With the spread of revolutions across the Arab World, there is an increasing interest in the footage coming from the region. The many talented Arab filmmakers working today will no doubt be able to turn their raw material into a compelling body of work, bringing much-needed worldwide recognition and visibility to Arab cinema. In this vibrant environment, newly established regional film funds have taken on a vital mission in supporting Arab filmmakers in various stages of their production, and further encourage the development of creative and challenging projects.
Influential film festivals from the region also contribute to building a solid reputation for Arab cinema, both in fiction and documentaries, with their visionary programming. Although focus is only now turning towards documentaries from the Arab world, an Arab Spring has always been present in the minds of the region’s documentary filmmakers, who for years have examined the injustice and indignity that has plagued their countries. Actively giving voice to the demands and aspirations of the people across the Arab world, they have contributed to their nations’ collective memory, and have joined the same stream of consciousness that millions of citizens are now responding to as witnessed in the revolutions sweeping the region today. Women are an essential part of this process. Since the early 1970s, when Attiyat Al-Abnudi shot her 12-minute, black-andwhite Horse of Mud in one of the hundreds of small brick factories along the Nile, Arab women documentarians have started their own revolutions through the issues that they choose to cover, the questions they ask and the connections they establish. By providing the underprivileged and the outcast with the much-needed chance to speak up, they build a collective social critique that ultimately tries to recover the lost dignity of people who have been living for decades under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. And rather than being confined to women-centric topics, these works offer a broad perspective and skillfully analyze the multilayered realities of Arab societies.
Within the region, Egypt’s cinema industry is particularly strong, boasting personalities like Attiyat Al-Abnudi, who is one of the first Arab women documentary filmmakers. She took a political stance from early on by focusing on peasant women, child brides and women in politics. Another pioneer in Egyptian cinema, Tahani Rached, who moved to Canada from Egypt in the 1960s, has also covered a wider spectrum of women’s issues. She is now back in Egypt. Particularly in These Girls (2006) she reveals an extraordinary world that is invisible to many, and engages us in the universe of teenage girls living on the streets of Cairo where rape, abuse, drugs and prostitution are part of daily life. With her vivid and authentic depiction of these impoverished yet high-spirited lives, Rached’s humane portrayal of these girls compels us to confront the stigmas attached to the discarded women in a Muslim society. The already established activist movement in Egypt was further strengthened by the advent of filmmakers like Viola Shafik and Marianne Khoury, who have been fighting for social change with several daring and creative projects on specific causes. Among the recent documentaries that have delved into the complexities of contemporary Arab society, Viola Shafik’s Season of Planting Girls (1999) explores the reasons behind female genital mutilation, a practice that is still widespread despite a government ban. Marianne Khoury’s Zelal (2010), which she codirected with the late Mustapha Hasnaoui, on the other hand, portrays the tragic conditions in mental institutions in Egypt. One of the most courageous documentaries from the region, Zelal compassionately attempts to break the taboo of regarding mental illness as something shameful and dishonorable.
Compared to several other Arab countries, Palestine boasts a wide spectrum of talented women filmmakers who have been integral to negotiating their complex identities and fighting against the injustice directed towards all Palestinians. Led by Alia Arasoughly, the Palestinian film collective Shashat is a unique initiative that unifies the women filmmakers of the country. Among them, award-winning Mai Masri is one of the most well known Palestinian filmmakers today. In a trilogy comprising Children of Fire (1990), Children of Shatila (1998) and Frontiers of Dreams and Fears (2001), Masri portrays refugee camps through the eyes of Palestinian children, and explores how they use elements of both imagination and reality to construct their identity and a home for themselves in the diaspora. The search for identity and a sense of belonging also characterizes the work of Azza El-Hassan who, in documentaries such as News Time (2001) and 3 Cm Less (2003), finds original ways to deal with life under occupation.
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