Written by Myriam Sassine (Producer)
When the #metoo movement became more visible and more voices were raised demanding gender equality in the film industry, I realized that surprisingly, Arab Cinema didn’t suffer from this inequality. Women work in films in various roles, and they are sometimes more recognized than men, locally and internationally. Dora Bouchoucha from Tunisia and Marianne Khoury from Egypt are among the major independent producers working today and they have helped launch the career of major Arab filmmakers. Lebanese Randa Chahal won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice for The Kite in 2003. Lebanese Nadine Labaki and Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania got their films Capernaum and The Man Who Sold His Skin nominated to the Oscars, Annemarie Jacir from Palestine, Joana Hadjithomas, Eliane Raheb from Lebanon, and Haifaa Al Mansour from Saudi Arabia are receiving growing international recognition. Lebanese Sound Designer Rana Eid was a juror at Berlinale this year… These are only a few names among hundreds of women who have invigorated Arab Cinema and continue to inspire the younger generations seeking to venture into filmmaking. They provide the world a glimpse of the strength and diversity that a gender-balanced film landscape can offer.
The reasons behind this equilibrium in a patriarchal Arab society where women struggle on a daily basis to obtain their most basic rights are unclear. In my opinion, it comes from the fact that Cinema in most parts of the Arab world isn’t a well-structured industry but more of a craft, an expensive hobby with no commercial stakes. Both women and men who pursue filmmaking and want to make independent auteur films are considered rebels and dreamers. For both, making their films means fighting a battle against their country, their society, and their surroundings. Little by little, women’s talents began thriving in this profession that requires a combination of creativity, practicality, and management skills. As Arab Cinema flourished, women became an inseparable part of it. And that naturally paved the way for future generations.
In Lebanon, after I graduated in film studies and joined Abbout Productions, being a woman didn’t feel like an achievement nor an obstacle. I was surrounded by inspirational women, directors, line producers, cinematographers, sound designers, costume designers, art directors, etc. They were resourceful and wouldn’t stop at any obstacle. As I became a producer, I found myself naturally inclined to produce films by female directors. Their vision of the world, their compassion, and their exigence matched mine. Working with Corine Shawi, Myriam El Hajj, Rana Eid, and Mounia Akl allowed me to produce films I am very proud of. Their worlds expanded mine and nurtured it.
As I reflect on men and women’s rapport in the film industry, I take the opportunity in this month’s curation on Aflamuna to shed light on films made by women filmmakers who ventured outside of their comfort zone and infiltrated worlds dominated by men. These films give us an insight into unfamiliar places. Their directors don’t shy away from exploring emotions or investigating sensitive political, social, and religious subjects. Using various forms and genres, from fiction to documentary, from comedy to drama, all the films of this program are characterized by the tenderness of the female gaze. Restoring the humanity of seemingly unredeemable protagonists, Islamic extremists, drug addict thugs, bored machos, or defeated boxers, the filmmakers operated with empathy and allowed the audience an introspection that broke the vicious circle of marginalization.
Rania Attieh is a Lebanese filmmaker from Tripoli. She has been making films with Daniel Garcia for the past twenty years. In 2009, they made Tripoli, Quiet[, a short film starring Daniel Arzouni as a taxi driver trying to make ends meet in the busy streets of Attieh’s hometown. One day, he finds in his car a kid who doesn’t utter a word. Upset, and clueless about what to do with the child, he leaves him with his mother, Nadime Attieh. This humorous short combining an ill-tempered taxi driver, an old woman, and a mischievous child takes us on a stroll through Lebanon’s second-biggest city and plants the seeds for the directors’ first feature. Also set in Tripoli, Ok, Enough, Goodbye stars the same Daniel Arzouni and Nadime Attieh, Rania Attieh’s own grandmother. A forty-year-old man manages a pastry shop and lives with his mom with whom he bickers all day long. After one of their fights, she grows tired of her son. She leaves him without prior notice and goes to Beirut. Lost without his parent, he hides her absence from his surroundings and struggles with boredom and loneliness. He meets up with a girl who has been sending him texts and who is suspected to be a prostitute. He also hires an Ethiopian maid who doesn’t communicate with him and refuses to eat. Ok, Enough, Goodbye is an unconventional late coming of age story about a shy macho man incapable to function without women yet completely intimidated by their presence. The film turns out an observational social critique of contemporary manhood in Lebanon that hides its vulnerability to fit in the norms of the patriarchal society when its aspirations are completely different. The couple Garcia-Attieh made it with a micro-budget, doing almost everything themselves from the camera work to the art direction and the editing. The film presents two perspectives, the feminine, and the masculine, the insider and the foreigner, making it a nuanced and complex portrait of both a man and a city. Presented at Karlovy Vary Film Festival in 2011 and winner of several awards at major film festivals, Ok, Enough, Goodbye is a black comedy addressing misogyny and racism which makers admit they only realized was funny when they watched it with other people.
