DUBAI: In an age where representation in art and culture matters more than ever, the cinema-focused digital platform and archive Habibi Collective rises to the occasion by placing independent movies by female filmmakers from South-West Asia and North Africa on centre stage.
Although Habibi Collective was founded in 2018, its concept goes back to the younger years of Iraqi-Irish film enthusiast and curator Róisín Tapponi, who noticed a particular gap in the films she viewed.
“I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Ireland,” she tells Arab News from London. “I’d just be watching films with a different director every night and I was wondering why I wasn’t watching films made by Arab women. That was something especially important for me, being Iraqi and going home to visit family every summer and having that connection.”
Habibi Collective has been active in both the online and physical world. One of Tapponi's first steps was setting up an Instagram page that has a community of around 25,000 followers today. Its posts share an ongoing archive of stills, often accompanied by thought-provoking commentary, of Middle Eastern and North African documentaries and essay films that were produced by emerging, socially-engaged women directors, many of whom are Tapponi’s friends and collaborators.
“No one can lose their language,” says the caption on one film still coming from Algerian filmmaker Nina Khada’s 2020 short documentary “I Bit My Tongue,” in which she explores the challenges of returning to her home country, with no understanding of the language and no real knowledge of the country. Another still comes from LA-based Lebanese filmmaker Farah Shaer’s “Shakwa” (meaning ‘complaint’ in Arabic), a stirring portrayal of marital rape.
The selected films delve into raw, complex and topical subjects — from the self to socio-political concerns. “Habibi Collective, I think, gained such traction early on not necessarily because people were interested in cinema, but because they were seeing themselves being represented,” Tapponi says.
“I just wanted to create something super-accessible, because there wasn’t anything dedicated to women,” she continues. “It’s so crazy, because there are so many films made by women. People are always saying to me: ‘Oh, we should have more films being made by Arab women,’ and I’m like, ‘No, we have (a lot of) films by Arab women — we need to get them circulated on the market.’”
Tapponi has also curated film screenings at various institutions, her programming supporting and showcasing the work of Sudanese, Saudi, Lebanese, and Iranian filmmakers in places including Sharjah Art Foundation in the UAE, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and The Mosaic Rooms in London. The turnout for these events has been strong, suggesting a universal appetite for this alternative type of storytelling through film. “Every single screening has been sold out and it’s always been full of diaspora women. It amazes me. Wherever I go in the world, there’s Arab women,” she says.
Tapponi has also been a guest lecturer at Oxford University, Duke University and UC Berkeley, delivering talks on cinema in the MENA region and feminism in art. The subsequent conversations inspired her to push herself harder. “I thought, ‘How do I bring this knowledge that I’ve been sharing in a lecture theatre back into the community?’” she recalls.
One way has been through a free podcast organized by Habibi Collective, in which Tapponi invites guests from the region and diaspora to discuss their insights into the world of film. Guests have included Buthaina Kazim, who co-founded Dubai’s independent arthouse cinema Cinema Akil and Iraqi film editor Shahnaz Dulaimy, who, along with Tapponi and others, established the recently launched Independent Iraqi Film Festival.
In March, Habibi Collective will launch “Shasha” (‘screen’ in Arabic), the first independent streaming service for Middle Eastern and North African cinema (it will also include films from male filmmakers). Subscribers will have access to 20 films per month — all following a specific theme — as well as a conversation series hosted by the filmmakers.
It’s an initiative that Tapponi hopes will further boost the regional profile of indie movies, hopefully encouraging the establishment of more alternative cinemas as well as archival institutions.
“Institutions should invest more in the industry,” she says. “There’s so much hype, but that’s just not being translated into the important part that gets these films made.”