Women Behind the Camera: Filmmaking in the Middle East

On November 2nd, Nour Festival in partnership with the Electric Cinema hosted an evening with some of the Middle East’s foremost and upcoming female filmmakers. The panel was chaired by producer Elhum Shakerifar, and comprised Sara Ishaq, Tina Gharavi and Nadine Khan.

By Elhum Shakerifar

The topic of women behind the camera is becoming well-trodden ground, and so the opportunity to discuss the work of three up and coming filmmakers at this year’s Nour festival was an opportunity to challenge the narrative.

In the lovely setting of the Electric’s comfy living room of a cinema, Yemeni-Scottish film maker Sara Ishaq, whose documentary Karama Has No Walls (2012) was nominated for the Academy Award earlier this year, Iranian filmmaker Tina Gharavi whose first feature I Am Nasrine (2012) was nominated for the BAFTA for Best British Debut and Egyptian director Nadine Khan of Muhr Award winning first feature Chaos, Disorder (2012) all joined me on stage to discuss their work, inspirations and being a woman behind the camera.

As with all introductions, the panel’s diverse nationalities was a first point of focus – and so the question of whether each filmmaker felt a responsibility of representing the region or countries they were from formed a prominent part of the discussion.

Gharavi – owner of 4 passports – explained that her work wasn’t focused on a single region and that she wants to challenge the idea of national boundaries, reminding that passports had only been invented in 1919. Gharavi’s new project From Plantation to Penitentiary is based and being developed in the US – and her own identity shaping the work is something that she was aware of to the point of developing an innovative editing platform that would give the storytelling lead back to an audience. It was a way of “making stories about spaces I don’t occupy” and sharing that creative vision with others as well.

Ishaq explained that she returned to Yemen to make her first films because of her film tutor’s insistence that identity politics were often the basis of first films. This wise observation caused her to arrive on the eve of the Yemeni revolution and the beginning of the events that would culminate in the Friday of Dignity massacre – events that became the subject of her two films Karama Has No Walls and Mulberry House, in many ways a diptych of the events on the street as captured by young street citizen journalists and how they were impacting on life inside her own home, and particularly through her relationship with her father.

Ishaq was similarly moving from the Yemeni narrative she had explored in her two first films to a new film in Holland about a family of brothers and sisters who had all led different lives. A different backdrop, and yet the thread that binds her documentaries together is her exploration of the social fabric of a country and of families.

Nadine talked about her first feature – developed since 2004, and her first directing credit after over a decade in the film industry working with agencies including Dreamworks and Pathé,– as being both distinctly Egyptian and very universal. Her debut feature Chaos, Disorder began filming as the Egyptian revolution was in full throes and has such a distinctive affecting aura to it’s tale that many have felt it was a very accurate depiction of that time – Nadine herself didn’t make it with that intention, but as a film developed from her experience of filming in refugee camps and focusing on communities living on the edge, she sees how potent the message can be. Picking up a major award at the Dubai Film Festival and with strong critical reception across the board, Nadine noted that it was interesting that audience responses to the film in Egypt and in London (it recently screened at the Arab British Centre’s celebration of popular cinema, Safar) were very similar.

From nationalities to story development to cross platform reinventions, there was much to discuss. We only got to the gender part of things later in the discussion…

Ishaq reflected that there were very few people making films inside of Yemen and so in many ways she feels it’s a necessity to make films within her own country, and at the same time, she is loath to be defined by the words ‘Yemeni’ and ‘female’.

“I want to be on the kickass filmmaker panel,” noted Gharavi, who is often invited to be on women filmmaker panels (probably because she is a lot of fun to listen to, more than the fact that she is a woman filmmaker). Labels can be reductive, but the panelists agreed that while labeling can be frustrating, it can also bring up a lot of opportunities.

Quoting David Fincher, Gharavi talked about the amount of rejection inherent in the filmmaking journeys that all filmmakers go on – male and female. The moral of the story: “don’t ask for permission”, she told the audience, “but also be careful about the stories you tell about yourself”.

Elhum Shakerifar is a creative producer of film, with recent credits including award-winning features The Runner (Saeed Taji Farouky, 2013) and The Reluctant Revolutionary (Sean McAllister, 2012), which have screened at festivals including Berlin, IDFA, Hot Docs and Traverse Film Festival.

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