Arab women represent part of the critical mass of femme helmers in Venice this year. Tunisian Hinde Boujemaa’s docu, “It Was Better Tomorrow,” scores a special event platform. Two pics compete in Horizons: “Wadjda,” a coming-of-ager from Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female feature director; and Algerian helmer Djamila Sahraoui’s “Yema,” the tale of a mother (Sahraoui) mourning the death of her soldier son who was probably killed by his Islamist brother.

“The Inheritance,” the directing debut of Palestinian thesp Hiam Abbas, screens in Venice Days.

Venice topper Alberto Barbera says, “One interesting phenomenon concerning the changes occurring in Arab cinema is the unexpected role played by the new generation of Arab women directors. Because the female works are sometimes more courageous and innovative, capable of dealing with sensitive issues like terrorism in Algeria or the female condition in Saudi Arabia, they are surprising and full of promise for the future.”

The rise of a diverse generation of Arab filmmakers, women and men alike, comes about in part because of funding and training initiatives sponsored by festivals in the Middle East (particularly Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai), the U.S. (Sundance, Tribeca) and Europe (Berlin’s World Cinema Fund, Cannes’ Atelier, Torino’s FilmLab, Rome’s New Cinema Network) plus support from film commissions, film schools such as the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, and the Lebanon-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.

“I think they (the Gulf festivals) helped some films — those that took a lot of political as well as artistic risks — get made,” says Toronto fest programmer Rasha Salti.

Many of these films were well received by critics overseas and won fest accolades, from Annemarie Jacir’s “Salt of This Sea” (2008), which Kino Lorber released in the U.S., to Palestinian-American Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka,” which bowed to critical acclaim at Sundance in 2009 and won the Fipresci in Cannes among other kudos, and cumed $2.34 million worldwide, according to Rentrak.

So, what might audiences look forward to seeing in the near future? For starters, Lebanese-American Susan Youssef’s Gaza-set tragic romance “Habibi” is touring North America through the Global Film Initiative. And Youssef is now developing “Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf,” a coming-of-ager about a Muslim teen in Arkansas.

Jacir’s soph effort, “When I Saw You,” a 1960s-set dramedy about a boy who runs away from a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan, will world preem in Toronto.

Another eagerly anticipated second feature is “May in Summer” from Dabis. Now in post, the Amman-set romantic comedy follows the secrets, lies and loves of three Arab-American sisters and their strong-willed, single mother.

Further on the horizon, Palestinian Najwa Najjar (“Pomegranates and Myrrh”) is prepping “Eyes of a Thief,” a thriller based on a true story, while Lebanon’s Dima El-Horr (“Every Day Is a Holiday”) is readying romantic comedy “Ideal Love.”

Egypt, the Arab country with the largest and most developed film industry, will soon see three debuts by women from the independent sector.

Maggie Morgan is cutting “Asham,” six intertwining stories set against the backdrop of a restless Cairo before the recent revolution. Hala Lotfy is in post on “Coming Forth by Day,” a drama about a mother and daughter taking care of the family’s ailing patriarch. And Ayten Amin is prepping “69 Messaha Square,” which she describes as “a human comedy about facing death.”

Venice Daily Spotlight 2012: Arab Fest Preview / Arab Cinema
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