With the 2012 Doha Tribeca Film Festival having recently come to a close, this annual event of the Doha Film Institute, one of the Middle East’s largest film festivals, is showcasing some of the best work in new Arab and world cinema from the past twelve months. “Rafea: Solar Mamas,” by Jehane Noujaim and Mona Eldaief and “Embers” by Tamara Stepanyan, were two women-directed documentaries in the Festival’s “Arab Feature Film Competition” category. Women, in fact, are leaders in the film industry across the Middle East. The relationship between women in the Middle East and cinema has been growing richer, and is rooted in the region’s robust traditions of movie production.
One of the strongest examples of this effort is the work of the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. Perhaps the most well-known of Arab female filmmakers as well as a famous actress in the Middle East, Labaki wrote and directed her first feature, “Caramel,” in 2007. The film was was later shown at the Cannes Film Festival. “Caramel” is an intricate and nuanced tale with a familiar premise: an eclectic group of women gather regularly at a beauty shop. The film delves into sensitive Lebanese social territories through thematic explorations of religion and post-colonial reality.
Labaki’s second feature, which she wrote, directed and starred in, premiered at Cannes in 2011. The film, titled “Where Do We Go Now?” functions as an even deeper study of Lebanon’s religious identities than Labaki’s first film. In a village where the men are fixated on their religious differences and disputes as Muslims and Christians, the women of both faiths rally to surreptitiously persuade the men to avoid engaging in inter-religious violence.
Like “Caramel,” “Where Do We Go Now?” focuses on the lives of ordinary women who have been affected by Lebanon’s complex social realities that have been brought on by decades of political upheaval. Nadine Labaki’s films are hopeful, while still possessing keen awareness of the obstacles to an internally peaceful Lebanon.
Internationally known for her 1994 film set in Tunisia at the end of colonialism, “The Silences of the Palace,” Moufida Tlatli has the distinction of being the first Arab woman to direct a full-length feature in the Arabic-speaking world. And after the ousting last year of President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali from Tunisia, Tlatli was appointed minister of culture in the Tunisian Provisional Government. That Tlatli, a world-famous female filmmaker, was appointed to a government position after an incendiary popular revolution, speaks volumes.
Another trailblazing woman in cinema is the Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. With her film “Salt of this Sea,” Jacir became the first Palestinian woman to direct a full-length feature film. The story follows Soraya, a young Palestinian-American woman traveling to Jaffa to claim her deceased grandfather’s financial assets, only to learn that they were seized long ago by the Israeli government.
Jacir completed her second feature, “When I Saw You,” in Jordan in 2011. It is a film about a separated Palestinian refugee family living in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war. Jacir crafts narratives that resonate as personalized representations of cultural exchange. Her unique point of view keeps the focus of her stories on how all humans are essentially the same, no matter the gender or nation of origin. In “Salt of this Sea,” for example, Jacir portrays a young Israeli woman who is compassionate to the protagonist Soraya’s situation – even though the Israeli woman now lives in Soraya’s ancestral home.
Labaki, Tlatli and Jacir represent a cherished though tiny portion of Arab women filmmakers. Film production and distribution has been vital in the Middle East for a long time, and the growth of the film industry is certainly on the rise following the start of myriad Arab revolutions in 2010. Meanwhile, in the West, films from the region act as invaluable, edifying windows to contemporary Arab society.
With government patronage for filmmaking visible in nearly every Arab country, the world can expect to see greater participation in movie production by Arab women. These women will be full participants in the creation of films that reflect issues of gender, religion and the convoluted politics that permeate everyday life.
Kathleen Quigley is the public relations director for the Global Philadelphia Association. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).