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Arab Women Filmmakers On The Move: Films, Discourses, Supports, And Transnational Reception

Session V-07, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Arab women have been filming for over fifty years now and have accumulated a rich and diverse corpus in the Middle East, in North Africa, Europe and the New World. Over the years, their work has become increasingly transnational in the creative and technical teams the filmmakers have assembled, in their financing, in their narratives, in their format, and in their circulation. Women directors are often on the move literally (geographically) and figuratively (as they negotiate identities, politics, and the establishment). Similarly, discourses of and about their films often shifts from one location to the next. Finally, the support and form of film has changed drastically since the 2000s, affecting their productions in sometimes surprising ways. This session proposes to trace the various dynamics of Arab women’s filmmaking, of its visibility and of its critical and commercial reception from the 1970s to now. It further offers to follow women’s transnational cinematic currents across the borders of the Arab world and (re)draw a genealogy of women filmmakers (e.g., how did pioneers Heiny Srour, Farida Benlyazid or Selma Baccar influence the next generations of directors thematically, politically, aesthetically?).
Media Arts
  • In 1978, filmmakers Heiny Srour and Salma Baccar along with film critic Magda Wassaf published the a manifesto titled “For the Self Expression of the Arab Woman.” The manifesto appeared in the short-lived French-language publication CineArabe, a publication whose founders, Abdou Achouba and Khmeis Khayati, hoped would animate a regional movement for politically and/or artistically engaged cinema. The manifesto assumes that Arab women have a specific perspective that emerges from their gendered position in Arab societies, a position that also stymies their work in cinema. It then calls for the support material support of women filmmakers. “For the Self Expression of Arab Women” appears at an important turning point in Arab cinema history. By the late 1970s, the region had already experienced the euphoria and disappointments of what I term “development cinema,” that is, film movements explicitly tied to a post-Bandung enthusiasm for national development. Working creatively and interstitially, enthusiastic young filmmakers to emerge from Egypt’s Higher Cinema Institute, founded in 1959 and producing its first graduating class in 1959, and from film schools in both Eastern and Western Europe had produced a number of highly creative works, including militant films, experimental works, and observational documentaries and semi-documentary fictional films through which filmmakers discovered the diversity of their recently independent homelands. Filmmakers across the region had also already experienced crushing political disappointments, the stultifying effects of local bureaucracies, and a changing landscape for material support for cinema, all of which fundamentally affected their work. Arab women had participated (albeit in rather small numbers) in the development of Arab cinema (as directors, technicians, producers, and/or critics) throughout this period. “For the Self Expression of Arab Women” also appears at the cusp of what Egypt what critic Samir Farid defined as a new realism and the emergence of intensely personal works across the region. Just one year earlier Nabihah Lutfi and Assia Djebar had directed, respectively Because Roots Will Never Die and The Nouba of the Women of Mount Chenoua each of which explores revolution (Palestinian and Algerian) through the eyes of its women and thereby demonstrating the possibility of multiple perspectives within a militant movement. This paper situates the manifesto by Srour, Baccar, and Wassef within this film history, arguing for its embeddedness within both larger political and material developments in the region, as well as the trajectory of Arab women’s work within cinema of the previous decade.
  • The Man Who Sold His Skin (2021) by Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, looks at the transnational intersection or migration, art installation and cinema. The first Tunisian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, it offers a narrative steeped in the exploitative systems of late capitalism operating in the rarefied atmosphere of the global art world. Following a 15-year-long wave of documentaries, fiction films, or video installations on the topic, Ben Hania nonetheless flips the question of transnational visibility of the Maghrebi undocumented immigrants’ stories on multiple levels in a unique fashion by reversing representational codes and playing with notions of transnational and hyper visibility of transnational film in three distinct ways: 1) An undocumented immigrant is usually represented as leading an anonymous, clandestine existence. Here, Ben Hania films an itinerant art installation exhibiting a hyper-visible undocumented immigrant with the tattoo of a visa on his back. 2) In the age of post-cinema, Maghrebi filmmakers have occasionally found other outlets for their work, to make them visible to an international elite (e.g., Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project). Itineraries of anonymous migrants thus simultaneously appeared on museum screens and disappeared from neighborhood cinemas. 3) Maghrebi filmic narratives of undocumented migration into Europe, while highlighting social and economic inequities brought on by neoliberal policies, offer narratives that conform to European (mis)understanding of South-North migratory movements, by showing poor, uneducated protagonists in search of better lives. Ben Hania espouses a more authentic view of emigration as a desperate solution for a jobless, highly educated class. She makes visible the brain drain of the migrant’s country of origin. An analysis of this film as a transnational filmic exemplar of representation at the intersection of migration, art installation, cinema, and exploitation in the age of late capitalism further leads to questions of the future of transnational filmmaking and of the possible shifts in cinema audience(s), especially in a post-Covid 19 era.
  • Khadijeh Habashneh was deeply involved with the Palestinian revolutionary cinema from 1974-82 and has, since the 1980s’s been active on executive boards of organizations advocating for women’s presence and involvement in political and social life in Palestine and Jordan. She was also one of the few women filmmakers in the PCI, and her 1977 film, Atfal…Walakan (Children Without Childhood) about the organization Beit Atfal Al Sumoud created in Beirut to care for the children survivors of the Tel El-Zaatar massacre of 1976, is the only film of the two she made that remains. Khadijeh is well-known as the archivist of the Palestine Cinema Institute (PCI) and is currently working on restoring prints of the films that she has been able to locate from the dispersed body of the archive following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. She recently written her account of the people involved in the Palestinian revolutionary cinema, mostly associated with Fateh, in her book Fursan al Cinema (Knights of Cinema) (2019), the English translation of which will be published in 2022. There were some intersections if not direct collaborations between the PCI and other women filmmakers in Lebanon such as Nabeeha Lutfi, Joycelyne Saab, Mai Masri, and Randa Chahal Sabbagh, as evidenced in her book. This suggests the foundational role the Palestinian revolution played in furthering not only women’s participation in the struggle but also women’s work as intellectuals and filmmakers authoring and documenting new ways of perceiving the complicated political and social contexts of Lebanon during the civil war.