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.

Frank Perry/afp/getty images
Haifaa Al-Mansour
courtesy of nmajd productions
Buthina Canaan Khoury
courtesy of neta lanzman/ibitsman maraana
Ibtisam Maraana

In the Middle East, women have a new voice: the movies. As nascent film industries bloom in the region, a few emerging women directors are probing some of the most delicate subjects within their male-dominated communities, giving viewers a glimpse into once-veiled worlds.

"Women realized that they were in double jeopardy – of having Westerners speak for them, and men speak for them.... so they got behind the cameras," says Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian commentator and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

The Monitor recently contacted three such filmmakers – Israeli Arab Ibtisam Maraana and Buthina Canaan Khoury of the Palestine Territories; and Haifaa Al-Mansour of Saudi Arabia – to talk about their hard-won successes.

In time, these directors may come to emulate the commercial fortunes of Nadine Labaki's "Caramel," a comedic social commentary set inside a Beirut beauty salon that became Lebanon's top-grossing film of 2007, or Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," the Oscar-nominated film based on her childhood in Iran. (Both films are in release in the US.) But the three directors are wary of being pigeon-holed, a notion voiced by Satrapi, who lives in France.

"I think I am interesting because I make good movies," says Satrapi in a phone interview. "Not because I represent anything."

Like Satrapi, these three bold directors have often been criticized but they each share Satrapi's ethos: "I was not surprised by the objections and I don't care," she says. "I fear nothing."

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, a country without any movie theaters, meant that when Haifaa Al-Mansour's family wanted an outing to the cinema, they'd have to drive to Bahrain.

"There is a debate nowadays in our local Shura council about opening a theater ... but it has not passed yet," sighs Mansour, speaking by phone from Australia, her new home with her husband, an American diplomat. "I make films for Saudis. I want to talk to them. Provoke them. Make them think about the issues. But it's hard when they cannot see my work."

In any case, Mansour's films wouldn't win the sort of accolades in Saudi Arabia that she has garnered at film festivals abroad. By peeking a camera lens behind the veil of Saudi Arabian life, she has ventured into unprecedented territory for a woman in a society where women are not allowed to vote, drive, study the same subjects men do, or take on the same jobs.

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.

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.

Later, Maraana studied media communication in Jerusalem but soon shifted her focus. "I realized there were so many stories no one was telling," she says.

One such story, chronicled in "Three Times Divorced," is often difficult to watch. It delves into divorce and child custody in the Arab world by following Khitam, a Palestinian woman from Gaza, who is beaten, divorced, and thrown out of her house by her Israeli Arab husband. Her efforts to gain custody of her six children, to fight the Islamic sharia courts, and to gain legal status in Israel, show the power of a determined woman against all odds.

"Courage is in my genes," says Maraana calmly, sipping tea in her apartment in Florentine, an artsy south Tel Aviv neighborhood. "Women typically appreciate my movies and want to have a forum for these important issues," she says. But men, especially, surprisingly, educated ones, feel threatened."

Maraana compares her filmmaking to going to war. Not surprisingly, she longs to write a feature. "In fiction you can create your own reality," she says. "I want to make movies about love, too. I don't always want to be fighting."

Buthina Canaan Khoury

Buthina Canaan Khoury, a Christian Palestinian filmmaker from the West Bank town of Taybeh, is used to pioneering unchartered territory. She was the first Palestinian camera woman and producer for the European Broadcasting Union inside the Palestinian Territories. Now the head of her own Majd Production Company, she has nothing less than a filmmaking agenda: to highlight key Palestinian issues.

Her latest film, "Maria's Grotto," which opened November in Ramallah, takes on the often taboo subject of honor killings. In it, Khoury looks at the aftermath of two honor killings and interviews two other women who survived brutal stabbings. "This movie is not meant to give a bad image to Palestinians," she stresses. "On the contrary, we criticize ourselves because we love our society and want to help it improve."

Khoury got her start in Boston by getting an MBA in photography and filmmaking. Her first splash as a filmmaker was 2004's "Women in Struggle," an account of four women who had spent years in Israeli jails.

The filmmaker is thrilled that more women are getting behind the camera.

"It's a domino effect, in which seeing one Arab woman making a film soon inspires and encourages others to follow suit," she says. "And the more we produce, the greater the interest – before we were seen as exotic, one-off phenomenons, but now we have a diversity of voices and we are being taken more seriously."

She wouldn't mind a turn at lighter fare, though. Khoury's next film will relay the story of her own family, which moved from Boston back home to Taybeh, in the West Bank, in 1994 after the Oslo Accords – in order to fulfill their father's dream of opening the first microbrewery in the Middle East. (Not easy in a region full of "dry" spots.)

"It's challenging to do women's issues all the time," concludes Khoury. "I would like to have a little fun."

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