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The Women Who Revolutionising Middle-Eastern Film

posted on: Dec 10, 2019

The proportion of female directors in the Middle East puts Hollywood to shame, and with recent critical successes like Capernaum, what can the rest of the world learn?



Although only one woman from outside Europe and North America makes it into the top 25 of BBC Culture’s 100 greatest films directed by women (Argentinian Lucrecia Martel for The Swamp), there’s one part of the world that puts Hollywood to shame when it comes to gender parity in filmmaking – the Middle East.

A recent study by Northwestern University, commissioned by the Doha Film Institute in Qatar, found that 26% of independent Arab filmmakers are women, while only 8% of the directors of 2018’s top 250 films in the US were women. In Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, 25% of all new directors are women. In Egypt, this year’s Cairo International Film Festival became the first Arab festival, and second African festival, to pledge 50-50 gender parity by 2020. Another first-time Arab female filmmaker, Syrian journalist Waad Al Khateab, who co-directed For Sama, is now tipped for the Oscars, after the film won four British Independent Film Awards.

Some female Arab directors have a higher international profile than men working in the region – including Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki, whose Oscar-nominated and Cannes prize-winning film Capernaum came in at number 41 in the poll, while Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s first feature film Wadjda, is at number 86. Tunisian filmmaker Moufida Tlatli’s 1994 film The Silences of the Palace is at number 88.

Capernaum, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar, was number 41 on the poll of the 100 greatest films directed by women (Credit: Alamy)

“Surprisingly, in Lebanon there are more women working in the film industry than men,” Nadine Labaki told BBC’s Talking Movies around the release of Capernaum early this year. “I know we can’t talk about this equality everywhere, there are other places in the world where women don’t have their most basic rights. But I think we are on the right track.”

Since 2010, the Doha Film Institute has given 48% of its grants to women, and at this year’s Ayjal Film Festival in Qatar, 56 out of the 97 films screening were by women. Fatma Al Remaihi, who runs the Institute, tells BBC Culture “when I’ve attended red carpets in Los Angeles, reporters have asked me what #MeToo means to me, and I say, ‘it’s not something we are suffering from, we could be taken as an example of how we give equal chances’.”

However, even the star female players of Arab cinema suffer from the same problem as their Western counterparts – translating their filmmaking into commercial success.

While making Wadjda, director Haifaa Al Mansour had to work from the inside of a van (Credit: Alamy)

When making her film Wadjda in 2012, Haifaa Al Mansour had to work from the inside of a van, due to the strict rules about women appearing in public. However, when Al Mansour went back to make her latest film The Perfect Candidate, a relaxation of rules meant she was no longer relegated to the van, and Saudi Arabia had opened cinemas for the first time in 35 years.

Once the money comes in, they push women aside – Haifaa Al Mansour

Speaking at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where The Perfect Candidate premiered, Al Mansour said she feels it’s “very important to work” within conservative Saudi Arabian boundaries, “that way, you contribute to change.” But she’s doubtful whether women will be able to seize the chance to dominate the country’s new industry. “There’s always opportunity at the start of something,” she said, “although once the money comes in, they push women aside. Once the industry is profitable, it’s always like that.”

Searching for commercial success

Despite Egypt having the the largest commercial film market in the Middle East, no Egyptian female directors made the top 100 in the poll. Nevertheless, director Marianne Khoury has made two films called Women Who Loved Cinema about the early female pioneers who led Arab filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s.

“But when it became an industry, the guys took control,” Khoury tells BBC Culture. “There’s a bit of a comeback now for women. But, of course the men want to be in charge, cinema’s a big business in Egypt, there’s a lot of cinemas screening local and Hollywood blockbusters.”

Khoury believes that with little government investment, both sexes in Egypt are struggling to make films, but that “women are still more at a disadvantage commercially”. She points to a 2009 film, One-Zero by Kamla Abou Zekry, as a “recent” example of financial success from a female director, which had a budget of around 6 million Egyptian pounds (around $372,000, £287,000 today)

Making every film in this region is a battle, every film is a war – Nadine Labaki

Her own latest film, Let’s Talk, made with her filmmaker daughter Sara, was entirely self-funded. “I keep getting asked, ‘when are you going to make a real film?’” Khoury says. “By that, they mean one that would make a lot of money. As an independent filmmaker, people don’t actually consider that I make films, they think I am just playing.”

Filmmaking for women being viewed as an arthouse hobby, rather than a serious career choice, may be one of the reasons for the high numbers of women showing films at Middle-Eastern film festivals, but not translating into big box-office wins.

The nomination for the best foreign language film Oscar helped boost Capernaum, and Nadine Labaki’s, international profile (Credit: Alamy)

“A lot of families don’t think of it as a serious career for their loved ones,” agrees Fatma Al Remaihi, “but that’s not only a problem for our part of the world. It will take time; the industry will always need to prove itself to be understood.”

Women need to be at least twice as great as men to be admitted to line-ups and 10 times as good to win – E Nina Rothe

“Making every film in this region is a battle, every film is a war,” says Nadine Labaki. “I didn’t make Capernaum for the money, it’s about hard work and ending up with a piece of art. My husband Khaled put our house up on mortgage without telling me at the start to finance this. We ended up doing it without any help beyond that of a few friends who believed in us.

“I don’t feel the Oscar nomination is a victory because I am a woman director, because I’ve never felt this,” Labaki adds, “but it’s a victory for the way we made this film.”

Nevertheless, Labaki’s Oscar nomination, along with Haifaa Al Mansour’s appearance at this year’s Venice Film Festival as one of only two women in competition, have been invaluable for their profiles.

“I think women filmmakers need to be at least twice as great as their male counterparts to be admitted to these line-ups and when they are, 10 times as good to win,” says E Nina Rothe, a freelance film critic and writer. “It’s all really a name game with show business. Look what chairing this year’s jury at the Venice Film Festival did for Lucrecia Martel’s profile. In the case of her or Labaki or Al Mansour, that kind of visibility increases the chances of them being asked to direct a major studio film – a Hollywood blockbuster. And wouldn’t that be an incredible step forward?”

Deniz Gamze Ergüven directed Kings, which starred Halle Berry and Daniel Craig (Credit: Alamy)

The critical success of Turkish-born Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang and Al Mansour’s Wadjda did lead both directors to be given funding for English-language follow ups – Ergüven’s Kings starring Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, and Al Mansour’s Mary Shelley, which starred Elle Fanning. Neither were commercial hits, although Ergüven went on to direct episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale.

So, does Haifaa Al Mansour think that they’ll ever be helming films with a budget of more than a $100,000,000 – in any language? “It’s very important not to be afraid to put ourselves out there, failure is part of the process. We need to learn and put ourselves out there and people need to see us come back,” she says.

“We’ve seen one or two women with budgets like that now, but it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s important we don’t give up. It will be a fight but we are here to stay.”