Arab's new spring of succcessful women directors

Women filmmakers lead the charge in Arab cinema, as they cast off social barriers and tell their stories.

Annemarie Jacir's film Wajid is about an estranged father and son on a roadtrip in Nazareth.
When Mai Masri made her first film, it marked a milestone in Palestinian cinema. “I was the first Palestinian woman director and cinematographer,” says Masri, as she sits down for a chat on the sidelines of the recently concluded Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). Masri’s first was a documentary, Under the Rubble (1983), on the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut. “Today half the Palestinian films are directed by women,” says Masri, one of the most respected filmmakers in contemporary world cinema.

Mai Masri, Palestinian filmmaker living in Beirut.
It takes a few moments for that statistic to sink in. In Hollywood, women made up only 4.3% of directors of the 1,100 top films released between 2007 and 2017, according to a study by the University of Southern California.

A 2017 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that only one in 10 directors in India was a woman. In Europe, the number was one in five, according to a survey by the European Women’s Audiovisual Network across seven countries three years ago. “There are so many Arab women filmmakers today,” beams Masri. “This is a phenomenon not seen elsewhere in the world.”

Mai Masri's film 3000 Nights is about a Palestinian woman who delivers her child in an Israeli prison.

The high percentage of women directors in Arab speaking countries has made international film festivals take notice. At this year’s CIFF, the oldest film festival in the Arab world, one of the highlights was a separate section called “Tribute to Arab Female Filmmakers”. It had nine movies, five of them made in the last two years.

Eight years after Arab Spring, the political struggles haven’t delivered on the promises. After marching with men against authoritarian regimes, Arab women have now turned to cinema to raise their voice against inequality and injustice. “Each of the Arab women directors has a different story to tell,” says CIFF’s artistic director Youssef Cherif Rizkallah.

Naidra Ayadi, French actor-director of Algerian origin.
“The Palestinians have one story, the Tunisians another and the Syrians yet another,” adds Rizkallah.

“Cinema is an empowering tool for those making and watching films,” says Masri.

Her film 3000 Nights (2015), which was part of the tribute section at Cairo, was shot in a real prison in Jordan. It retells the story of a Palestinian woman who delivers her child inside an Israeli prison.

Naidra Ayadi's film Looking for Leila looks at the gap between immigrant parents and their children born in a new country.

Masri had met the woman during the first Intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation three decades ago.

3000 Nights has travelled to 80 festivals so far and opened the Palestinian Film Week in Vienna in November-end.

In Algeria, young girls often ask Sofia Djama how she dared to dream of becoming a filmmaker. “It is possible, I tell them,” says Djama, whose first feature film, The Blessed, was shown at Cairo.

Annemarie Jacir, Palestinian filmmaker.

Djama, who grew up in Algiers during the civil war that began in 1991, sets her film a few years later to look back at the trauma. The Blessed, which premiered at the Venice festival last year, has already established its director as one of the forceful voices in contemporary cinema. “Culture and cinema are the conscience of society,” says Djama about telling the stories of one’s own people.

“In Arab film festivals, more than half the films are made by women directors,” says Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir, who has written, directed and produced 16 films. “But in Cannes, Venice and Berlin, women are never adequately represented.” Her like twenty impossibles (2003) was the first short film from the Arab world ever to be screened in Cannes. Five years later, her Salt of this Sea was part of Un Certain Regard at Cannes “Women almost always don’t make a second feature film. Every single time I want to make a new film, I start from zero,” says Jacir, whose latest film Wajib was screened at Cairo.

French actor-director Naidra Ayadi, who is of Algerian origin, looks at the gap between immigrant parents and their children born in a new country in her debut film Looking for Leila, which was part of the international panorama at CIFF. “We don’t care about your values and traditions, we want to earn money,” says a young girl to her parents in the film. Ayadi, who won the Cesar award for the Most Promising Actor for her role in the critically acclaimed French film Polisse in 2011, says “we need to know where we come from to write our story”.

Meanwhile, Masri, who lives in Beirut, Lebanon, says, “I am always attracted to stories of women who struggle against the constraints of society and history.” Her next film is about the Palestinian-Lebanese poet May Ziadeh, who continued to write even after she was put away in a mental hospital.

CIFF shone the light on women power in Arab cinema: Coming Forth By Day (2012) by the Egyptian director Hala Lotfy; Wadjda (2012) by the first Saudi Arabian woman director Haifaa Al-Mansour; Beauty and the Dogs (2017) by Tunisian-born Kaouther Ben Hania; Nawara (2016) by the Egyptian director Hala Khalil; Sharp Tools by the UAE filmmaker Nujoom Al-Ghanem and My Favourite Fabric (2018) by the Syrian Gaya Jiji. Add illustrious women filmmakers such as the Lebanese Nadine Labaki, who directed this year’s Palme d’Or nominee Capernaum; Tunisian Leyla Bouzid whose As I Open My Eyes was part of the 2015 Venice Film Festival; and the Iranian Shirin Neshat — and there is truly an Arab spring in cinema.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
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