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Female Arab Directors Are Breaking Out of Region

Film funds and fests help women put their dreams onscreen

Saudi Arabia, a country that still forbids its women citizens to drive, has submitted its first-ever feature film for Academy Award consideration: “Wadjda,” a critically acclaimed triumph from female Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour.

Pic, which follows a 10-year-old girl in Riyadh who dreams of owning a bicycle, is not just Saudi Arabia’s first stab at Oscar. It is the first full-length film ever made in the desert kingdom, which has no movie theaters and no production infrastructure to speak of. The movie’s success, says Al-Mansour, is a sign that Saudi Arabia’s mores are shifting.

“Saudi is such a closed place, and a lot of people don’t know much about it. And now it’s opening a bit,” she says.

The upward trajectory of female filmmakers in this region has been startling, with Middle Eastern women trouncing gender stereotypes and making films despite hurdles including minimal funding, poor education and heaps of homegrown skepticism. Several femme-helmed pics have become film festival darlings, and Al-Mansour’s Oscar hopeful follows those of Israel’s Rama Burstein and the Palestinian territories’ Annemarie Jacir, both of whom had their films selected to represent their countries at the 85th Academy Awards; Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki, whose “Where Do We Go Now?” was tapped for Lebanon the year before; and Afghanistan’s Sonia Nassery Cole, who helmed “The Black Tulip,” her nation’s submission for the 83rd Academy Awards.

And if you follow the money, success is undeniable: From the Sanad grant of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which offers half a million dollars’ worth of support to helmers from the Arab world, to the deep pockets of the Doha Film Institute, which has followed the lead of Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned to bolster the women directors of their region, femme helmers have more resources, and more friends in high places, than ever before.

Labaki, one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2008 and Lebanon’s most successful film director, says when you grow up in the Middle East and want to make movies, you are going to struggle regardless of gender.

“Lebanon is such a small country, with no film industry, that’s been at war for a very long time,” she says. “We grow up feeling that nothing great will ever happen to us because we are almost nonexistent compared to the other countries of the world.”

Labaki’s childhood, which coincided with the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, was marked by intermittent power outages and routinely canceled school days. She coped by hoarding videos and refusing to move from the TV whenever there was electricity.

Her first film, “Caramel,” in which she also starred, premiered at Cannes and was a commercial success, grossing $14 million worldwide.

The experience, she says, has inspired other young Lebanese to follow suit. “I became an emblem for the country and the young people who dream of making films,” she says. “It showed that other success stories could happen.”

Motivation is on the rise among Middle Eastern women, says Labaki, because they have realized that not only can they make films, but they can make a difference in the process.

“Films coming from women in the Middle East are not just stories,” she says. “It’s also their cry for help.”

And for Al-Mansour, female filmmakers are also building connections in a region that is known to many only by its borders. Among the women directors she admires, she says, is Burstein — an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Israel, a country with which Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations.

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