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More Arab Women Directors Finding Their Voices Through Film

While Hollywood continues to be a boys’ club where only 4% of filmmakers are female, according to research by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, women in the Arab world are getting more opportunities to sit in the director’s chair.

According to a recent study commissioned by the Doha Film Institute, Arabic independent films are twice as likely to be directed by a woman. In fact, 26% of independent film directors in the region are female, “much more than directors of studio films in the West,” it notes.

While they are making micro-budget auteur films, the women are persisting in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society, while grinding down gender stereotypes and transcending cultural taboos — even breaking into Hollywood.

“Women have been silenced in that part of the world for so long, that it’s amazing to have films in which you can see what they have to say,” says Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female filmmaker out of Saudi Arabia, speaking from Los Angeles where she is in post on her sophomore film, “A Storm in the Stars,” starring Elle Fanning.

Al-Mansour, who was one of Variety’s 10 Directors to Watch in 2012, was recruited by Hollywood producer Amy Baer to shoot the pic about the proto-feminist British writer. She points out that “independent cinema in the Arab world is almost invisible,” citing as evidence her first feature “Wadjda,” about a rebellious Saudi girl who wants to ride a bicycle in her country, where that is not allowed. That groundbreaking 2012 film “was released for two days in the region, and then gone.” Sony Pictures Classics released it successfully in the U.S. after a successful run on the festival circuit and it was Saudi Arabia’s first Oscar foreign-language film entry.

She also notes that in Egypt, from where most Arabic mainstream fare comes, there are very few female directors of commercial films and blasts the fact that Egyptian actresses “are not even paid half of what their male counterparts make.”

But it is true, she says, that, especially in the Gulf, where pressure on men to pursue careers in oil, engineering and high finance, “almost creates a stigma against being a film director” women are “finding that filmmaking is a place where their voice can be heard.”

Elsewhere in the region, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki has set records at her home box office, most recently with her dramedy “Where Do We Go Now?” about a group of Muslim and Christian women in a remote village who band together to stop their hotheaded husbands from starting another war. Labaki is also one of the few Arab directors who consistently sells tickets in the Middle East and the West.

Fatma Al Remaihi, who heads Doha Film Institute, the most important funding entity for auteur-driven Arab fare, considers the rise in female indie helmers “an overall effect of what’s happening in Arab society where women are being empowered more than ever.”

This is reflected in the number of DFI-supported feature film projects from women and also in their storylines. Take rookie Meriem Mesraoua’s project “The Other Wife,” about a 40-something wife and mother who “out of fear of being seen as expired goods” decides to find a second wife for her husband when he gets an urge to father another child. “It’s set in Algeria, but could take place anywhere where polygamy is allowed,” she says. Though at first the protagonist is convinced that this is the only solution to her situation, eventually her decision “leads to the realization that she can indeed stand on her own.”

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