Arab women filmmakers challenge Western preconceptions
The mood at last week's Marrakesh International Film Festival may have been slightly subdued. Organisers at the 20th edition of the annual festival, one of the largest in the Arab world, deliberately toned down the red-carpet glamour and cancelled the usual public screenings in the city's iconic central square, partially due to the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip as well as the recent earthquake at home.
Yet it was also true that the female filmmakers who work in the Middle East and showed their movies at Marrakesh had something to celebrate. Overall they are doing very well, perhaps even better than their counterparts in Europe and North America, when it comes to representation and gender equity.
"It is not just by chance that there are more and more female filmmakers in the region," said French-Tunisian director Sonia Ben Slama in Marrakesh. "It's because for a long time, these female stories were told by men. There was a need to reclaim our voices in cinema."
Ben Slama's documentary, "Machtat", which screened at Marrakesh, is a prime example. For five years, Ben Slama followed a trio of women who work as wedding singers in Tunisia, gaining insights into their turbulent private and professional lives.
Beyond art house film festivals
But there are also less ephemeral factors making female Arab filmmakers more visible and more successful.
Streaming platforms like Netflix are spending more on localised content – that is, Arabic-language content for Arab audiences – supporting women in film financially and logistically, as well as offering a wider platform for their work. This is happening as the number of subscribers to on-demand streaming services in the Middle East and North Africa grows, from around 5 million in 2017 to 21 million in 2022.
Arab-made films now regularly compete at the world's biggest film festivals – Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance – and European co-productions are common. Additionally, many Middle Eastern film festivals and their attendant production platforms now work towards equality. Many have quotas for female-led productions.
In 2019, the Cairo Film Festival became the first Arab film festival to sign an international charter for gender parity at such events. The Doha Film Institute in Qatar has regularly awarded almost half of all production grants to women.
And this week in Marrakesh, of 25 international production teams selected for mentorship at the Atlas Workshops, there were 11 female directors and 12 female producers involved.
"In Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon, approximately 25% of all new directors are females. In Qatar, nearly 60% of emerging filmmakers are women," Fatma Hassan al-Remaihi, head of the Doha Film Institute noted in a 2019 post for the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. In comparison, according to the latest data from Statista, only 15% of film directors in the U.S. were women in 2022.
In fact, the highest-grossing Arabic language film ever – the Oscar-nominated "Capernaum" – was directed by a woman, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.
Unexpected challenges and prejudices
But even as all this is happening, female Arab filmmakers are facing some unexpected challenges. Audiences everywhere, whether European or Arab, have certain expectations about their work.
"Over the past two decades, the most commercially successful Arab films in Europe closely adhered to specific formulas: stories of terrorism, poverty, female oppression," Egyptian film critic and festival programmer Joseph Fahim wrote in a 2020 review of Arab cinema for the European Institute of the Mediterranean. "In other words, films that ratify Western viewers' perceptions and prejudices of the Arab world rather than defy them."
During test screenings of "Machtat", Ben Slama recalls how viewers were quite surprised about the behaviour of the women in her documentary. "I felt they were waiting for the women to be good mothers, or victims, or to adhere to other stereotypes," she explained. "But they were more complex than that. They might not react the way we expect them to. And that's important," Ben Slama argues, "because it shows their complexity, their humanity."
And then it doesn't matter whether the story is set in Tunisia or Europe, everyone relates, the director said.
Best stories are 'universal'
"It's about making films that have a universal appeal," agreed French Moroccan director, Sofia Alaoui. She presented her debut feature film, "Animalia", at the Marrakesh Film Festival this week too. The movie is unusual, a science-fiction thriller starring a young pregnant woman and her wealthy family, psychedelic aliens, stoic countryfolk, the stunning Moroccan landscape and a cast of birds, dogs and sheep all behaving very badly.
"Actually, I never was really inspired by Arab cinema," Alaoui continued. "My favourite films were more Asian, Danish or Finnish. So what I'm trying to do is bring the cinema that I love, but in an Arabic way."
Alaoui ran into audience preconceptions too. Some people criticised the film, she said, because it was not as focused on the Moroccan scenery or village dwellers as her earlier short films had been. It is almost like some audiences, particularly those in Europe, prefer to see an exotic or almost fetishised version of Arabs on the big screen, she argued.
It can be a problem, Tania El Khoury, the producer of Ben Slama's film "Machtat", confirmed. Arab-directed films do well in art house cinemas or at festivals, but it is harder to get wider distribution, especially if a director tackles a topic that discomforts Arab audiences and surprises European viewers. "Then the movie gets stuck," she said.
Women in Moroccan cinema
"I have seen female directors criticised by European audiences because they told stories about women that are free, independent and different from what the audience excepted from Middle Eastern movie makers," El Khoury noted.
"The Moroccan film industry is very dynamic and we want to tell local stories," added Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir, who also screened her film, "The Mother of All Lies", at Marrakesh this week; her unique documentary is Morocco's candidate for the Oscars this year and won several prizes at Cannes. "Many of us are friends. But we are also very different people and we have different ways of working. That should be accepted."
"Sometimes I think the European industry patronises us," Alaoui said. "You know, here's a film festival, here's some diversity [from the Middle East], here are the same storylines about emancipation. I find that so boring. But there are so many more of us [in the industry] now. There are so many more options, so many directors. And the world should accept that we are much more diverse than they think."
© Deutsche Welle 2023