photo by: Elise Ortiou Campion
Sisters in Film (SIF), known in Arabic as rawiyat (the feminine term for “storytellers”), is a collective of nine emerging filmmakers from across the Arab world. Having struggled to make their debuts, these artists all found it even harder to make a second film, and decided to join forces to pool knowhow, facilitate their own artistic journeys and extend solidarity to other woman filmmakers. The Paris-based initiative will be launched during the upcoming, fourth round of El Gouna Film Festival (GFF, 23-31 October).
Naziha Arebi (Libya/UK), Yasmina Chouikh (Algeria), Danielle Davie (Lebanon), Myriam El Hage (Lebanon), Dorothée Myriam Kellou (Algeria/France), Dina Naser (Jordan), Erige Sehiri (Tunisia), Lina Soualem (Palestine/Algeria/France) and Kawthar Younis (Egypt) are proposing a kind of syndicate or union in which all Arab countries and diaspora Arabs can be represented. Enabling women to function in a safe environment that shields them from the fiercely competitive environment of the film industry, SIF is the first of its kind.
The story began in 2019 when the nine women met in Tunis and again in Rabat-Salé, Morocco for a workshop designed by the artistic director of Salé Film Festival Hicham Falah, part of the Med Films regional programme. As the SIF concept presentation puts it, this was when they realised how “many struggles we had in common: isolation, legal and financial challenges, social safety net, moral and sexual harassment, lack of psychological support, difficulty to access information. All of us felt a lack of a network and solidarity not only in the region but globally.”
Dina Naser is the Palestinian-Jordanian director of the award-winning Tiny Souls (2019), which follows the daily life of a little girl named Marwa at the refugee camp to which she flees Syria with her family, screened at the IDFA and GFF as well as many other prestigious festivals. For Naser the collective is a response to “the first-film trauma” suffered by Arab woman filmmakers, which resulted in many giving up their careers altogether.
“We work in a cruel, aggressive environment controlled by men and closed circles,” she says. “At least the nine of us can make nine films happen, and we can support others who are making their first or second film.” But she does not feel that the way to do this is to keep men out. “There will be collaboration with male filmmakers too. We want to break out of the stereotype imposed on us and the assumption that a female initiative is exclusive to women. Our aim is to create an alternative but inclusive atmosphere where there is room for everyone.”
SIF’s working plan is still being drafted but Naser stresses the censorial challenges specific to woman directors. “For example, as a Jordanian woman filmmaker I have to make all kinds of calculations before I can approach certain subjects. There are many taboo subjects in the Arab world and they are perceived differently when tackled by a woman. In the end we have to have what it takes not to lose our passion and this is just not easy.” That is not to mention the lack of specialist skills and financial support since art is seldom prioritised. “All of which impacts the industry. Filmmaking is a lifetime’s journey and we want to make it more pleasant by building an alternative space governed by solidarity and creativity, and making it available not only directors, producers, writers, but also to technicians in every field of filmmaking.”
The Egyptian Kawthar Younis made her debut, the feature-length documentary A Present from the Past (2016), during her third year at Cairo’s Higher Cinema Institute. But when it came to her second film it turned out the lack of a creative producer was her greatest challenge. “A filmmaker cannot make a film based solely on the way she conceives it. There has to be a producer to take ideas further through discussion. One reason our films are not appealing worldwide is that their creative potential isn’t explored.” The collective could play this role, however: as woman filmmakers they could bounce ideas off each other, aware of the challenges they face in terms of opportunities, space and the ability not just to reach a point but to maintain and build on achievements.
The Lebanese Myriam El Hage’s A time to Rest (2015) is a personal journey into the horrors of the civil war through the minds of her uncle Riad and his friends. “I personally joined SIF because it was so difficult to make my second film,” she says, “that I felt needed help. I needed people. I needed solidarity.” When a female filmmaker makes her second film in her thirties, she faces all the social pressures of starting a family, having kids, and embracing her passion at the same time. “It is very important to push women to continue, to make a second film. Because this is where we lose women in the film industry. We should stand by each other and not be part of the industry’s competitive game. If we lose our selfish spirit and start taking a helpful and supportive attitude instead, that is what it’s all about.”
“In our region,” says Danielle Davie, another Lebanese filmmaker, co-directed Embodied Chorus, which won GFF’s best project in development two years ago, “a female filmmaker’s biggest challenge is to be taken seriously. The film industry is dominated by men. Here in Lebanon, because we don’t have an industry, lots of women work in the media production field but not in filmmaking. There is a different attitude to women even in film schools, and it is not obvious but you can feel it. My challenge is to achieve equality and equity, and help make society ready to listen to women’s stories. Our stories don’t look at the world in the same way as men’s, and this is another challenge.” Joining SIF will help to overcome this through solidarity, networking and sharing experience. “Maybe one consequence will be changing the way films are funded and produced. For me it is a kind of movement.”
For her part Lina Soualem does not believe the initiative is there to change the industry but to empower female filmmakers within it. She is currently developing her second feature documentary after her debut, Their Algeria (2019), which won best doc-in-progress at Cannes’s Doc Corner and was selected to premiere at the Visions du Réel International Film Festival 2020.
“I don’t think we’re going to change the industry which is full of difficulties and competition,” Soualem says, “but we want to bring more solidarity and less competition to relations between filmmakers. Filmmaking is lonely business and if you’re a woman you face the obstacle of having to justify yourself, to prove yourself, because people will not trust you as easily with grants or backing. It is important to build a network where the more privileged female filmmakers whose films have already been made and screened at international film festivals can connect with more isolated filmmakers who don’t have the same opportunities in terms of travelling and connections.”
In the Arab world filmmaking presents psychological challenges, she says: “The topics tend to be heavy: political unrest, the trauma of war and colonisation. It is psychologically difficult to make a piece of art tackling social-political issues and to defend your vision and to find money in the West and in the Arab world and to present your project to people all at the same time,” and the kind of solidarity SIF provides allows “those who have more power and knowhow to share it with the others,” she explains.
The Algerian Dorothee Myriam Kellou, SIF president, made In Mansourah, you separated us (2019), which follows her journey with her father Malek back to Mansourah, the village where he was born, for the first time since the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Experiencing both worlds she understands Arab woman filmmakers’ difficulties. “We tackle issues that are not very well received in society. In my film I work on colonialism in France and it is still very much a silent topic for which it is hard to find funding and emotional support. When I started my project I was very lonely and felt extremely emotionally isolated. There is also a double pressure on female filmmakers as they should not be free to do what they want, where the balance between your family life, your personal life, and your work life becomes a major concern”.
As a woman travelling and working alone “you may face sexual harassment too”. You may be punished for not allowing yourself to be manipulated as a professional, or you may not be taken seriously. “When I was shooting in Algeria, they used to call me by the word tofla, which means ‘young woman’. I was also separated from my male crew during mealtimes. That had its positive side, allowing me to connect with the women who let me show their poetry and songs in the film, but it was still segregation that, having no power as a woman director, I had to give in to.” That is the importance of SIF: empowering women. “We have so much energy to put into the collective. It will grow through the initiatives of its members. Once it is open to other female filmmakers it will also be the initiative of new sisters in film. That is how it will grow.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly