Ten female Arab filmmakers who are telling the stories of Middle East’s women

From post-revolutionary settings to personal struggles, women have told stories from the region that would have otherwise remained unheard. (Supplied)
Updated 01 November 2019

Ten female Arab filmmakers who are telling the stories of Middle East’s women

  • Female directors in the Arab world have worked behind the camera for decades unheard
  • The Cairo International Film Festival recently signed the 5050x2020 gender parity charter

CAIRO: In a first for the region, the Cairo International Film Festival has signed the 5050x2020 gender parity charter, joining 60 other film festivals worldwide to ensure equality and improve transparency in the entertainment business.

Women in the Arab world have worked behind the camera long before the charter. From post-revolutionary settings to personal struggles, they have told stories from the region that would have otherwise remained unheard. Here are 10 of the most accomplished female Arab filmmakers.

1. Annemarie Jacir

Jacir has written, produced and directed award-winning films such as “A Post Oslo History” (2001). Her short film “Like Twenty Impossibles” (2003) was the first Arab cinematic work in this category to enter an official selection at the Cannes International Film Festival. The Palestinian director’s most recent film, the dramedy “Wajib” (2017), won her 18 international awards.

2. Nujoom Al-Ghanem 

The Emirati filmmaker, writer and poet had to overcome societal stigma, family disapproval, and the responsibilities of a wife and mother. She defied the odds to study TV production and filmmaking, later producing films such as “Amal” (2011) and “Sounds of the Sea” (2015).

3. Nadine Labaki

Labaki, who spent the first 17 years of her life in a war-torn area in Lebanon, made her debut with “Caramel” (2006). This female-centric comedy premiered at Cannes, and won the actress and director widespread recognition.  

4. Haifaa Al-Mansour

The movies of Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker explored women’s issues in the country as well as other taboo topics. Her three shorts “Who” (1997), “The Bitter Journey” (2000) and “The Only Way Out” (2001) won awards in the UAE and the Netherlands.

5. Hala Khalil

Beginning her career in the post-patriarchal era in Egypt, Khalil represented the new generation who made films exploring bold themes and featuring strong female characters. Works such as “The Best of Times” (2004) and “The Kite” (1997) won Khalil several awards and global acclaim.

6. Mai Masri

Living close to the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, Masri witnessed what would become known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre. A theme in her movies is life in Palestine and the Middle East, especially in films such as “Beirut Diaries: Truth, Lies and Videos” (2006), “3000” (2006) and “Layla” (2015).

7. Nayla Al-Khaja

Al-Khaja began her career with the comedy “Sweet Sixteen” in 1996, going on to produce award-winning films and documentaries. She has been lauded for presenting social issues in a realistic setting, especially in films such as “Arabana” (2007) and “Animal” (2017).

8. Kaouther ben Hania

The Tunisian-born director shot to fame with her bold themes and characters in movies such as “Le Challat de Tunis” (2013) and “Beauty and the Dogs” (2017), which had a post-Arab Spring background with strong women fighting for justice.

9. Sofia Djama

Starting out in advertising and short story-writing, Djama turned to directing when one of her short stories, “Mollement un Samedi Matin” (2012), was made into a film. In this picture, the Algerian director explores the parallel existence of social morality and legal actions.

10. Shahad Ameen

This Saudi writer and director caused ripples with her debut film “Scales” (2019), the story of a young girl on a path of self-discovery in a dystopian setting. Ameen explores the personal journey of a woman who ends up being in the shadows in a male-dominated society.

 

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region. 


Kurdish singer Nouri: ‘I want to be the greatest’

Her story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. (Supplied)
Updated 40 min 6 sec ago

Kurdish singer Nouri: ‘I want to be the greatest’

DUBLIN: Vivian Nouri is a woman on a mission. The Kurdish singer ­— more commonly known as NOURI — has made something of a splash in recent months. Her debut single “Where Do We Go From Here” reached number one in New Zealand in March this year (it currently has more than 1.1 million views on YouTube), before topping charts everywhere from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to Iraq and Palestine.

