Arab filmmakers battle obstacles and misconceptions

Samira Makhmalbaf recalls arriving in Afghanistan to start lensing “At Five in the Afternoon” shortly after the fall of the Taliban.

“I remember on the first day I saw women wearing the burqa,” says the 26-year-old Iranian filmmaker of the award-winning feature. “I wanted to find out what was under this burqa, and I discovered they had a lot of emotions, hopes and desires. They could really express themselves.”

Makhmalbaf, who picked up the Cannes Jury Prize in 2003 for her Afghan-set drama, is just one of a rising number of women helmers expressing themselves across the Middle East. What’s more, from Morocco to Iran, these gutsy women are smashing stereotypes of what it means to be a woman in the region, tackling controversial subjects and collecting kudos as they go along.

The likes of Randa Chahal, Jocelyne Saab, Niki Karimi, Joana Hadjithomas, Danielle Arbid, Leila Marrakchi and Ines Al-Degheidy, to name but a few, have in recent times successfully brought their visions to the bigscreen. Even Saudi Arabia, usually more renowned for the lack of rights afforded its women, can now boast of its own renowned female helmer in Haifa Mansour.

But while Western audiences and festival programmers view these cinematic voices as a breath of fresh air, the filmmakers’ own circumstances make it difficult to get the word out.

Take, for example, Lebanese helmer Saab, whose “Dunia” received its U.S. premiere at this year’s Sundance. Centering on a young woman in Cairo who yearns to become a professional dancer but is handicapped by a dark childhood secret, Saab’s controversial film was beset by problems throughout its production.

“Dunia’s” funder, ART, suddenly pulled its coin only 15 days before cameras were set to start rolling. Meanwhile, threats were made to leading lady Hanan Turk, who shocked the Egyptian establishment in June with her decision to don the Islamic headdress of the hijab, taken by many as a deliberate political statement of her renewed faith and going against the grain of her peers in the film community. What’s more, Saab lost three exec producers during the production.

So heavy was the toll on Saab she suffered a stroke shortly after completing the film. Not that any of that prevented her from finally claiming her own happy ending. “Dunia” has secured a release in Egypt, slated for this November, along with much of the Middle East.

“I think women directors dare more,” comments Saab, now recovered from her life-threatening stroke. “They tackle more delicate subjects. Women are the barometers of freedom in the Arab world. I always say you can work, but you have to fight hard.”

Not that her female peers had to fight as hard. Chahal is currently prepping her new project, “Too Bad for Them,” a musical comedy about soccer featuring the long-awaited bigscreen debut of Lebanese pop goddess Haifa Wehbe.

Chahal, whose “The Kite” took home the Silver Lion at Venice in 2002, relishes playing the devil’s advocate in combating perceptions about Middle Eastern restrictions on women filmmakers. “In my opinion, men and women are the same,” she says. “I don’t even consider myself a woman. I’m a human being.

“I actually think it’s easier to be a female director in the Middle East. I personally haven’t had a single problem in any Arab country. It was the opposite. There was complete respect and a willingness to cooperate and support me.”

Perhaps the most fascinating and surprising saga involves Mansour. Although cinemas are still officially banned in Saudi Arabia and the country offers no filmmaking infrastructure whatsoever, Mansour emerged in 2003 with the kingdom’s first-ever film, “No Other Way,” a seven-minute short about three Saudi friends.

Self-distributed by Mansour over the Internet, the film became a local sensation with people downloading it and forwarding it to friends and family. Since then, Mansour has served as executive producer and co-writer on the forthcoming “How Are Things,” the first full-length Saudi feature, and is busy finishing the script on her own untitled full-length directorial debut, set to start lensing by the end of the year.

“I don’t feel challenges because I’m a woman,” she says, “but more because I’m a filmmaker, simply because film as a concept has largely been absent from the Gulf. Being a woman helped me because I got a lot of attention. So it definitely pushed my career forward.”

While their films have fearlessly tackled some of the biggest issues facing society in the region, from fundamentalism and intolerance to, of course, the ongoing struggle for women’s rights, many of these helmers believe they have earned the right to be judged for their filmmaking, and not simply their gender.

“A film can be an agent for change, a way of communicating your message to people in different continents,” Mansour says. “But I really only make films because I love making films. I want society to change, and if I can bring change along with me, then great. But my biggest concern is to make the best film I can.”

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