One of three Arabic-language films in the Cairo Film Festival international competition, the feminist dramedy “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman” shows how many Jordanian women put the traditional expectations of their patriarchal society ahead of their own desires and the resulting collateral damage. After world premiering in Egypt, the debut feature of director-writer-producer Zaid Abu Hamdan will segue to the Red Sea Festival in Saudi Arabia.
The inspiration for the plot came from the multi-hyphenate’s own mother, as he realized that she had been unable to achieve her private aspirations. He says: “Having to be the perfect eldest sister, then a young wife living up to the social standards expected of her, then a mother to four boys, all that seemed to put her personal plans on hold.”
Eventually, Abu Hamdan sent out 300 surveys to Jordanian women of different religious, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. What came back was so unsettling that it caused him to re-evaluate the homeland he loved and took for granted. He says, “So many of the women fantasized about screaming their truth and shouting out their anger.”
Casting the four semi-estranged sisters of the title took longer than Abu Hamdan imagined. He wanted them to be credible as relatives and display familial chemistry.
First to sign was Jordan-born international star Saba Mubarak. She took on roles as executive producer and as Amaal, the most conservative of the sisters. Abu Hamdan recalls: “It was a tricky decision as I wrote Amaal to be an overweight ‘typical’ housewife and her face is almost fully covered in many scenes of the film. Saba has a beautiful figure and a very known face … she’s the sexy diva! After several discussions, something in my gut told me that her eyes alone are strong and expressive enough that she can give me that magic from behind the burqa, and so she did.”
As he was writing the script, Abu Hamdan kept thinking of Kuwait-born, Syria-trained actress Farah Bseiso as the eldest sibling Zainab. But as he geared up for production, he couldn’t locate her. He says: “She had quit her long and successful career and took off to the U.S. with her family.” In the meantime, he cast Palestinian citizen of Israel Hannan Hillo as the sexy sister Samah. He says, “She had a hippy vibe when I saw her audition tape, yet, she just had my character’s soul somewhere in there.”
After Hillo joined the cast, Abu Hamdan located Bseiso, but she had no plans to exit retirement. Nevertheless, she promised to read the script and send feedback. Abu Hamdan says: “Three days later, Farah sent an email saying that Zainab is the role that will be her comeback. I was over the moon! This email is printed on A3 paper above my desk.”
Finding the youngest daughter, Khitam, marked the last piece of the puzzle. After watching an audition from Mariam Basha, known for the Oscar-nominated Palestinian short “The Present,” Abu Hamdan knew, “Bingo! I have the daughters of Abdul-Rahman.”
Abu Hamdan’s directing career includes short films, episodes of “Sesame Street,” sport shows and other forms of content, but he is content with his current niche. He says, “My latest work was MAC Cosmetic’s Ramadan miniseries “Qata’ef,” featured in Vogue Arabia, which starred five beautiful women. What I realized is that empowered female characters with a distinct point of view excite me, and working with actresses [is] a challenge that I adore.” His next feature film, now in development, also centers around a woman, but of a very different type.