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In the Middle East, women directors unspool social commentary

The Monitor talks to three female filmmakers about the trials and triumphs of moviemaking in conservative societies.

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Mansour, one of 12 children, didn't intend to focus her filmmaking career on women's issues, but found the issues too important not to address. She began her filmmaking career making a seven-minute short, "Who?," in which a man disguised as a women – i.e., dressed in a traditional black, full-body covering called the abaya – stalks women and enters their homes. The film explores the theme of hiding behind disguises, says Mansour. Shot with a hand-held camera, the film was released in Turkey and could be seen in Saudi Arabia only on pirated DVDs. Many perceived it as an anti-abaya message.

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A few years later, the documentary "Women Without Shadows" – winner of the Golden Dagger for best documentary at the Muscat film festival in Oman – wondered whether it is necessary for women to cover their faces in public in order to comply with Islamic teachings.

"I get hate e-mails," says Mansour. "People say I am not religious. That I don't respect my own culture. It's not true. I don't want to corrupt my viewers, but there are certain situations in Saudi Arabia that merit people talking about them."

Mansour's fountain of strength, she says, is her family. Her father, famous Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, brought home films for his kids to watch on video. He encouraged his daughters to study – Mansour studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo – and didn't force them to wear the veil or rush into marriage. He was very open-minded, she says.

She hopes that viewers will bring that same quality to her work. Anyone who loves Saudi Arabia, she concludes, "needs to be critical. It can only make us better."

Ibtisam Maraana

Ibtisam Maraana was 19 when she went to see a movie for the first time. She recalls the occasion, right down to the hour, vividly. Venturing outside the Arab village of Paradise, too small to merit its own movie house, she went to a nearby Jewish town to take in a 5 p.m. showing of the Coen Brothers' "The Big Lebowski." Maraana loved it.

A decade on, she's funneled a rebellious streak into a career as an accomplished director who examines cultural mores in a fresh light.

Her 2005 film "Badal," which won the best short documentary award at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, looks at the local tradition of a package-deal arranged marriage in which a brother-sister duo from one family are married off to a duo from another family. "By coupling a girl with her more attractive brother, a family could thus ensure she found a mate," explains Maraana, who herself was considered an unattractive marriage candidate because of her "advancing" age, a scar on her hand, and beyond all, her independent streak.

The daughter of a maid who cleaned houses in a Jewish town, Maraana recalls spending that time looking "at bikes I was not allowed to ride at home in the village because I was a girl." She resented those wealthier houses and their owners but she also got a glimpse of a certain social and cultural openness that intrigued her.

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