Women in cinema: The rise of female directors in the Arab film industry

Women in cinema: The rise of female directors in the Arab film industry
Nadine Labaki on the set of her award-winning movie 'Capernaum' in January 2017. (AFP)
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Updated 26 January 2023

Women in cinema: The rise of female directors in the Arab film industry

Women in cinema: The rise of female directors in the Arab film industry
  • Arab women have garnered awards, critical acclaim and box-office success for their films in recent years, and introduced audiences to ‘a secret world we were not aware of’ 

DUBAI: In recent years, there has been a notable increase in the number — and public profile — of female Arab filmmakers. This is, no doubt, partly due to the increasing market for stories told from an Arab perspective — finally breaking the stereotypical image of Arabs in international films as either victims or villains — as well as to the increasing diversity of the international cinema industry.  

As more films helmed by female Arab directors are released, so their participation in the international festival circuit increases too. They are opening the door to women's cinema in the region, and offering a more rounded, nuanced portrayal of Arab women and their societies to the rest of the world.

Darin J. Sallam (C),  Deema Azar (R) and Ayah Jardaneh (L), at Sallam's office in Amman on Jan 10, 2023 (AFP)

   “It’s a given that since more women started making films, we started seeing a different dimension of female characters,” Ayah Jardaneh, co-producer of the award-winning historical drama “Farha,” Jordan’s official entry for the 2023 Academy Awards, told Arab News.  

“Farha” and several other films made by Arab women have attracted global attention in recent years. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin” made the 2021 Oscar nominations, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” did the same in 2019, and Moroccan filmmaker Maryam Touzani’s “The Blue Caftan” was shortlisted for this year’s Best International Feature Film, but did not make the final nominees. All three won awards at major international festivals. 

Touzani, according to Los Angeles-based critic and producer Husam Asi, “really dives into the psyche of a woman in a very unique way.”   

Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania poses at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 1, 2022. (AFP)


Supporting female directors is “important everywhere, because women were somehow invisible, but I think it is (especially) important in the Arab world. I’ve met these women, and they are just incredible directors. They have so much passion, they have so much drive, they are so intelligent,” Asi told Arab News.    

Arab female filmmakers have “started breaking the stereotypical roles of women in films, not restricting women to a secondary role, (and they are showing) stronger female representation in their characters. But we still have a lot of work to do,” Jardaneh said.    

“While I don't believe in women getting jobs based solely on gender, women are qualified and talented, so it’s about time that they got the positions, roles and titles they deserve based on their qualifications and without any discrimination against them,” she added. “It is empowering and encouraging that the film industry in Jordan is almost 50 percent women. In the Arab world generally, it is also increasing.” 

In Saudi Arabia, Asi said, “50 percent of directors are women, compared to Hollywood, where less than 10 percent are.” 

Moroccan filmaker Maryam Touzani poses with the Jury Prize during the closing ceremony of the 19th Marrakech International Film Festival, on November 19, 2022, (AFP)

He continued: “The female directors (in Saudi Arabia) are so passionate. You know, (when) you’ve deprived someone of something and suddenly you give it to them, they want to use it; they are so excited, they have the energy, they have so many plans. Each one of them has a big plan, they have big dreams.” 

The first feature-length film made by a Saudi female director was Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 2012 movie “Wajda.” The film was made entirely in Saudi Arabia, and many of the scenes were shot from a van, due to social restrictions then imposed on women. The film cost $4 million to make, but toured the international festival circuit — picking up several awards — and reportedly brought in around $14.5 million at the box office.   

So far, though, this “new” Arab cinema has been mostly restricted to independent movies, rather than mainstream blockbusters. “The dominance of female Arab directors exists only in independent cinema, and not commercial cinema,” Asi said, adding that the same is true internationally.  

"Independent cinema requires less money. (It could be just) a few hundred thousand dollars (to make a) movie that can go all the way to festivals.” Some female-directed indie movies have, like “Wajda,” been successful commercially too. Labaki’s 2007 movie “Caramel,” for example, pulled in nearly $14 million at the box office, having cost around $1.6 million to shoot. 

Saudi film director Haifaa al-Mansour at the Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia on Dec. 6, 2021. (AFP)

Independent, or arthouse, cinema started appearing in the Arab region at the turn of the millennium, when Arabs felt the need to “present our own perspective on international matters,” according to Asi. At that time, anti-Arab and anti-Islam sentiment was running high in the West.  

Investing in cinema became a political decision, as “Arabs — or Arab governments, particularly in the Gulf — became more aware of the importance of media. They started investing in this new cinema, which differs from from the commercial cinema directed towards an Arab audience. They wanted to go beyond that and reach an international audience.” 

Several Gulf cities or countries launched their own film festivals and a number of Arab women received grants from these festivals to make their movies. Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis made “Amreeka,” reportedly the first Arab-American movie, with financial support from the Gulf. 

