Marwa Jbara Tibi is no stranger to working behind the camera. A Palestinian from the northern Israeli village of Taibeh, she spent 25 years as a video journalist and producer, linking up with crews from CNN, Al Jazeera and other major networks when they would come to Israel to cover the Middle East.
What she isn’t used to, she admits, is having the freedom to tell her own story. That came when she quit journalism, and decided to try her hand at documentary filmmaking. Now, there’s plenty of freedom, but hardly any cash.
Tibi is exactly the kind of filmmaker that Israel’s New Fund for Cinema and Television hopes to enable with its Greenhouse Women program. The project, launched in early 2014, brings together female Arab and Jewish filmmakers for a yearlong mentored crash course in pitching and peer-to-peer editing. The Greenhouse program plans to soon provide grants averaging about $2,500 to each filmmaker to help them make a completed trailer and a 15-20 minute sample of their projects. Greenhouse also works with the filmmakers to help them apply for coin from local film funds.
While an arm of the broader Greenhouse Program has been operating for eight years across the Middle East, with cooperation from film funds in Turkey, the Netherlands, France, the U.S., Spain and Morocco, the femme-centric Israeli project presents a deeply revealing look at the diversity that exists across the tiny nation. With 12 filmmakers participating, and representing a cross-section of religions and backgrounds, it offers a rare opportunity for Israel’s female citizens to connect not on religious or social grounds, but simply on the basis of their shared creative dreams.
“We are living in a place that is very political and very divided,” says Sigal Yehuda, managing director of both Greenhouse Middle East and North Africa, as well as Greenhouse Women. “You need a level of understanding between people. It’s not just (about) helping filmmakers to make extraordinary films, but also building this greenhouse, this place where you can have debates, where people can expose their inner worlds, all because you know that these documentary filmmakers are really bringing their own souls to what they are doing.”
The movies are frequently personal. For Esti Almo Wexler, an Ethiopian Israeli, her film “Looking for Tena” chronicles her family’s search for a long-lost relative who fled the family home in Ethiopia to live as a Muslim in Sudan. “I felt like I was a bridge,” Wexler says. “I am not only an outcast in Israeli society, but also in the Ethiopian community. I can show both sides of things they don’t see about each other, because there are things everybody is trying to hide, and here I am, just sitting in the middle.”
Moran Ifergan, a 32-year-old filmmaker who grew up ultra-Orthodox and is now secular, says she also inhabits a strange middle ground that has brought turbulence to her personal life, but depth and clarity to her filmmaking. Her film, “The Wall,” explores the spirituality surrounding Israel’s sacred Western Wall, known to many Jewish pilgrims as the Wailing Wall.
“When I was religious, the Western Wall was like a second home,” she says. “When I left religion, I also had to leave the Western Wall, so when I go there now, it’s like (two places). I can see myself in the religious women there, but it’s not me — it’s the woman I could have been.”
Tibi’s film, “Exile,” is the story of a women’s movement she and two other Palestinian women established that created unexpected relationships with Israeli authorities and Palestinian religious
leaders. Tibi says the program has helped her to find her voice after years of frustration in journalism. International news outlets would often ask her to supply B-roll, but would insist she present well-known tropes from the region, and skirt the more nuanced, honest images that might raise cause confusion for American viewers.
“They would tell me they needed a shot, but only with a woman in hijab. If there were women on the street without hijabs, they didn’t want them in the frame,” she says.
Yehuda says she has been impressed by the work of the filmmakers, but notes that their bravery in joining the program has made an even bigger impact on her.
“It takes so much courage to go to these places (that might threaten) your relationship with your husband, your family, everything around you — where (your life is) out there,” she says. “You don’t know where it’s going to lead you.”