Women on the verge

Distaff Arab helmers probe modern life in challenging pix

A wife struggles to declare the death of her long disappeared husband. A little girl suffers abandonment by her idol. A young woman endeavors to tap sexual desire through art.

In the last few years, the aesthetically challenging and often politically controversial films of Joana Hadjithomas (“A Perfect Day,” with Khalil Joreige), Danielle Arbid (“In the Battlefields”) and Jocelyne Saab (“Dunia”) have thrown women’s issues and the difficulties affecting women’s lives onto screens throughout the Arab world and beyond.

Their work — along with films by Inas al-Degheidy (whose “Mothakerat Morahkah” is considered one of the most controversial Egyptian films ever made), Tunisian Raja Amari (“Satin Rouge”) and Algerian Yamina Bachir-Chouikh (“Rachida”) — effectively shreds well-established Western stereotypes about Middle Eastern women being denied the capacity to express themselves.

At the same time, these filmmakers never seem to shy away from tough social realities, from female circumcision to the expectations of a woman to be dutiful in the prescribed roles of wife and mother.

It is telling that these filmmakers were all born in an era after the region’s many battles for post-colonial independence, and have come of age at a time when nationalist movements no longer entice directors to create art in the service of the state.

The emergence of female filmmakers in the Arab world certainly illustrates the effects of globalization, as many of these productions are funded by European money. But it also reveals a desire to tackle politics through art from a position of resolute independence. And as opposed to other regions, it illustrates how much women in the Middle East have accomplished in a single generation.

As director Philippe Aractingi, who, in making the feature film “Bosta,” has had his own recent trial by fire in dealing with the region’s infrastructure for cinema, points out: “It is tougher for women to make films in this region, and to do so they have to become more aggressive as people. It is a macho society. I have a partner who makes films and is a woman, and I can tell you it is harder for her to get people to answer the phone than it is for me. But women in the Middle East are much more interesting to hear. To me, women in the Middle East now are more interesting than men, who haven’t moved much.”

Yet, arguably, no filmmaker worth his or her salt would want to become known anywhere in the world for work that comes with a gender tag.

“I don’t have this feeling that I suffer as a filmmaker because I am a woman,” says Joana Hadjithomas. “The fight is to prove that I can do something else as a woman, other than be a mother. I’m not so into this idea of being a woman filmmaker making women’s films. There is still a lot to do … But the image is more important. We have to fight against this image.”

The idea of the image also informs Jocelyne Saab’s work.

To be a female filmmaker in the Arab world, she says, “has always been difficult, because there is something in the culture in which the image is forbidden … So when you change the image, suddenly people are shocked.”

For Danielle Arbid, the prospect of being a woman filmmaker offered a different, unique set of challenges. “Being a woman helps me a lot because you have the seduction thing and I use it a great deal,” she says, laughing.

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