Dubai International Film Festival empowers female directors in the Middle East

Director Leyla Bouzid and star Baya Medhaffer receive the Muhr Feature Best Fiction award for their film As I Open My Eyes at the 2015 Dubai International Film Festival

While the region around it has descended in political chaos and religious strife, Dubai continues to flourish and prosper, becoming an oasis of harmony and progress, where the natives constitute less than 12% of its multinational inhabitants. Its international film festival (DIFF), which was launched 12 years ago, in order to enhance understanding and form a cultural bridge between East and West, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, has become a thriving hub for Arab and international cinema. This year’s edition, which opened with Golden Globe nominee Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” on December 9th and closed with Golden Globe nominee Adam Macky’s “The Big Short,” screened 134 films, out of which, over half are Arab. There is also a significant presence of female Arab directors, who are presenting 24 films in and out of competition.

“That’s nearly 30% of the total of Arab films, which is much more than the percentage -around 6%- of films made by women in Hollywood,” boasts DIFF’s Chairman Abdulhamid Juma, who is cognizant of the negative perception held in the West of Arab society and its treatment of women. “This is a build up of hundreds of years of politics and media. We don’t get insulted, instead we respond with the same medium, telling our stories in films that show ourselves as humans, like everybody else, who want to educate their children and live in peace. And hopefully when they see this information, they will change their attitude.”

Juma concedes though that the Arab society has too many problems of its own to deal with. “These are difficult times and the Arabs and Muslims need an internal dialogue. We have to be patient and do the right thing from the right angle, like promoting women directors, encourage younger generation to get into cinema,” he explains.

Indeed, nearly all the festival’s female-directed shorts and features have received support from  DIFF’s partner funds such as Abu Dhabi’s Sanad and Dubai’s Enjaz and ImageNation. These films include Palestinian Mai Masri’s “3000 Nights;” in which a Palestinian teacher tries to survive an Israeli women’s prison; Lebanese Danielle Arbid’s “Parisienne,” a coming of age tale of an Arab teenager in Paris; Tunisian Leyla Bouzid’s “As I Open My Eyes,” a story of a teenager who defies her parents in order to become a musician;  Lebanese Jihane Chouaib’s “Go Home,” in which a ballet dancer returns from Paris to her hometown in Lebanon and relives her traumatic past; Egyptian’s Hala Khalil’s “Nawara”, a heartbreaking tale of a poor maid hoping for a better life after the 2011 revolution; and Emirati Nahla Al Fahad’s “The Painted Veil,” a documentary about the source of the veil and its impact on Muslim women around the world.

All the aforementioned movies are anchored by female characters rebelling against conformity in their conservative society or against political and social constraints in order to fulfil their desires, ambitions and dreams. Drawing from real life events and defying societal taboos, these directors unravel the complexity of women’s daily existence and expose the challenges they face in all aspects of life.  Speaking to some of the hundreds of women attending the festival in different professional capacities, I’ve learned that the lives of  Arab women differ from one country to another.

Saudi Arabia actress/director, Ahd Kamel (Wajda, Rattle the Cage), for instance, was arrested and interrogated by the chastity police in her country simply because she was having a meeting in a public place with two male producers without the presence of a male relative, like brother or father. “We are ruled by ignorant fanatics,” exclaims Kamel, who is donning Jeans and T-shirt in liberal Dubai.

On the other hand, the director of the children film festival in Shariqa (an Emirati city near Dubai), Fatima Musharbak, who dressed in the traditional black robe with a scarf covering her hair, insists that she enjoys complete freedom in United Arab Emirates, expressing amazement at my suggestion that her dress evokes the thought of religious oppression. “This is our national traditional dress,” she smiles confidently. “Wearing it here, or anywhere else around the word, is my own choice.” Like young Musharbak, who travels the world, on her own, seeking films for her city’s festival, many women in Emirate hold powerful executive positions in private and public sectors. “We are not Saudi Arabia,” Fatima laughs. Actually, we would’ve both risked prosecution in Saudi Arabia for confabulating at 11pm at one of Dubai’s sprawling malls.

Yet, like the rest of the world, the movies receiving the loudest buzz at the festival are male-directed.  Those movies, supported also by Gulf funds, were Emirati Majid Al Nasri neo-noir thriller “Rattle the Cage,” about a man finding himself in police cage when he wakes up from his drunkenness; Ayman Jamal’s $30 million budget 3D animation “Bilal”, which is inspired by the real-life story of an African slave who was emancipated by prophet Muhammad and became an Islamic leader; and Golden Globe winner Hany Abu Assad’s from-rags-to-riches “Idol,” which is based on the life of the Palestinian wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, Mohammad Assaf, who won the popular Arab version of Pop Idol in 2013 and became a sensation in the Arab world.

Evidently there is an abundance of talent in the Middle East and North Africa and plenty of resources to support it, however, Arab directors  complain that their movies don’t reach their populations, due to the shrinking number, or sometimes the lack, of cinema theatres in their countries- except in the Gulf states, where cinema has in recent years witnessed a renaissance. Hence, without the support of the local market, many filmmakers feel that Arab cinema will remain stagnant. Juma, on the other hand, disagrees.

“I see this as an opportunity,” he beams. “It means that there’s a huge potential for growth. Bear in mind that most Arab countries are currently facing survival issues, which takes precedence over building movie theatres. But once they settle their problems, we will start seeing theatres, like China, where they are building 10 theatres a day.”

In the meantime, a solution to the Arab filmmaker’s predicament was offered by Netflix, whose chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, announced in a conversation via Skype from Los Angeles,  the expansion of his web streaming service in the Middle East, promising to acquire Arab titles and work with Arab directors on film and TV projects, about contemporary life in the Middle East. “Most depictions of life in the Middle East are either historical or almost caricatures of what life for Middle Easterners would be,” said Sarandos, whose team was on the ground at DIFF looking for movies to acquire and talent to collaborate with.

“Netflix is the new face of distribution in the Arab world, giving support and a platform to a lot of films,” Juma confirms. “But we are having other problems than distribution.”

Juma is fully aware that every time an Islamist terrorist commits a murder in the west, his years of hard labour and DIFF’s millions of dollars of investment in talent and films are wiped out instantly. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic, inviting western talent to experience Dubai -Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Deneuve, Terrence Howard and Michael B Jordan were among this year’s festival guests, and traveling the world spreading DIFF’s message of tolerance and understanding among people.