Europe, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Arab Women Bring Spring to the Screen

Daan Bauwens

BERLIN, Mar 8 2012 (IPS) - Women have been at the forefront of each uprising in the Arab world. Last week, the ‘8 Arab Women Filmmakers’ festival offered a platform to Arab women directors to give their perspectives on the future of the region.

Nadia El Fani. Credit: Daan Bauwens/IPS.

Nadia El Fani. Credit: Daan Bauwens/IPS.

Eight films by eight Arab women directors were screened and discussed at the Berlin Akademie der Künste and Cervantes Institute Feb 29-Mar.6. Most of the films reflected the perspectives of women on the Arab Spring.

“The idea was born three years ago at a meeting between Latin American and Arab women filmmakers in Cairo,” Paola Rodriguez Sickert, an internationally renowned Chilean-German documentary filmmaker and one of the festival’s curators tells IPS. “At the meeting, I discovered a lot of similarities between the Latin American and Arab cultures. Since then, I wanted to organise an Arab women film festival in Europa, but after the Arab Spring the idea got a totally new dimension.”

“All the news we hear about Arab women comes to us through the media,” Chus Lopez Vidal, a Spanish- German video artist and the festival’s other curator, tells IPS. “Western reporting about Arab women makes us believe they are oppressed by men, and mostly the discussion draws down to one thing: the headscarf.

“We realised that this image doesn’t even come close to reality. Arab women are stronger and more powerful than we think, and they do take part in their societies. So we wanted to bring these women to Berlin, let them show their films and we asked the audience to do nothing but hear them out. We made a platform for these women to speak freely.”

At the festival, both short fiction films as long documentary films were shown. ‘Forbidden’ (2011) by co- curator Amal Ramsis describes the Egyptian people’s daily confrontations with numerous bans and regulations just before the uprising. It will be screened at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague later this month.

The semi-animated ‘Kingdom of Women’ (2010) by the Palestinian artist and activist Dahna Abourahme tells the story of how Palestinian women in the Lebanese refugee camp Ein el-Hilweh organised their lives in the midst of war.

One of the main features of the festival was ‘Ni Allah, ni Maître’ (Nor God, nor Master, 2011) by Franco- Tunisian documentary filmmaker Nadia El Fani, which was also screened at last year’s Cannes film festival. The film caused a hate campaign by Tunisian Islamists who won last October’s vote.

“I cannot return to my country, there currently are six indictments against me,” Nadia El Fani tells IPS, “all of them caused by this movie. The Islamists found the title of the movie insulting to God and to religion. When I declared on Tunisian television that I was an atheist, they accused me of inciting hatred against religion.”

In the film, El Fani has numerous discussions with people about laicism on the streets of Tunis during the beginning of the uprising. “I was heavily criticised at the time,” she tells IPS. “People told me: this is not the time to talk about laicism. Now the Islamists are demanding the Sharia to be the founding principle for the new Tunisian constitution. So I think I was right during the revolution to say: this is the time to speak about laicism. You cannot discuss, let alone talk about laicism on the day the Sharia becomes the new constitution.”

Even though she is now living in exile, El Fani remains optimistic: “This is the beginning and we are a minority, but one day we will win. It’s not because we’ve lost the battle today that you should stop fighting.”

In the short fiction film ‘A Game’ (2010), 26-year-old director Marwa Zein from Sudan takes a closer look at personal relationships in the Arab world. In the film, based on a short story by Italian writer Alberto Moravia, a divorced mother and daughter exchange roles for a brief moment.

“Being divorced is not accepted in the Arab world,” Marwa Zein says, “it is a curse, but at the same time divorce is getting more and more widespread in our region. So there’s a certain doubleness in our culture: everybody knows it, it happens everywhere but nobody talks about it and if you ignore the problem, it doesn’t exist. It works like this from East to West in Arab communities. People are having serious problems with it, but instead of trying to solve the problem, they hide it.

“As an effect we are having an unhealthy society,” Marwa Zein continues, “we are having a double life, a double character and it is psychologically exhausting. But the youth and the artists, the people who are leading the revolution and are trying to change our society, they are the people who are trying to be themselves. This revolution is not the end, it is only the beginning. It’s a long road to freedom and we have to walk it. It will help the whole of society to express itself in a free way.”

Other screened films were ‘Letter to my Sister’ (2006) by the Algerian documentary filmmaker Habiba Djahnine, ‘Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise’ (2010) by Syrian director Soudade Kaadan, ‘Lemon Flowers’ (2007) by Lebanese documentary filmmaker Pamela Ghanimeh, and ‘Shouting in the Dark’ (2010) by the American journalist for Al Jazeera May Ying Welsh.

During the six days the eight directors were staying in Berlin, curators and filmmakers Paola Rodriguez Sickert and Chus Lopez Vidal gathered footage of every interview, screening and public discussion, to make a new documentary which will soon be shown all over the world.

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