In its 14th round, the Between Women Filmmakers’ Caravan (BWFC, 4-13 November) was held online for the second year in a row. According to its founding director, filmmaker Amal Ramsis, despite the easing of Covid restrictions, “We felt that the virtual option provides an opportunity for films to reach a wider audience in the Arab world where they might never be screened in a theatre for all kinds of reasons, including censorship and cost.” Over 15 years despite limited resources BWFC has achieved both continuity and influence even as it insisted on its independence. “Cinema first and foremost is the choice that we bet on from the beginning,” she says, “and we have won the bet.” All participating filmmakers are always female.
This year the programme, providing for daily Q&A sessions online, included 14 films from 11 countries, seven having their Arab premiere, many of which have been selected by such festivals as Berlin, Venice, Leipzig, Montpellier, IDFA and Buenos Aires, in addition to the El Gouna and Cairo. They include A Dysfunctional Cat by Susan Gordanshekan, As Above, So Below by Sarah Francis, My Darling Supermarket by Tali Yankelevich, Babenco: Tell Me When I Die by Barbara Paz, Blue Eyes and Colorful My Dress by Polina Gumiela, A Home Of One’s Own by Ruba Attieh, Dad’s Leaving by Pauline Horovitz, In a Whisper by Heidi Hassan & Patricia Pérez Fernández, The Warden by Threes Anna, and Their Algeria by Lina Soualem. Each screening was available online for 48 hours. In addition, bringing the audience together with filmmakers and critics, there were fringe seminar and screening programmes.
One programme focused on the issue of informal vs formal film education, and was accompanied by five short films by female filmmakers from Egypt made in the first round of the BWFC creative documentary film workshop launched two years ago. One of the goals, Ramsis says, is to develop educational networks across the Arab world. This year BWFC also featured an online version of the Rough Cut workshop for Arab filmmakers (12-13 November). Another programme, “Mothers in Focus”, featured five short films: Like Mother Like Daughter by Neda Hegazi, Mama, I want to tell you Something by Eman Magdy, Flatmates by Rania Zahra, The Flower of Maryam by Hadeel Adel, and Masriya by Asmaa Gamal.
The selection process reflected BWFC’s modus operandi: “For 14 years we’ve developed a broad network of woman filmmakers from all over the world. We trust their nominations for new films. We also keep up with the big festivals: Venice, Berlin, Toronto... But our choice does not depend on a film’s selection or award – we are only interested in the quality of a film and what it offers in the way of subject matter and cinematic language.” One reason there are no Egyptian feature film on the programme is the presence of five short films by Egyptian directors, but that is not to overlook the dearth of good films being produced. “There is a real crisis in film production with filmmakers dependent on very limited Arab or foreign support governed by intense competition – it’s a huge challenge for Egyptian filmmakers, and the consequences can be felt whether in the quantity or quality of the films made each year.”
Until 2018, BWFC organised the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival, which was discontinued due to legal and red tape restrictions introduced that year, now replaced by workshops and screenings. “It did not suit us to continue at the expense of our independence, so the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival stopped, but the caravan continues with its programme of screenings in other countries such as Tunisia, Spain and Lebanon, and the internet has given us the opportunity to screen films here too.” This, in addition to training opportunities: “There are a lot of festivals compared to the limited opportunities to teach cinema in a professional and advanced way, so we felt we could direct our efforts to that.”
One such initiative was the creative documentary film workshop launched in 2019: “We saw the need for a workshop directed at those interested in creative documentary filmmaking, to be provided free of charge and last for about a year, which includes classes on directing, production, cinematography, and editing, based on practical exercises and continuous interaction with professionals from Egypt and abroad.” The participants are required to make a short film that serves as their graduation project and is produced with professional equipment under the supervision of trainers. “The workshop produces about 10 short films every year, the goal also being to train and qualify female filmmakers to make creative documentary films and find their voice, which in some ways helps to get production back on track.”
Ramsis is happy with the way BWFC has developed since its launch in 2008: “The idea was to bridge language differences and arrive at a shared culture and common economic, social and political realities through mobile film screenings of the work of female directors from the Arab world and Latin America, highlighting the reality of the region from their point of view. Over the course of 14 years, the dream grew and the experience evolved to include work by female directors from all over the world. The number of films has doubled, and screenings have moved across many capitals, including Cairo – when the Cairo International Women’s Film Festival was being held.”
But virtual screenings too are an attempt to transcend political borders to bring people together. “The continuity of the caravan and its activities for 14 years without the support of any official institution and its ability to gain the trust of a growing audience says a lot not just about our persistence but also about the nature of our selection of films and the quality of the topics we emphasise. We did not expect it to last all these years considering the difficult circumstances we have gone through. I believe that its longevity is an achievement in itself, there are huge festivals that disappear within four years despite their financial capabilities, while we were able, on our very limited resources, to arrange our priorities: to show genuinely good films for free, and to contribute to supporting the film industry by providing training opportunities for filmmakers.”
As for the future of BWFC, Ramsis hopes a day will come when it can reach the audience in every Arab country without restrictions, spreading into the remotest outposts, with theatre screenings. “My dream is that the caravan will reach everyone, giving everyone the right to see every kind of film, not just what distributors force on us.” At the personal level, Ramsis says she chose this line of work out of a passion for watching films, talking about them and sharing them with others, and this is a large part of her work in the caravan. It is also part of her work as a filmmaker: “Currently there is a problem with a lot of young filmmakers believing they can make films without seeing films, and my opinion is that 50 percent of my work as a director is to see a lot of films. I also like to share these films with others, which is what a film festival means. It is a space where one can defend different, non-mainstream films, mind-blowing films. This is the cinema I like to see and to make, and I want everyone to see it too.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly