Last year’s Doha Tribeca film festival marked a tipping point for female Arab directors. From Rafea: Solar Mama, a sparky documentary about a Jordanian woman who trains to be a solar engineer, to Yema, an eerily beautiful film about fratricide and fundamentalism, the range and quality of female directed work was unprecedented. This spring, two London festivals— March’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Bird’s Eye View Festival, which is on at the moment—have provided a fresh chance to evaluate what Arab women are achieving in film. At a point when the West is facing up to its own dearth of female directors, these brave, witty and accomplished projects (eighteen feature-length works in total) are shining a light into an often poorly comprehended part of the world.
True, there have been established Arab female film directors for a while now. Not least is Nadine Labaki, whose Caramel and Where Do We Go Now have both won international acclaim.
True, there have been established Arab female film directors for a while now. Not least is Nadine Labaki, whose Caramel and Where Do We Go Now have both won international acclaim. Equally, Tunisian Moufida Tlatli’s reputation was such in her country that she was briefly appointed the minister of culture. But there is a sense of a new, more urgent message being transmitted by Middle Eastern female directors—a sense that slowly, but inevitably, their world is changing. Is there a connection to the Arab Spring, which in terms of male-dominated art forms has seen a proliferation of graffiti art and hip hop? Is the more intimate medium of film proving a more potent way for women to express their own hopes for a transformation in their situation?
“I can only speak for Egypt,” says Mona Eldaief, an American–Egyptian who is one of the two directors of Rafea: Solar Mama. “There used to be political apathy, but now people want their voices to be heard—especially women, who have fear of the possible repression to come.”
However, Karima Zoubir, whose film Camera/Woman focuses on a Moroccan divorcée, feels that the trend is as much to do with long-term educational and economic developments as revolution: “Obviously, in Morocco we were not affected like Egypt [by the Arab Spring]. Already when I was doing film studies there were more girls than boys in my class. There’s also a pattern in my generation that more and more women are going into jobs. I wanted to make films because, despite this, I felt that I was seeing a lot of films coming from the point of view of men and not of women.”
It is not surprising that the impact of women’s shifting economic power is a recurrent theme. Rafea: Solar Mama tells the story of a charismatic Bedouin mother of four children, living close the Jordan’s border with Iraq. She is given the chance to travel to the Barefoot College in India to train as a solar engineer as part of a project that educates women so they can go back home and use their new skills to benefit their communities. But Rafea’s husband, who has two families, protests, threatening to take her children away; she is forced to return to Jordan in the middle of her training. When she finally goes back to India with significant help from Jordan’s Ministry of Environment, she is revealed to be the class’s star engineer. However, after returning home to install solar power in Jordanian houses, she discovers that her uncle is scheming to take most of the money she earns.
“I think—especially in this situation—it’s important to go and sit with the men and talk to them about community,” says Eldaief. “To make them realize that women’s empowerment is better for them than not. [Educated women] are not going to start whoring around. They’re not going to start having men in their training centers. I think with time, once men can see the prosperity women could give back to their families, they won’t be threatened by it.”
In the Shadow of a Man, made by the British–Egyptian film director Hanan Abdalla, shows the realities of modern Egypt refracted through the perspectives of four very different women. In three of the stories, the economic power the women have is key. For Badreya, it is in the huge amount of work she puts into the farm where she lives; that work is nonetheless unremunerated and unappreciated by her unemployed husband. For the bubbly Suzanne it is in the (admittedly extreme) scenario where she has had to set up her own business to gain economic independence from her family after being abused by her grandfather. For the defiantly idiosyncratic Wafaa, it is about her financial need as a divorcée to forge life outside her home country. As well as the economic factor, all three stories confront a question that is particularly crucial in the Middle East: how does a woman define her life through her family when her family has let her down?all three stories confront a question that is particularly crucial in the Middle East: how does a woman define her life through her family when her family has let her down?
This question is posed particularly harshly in Djamila Sahraoui’s Yema, an extraordinary film set in Algeria to illustrate continuing tensions following the end of the civil war in 2002. This is a fictional work that uses only three characters to tell its story—and opens with a mother, played with devastating poise by Sahraoui herself, dragging her dead son on a bier across a remote rural landscape. What follows is as sparse and powerful as an Ancient Greek tragedy. We discover that her dead son, Tarek, was a government soldier, while her other son, Ali, is the Islamic insurgent responsible for his death. Although Ali sets up a guard to watch Yema, she manages to assert her authority with a feral intensity that leads to the execution of a bitter justice.
For all the female directors I talk to, a key moment has been when their film has been shown to people from the country it portrays. For Eldaief, this proved a very happy moment: “We showed it at the Rainbow Theatre in Jordan and it totally sold out. At the end, Rafea came on stage and she had a standing ovation for ten minutes!”
For Abdalla, a screening of her prize-winning In the Shadow of a Man in Paris led to more complicated reactions from the Egyptians in the audience there. “A couple of Egyptian people got up and apologized on behalf of my film. They said it gave a really bad picture of what Egypt was like, that these women were shown as victims. I think I fought my corner quite well. I argued strongly that I didn’t think any of these people came across as victims.”
Obviously, the absence of cinemas in Saudi Arabia means that Haifaa Al-Mansour’s fictional Wadjda has not been shown to the Saudi public, even though she has a record of creating work that has fomented debate about whether or not big screens should be allowed. Her latest film—the first full-length feature by a female Saudi director—is a charming piece about a young girl who devises a range of schemes to raise money to buy a bike. What is most striking is the light-handedness with which Al-Mansour addresses different Saudi taboos, while simultaneously building a powerful picture of the challenges of growing up as a woman in Saudi Arabia. The performance by Waad Mohammed, who plays the central role, is understated but magnetic.
It makes sense that so many of the directors in these two festivals have focused on the complex issue of what it means to be an Arab woman today. But inevitably, some have looked beyond this. One is Yasmin Fedda, whose glorious, affecting documentary, A Tale of Two Syrias, looks at Syria just before the uprising through the eyes of a football-loving monk and an Iraqi fashion designer. The witty humanity of her two portraits of these men subtly highlights the brutality of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime without laboring the point. By getting to know these two people, we feel anew how much has been lost over the last two years.
Yet it is not Fedda but Eldaief who sums up why the universality of film can do so much for the very specific issues confronting women in the Middle East today. When I talked to her about what drives her as an Arab filmmaker, she replied, “Films can change things. If you witness something, your opinion changes. Even if you don’t do anything about it, it makes you change. Because of my background I have no tolerance whatsoever for racism and stereotypes. And I think film is an incredibly effective way of showing that everybody is universally the same when it comes down to it.”