One of the most prolific filmmakers in the Arab world, Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania [u7] often uses humor to address delicate topics. Her major themes revolve around sexual abuse such as in the mockumentary The Challat of Tunis (2012) or the feature drama Beauty and the Dogs (2017). She also investigates in the latter the Kafkaesque system installed by the power in place, “the men”, to protect themselves and leave women vulnerable. This Kafkaesque structure is also explored in The Man Who Sold His Skin where the vulnerable are this time the refugees or people who were not privileged to be born with a worthy passport. Another preferred theme of Ben Hania’s is scrutinizing religion and the extremism that can derive from Islam. This theme appeared first in her documentary Imams Go to School (2010) and later, in a more playful way, in her shorts Wooden Hand (2013) and Sheikh’s Watermelons (2018). In this short, almost structured like a vaudeville, a Sheikh gets tricked by a scheme involving watermelons. If he admits that had fallen into a trap, he’ll need to face the consequences. Therefore, he prefers to hide the truth and gets entangled in a circle of deceit. His assistant, a Syrian ex-jihadi who wants to take his place, profits from the situation. In a light and comedic tone, Ben Hania films men betraying each other exposing the frauds of religion and its use in politics to gain power and impose ideologies.
Documentarians Erige Sehiri, Myriam El Hajj, Diala Kashmar, and Sandra Madi didn’t opt for the easy way when making their first features and decided to immerse themselves in male-dominated environments and film taboo subjects.
Sandra Madi is a bold Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker. In Full Bloom (2008), she films Faraj Mahmoud, a young boxer who lives in Al Baqaa Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan. He aspires to become an Olympic champion so he can never be forgotten. He’s on a winning strike until his dreams get crushed because he refuses to play with an Israeli boxer. Instead of supporting their champion, the boxing federation of Jordan bans him from playing for life. Full Bloom is a story of hope but also of disillusion and injustice across generations. Madi films the energy of the training and uses footage from Mahmoud’s fights to contrast it with his immobility when his world falls apart. Refusing to find another job, and rebelling against the wrongness he is a victim of, Faraj Mahmoud shouts his frustration and exposes the dire conditions of his life in the camp. He ends up admitting how tired he is from the burdens that life imposed on him. He confides to the filmmaker revealing his deepest emotions. She returns his trust by always being at the right distance. She never pities him nor glorifies him but draws a multifaceted portrait that permits his story to be told and not to be forgotten. The last image of him running forward is one of optimism and persistence.
Also highlighting the failure of her country, filmmaker Erige Sehiri made Railway Men in 2018 to denounce the neglect of the Tunisian Railway Road that leads to endangering both train drivers and passengers. She investigates with no compromise the corruption and the indifference that keeps growing in Tunisia after the euphoria of the revolution. In interviews, Sehiri admits that positive change did occur as a similar film could have not been made before 2011 which confirms the audacity of her topic.
Another controversial issue is the one of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 – 1990) that remains largely untold. In A Time to Rest (2015), Myriam El Hajj confronts the men in her family, old fighters in the Christian right-wing militias who developed a passion for hunting. Through time spent in her uncle’s store or during hunting trips, she reveals the paradoxes of these men, who tell her stories they would have never confessed to a man. Reassured by her love for them, and realizing she’s not here to judge them, they welcome her into their universe. Little by little, they reveal their deepest thoughts which permit the audience to understand, however not forgive, their beliefs and the reasons behind their war crimes. With earth-toned colors, and an entrancing pace, A Time to Rest denounces a past that weighs over the present. The absence of transmission and closure after the end of the war led each party to create its own narrative. They all stuck to their beliefs which further segregated the population and prevented true reconciliation.
In Guardians of Time Lost (2013), Diala Kashmar] also explores the aftermath of the civil war by filming the thugs of the Lija neighborhood in Beirut, a group of violent, marginalized drug addicts and outlaws, for whom going in and out of prison almost feels like a break from their monotonous routine. Kashmar, who is an actress in addition to being a director and producer, spends time earning the trust of the characters and films that process. She obtains all needed permits, turns off the camera when requested, and explains to the men she’s filming her motivation along with the type of film she’s making “a documentary for cinema and not a TV report”. Her efforts pay off as the menacing gang slowly opens up. Her presence softens them and their vulnerability surfaces showing other aspects of their personality. Proud, protective, funny, emotional, wounded, remorseful, these men confess to the camera their regrets and aspirations. “What is your dream?” asks the filmmaker. One of them answers: “to live my life all over again. I want to be able to get married. We all dream of marriage and kids.” Sharing their friend’s frustration about love and the cost of living, others later admit: “Who is the girl who will love us? She’ll have a hard time. In 10 years, we’ll either be still sitting here, in the same place or we’ll be dead. We wasted our own lives by doing too much drugs. Some will tell you there are no job opportunities but in reality, we don’t want to work. We don’t feel like it and just want to get high.” These open-heart conversations humanize men we would otherwise fear or despise. By breaking into this impenetrable world, Kashmar proves that the only way to protect ourselves from upcoming wars is to disrupt the political and social fractions of Lebanon and embrace the marginalized in order to build a unified society.
