By Khalid Ali, film and media correspondent
In its 40th edition, the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF), 20-29 November 2018 (https://www.ciff.org.eg/), pays special tribute to nine outstanding Arab women directors. A distinguishing feature shared by these directors is that they tell stories which are deeply rooted in their respective cultures, but still manage to connect with international audiences. Selecting one film from each director’s portfolio, CIFF focuses on contemporary films made between 2012–2018.
‘Coming forth by day’ (Egypt, 2012) directed by Hala Lotfy, is a heart-breaking account of two women, a wife and a daughter whose life is dominated by caring for their disabled husband and father respectively. Confined in a small apartment in Cairo, the claustrophobic surroundings act as a metaphor for a society where isolation and estrangement are everyday realities.
Hala Khalil’s ‘Nawara’ (Egypt, 2015) is also a story about women; Nawara is a young maid in the house of a rich family after the overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in 2011. Nawara’s quest for a bed in a government’s hospital for her father-in-law, and her care for her grandmother in a hostile society are two examples of the abortion of ordinary Egyptian citizens’ dreams for ‘bread, freedom and social justice’.
A woman’s bitter disappointment over her right to a dignified existence and to have her voice heard in a ‘male-dominated society’ after the Tunisian Spring revolution is the theme of Kaouther Ben Hania’s ‘Beauty and the dogs’ (Tunisia, 2017). Over the course of one long night, Mariam is seeking an elusive justice in police stations and hospital corridors to report the men who raped her.
The socio-political upheaval of the Arab Spring in Syria also forms the background of Gaya Jiji’s film ‘My favourite fabric’ (Syria, 2018). Nahla is a young woman acting out her sexual fantasies in the early days of the Syrian revolution in 2011. Marriage to a Syrian immigrant in America is the only route she has to follow to escape the brutal reality of erupting war and chaos.
In her feature film debut, Sophia Djama focuses on Algeria’s civil unrest. Set in 2008, ‘The blessed’ (Algeria, 2017) follows a middle aged couple Amal and Samir celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary at a time of religious extremism. Amal is keen for her young son Fahim to leave Algeria and escape the wave of violence and dictatorship.
Palestinian cinema is represented by two directors, Annemarrie Jacir and Mai Masri. Jacir’s ‘Wajib’ (Palestine, 2017), and Masri’s ‘3000 nights’ (Palestine, 2015) portray the lives of Palestinians under an oppressive Israeli rule. Masri tells the story of Layal, a young school teacher who is wrongly imprisoned in an Israeli jail. After delivering her baby boy inside prison, she succumbs to depression. Hope and salvation comes through her solidarity with other women inmates and a budding relationship with Dr Ayman.
Jacir shifts the focus from women by telling the story of a father and his son, both dealing with Israelis in different ways with fixed beliefs in life. Their confrontation at a family wedding might bring healing through mutual understanding (https://www.arabbritishcentre.org.uk/media/annemarie-jacir-provokes-and-entertains-the-audience-with-her-generation-game-in-wajib/).
Haifaa Al Mansour is a pioneer in directing ‘Wadjda’ (Saudi Arabia, 2012) the first Saudi film directed by a woman. Wadjda is a young girl longing to ride a bicycle in a society where driving cars and riding bikes is a male-prerogative. The injustice suffered by women is observed through Wadjda’s point of view seeing her mother forced to accept her husband’s decision in taking a second wife.
While the above directors explored the impact of politics and a changing socio-economic landscape in fiction films, Emarati artist, poet, and film maker Nujoom Alghanem uses documentary style in ‘Sharp tools’ (UAE 2017) to showcase the work of Hassan Sharif, an eminent artist in the year before he died. She uses candid interviews and imaginative visual techniques to pay tribute to his legacy of art and humanity.
Reaching out to an audience beyond the Arab region by screening their films in international festivals, these women directors transformed the image of Arab women in cinema. Still, some of them do not want to be labelled as ‘women breaking into a man’s world’; Sophia Djama wants to be appreciated as a ‘universal story-teller’ irrespective of her gender. At the Venice Film Festival 2017, she was awarded the Brian award for a film which ‘’best champions human rights, democracy, pluralism, and freedom of thought’’; a statement which collectively describes these talented women directors.