Emerging women filmmakers in the Arab world speak about their films, their challenges and their achievements.
Haifaa Al Mansour is not your typical Saudi Arabian woman. The country's first female filmmaker, Al Mansour is a radical, who married an American at the age of 35 and now studies film at the University of Sydney while also playing mother to her two-month old son.
Al Mansour, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, was often irked by the conservative Islamic laws that precluded women from enjoying basic privileges that were considered normal in other societies such as driving a car or walking around without a veil.
Although she herself grew up in a liberal and educated home in Saudi Arabia, she had to conform to the rules imposed on the womenfolk in her society.
Her shorts and documentaries, therefore, are a commentary on Saudi Arabian society. Her films address the concerns of women in her country and reflect her own resistance to these laws.
"My first film Who? showed a serial killer who dressed up like a woman and used our native dress to enter homes and kill women," explains Al Mansour. "It was my first and very naïve attempt to raise the alarm on the dangers of concealing a woman's identity in society."
Shot on a mini DV and edited by Waleed Al Shehi, a filmmaker from Dubai, Who was entered into the Emirates Film competition in Abu Dhabi in 2003. Although the short did not win any prizes, it was acknowledged back then as one of the first entries from Saudi Arabia.
Al Mansour has learnt to make films by trial and error as she is pretty much self-taught. Her first budget film, however, was both a disaster and a huge learning experience in production and team work, she says.
"The Only Way Out was my first movie with a budget and it was an absolute disaster. I spent about US $20,000 on this project, rented a 16 mm camera, got a sound recordist and paid for the artists. However, I was also the writer, producer and director on the film and it was too much to do. The film was a complete failure but it gave me my first real experience of production, what to do and what not to do, how to keep my costs down and delegate work to others etc. It taught me a lot in a very short time."
Al Mansour says that she has had greater success with the documentary genre. Her documentary, Women With Shadows, includes an interview with a minister, who assumed the film was intended for a Western audience, and gave a very liberal picture of the Saudi Arabian woman.
When the film was screened at the French Consulate in Jeddah, Al Mansour says the Minister retracted everything he said and she came under the spotlight for criticising the country's treatment of women.
However, even as she drew a lot of criticism, Al Mansour grabbed the attention of LBC, who invited her to run a talk show for the channel on women. Later, she was invited to join a team from Rotana to make the first Saudi feature film, Keif Al Hal as associate producer.
"This was a very good learning opportunity. The film was made on 35 mm and we had a team of 36 people," she adds.
Al Mansour, who got married last year and joined her husband in Australia, decided to undergo formal schooling in filmmaking. She was awarded a scholarship by the University of Sydney to study film.
However, the filmmaker is clear that she will use the skills she gains to produce more Arabic films and rally more support for the women in her community.
"We come from a very young culture that has absolutely no exposure to filmmaking. We do not have film schools; we know no techniques and how to use cameras and we have no infrastructure to take this forward back home. Unfortunately, our young aspiring Arab filmmakers want to be directors and producers without ever having held a camera in their hand, and they want to make films for pure entertainment. I'm a bit averse to that for some reason. I personally believe that our first films should be a comment on our society; they should be vehicles to change the status quo. They should be less Hollywood-driven and more like Iranian cinema, which is a reflection of their society," Al Mansour explains.
The filmmaker is already experimenting with different formats including 35 mm and digital. In fact, she is currently attempting a technique that amalgamates spray painting and raw footage to create a different look and feel in her new film.
Al Mansour hopes to bring a more sophisticated and well-made movie to one of the coming film festivals in the region.
So far, we have heard of only one other emerging female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Noor Al Dabbagh, who did a course in Visual Studies from the US, and returned to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia to pursue a career in filmmaking, had her first go at making a film in 2005 with The Ashgars (2005), a portrait of three generations living under the roof of the Al-Ashgar family home in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Last year, when a group of students came down to Saudi Arabia from Harvard Business School to understand the Kingdom's culture and lifestyle better, Al Dabbagh joined them.
