Saudi Entrepreneur Hani Farsi Opens Door for Arab Women Filmmakers

While studies show that prospects for women directors are stunted in Hollywood, a program backed by a Saudi entrepreneur will create opportunities in the U.S. for Arab female filmmakers. In fact, according to the news from Cannes last week, Arab women are increasingly stepping out on the global stage in the business of moviemaking.

On May 19, Saudi philanthropist and film producer Hani Farsi announced a partnership with UCLA to fund a program that will offer three full four-year scholarships to Arab women, through the school of Theater, Film and Television, to earn graduate degrees in directing.

“I think we can bring about social change through this,” Farsi said at Cannes where, as co-owner of French distribution and sales company Le Pacte, he had eight films for sale this year, including Nanni Moretti’s “My Mother.”

Since 2007, Farsi also has been producing and distributing movies with Arab and Muslim themes via his Corniche Pictures. The shingle financed Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s “The Time That Remains” and Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist.”

Farsi compared the conditions for cultural renaissance in the Middle East to those in the America of the 1960s. “The ’60s (were) an amazing time for music and film in the U.S. because you had all these social changes taking place,” he said. “In the Arab world, we had political upheavals a few years ago. We’ve had a lot of changes.”

In fact, the recent rise on the festival circuit of a crop of acclaimed Arab women directors — such as Haifaa al-Mansour, whose “Wadjda” is Saudi Arabia’s first feature film; Palestinian auteur and poet Annemarie Jacir (“Salt of this Sea,” “When I Saw You”); and Lebanese director and actress Nadine Labaki (“Caramel”) — stands as testimony to how Arab women are grinding down gender stereotypes and transcending cultural taboos.

Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis, whose “Amreeka” and “May in the Summer” went to Sundance, noted that the UCLA program could help bring more Arab female voices to Los Angeles, where she’s met with her share of rejection.

“It’s challenging opening those doors,” Dabis said. “Making the leap from an independent international filmmaker to a commercial director is hard enough; but add female filmmaker to that — and then add Arab female filmmaker — and it becomes infinitely more challenging.”

Farsi (who has been Mel Brooks’ producing partner on both his one-man show and his upcoming theatrical reimagining of “Young Frankenstein” in London) says discrimination is one reason Arab women filmmakers have been rising up. “They face a lot of incredibly tough (situations),” he said. “So what do you turn to? You turn to art to get your point across.”

As if to illustrate Farsi’s point, Cannes saw the launch of two production companies run by Arab women.

Film and television star Hend Sabry, known for her taboo-breaking and prize-winning role as an HIV-positive woman in Amr Salama’s 2011 film “Asmaa,” used the festival to announce the bow of Salam Prods.

And Aya Al-Blouchi, a 28-year-old entrepreneur based in Doha and Beirut, unveiled a new Beirut-based shingle, Seat 26, which is shepherding “Mafkoud,” a first feature by Lebanese director Bachir Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid’s short “Soldier 888,” about a military veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder who becomes a yoga instructor, screened in the Cannes Short Film Corner mart.

Al-Blouchi, who cut her teeth as a producer at the Doha Film Institute, where she still works in the youth program, is fully financing the low-budget “Mafkoud,” a drama about the past and the effects of memory, with supernatural elements. “Bachir was 21 when he gave me the script,” she said. “I read it, and I said, ‘We have to make this film.’  There are so many young untapped talents in the Arab world who have no prospects,” she added. “I want to give some of them a chance.”

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