“I don’t call them challenges, I call them a part of life that makes us stronger,” Egyptian producer Shahinaz Elakkad says about the obstacles faced in succeeding as a female producer in the Arab world.
Elakkad’s positive attitude speaks volumes about what it takes to succeed as a female producer operating in a region where women’s equality is behind that found in the West.
It’s no wonder her films have featured at a slew of top festivals, including “Feathers” by Omar El Zohairy, which has won multiple awards, including the Grand Prize of Cannes Critics’ Week and the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes.
Elakkad was one of four female producers invited to speak on Thursday at the Cairo Film Festival’s “It’s a Woman’s World! A Panel With Trailblazing Women Producers From the Arab World.” The region’s only A-list festival wrapped Sunday in the Egyptian capital.
In an interview with Variety, Elakkad and her fellow panelist Rula Nasser from Jordan addressed past experiences and talked about upcoming projects, and breaking through the celluloid ceiling.
Elakkad’s recent production credits include “Daughters of Abdul-Rahman,” which played in competition at the Cairo Film Festival. Directed by Zaid Abuhamdan, the film is about women making difficult choices in a patriarchal society. Following its Cairo slot, the film plays in Red Sea’s Arab Spectacular section this week. The section is aimed at female Saudi audiences.
A slew of other films made with the participation of her Lagoonie Film Production company have also had recent success on the festival circuit.
Her co-production “Huda’s Salon,” by Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, opens Red Sea’s main competition section on Tuesday. The Bethlehem-set film is about two women fighting for their freedom. Looking for a haircut, one is betrayed at a local salon and shopped to the opposition.
Elakkad produced the Egyptian ensemble feature “Bara El Manhag,” which closes Red Sea. The story follows a 13-year-old orphan who confronts his fear of haunted houses by entering one near his school.
She was also a co-producer on buzz title “Amira” by Mohamad Diab, which played in Venice. The film tells the story of a 17-year-old who goes in search of her real father, after believing she was conceived by sperm donated by an imprisoned man she assumed was her dad. “Amira” is Jordan’s selection for the Oscars, this year.
Elakkad is now working on a number of upcoming films with both established and first-time directors. This includes an adaptation of a best-selling Egyptian book by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who was “known as the best writer about women’s feelings,” she says. Hadi El Bagoury (“Full Moon”) is directing.
Her other upcoming projects include a feature with actress and director Sarah Noah (“Apple of My Eyes”), which is about three women, and is being written by Ingy El Kassem (‘Eugenie Nights’), she says. It is in development, and is not yet cast. “The three stars are middle-aged wives and mothers. We will take it from the perspective of being a woman, and what she needs, not just having all of the responsibilities on her head,” she says.
In development, a project by new director Mavie Maher, “Fragile,” tells the story of an Egyptian wife in an abusive marriage. She wants a divorce, but her Islamic conservative parents side against her with her husband who prevents her from keeping their 6-year-old-daughter.
“’Fragile’ is about a young lady coming from a conservative society who decides on behalf of her little girl not to be in the same restrictive loop as she is so she fights,” says Elakkad.
Meanwhile, Nasser is now preparing to shoot a long-gestating feature film with debut director/writer Amjad Al Rasheed. “It’s a Boy” has been in the works for the past few years.
“We have been trying to develop this story for a while because it’s delicate how much you need to protect your female protagonist to make the story work for the audience. The story can collapse if the audience doesn’t sympathize with her story,” she says.
The film has received support from Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, she says. It will star Mouna Hawa (“In Between”). The film is being prepared to shoot in Jordan at the end of January.
“It’s a project that discusses one of the major women’s issues, which is the right of inheritance. It is told through the journey of Nawal who loses her husband and figures that she will lose her house, as she does not have a son, which is the Sharia law for inheritance,” she says.
She is also working on several other projects. “I am known as a line producer, so my hands are in so many projects in the Arab world, but also I have my own projects,” she says. “If you start producing, you cannot live in peace again without it. It’s an addiction supplying a constant adrenaline rush.”
She shot two films this year. The first film is by the Iranian director Ali Abbasi, and is co-produced by Jacob Jarek of Profile Pictures and Sol Bondy of One Two Films in Berlin.
The second film “Rebel” by Adel Al Arabi and Bilal Fallah is “an immensely powerful and nuanced portrayal of a family torn apart over a little Muslim boy’s future,” she adds.
She’s the Jordan partner on both. All projects are in posts and aiming for upcoming festival slots.
Her other recent films include “The Alleys” by Bassel Ghandour, which premiered in Locarno, and was screened in Rotterdam, and many other festivals. The regional premiere will be at the Red Sea Film Festival this week.
She is also a co-producer on “Amira.”
“We ended this year with a shoot for Channel 4 with ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins,’ a factual reality show that will be aired on BBC and also Amazon Prime,” she says.
As for being a female producer in the region Nasser says: “I don’t think we have a challenge being a woman in the film industry. Our challenge is how to make films, and it is more challenging when the films involve taboos, and part of our big taboos is women’s stories.”
She adds: “Our main challenge is how to tell stories as women, that project our small details, and I feel part of it is to find the women’s voices away from the big stereotypical women’s issue that everyone is expecting to see on the big screen.”
Elakkad discovered filmmaking whilst working in the tourism industry in Egypt.
“After studying, I worked with my father. Then I started working in tourism at 28. I really loved what I was doing, until I decided to make a film. Like everything in my life, I took it very seriously. But when I started to study filmmaking, and with the first story I decided to film, it was like finding the love of my life. I still enjoy every part and every moment of this job,” she says.
She had some strong women that came before her to look up to, including the Egyptian actress and producer Assia Dagher (1901-1986). “The first Arab female producer was Egyptian,” she says. “Egyptian cinema was more daring about discussing women’s issues. Our cinema tradition is more than 125-years-old.”
Adds Elakkad: “I’ve been inspired by the people who couldn’t make it to the end more than people who actually succeed, people who couldn’t continue because of the stress that comes with the job. There are a lot of things I’m proud of, especially ‘Feathers’ because it got an award for my country, a very big one. I’m not so much trailblazing as doing something I love,” she says.