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Women in Arab cinema: There is change, but is it happening quickly enough?
Women working in the Arab film industry are making inroads, even if true equality remains a long way off
Cinema, arguably, is one of the most important tools in changing the fate of women. It’s a way to introduce new ideas. In 2011, Haifaa Al-Mansour directed her first film, Wadjda, about a 10-year-old girl living in Riyadh who defies her family in her efforts to buy a bicycle so she can race against boys, hiding in a van on the streets of Riyadh.
In her last film, The Perfect Candidate, about a young female doctor, who drives to work and runs for office in local elections, the Saudi film director was no longer relegated to the van. She could film in public following the easing of restrictions in the kingdom and the opening up cinemas for the first time in 35 years.
There is something about Al-Mansour’s delicacy of touch that lends clarity to the resounding themes: an honest depiction of how society controls women, but one that is changing, albeit slowly.
Revealing the deeply patriarchal society, about a girl who strikes back against bullying and injustice, Tima Shomali directed the Netflix series AlRawabi School for Girls, a drama that premiered last year. One of the most-watched series in the Middle East, it has been praised for representing the lives of teens and portraying violence against women.
“It is important for me as a filmmaker to use my voice to tell these stories, but entertainment is an integral part of my storytelling. It has to capture the audience with well-crafted characters, storylines, and visuals. Through that, we can shed light on some important issues, discuss openly and start a conversation,” says Shomali.
“Hopefully, with art, we start changing some policies and maybe show a different perspective. Audiences must connect with the characters on a human level, and that’s where change starts.”
The conversation of change to action is manifesting, with ongoing momentum toward a more inclusive entertainment industry, on both sides of the camera. For instance, Jameel Jeddan, a TV series about characters that illustrate Saudi women’s dominant individuality and diversities, is the first in the country to be created, written and led by a woman, Sarah Taibah. She uses dark humour to highlight reforms sweeping the conservative kingdom.
Although cinema worldwide continues to be a boys’ club; in Hollywood, women comprised 17% of directors on the top 250 grossing movies in 2021; the picture is a tad brighter when the focus is shifted to the Arab reel world. A study conducted by Northwestern University in 2019 found that 26% of independent Arab filmmakers are women.
FUNDING FOR WOMEN-LED PROJECTS
But it has not been what you might call an equal opportunity employer, particularly for those behind the camera.
“Overall, filmmaking is a team effort,” says Nayla Al Khaja, the award-winning Emirati filmmaker. “You can argue that certain positions such as a producer, director, and studio executives have more authority than others, but the fact is, they are decision-makers, and the overall execution of the decision trickles down on everybody. Everyone matters in this field.”
Yet Al Khaja admits that not everything is rosy. For more Arab women to take on more roles behind the camera, visibility is only the start; what is needed is to actively work to provide Arab women with the opportunity and funding to lead.
“If more women investors and producers come along, we will see more women-led projects. The number of women directors is insignificant compared to men directors. The number of Arab women in the Gulf is also minuscule. The change will happen when national federal film funds, incentives, tax breaks, and grants start coming to give women a chance to be in the industry,” adds Al Khaja, who serves as the chief executive of the eponymous company she founded, Nayla Al Khaja Films.
As in most parts of the entertainment industry, women have long been on the sidelines of camera departments. The reason often attributed is the lack of cinematic and production-based skills taught to women, as they are often encouraged to pursue roles that highlight their acting skills.
The challenges for women in the Arab film industry, Shomali says, are still centered on cultural rather than professional challenges. “Every role is a key role, and there are some departments that I would love to see filled by women, like women DOPs, technicians, and sound mixers.”
Thanks to the film industries in countries such as Jordan being relatively young, women are not shut out of already-established systems. As a Jordanian filmmaker, Shomali, whose Netflix series is written, produced, and directed by a women-led team, wants to give more opportunities to women who wish to make a name and help to build something new. “It’s not that we don’t have women in these roles; we do. But someone needs to give them a chance to get the experience, and that’s the main concern because every filmmaker would like to work with experienced talents. However, it is our obligation to give women a chance and take the risk, so they get the experience and start filling these roles.”
Backing her words, Al Khaja says, “Proving your worth and your talent takes years. In this industry, your reputation and experience are very important. For a start, countries in the region can start a 50/50 grant program.”
WINDS OF CHANGE
In the past, there may have been a lack of successful women making a name for themselves as directors and filmmakers, but that is changing. Unlike Sundance and Cannes, where there are hardly any women, film festivals in the Middle East are a riposte. Women-led film projects are becoming international hits and festival favorites. Consistently selling tickets in the Middle East and the West, Nadine Labaki is flying the flag high in Arab cinema. Her film Capernaum was Oscar-nominated, her debut film Caramel was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and she has set records at her home box office with her dramedy Where Do We Go Now?
Palestinian woman director and cinematographer Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights, Cherine Dabis’ Amreeka, and Sofia Djama’s The Blessed have recently received regional and international critical acclaim. An advocate for more women’s participation in Arab cinema, Dabis employs and trains women in her crew and cast for her film projects.
“We have great women directors and producers in the region, and the numbers are growing as the industry is growing, which is great. Women are making their way in the industry,” says Shomali. AlRawabi School for Girls was released in 190 countries and is available in over 30 languages.
“I am so proud of content development, whether in film or series and how our content travels globally. In the last decade, women have made their mark in the industry and have been an integral part of the change,” adds Shomali.
Recently, Desert Rose Films (DRF), home to the untold stories and hidden heritage of the Middle East, has revamped its online hub featuring original, independent and female-led productions as well as a mentorship scheme for rising talents of the region.
“We are giving women in the region a voice both in front of and behind the camera – creating a movement of organic, dynamic and compelling storytelling from a new perspective. Our commonalities unite us and our diversity emboldens us,” said Nancy Paton, founder of DRF.
Making a more universal point, Al Khaja says the #MeToo movement has made real and meaningful differences for women. “I am proud to make a difference, tell stories, and direct movies in a male-dominated industry. The #MeToo movement showed that women in the industry have a voice, and we matter. Although it wasn’t directly about gender equality, it did highlight the imbalance between the sexes. It brought attention to the importance of inclusion of all ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds.”
“Arab women now are producing some stunning films, and their voices are heard from far and beyond,” continues Al Khaja. “Platforms such as Netflix have also been instrumental in democratizing content distribution and purchase power. Studios are no longer the only option.”
Asked if even the star female players of Arab cinema suffer from the same problem as their Western counterparts – translating their filmmaking into commercial success, Al Khaja says, “Commercial success depends on how entertaining the movie is. It has to appeal to a mass audience. Many factors – is the story relatable? Is the director good? What genre? – contribute to a film’s success. Commercial success can also come from showing a film to various film festivals and winning awards. Success doesn’t depend on gender.”
Of course, there is still a long way to address under-representation, but with the growing number of women in the creative industries, we can look forward to a future for Arab film where the talent of women shine more. Will women be able to seize the chance to dominate the film industry? Is change happening fast? “Change is happening, but it is extremely slow and will take time,” says Al Khaja.