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Sisters Behind The Camera: Arab Women Directors At Arab Film Fest

Arab Women Coming Into Their Own As Film Directors

Painting as an act of resistance in

Credit: courtesy promotional still

Above: Painting as an act of resistance in "Mars at Sunrise"

The Arab Spring has been sending winds of change that have shaken the walls of governments and societies from Syria in the east to Morocco in the west since Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia set himself on fire to protest police corruption and mistreatment three years ago this December.

But political upheaval isn’t the only change sweeping the region. Cinema production is also undergoing a significant shift as both events and evolving social mores help place more and more women in the director’s chair.

“I believe most new filmmakers in the Arab world are women,” said Jessica Habie, director of the award-winning narrative feature, “Mars at Sunrise.”

Habie shares the bill this weekend at the San Diego Arab Film Festival with Sara Ishaq, director of the documentary short, “Karama Has No Walls,” currently short-listed for the Oscar short documentary category.

Habie will be doing a q and a session after her screening

As little as 10 years ago, female feature directors from the Arab World would have made up a handful of those directing feature films. With production money difficult to secure and social restrictions on female visibility and interactions in public in place in many Arab countries, only a few made it to the big screen. Filmmakers such as Mouflida Tlatli of Tunisia (“The Silences of the Palace”), Mai Masri of Palestine (“Beirut Diaries”) and more recently, Annemarie Jacir of Palestine (“When I Saw You”) and Nadine Labaki of Lebanon (“Where do We Go Now?”), come to mind.

But peruse the list of films in festival line-ups from Doha to Denver and you will see Arab female directors are sitting firmly behind the camera.

Part of this may be, said Ishaq, that the Arab Spring has created a turmoil that has also ushered in a shift in social practices in which people have become more open and more able to deal with women in creative roles such as film and video directors.

Directors like Habie and Ishaq represent a new wave of dynamic Arab filmmaking that is not afraid to take on either social issues or to bear witness to the conflicts roiling the region today.

Habie, of Jewish Arab ancestry, has been quietly making a name for herself in New York, documenting how creative acts can help break cycles of violence and become catalysts for social change.

“Mars at Sunrise” is her debut feature and tells the story of two artists, one Palestinian and one Israeli, who use their art to work through their shared conflict and to express their frustrations at the barriers the Israeli occupation puts in their way.

According to Habie, the story is built on interviews and interactions she had with artists and others on both sides of the Israel/Occupied Territories divide while working on other projects in the region.

“Some of the stories I heard were too provocative, too raw to put into a documentary but much of the dialog (in the film) is word for word,” she said.

While Habie wrote most of the film, some of the dialog, especially those in the interrogation scenes, are inspired by the experiences of renowned Palestinian artist, Hani Zurob, (played by Ali Suliman of "Paradise Now") now living in exile in Paris.

Habie worked mainly in Nazareth, and partially over the border in Ramallah and Jenin, with a mixed (Israeli/Palestinian) crew and cast. Not every shoot went smoothly, although having an American passport allowed her to move more easily around Nazareth. Often, issues such as identity controls and other problems which affected her Arab actors/crew were heartbreaking, said Habie.

Much of her Arab crew, especially those in Ramallah had worked with the well-known Palestinian director, Elia Suleiman (“Divine Intervention”) and many of her actors are part of the Palestinian theater community of northern Israel. A friend of the well-known Freedom Theatre, founded in Jenin by Israeli activist Arna Mer Khamis and her son Juliano Mer Khamis, a Palestinian-Israeli actor, Habie would have loved to work with this group as well, she said, but the daily issues with borders crossings and searches at checkpoints for Palestinians in the Occupied territories wanting to cross into Israel precluded it. Instead, says Habie, the film is dedicated to Juliano Mer Khamis who was assassinated in front of his theater in 2011.

Habie said she found making the switch from documentary to fiction profoundly inspiring and discovered collaborating with artists and actors on a fiction film to be deeply satisfying.

“It’s amazing how art can be used to break the cycle of violence and create social change,” she said.

For Habie, shooting “Mars” brought her further understanding of her Jewish Arab heritage and insight into how dual cultural identities can be both liberating and creatively energizing.

