Is Arab Cinema Really Male Dominated?

JEDDAH: “In an Arab film industry largely dominated by men, Nayla al-Khaja, passionate and visionary, was determined to break the status quo and make a name for herself,” reads a tweet promoting the editing of magazine august Arabian Moda.

One might well understand the misconceptions when they come from a Western media outlet, but when they come from an Arab magazine, they raise the question of how the progress made by Arab women filmmakers is constantly ignored, sometimes in the name of promoting one of their own.

Al-Khaja, the first Emirati screenwriter, director and director, whose films have screened at more than 42 festivals internationally, has won dozens of awards and accolades for her cinematic career.

From defining the narrative to starting a dialogue, Arab women filmmakers are growing in influence and numbers, and making their presence felt internationally, despite the media’s predilection for condescending clichés.

While their presence may seem modern, the phenomenon actually dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, a period during which women were among the pioneers of regional cinema.

Arab women of the time often completed entire projects on their own, such as legendary Egyptian filmmaker Aziza Amir, who at the same time directed and starred in the film “Laila“, qualified by specialists as the very first Egyptian film, in 1927. Amir was the director and the star of 25 films throughout her life.

Today, Arab women filmmakers continue to be a driving force in the industry, leaving their mark despite superficial media coverage fueling prejudice.

“Women in independent cinema in the region have made much faster progress than in Europe and the United States, and this has happened naturally, especially with the advent of film festivals in the region which have offered opportunities for filmmakers,” Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic and curator, told Arab News.

Egyptian film critic and curator Joseph Fahim. (Photo provided)

“It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of modern Arab cinema, because women filmmakers are more represented in it. The films selected in the region’s film festivals are made up of more or less 50% women, depending on the year.

A study conducted in the United States by Northwestern University, sponsored by the Doha Film Institute, revealed that 26% of Arab independent filmmakers are women, compared to 4% in the West and 9% in America. About 25% of all new directors in Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon are women. In Qatar, almost 60% of emerging filmmakers are women.

According to Fahim, although the director’s gender often influences audience response to a film, it should not distract from the filmmaker’s accomplishments.

“Each region is progressing differently, and you can’t generalize,” he said. “The film industry is more progressive today than journalism. Much of what is written is not researched enough and is different from the reality on the ground. The reality is much more complicated.”

“The things written that undermine Arab women filmmakers are the product of reductive thinking,” he added.

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki is one of the most notable female directors from the Arab region. His film “Capernaumwas presented at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

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Director Nadine Labaki poses for a portrait at the 30th Palm Springs International Film Festival in California. (Photo, AFP Archives)

Labaki’s film was the first of its kind to compete for the Palme d’Or, and was also the first film directed by an Arab woman to be nominated for an Oscar. The first feature film by Saudi director Haifa al-Mansour, “Wajdawas nominated for a Bafta, and Palestinian-British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi’s latest short, “The Presentwas nominated for an Oscar and won a Bafta last year.

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Saudi director Haifa al-Mansour on the red carpet as she arrives at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo, Red Sea Film Festival Archive)

Syrian journalist Waad al-Khataeb co-directed the documentary “For Sama(“For Sama”), which made history by winning four Bafta nominations – the most nominated documentary in Bafta history. A few days ago, Palestinian director Cherien Dabis made history with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Director for her hit series on Hulu “Only Murders in the Building(“Murders only in the building”).

Tunisian filmmaker Salma Baccar has broken down barriers by directing “Fatima 75in 1975, creating the very first film directed by a Tunisian woman.

From her vantage point behind the camera since the 1980s, Egyptian filmmaker Marianne Khoury has helped men and women hone their skills. For more than three decades, she went against the grain of Egyptian cinema and chose independent films to explore relatively unusual themes. The documentary filmmaker won the Rizkallah Audience Award at the Cairo International Film Festival for “let’s talk“.

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Egyptian director Marianne Khoury receives the audience award during the closing ceremony of the 41st Cairo International Film Festival. (Photo, AFP Archives)

Similarly, award-winning Palestinian filmmaker Mai Masri, who also started her career in the early 1980s, was the first woman in the country to do so. “Today half of the Palestinian films are directed by women,” she told AFP.Economic Times in 2018.

Last year, at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia, 38% of the 138 films screened were directed by women, a proportion unthinkable in other parts of the world.

Fittingly, the festival honored Al-Mansour for her contribution to the sector and championed the empowerment of women in film. She received a Crystal Award at the 2019 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos for her leadership in the cultural transformation of the Arab world.

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Moroccan director Maryam Touzani poses during a photocall for the film ‘Adam’ at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival in southern France. (Photo, AFP Archives)

Today, many women filmmakers have an unprecedented opportunity to ensure fair representation of their stories. Everyone has a story to tell, and as Fahim says, the stories every woman can tell are shaped by circumstances, restrictions and censorship, all of which differ from country to country.

Moreover, according to experts, the emergence of so many Arab women directors from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia is remarkable, considering the relative newness of cinema in these countries compared to India, Egypt, the United States and Europe.

Although it’s generally accepted that “the cameras don’t make the movies, the people make them”, filmmakers like Sara Mesfer believe that landmark films should be celebrated as such, regardless of gender, religion, or status. origin or ethnicity of the director.

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Nadine Labaki shows an object on the set. (Photo provided)

Mesfer appeared on the Saudi film scene almost two and a half years ago, writing and directing “The Girls Who Burned the Nightwhich won two awards and three nominations at the Carthage Film Festival and the Palm Springs International ShortFest. However, like all films, his rise in the film industry is different.

“The film industry across the world is a male-dominated field due to historic events in which the achievements of women in film were undermined. Today, categorizing and placing women in certain roles that best suit them is an issue that undermines their work,” she told Arab News.

“It’s easier for me to be a writer and director than a producer and cinematographer, for example, because of the false notion that some people have that ‘women can’t wear a camera’, putting women in a category they must follow.

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Farah Nabulsi attends the 93rd Annual Academy Awards at Union Station, Los Angeles, CA. (Photo, AFP Archives)

She said that early in her career, the media was more interested in her being a female director, specifically a Saudi director, than in the films she was making.

Noting that the Saudi film industry is still in its infancy, she said being a female director undoubtedly attracts media attention. She, too, felt for a while that the focus was more on her gender and nationality than on her job.

Mesfer recalls a personal experience at a film festival where Saudi women were the main topic, and most of the comments while she was on stage were about her being a Saudi woman rather than being a Saudi woman. his film.

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Fatma Zohra Zamoum. (Photo provided)

“This action in itself is discriminatory, and the media does not take us seriously and does not appreciate the effort that went into making the film,” she said.

The way women filmmakers tell their stories on screen influences audiences and critics across the Arab world. Many believe that the progress made by Arab women in the industry is neither the beginning of a female-dominated Arab film industry nor the end of a male-dominated industry.

Summarizing her experience as an Arab female filmmaker, Mesfer said, “Storytelling is a wide and wild field. There is no one way to do it, and it differs from person to person.

“It’s where you are as a filmmaker, how comfortable you are telling the story and, most importantly, adding your own touch, because everyone is a storyteller in their own way.”

This text is the translation of an article published on

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Is Arab Cinema Really Male Dominated?