The result was Seeing Through The Sand, a 50-minute documentary that was screened for the first time at the Gulf Film Festival, and shot on a Sony HDV camera.
"This project was a big burden because I did most of the production and editing by myself," says Al Dabbagh. "I did, however, get help from different companies. OR Madarat in Riyadh not only provided a camera but sent along their cameraman as well."
"Working with their cameraman, Noel Alipoyo was a great learning experience because I had previously filmed entirely on my own. I asked Saudi Aramco if they'd give me a place to do my editing and they agreed; Apple lent me their iMac with a Final Cut Pro HD software installed for the editing and Ahmed Abdulgader from Flicker Show helped me cut my documentary down to 50-minutes."
Al Dabbagh is not very concerned with the technology at this point and confesses that she did "end up with some shaky shots".
"Since then, I've got a tripod as well. But Seeing through the Sand is pretty much a straightforward documentary that looks at the cultural tension and shock these students feel as they travel through different parts of Saudi Arabia, and meet with influential people as well as ordinary folk," she says.
Right now, the young filmmaker is content that filmmaking is becoming a greater reality in Saudi Arabia than it was a year ago.
"I was a bit hesitant to go out and shoot for this documentary because I feared that my tapes would be taken away. However, they permitted filming in public areas a year ago. This made it easier for me to get permissions to shoot in airports and public areas and the desert," she says.
Al Dabbagh is also pleased that the Saudi government is gradually opening up to the idea of providing a platform for people to showcase their films.
"There will be many challenges before the film industry actually gets started. But we are going to have the first government-sponsored film festival in the Eastern province soon, and that is a start."
In the meantime, Al Dabbagh comes down to Dubai often in the hope of pursuing a production career in a TV station in the emirate.
"There is a lot more support for filmmaking and production here in Dubai so I believe I'll learn more here," she says.
The UAE, especially Dubai is, no doubt, aggressively moving forward with its film festivals and is increasingly looking to give local filmmakers a platform to not just showcase their films but also learn from their counterparts in other countries.
While the inaugural Gulf Film Festival hoped to give local filmmakers this opportunity, it also made us painfully aware of how this talent would go to waste without formal schooling in filmmaking and enough funding.
Realising this, one of the UAE's most dynamic filmmakers, Nayla Al Khaja, has begun to screen films at an event called The Scene Club at the Knowledge Village in Dubai Media City.
Al Khaja, who is the CEO of D-Seven films, a production house, is well known for her first documentary, Unveiling Dubai and her more recent short film, Arabana, which subtly addresses the issue of child abuse.
In the last two editions of the Scene Club, Al Khaja attempted to showcase films made by women filmmakers, and takes a great deal of effort to ensure that the directors are present at the screening.
She has actively promoted the event, which is supported by the Dubai International Film Festival.
"We are trying to do this on a bigger scale. This helps us to take these films to the universities. It's more of an educational process. We want to showcase only the best of what we have. It's obviously not star-studded and Hollywood material but we have to start somewhere. Eventually, we also hope to have themes such as Bollywood Nights, Earth, Romance and so on to see how some of these themes are tackled by international cinematographers," says Al Khaja, who is working on another short at present.
Another woman filmmaker, who chose to return to her homeland is Hind Al Awadi, a Kuwaiti national.
Al Awadi is 23 and grew up in London and later went to the University of Pennsylvania to study film.
However, she recently returned to Kuwait and works as associate producer with a local production company.
"The movie industry is becoming more global and, therefore, the opportunities in Kuwait will grow as it's still in its infancy here. I wanted to be a part of the film movement here. That's why I returned," says Al Awadi.
"Also, we are consistently looked at as a region that merely consumes the media in whatever form it is given to us. Now we should produce more films in an a la carte way - personalised for the Middle East."
Al Awadi recently entered her film titled Eigengrau for the Gulf Film Festival.
This short experiments with a melange of black and white as well as colour images and animation.