In addition, according to Habie, directing as a woman in the region “was phenomenal!” She also credits her female cast members, especially Haale Gafori (playing Azzadeh) with helping her bring a sense of authenticity to a deep and intimate witnessing of a complicated and nuanced region.

On the other end of the spectrum lies the documentary short, “Karama Has No Walls,” by Sara Ishaq, currently up for Oscar consideration. Ishaq spoke to KPBS by skype from Cairo where she is making the film festival rounds with her new film, “The Mulberry House.”

Few films have ever been released by Yemen and Ishaq’s film is causing quite a stir both for its subject and for its maker. Daughter of a British mother and a Yemeni father, Ishaq came home to Yemen in Spring 2011, from doing a Masters in film directing at the University of Edinburgh, and ran smack into the Arab Spring in full force in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen.

“ It was a coincidence,” she said. “And I had friends there in the square, and the solidarity was unprecedented.”

In March 18, 2011, a Friday- the day protestors generally take to the streets in many Arab countries after mid-day prayers -thousands of Yemenis peacefully put down their arms and their tribal affiliations to demand a change in the 33 year old autocratic government of Ali Abdullah Saleh. For their pains, they were fired on by government troops.

According to Ishaq, 53 people died and hundreds were severely injured on what has been dubbed “The Day of Dignity (Karama).”

“It was a profound shock to everyone, no one wanted to believe that Saleh had done this, and in fact, it was others manipulating the situation from behind the scenes.” Ishaq said from Cairo.

Ishaq worked feverishly over several weeks to document the massacre and its aftermath, interviewing witnesses, victims and their families.

“I never felt unsafe in the square,” she said, adding that people, especially men, were very supportive of her efforts to cover an unprecedented event in Yemeni history.

Like Habie, she found her dual heritage to be an advantage. "I understood (while shooting) that it gave me perspective and that I had a role in bridging the gap between East and West in documenting this."

Initially, said Ishaq, she tried to edit in Yemen, but with the issues with the electricity, editing went slowly. “We could only edit in sessions of about 15 minutes.”

In addition, Ishaq had to conform six cameras worth of footage, making sure the shots from each camera were similar in color and lighting.

Eventually, Ishaq returned to Britain where she finished editing at her school and found a co-producer, Hot Spot Films, willing to take on finishing the project.

At the beginning of the project, Ishaq said, her family wasn’t quite sure what to make of her, a modernized woman coming home with foreign training and an unusual career.

“At first they wanted me to stay inside, to stay safe,” said Ishaq, adding that her family had some trouble getting used to her as a woman behind the camera.

But the Arab Spring has changed a lot socially for the moment, she said. “There would be a sea of women protesting and men would form a ring around the protests to protect them. People, including women, are speaking out more, they refuse to be silenced.”

For Ishaq, initially a one woman band on the project, the response to “Karama” has been a bit overwhelming.

“My family loves it,” she said, and the film has been hailed as an important documentation of an event whose history the Yemeni government is trying to rewrite.

But for a modest filmmaker of what she calls a “modest film,” perhaps the most surprising thing was the notification of the Oscar nomination.

“ I sort of ignored their message for two months because I thought it was a scam.

“It was only when a film festival called to talk to her about it that she realized it was the real thing.

“In Yemen, it was a big deal,” Ishaq recalled. “and then my family wanted me to stay inside because they were afraid I might get kidnapped!” Even the government, who had sent the army to massacre the people, congratulated her on State television.

“One friend of mine said, “who would have expected (Yemeni) State TV and newspapers to broadcast this!”

Ishaq said she is humbled by the response to “Karama,” which has shown in numerous festivals and garnered high praise as it winds its way through the international festival circuit.

“It’s a modest film shot very quickly, done with modest equipment on a modest budget.”

Nonetheless, it has already affected change. For example, Ishaq has donated three showings worth of proceeds to one of the young boys blinded in the March 18 attack to help him get the care he needs and to help his family.

Ishaq has already finished another feature and is planning to return to Yemen to help grow its film industry.

The Arab Spring, she noted, has thrown open some doors long closed.

“It’s propelled people to talk, to go places. Some of the finest minds of Yemen are beginning to emerge.”

And Ishaq and Habie hope to join them and continue to document Middle Eastern society as part of the growing number of Arab women taking command of the director’s chair.

For screening times and information, please visit the San Diego Arab Film Festival.


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