Filmmaker Sofia Djama explores the fractures of her country Algeria in The Blessed (2017) which premiered in Venice Film Festival and won the Orizzonti Award of best actress for Lyna Khoudri who became famous since and recently starred in The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson (2021). The Blessed also won the Brian Award, a mention for films that champion human rights, democracy, pluralism, and freedom of thought, and the Lina Mangiacapre prize which is awarded to films that change the representation of women in film. Set in Algiers in 2008, six years after the Black decade, the film happens over the course of one night and presents a clash between two generations of Algerians. The ones who spent their youth confronted with terrorism are disillusioned and traumatized. They’re on a quest to regain a sense of normalcy after ten years of violence. Meanwhile, the current youth just want to be carefree. Caught between the wounds of the past, the challenges of the present, and the uncertainty of the future, The Blessed uncovers a nation torn in half. Two women carry the film’s narrative. Nawal has been married to Samir for twenty years. As they prepare to celebrate their wedding anniversary, Nawal’s unease grows. She regrets having stayed in Algeria and wishes to spare her son Fahim the same fate. Her husband is deeply attached to the country and doesn’t share her opinion. Meanwhile, Feriel is a young strong woman who hides a deep scar. She lives with her father and brother who aren’t happy that she doesn’t take enough care of them and of the house. Feriel prefers to hang out with her friends Fahim and Reda but also with a mysterious man who is twice her age and who is connected to the power in place. Feriel and Nawal rebel against the masculine hostility surrounding them. Both are fighters who just want to move on in a country that keeps breaking their wings. Djama shows the impossibility to evolve in a society that is stuck between religious conservatism and its desire for freedom. Her film is about surviving in a state that inflicts pain and loss. It captures a transitional moment in the history of Algeria, a moment of growth and openness that foreshadows what led the Algerian citizens to unite in 2019 and claim a better country, one they wouldn’t need to leave. Sofia Djama defends happiness as a means for endurance: “I never understood why we must hide our joy. Happiness should never be hidden. It should shine bright because it is contagious, gives hope, and encourages others to choose happiness actively. Choosing a happy life takes courage, too, especially in a country that gave us nothing to be happy about, nothing to look forward to. Happiness is an act of resistance.” In her third feature Wajib (2017), Annemarie Jacir explores social and political fractures that are visible through generational conflict in a lighter and sweeter way. Casting the gorgeous blue-eyed real-life father and son Mohamad and Saleh Bakri, the film unfolds over the course of a winter’s day in Nazareth. Abu Shadi and Shadi hand-deliver invitations for the upcoming wedding of Amal, Abu Shadi’s daughter, and Shadi’s sister. Spending a lot of time together whether in the car or when visiting relatives, father, and son reconnect. Soon, their differences resurface. Beyond the usual generational bickering, the film reveals the frustrations and the blames between those who left and those who stayed. It also depicts the daily life of the Palestinian Middle Class in Nazareth under the occupation. Wajib is a heartwarming film transcended with love that premiered in Locarno Film Festival and won more than 20 awards worldwide.
Generational conflict and clash of ideologies are also at the heart of Brotherhood u26, the Academy Award nominated short directed by Meryam Joobeur. In rural Tunisia, a father of three is troubled when his older son, who had disappeared to combat with Daesh in Syria, returns home. He comes with his bride, an underage woman hidden in her niqab. The father cannot forgive his son. Turning to extremism is a wound that cuts too deep. Moreover, he doesn’t want to set a bad example for his two younger boys. The son is silent. He seems to regret his departure. But similar to his father, he is taciturn and proud. Both men struggle to communicate. The mother keeps the peace in this fragile family. She warmly welcomes her son as he is more important to her than any values and tries to reason with the father. Brotherhood is remarkable by its stunning cinematography, its magnificent landscapes, and the intense faces of the actors, especially the redhead brothers, who are also brothers in real life. It gives a more nuanced perspective on the diversity of the Arab and Muslim world and the struggle of families whose youngsters joined the battlefield within Daesh but regretted it almost instantly. The film keeps shifting between the dynamic of the mother’s love versus the father’s more disciplined approach. “Women from the region are stereotyped as meek and submissive. I wanted to create a female character from the region that isn’t afraid to speak to her husband and is going to fight for her children,” says Joobeur. It is, therefore, no surprise that she chose to expand this theme further in her first feature film that she’s currently working on. Motherhood explores how maternal love is tested and how guilt can haunt the human spirit.
Through exploring generational conflicts, redeeming unredeemable characters, verbalizing unspoken emotions, or depicting their country’s divisions, this curation shows how enriching the female directors’ gaze can be and how it can enlighten the audience on the inner and outer conflicts of men. One can only wish to keep coming about similar films that present both perspectives and lead to a fairer and more balanced world.