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.
Lebanese cinema has also produced some notable female filmmakers: Jocelyne Saab started producing films in the early 1970s, around the same time as Lebanese-born Egyptian Nabiha Lotfy, and the work of both was profoundly affected by the Lebanese Civil War. At the time, Saab was covering conflicts in the Middle East as a reporter. Her later work evolved into a more personal style to include fiction, but affiliations with the Palestinian cause and the civil war in Lebanon remained constant in all her films, and she continued her sharp criticism of orientalist and colonialist discourses vis-à-vis women’s identity.
Joana Hadjithomas, who collaborates with Khalil Joreige, is one of the most creative and intriguing Lebanese filmmakers and artists. Offering a new perspective, Hadjithomas and Joreige masterfully portray the irreversible destruction brought about by war and explore the possibilities of reconstructing peace, as unmasked in their work on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Khiam 2000-2007 (2008), which is a collection of interviews with Lebanese soldiers detained in an Israeli detention camp in the city of Khiam. Comparably, Zeina Daccache’s visual tour de force 12 Angry Lebanese: The Documentary (2009) is an extraordinary test for our conscience. The documentary, which covers Daccache’s 15-month long drama project with inmates from Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison, challenges our prejudices regarding the most ostracized individuals, while portraying the inmates as those who retain their dignity and humanity.
Humanity and dignity are also key themes for Hala Alabdalla, who is one of the vanguards of the activist tradition in modern Syrian documentary filmmaking, itself pioneered by the legendary man of cinema Omar Amiralay. In her work she unearths the collective memory of the Syrian nation, most notably in the poetic I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave (2006), which deals with questions of freedom of expression, exile and death. Also from Syria, Diana El Jeiroudi, filmmaker and the co-founder (along with fellow filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia) of the prestigious DOX BOX documentary film festival in Damascus, fights against the commercial objectification of women: in Dolls (2006) she intricately connects the image of the famous veiled Arab Barbie doll Fulla, presented as a role model for Arab women, with an ordinary Syrian housewife and mother, who, caught between tradition and modernity, tries to assert her individuality in a male-dominated, highly conservative society.
Secularism, freedom of conscience and objectification of women have been central to many works by women filmmakers from the Maghreb including Nadia El Fani, who doesn’t shy away from touching on any taboo subject, be it atheism or sexuality in Islam. One of the first films to be completed in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, her controversial Laïcité, Inch’Allah! (2011) examines secularism and new forms of Islam vis-à-vis the latest political changes. The multifaceted political and social reality of the Maghreb is reflected in the works of several other filmmakers including Moroccan Leila Kilani and Algerian Habiba Djahnine. Similar to El Fani’s Children of Lenin (2007) – a documentary about her father who was a leading member of the Tunisian Communist Party – Kilani’s homage to her father, Our Forbidden Places (2008), depicts the victims of King Hassan II’s oppressive regime. Similarly, Habiba Djahnine portrays the escalation of violence in Algeria in her Letter to My Sister (2006) through the tragic death of her sister, a militant and feminist, who was assassinated in 1995. At a time when the Arab Spring has engulfed Yemen, the work of the country’s first and foremost female filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami is also worthy of note. In a country where film production is minimal, Al-Salami offers a rich case study of Yemeni identity and the tragedies that Yemeni women face today; in Amina (2006), she tells the story of a girl who was forcefully married at the age of 11 and was sentenced to death as she was found guilty of killing her husband at the age of 14; the story closely resembles that of the filmmaker as Al-Salami was also forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 11.
These names hardly do justice to the myriad inspiring voices and works of the Arab world’s women documentary filmmakers today. There are many more influential women filmmakers in the region, who deserve to be discovered. Still, even a small slice of the extensive body of work these filmmakers have created is proof that the documentary filmmaking tradition is alive and breathing within Arab society, fed by the unremitting need to understand and expose the complexities of life. It will continue to grow, further diversifying its many voices and taking on new forms no matter the changes and challenges that lie ahead.