Q&A: Syria’s Gaya Jiji, Winner of Cannes/Kering’s Women in Motion Award, On Challenges Faced by Female Directors in Syria

Leyla Bouzid Gaya Jiji Ida Panahandeh
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

PARIS — One of Syria’s rare women directors, Gaya Jiji has fled her war-torn homeland to live in Paris where she is developing her anticipated feature debut, “My Favorite Fabric” — a depiction of female sexuality in Syria which will likely spark waves across the Arab world. A sign of her up-and-coming status, Jiji (pictured above, in the middle) has just won the Women in Motion Young Talent Award along with Leyla Bouzid and Ida Panahandeh. While the prize is not part of the official selection, it was given by Cannes Film Festival’s artistic director Thierry Fremaux and president Pierre Lescure, as well as Francois-Henri Pinault’s Kering, the initiative’s main backer and one of the fest’s partners.  Jiji spoke to Variety about the status of women in front of and behind the camera in Syria and the rest of the Arab world, as well as the challenges she’s facing to make “My Favorite Fabric.”

What impact do you expect this Women in Motion Young Talent Award prize will have on your career as a director?

Making a first film is always a very long process and a crucial milestone in the career of a director. You always need others to believe in your project. This prize underlines the trust that two great actresses [this year’s Women in Motion honorees, Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon] put in me. It’s a big encouragement for me; it keeps me going in this fight.

For about two years, there’s been a wide-ranging conversation going on about the role of women in cinema. Have you observed or experienced a change?

For me personally, there’s a shift in the role of women in cinema that we cannot deny. Women are more present at festivals, they make more movies, but this change is happening very slowly.

For example, very few women get to direct high-budget films. We need people to trust us, to believe that we can make movies about anything and deal with sensitive and delicate subject matters. The role of women in world cinema is still very limited compared to men. Of course, we also have to fight to get there.

What’s the biggest challenge for women film directors in Syria?

First of all, filmmaking in Syria is entirely dependent on the state so there’s a lot of censorship. Films usually go around a very limited number of festivals, without being released in theaters and without getting the opportunity of traveling extensively.

The difficulty for women is especially hard, because it is a very patriarchal society. People always doubt our abilities, even our colleagues who work in artistic fields.

How do you think women are perceived through the films made in Syria?

In my country, men almost always direct films, especially fiction. In fact, I can’t recall a fiction film directed by a woman. So we’re always perceived and presented by men. Women are usually victims in Syrian films, incapable of having a say in their future, and they usually exist through male characters only. Female characters in Syrian films [in the few films that are made] lack complexity. There’s a real need for women directors to talk about female characters in my country with a perspective and focus that men don’t have.

What challenges are your facing to make your film, “My Favorite Fabric”?

For me, being in France was a necessity because it’s one of the only countries that supports movies so much, including first features made by directors and foreign films as well. I’m working with good producers who have a lot of confidence in this project.

Then, the number of projects is always greater than the number of subsidies, which makes financial development long and difficult.

The real difficulty for my film, though, is that it won’t be shot in Syria because of what’s happening there. So we have to find alternatives that don’t affect the authenticity of the film, and find Syrian actors from all over the world.

When do you plan on shooting it?

It’s in pre-production, and I hope to shoot it next November.