attack is immediately recognizable as a retelling of the one Naguib Mahfouz suffered at the hands of Islamic extremists. But Beshir’s blindness also recalls the figure of the blind poet (or even the blind prophet) whose “sight” is removed from the physical realm and concentrated in a more spiritual or transcendent sphere. And his blindness eventually weaves its way into the plot: he regains his sight at the same time that he and Dunia, a beautiful woman with whom he has a connection that is at once physical, emotional, and cerebral, finally embrace. Dunia’s emotional enlightenment and Beshir’s literal return to sight occur as all of these strands of desire are united.

One of Dunia’s central themes lies in the relationship between the realms of body, heart and mind, explored through discussions of physical and spiritual love in poetry and the struggle to “think with one’s heart” to make dance meaningful. More broadly, these conflicts and tensions point to a statement the film is making about art itself: that it cannot be too cerebral, divorced from the everyday experiences of the heart and body.

Dunia meets many characters who disdain her (and her mother’s) style of dancing, which is uninhibited and sensual – or who at least downplay its status as an artistic venture: a relative, describing Dunia’s mother as a “dancer” with a tone of distaste, calls her mother’s memory as a blot on the family’s reputation (Dunia immediately, disagrees, saying “ummi kanat fannana” – “my mother was an artist”); neighbors gossip that having a dancer in the building threatens their respectability; even her mother’s friends embrace their dancing more as something meant for ceremonies and celebrations than as an art form. But Dunia, with guidance from her dance instructor, seeks an expression of dance that is not just physical and emotive, but a means to something deeper.

This dynamic is paralleled in the film’s secondary conflict, which involves ongoing public debates about whether ecstasy or sexually explicit content have a place in poetry. Beshir, of course, insists that they do. Dunia and Beshir, as well as the film itself, which unapologetically depicts so many facets of sexuality and repression, are arguing that art should reflect the reality of this world in order to be meaningful to it. The need to ground poetry, principles and judgments alike in the immediacy and embodiedness of life here on earth is a fitting message considering the name Dunia, which means not just “world,” but this world – the lower realm of mortal life as we experience it, in all of its pains and joys.

Thus, the film shows that art – specifically, dance and poetry – represents the means to bridging the head and the heart, embodying the spiritual, and paying tribute to past generations without repeating their steps. The liberating potential of art and representation is made clear in Dunia’s relationship with films: she claims French films are the only place she has ever seen the naked female form, and she often gazes at movies playing through windows or over balconies – almost as a voyeur – preferring to passively watch portrayals of sensuality and love even with a would-be lover at her side. The sequences of Dunia herself dancing – producing and performing her own art – are, until the very end, deliberately unsatisfying. Sometimes they are cut to show only her body from the neck down, and other times they jump from disembodied limb to disembodied limb. Sometimes her dancing is simply cut short by the demands or reprimands of her instructor. It is not until the final scene that we see Dunia (all of Dunia) dancing uninterrupted, not for a competition or for a lover, but for herself, with Cairo in the background. The film achieves its resolution not with a relationship or on a stage, but in a performance through which Dunia finally embodies the ideas she has struggled with, unties her mother’s scarf from her wrist, and sends it into the wind.

The final, breathtaking scene is just one of many classic dance movie tropes that Dunia manages to include without making into a mere platitude. The tense audition segment, the frustrating dance lesson scenes with a critical teacher, the hint of a mother’s dreams, and the finale, a climax of dance and emotion – in Dunia, each of these scenes brings something different or unexpected to a familiar formula. A great dance film needs no denouement after a successful, rousing, final dance performance, and indeed, Dunia’s final dance is the film’s parting shot (save for a statistic written in Arabic, French, and English about the percentage of Egyptian women subject to female circumcision).

Stories about female circumcision tend to be overwrought and sensationalist, with little consideration of its actual role in women’s lives. Dunia offers a nuanced take on a subject that has been talked to death, offering a view into how the practice is perpetuated and the intergenerational dynamics that enable it. Female circumcision is about much more than just an isolated act, of course, and so is the film: just as there is no culture or society that does not oppress, or limit, or control in some way, there is also no culture that has not created the means to overcome its own strictures. The question that Dunia asks is not whether “Egyptian culture” oppresses women or seeks to control their sexuality, or how – but how one woman, in the face of past traumas, personal mistakes, and societal pressures, might overcome her own limitations.

Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes is available from the Arab Film Distribution website.

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