In the Middle East, Women Directors Unspool Social Commentary

Article excerpt

In the Middle East, women have a new voice: the movies. As nascent film industries bloom in the region, a few emerging women directors are probing some of the most delicate subjects within their male-dominated communities, giving viewers a glimpse into once- veiled worlds.

"Women realized that they were in double jeopardy - of having Westerners speak for them, and men speak for them.... so they got behind the cameras," says Mona Eltahawy, a New York-based Egyptian commentator and lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

The Monitor recently contacted three such filmmakers - Israeli Arab Ibtisam Maraana and Buthina Canaan Khoury of the Palestine Territories; and Haifaa Al-Mansour of Saudi Arabia - to talk about their hard-won successes.

In time, these directors may come to emulate the commercial fortunes of Nadine Labaki's "Caramel," a comedic social commentary set inside a Beirut beauty salon that became Lebanon's top-grossing film of 2007, or Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," the Oscar- nominated film based on her childhood in Iran. (Both films are in release in the US.) But the three directors are wary of being pigeon- holed, a notion voiced by Satrapi, who lives in France.

"I think I am interesting because I make good movies," says Satrapi in a phone interview. "Not because I represent anything."

Like Satrapi, these three bold directors have often been criticized but they each share Satrapi's ethos: "I was not surprised by the objections and I don't care," she says. "I fear nothing."

Haifaa Al-Mansour

Growing up in Saudi Arabia, a country without any movie theaters, meant that when Haifaa Al-Mansour's family wanted an outing to the cinema, they'd have to drive to Bahrain.

"There is a debate nowadays in our local Shura council about opening a theater ... but it has not passed yet," sighs Mansour, speaking by phone from Australia, her new home with her husband, an American diplomat. "I make films for Saudis. I want to talk to them. Provoke them. Make them think about the issues. But it's hard when they cannot see my work."

In any case, Mansour's films wouldn't win the sort of accolades in Saudi Arabia that she has garnered at film festivals abroad. By peeking a camera lens behind the veil of Saudi Arabian life, she has ventured into unprecedented territory for a woman in a society where women are not allowed to vote, drive, study the same subjects men do, or take on the same jobs.

Mansour, one of 12 children, didn't intend to focus her filmmaking career on women's issues, but found the issues too important not to address. She began her filmmaking career making a seven-minute short, "Who?," in which a man disguised as a women - i.e., dressed in a traditional black, full-body covering called the abaya - stalks women and enters their homes. The film explores the theme of hiding behind disguises, says Mansour. Shot with a hand- held camera, the film was released in Turkey and could be seen in Saudi Arabia only on pirated DVDs. Many perceived it as an anti- abaya message.

A few years later, the documentary "Women Without Shadows" - winner of the Golden Dagger for best documentary at the Muscat film festival in Oman - wondered whether it is necessary for women to cover their faces in public in order to comply with Islamic teachings.

"I get hate e-mails," says Mansour. "People say I am not religious. That I don't respect my own culture. It's not true. I don't want to corrupt my viewers, but there are certain situations in Saudi Arabia that merit people talking about them."

Mansour's fountain of strength, she says, is her family. Her father, famous Saudi poet Abdul Rahman Mansour, brought home films for his kids to watch on video. He encouraged his daughters to study - Mansour studied comparative literature at the American University in Cairo - and didn't force them to wear the veil or rush into marriage. …