Her story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. They moved to New Zealand when Nouri was three.

She cites Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston as performers who inspired her early love of music. “By the time I was seven, I would copy their singing on the TV, but I was never sure if I was doing it right.”

Turned out she was, though. At nine, in her first talent show, Nouri sang “When You Believe” — a duet by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey for the 1998 animation “The Prince of Egypt.” She received a standing ovation. And it was a buzz she never forgot.

“The thrill of performing, the feeling of singing the song and everyone loving it, and the shock of getting a standing ovation — that I could sing and other people liked it…” she says. “I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”

Nouri's story is all the more remarkable for the fact that she was born in a Syrian refugee camp after her parents fled Kurdistan in the early Nineties. (Supplied)

“You never know when it’s finished, so the best thing to do is to hand it over to someone else and they will tell you when it’s ready,” she continues. “And that’s one of the best things about being in Los Anglese: being able to work both with Grammy award-winning producers as well as newer producers who are just grinding it out. You see different patterns and styles and it gives you a feel for different production styles.”

Nouri made the move to LA earlier this year, and is confident she can avoid the pitfalls that living in that city sometimes throws up. “Every day’s a learning experience in LA; I’m learning about new music, new concepts, as well as meeting new people and being exposed to new cultures and influences,” she says.

Nouri already had some experience of Hollywood glamour — she performed “The Only Gift I Need” for the soundtrack of the 2017 Will Ferrell-led comedy “Daddy’s Home 2.” And since moving to LA, she has been invited to sing the US national anthem at a few NBA games. But she’s hungry for further success.

“Where Do We Go From Here” is a perfect slice of slow-burn pop, with echoes — both in the music and the video — of Lana Del Ray. Nouri’s sound is compelling, and very modern, something reflected in her creative process.

Her debut single “Where Do We Go From Here” reached number one in New Zealand in March this year. (Supplied)

“Before I enter the recording studio, or a writing session, I have a concept in my mind of what I want to sing about,” she says. “It changes sometimes, so there has to be flexibility. I can be in the studio and hear a new beat and that will change the music, and ultimately it’s a collaboration. So we work together with the concept, starting either with the lyrics or the melody and going from there.

A big part of her drive comes from her upbringing. “My mum instilled discipline in all of us. It was hard to convince my mother that I was going to be a singer, but when she saw how hard I was working towards it, that put her mind at rest,” she says.

Nouri has spoken before about how her earliest memories are of the Syrian refugee camp, where she lived in a tent so small that her mother had to keep her feet outside it when she lay down. Those memories have undoubtedly played a major part in her relentless work ethic.

“I get up at the same time each morning, I go to the gym every day,” she says. “It’s almost like being in school with a set schedule. There’s a million other people doing the same thing, so you have to stay focused and disciplined. And so any temptations go right over my head, because I know what I have to do to get where I want.”

And where she wants to go is the very top. One of the refreshing things about Nouri is her complete honesty about her goals; there’s no circumspect mutterings about taking each day as it comes.

Nouri's family moved to New Zealand when Nouri was three. (Supplied)

“I want to be the greatest one day,” she says. “I want to leave something behind that people will remember. It’s a very competitive industry, but I’m looking to win. I am competing with myself and not with anyone else. I want to make sure I win for myself and my people and to make sure my story is heard — my story is the story of a billion other people and I want that heard. Of course, I have specific goals too, like winning a Grammy and then winning an Oscar and getting a Netflix documentary.”

That ambition goes hand-in-hand with her work ethic — for ambition is useless without drive. “I always say hard work trumps talent so when you have both, it’s inevitable, and I always feel like it’s never enough,” she says. “I get the Grammy and I take in the moment, but then I would focus on the next step, so how do I get the Oscar? Every day I am here I am serious and making sure I am taking advantage of the opportunities I have been given.”

Nouri is equally clear about what she wants her music to achieve on an emotional level too.

“I want my music to make people dance and cry at the same time. I have a hard time expressing how I feel when I speak, so my music is open instead — I express (myself) through my music,” she says.”Through my lyrics, I say the things people are too afraid to say.”