However, she claims that her final objective is to produce more documentaries and has her eyes set on a 1080i Sony HD cam.
"My interest lies predominantly in making documentary films and I will primarily be working in HD as I am comfortable working on this," she explains.
Al Awadi is one of the two emerging women filmmakers in Kuwait and this makes her efforts all the more important to the country. "We are just a handful in the whole of the Middle East. This is a very young market so we have to work very hard to prove ourselves. But it's good to see that more women are veering towards an artistic career and looking to work in out-of-the-box industries."
One of the most privileged of this lot and perhaps, one who holds great promise as a filmmaker is Maryam Ghorbankarimi, who hails from Iran and was lucky to be born into a family of filmmakers.
Ghorbankarimi, whose short film, Ties, was showcased recently at The Scene Club event, is currently doing her PhD in Film Studies the UK.
Iran has a longer history in filmmaking than many of the other countries in the Middle East.
"My research has also shown me that one-fifth of the filmmakers in Iran today are women while there were only about three at the end of the 80s. That's a good sign. Iranian cinema is not without its challenges but most of these are not gender related. They primarily have to do with censorship and finding creative ways to depict certain scenes."
Depicting love or shooting a bedroom scene is a typical challenge that most filmmakers in Iran face.
"In Iran, a woman always has to wear a head scarf when she is outside. However, in real life, when she goes to bed or is at home, she probably takes it off. But in cinema, you have to show her with her headscarf even when she is going to bed. That's a bit unrealistic. Likewise, we are not allowed to show romance and love openly in films. This is good, in some ways, because Iranian filmmakers have now found creative ways to depict love," she explains.
Ghorbankarimi was lucky to be born to parents, who both went to film school and pursued a career in related fields. While her dad took up cinematography, her mum went into animation.
"My siblings have taken after my mum while I decided to study film," says Ghorbankarimi, who also recently did a documentary on the film community in Iran.
"I intend to go back to Iran after my PhD. All the stories I have written are based in Iran and that is where my roots are," reiterates Ghorbankarimi.
As a film student, Ghorbankarimi has had the joy of experimenting with 16 mm and cites differences between shooting on film and digital.
"I shot Ties in 16 mm. I understand I am the student of the new age, where the focus is on digital cinema. But I have seen the differences between shooting on film and digital and there is just no comparison to film. HD gives you a very clean picture while I prefer the grain and the texture of film. It all depends on the project you are doing. For instance, a film like Ties, that has a connection with nature, needed a more classical feel, for which you need the look and texture of celluloid. Also, digital is not as forgiving as film. If you are going to shoot in digital, you will need to pay special attention to lighting," she explains.
Ghorbankarimi is currently researching the depiction of women in Iranian cinema over the last 40 years for a potential documentary.
"Before the revolution, we were shown two kinds of women; the "bad" dancers and the "good" mothers. There were very clear ideas about what was acceptable and what was not. After the revolution, we saw a rather narrow representation of women. The "bad" lots were gone and we had an idealised version - women who supported their families and took care of them. The 90s showed a more real and rounded representation of women with shades of grey. It's a very interesting subject," she says.
Ghorbankarimi asserts that apart from her having to wear a headscarf when she works in Iran, her challenges are pretty much the same as that of any other filmmaker in the country.
"Our challenges have nothing to do with gender. Censorship is the biggest bane. There are definite nos. You never see an unveiled woman on the street and people can't say what they want to as the government looks at films as a tool for teaching. That's why they legitimised it. But nothing goes into production or on screen without a permit," she says.
Despite this, filmmaking has thrived in Iran and we see the beginnings of a more active filmmaking movement in other countries in the Middle East as well. Most of the other women we have profiled here are pioneers in their respective countries.
It is impressive to note that although most of these women have gone abroad to study film, they have returned home with a mission to either expose the fallacies in their societies and provoke change or to set an example for other women folk in their community to pursue a career that is challenging, yet uplifting.
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