Women Behind the Camera:
Filmmaking in the Middle East
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 us 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 (Friday 18 March 2011) – 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 her relationship with her father.
Like Gharavi, Ishaq is now 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 Khan 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. She began filming Chaos, Disorder as Egypt was in the throes of its revolution, and the film has such a distinctive, affecting aura to its tale that many have felt it was a very accurate depiction of that time – Khan herself didn’t make it with that intention, but as the 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, but 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 labelling 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”.
WFTHN would like to thank the Nour Festival for allowing us to republish this blog which was originally featured on the Nour Festival blog. The ‘Women Behind the Camera’ event was held on November 2nd in partnership with the Electric Cinema. The evening hosted some of the Middle East’s foremost and upcoming female filmmakers and the panel was chaired by producer Elhum Shakerifar, and comprised Sara Ishaq, Tina Gharavi and Nadine Khan.
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. She is also Programmer for Bird’s Eye View Film Festival, a research fellow at the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, and runs international film education projects through Postcode Films, of which she is a co-Founder and Director.