Mohamed Atef, programmer of the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt and of Mamlo — an Arab film festival that takes place in Sweden, told Arab News that the number of regional and global funders willing to back female filmmakers is rising rapidly, with gender issues high on their agendas. In part, this is because, since the #MeToo movement came to prominence, a number of film festivals now insist on giving equal opportunities to both genders in their programming.  

But the importance of female filmmakers goes beyond being a beacon for greater social inclusivity and gender equality. They will also ensure a greater diversity of narratives, Azza El-Hassan, a Palestinian-British documentary filmmaker, said. Accepting that men and women have different experiences means “you should accept that a different kind of cinema will come out when a woman holds a camera, than when a man holds a camera,” she told Arab News. “For example, (in) ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin,’ the protagonist is a man, but the director is a woman. You see it, you feel it. The way she films him, the way she approaches the topic. This is women’s cinema, though the topic has nothing to do with women.”   

“A good director is a good director regardless of whether they are male or female,” Atef said. “But there is a feminist directing style.” However, he added, it’s not only women making ‘feminist’ movies. Some well-known Egyptian men have made “very feminist” movies, he said, while some female directors, although their films may revolve around women’s issues “are making movies in a male style.” 

Asi said female filmmakers are more likely to give a “three-dimensional” portrayal of female characters — something notably lacking throughout cinematic history across the globe. 

“The female characters that they create are so beautiful, so rounded, they have such depth, as if they are inviting you into a secret world that we were not aware of, because up to now we were introduced to women from a man’s perspective,” he explained.  

Critics, producers and directors all agree that the future for Arab women in cinema looks bright.  

“I think, in a very short time, it will be an equal industry (in terms of gender),” said Atef. “Cinema is a very dynamic and very smart industry and it always filters what is good and what isn’t.”  

Jardaneh is similarly optimistic.  

“There is an obvious shift in the world, Arab representation is changing. I believe it is our time as Arabs to shine in all industries — and especially our industry; to have our stories told, to have infrastructure and stability. We have the talent, the resources, the stories, the history, and the passion,” she said. “The only way to go now is forward.” 

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration
Updated 28 March 2023

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration

Celebrity-loved Roksanda Ilincic talks dressing Rajwa Al-Saif and design inspiration
  • Roksanda Ilincic’s designs have been worn by the likes of Kate Middleton, Anne Hathaway and Michelle Obama
  • Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan’s Saudi fiancee Rajwa Al-Saif wore a Roksanda creation to Princess Iman’s recent wedding in Amman

DUBAI: London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic has quite the clientele. From British royalty like the princess of Wales to Hollywood A-listers Anne Hathaway and Blake Lively, her technicolored dresses are a go-to for many celebrities. 

Closer to home, the Saudi national and the fiancee of Crown Prince Hussein of Jordan, Rajwa Al-Saif, was in the news for the elegant bright yellow cape dress by Ilincic that she wore to Princess Iman of Jordan’s recent wedding.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Arab News caught up with the designer to learn more.

Al-Saif wearing her Neolitsea dress to the royal wedding came as a big surprise to the designer. “It was an absolute joy and such a privilege to see! I love the dress for its cape and the drama happening at the back,” said Ilincic.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Royalty aside, the designer is also very popular with the regional style set in the Middle East. Last year, she spoke at Riyadh’s Fashion Futures and visited Kuwait for a lunch hosted by Harvey Nichols. “Riyadh was a wonderful experience — I love meeting my customers in person and discovering new ways of wearing my designs. Arab women are very educated in fashion — they know what luxury fabrics are and are open to experimenting,” said Ilincic. 

In addition, she believes women in the region love and understand her aesthetic, featuring bright colors and unusual shapes.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

The Serbian-born designer studied architecture and applied arts at the University of Belgrade before moving to London for further studies. Ilincic graduated with her master’s degree in womenswear from Central Saint Martins in 1999, where she trained under the late professor Louise Wilson OBE. “When I interviewed at the institute, Louise Wilson asked me, ‘what do you want to do with your life once you graduate?’ So I said I want to start my own label, and I remember she was laughing at the time and thinking, ‘wow, those are very ambitious plans,’” she recalled.

For Ilincic, expressing herself and communicating through clothing was always an inner calling, and in 2005, she presented her first collection at London Fashion Week. Then, in 2014, she took the plunge and opened her flagship store on London’s Mount Street, designed by legendary architect Sir David Adjaye. 


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Ilincic’s designs have become a celebrity staple through her eclectic color combinations and architectural silhouettes. Her inclination towards bold colors stems from her home country and is also reminiscent of the past works of the remarkable Christian Lacroix, who she considers an icon. 

“He’s definitely an inspiration, and so is home where there’s lots of sun, and everything surrounding me was in color. Even a trip to the food market would result in incredible color combinations,” she explained.

Her love for fluid architecture, too, lends itself to her designs. For example, she tries to avoid corsets as much as possible — for ease of movement and comfort for the wearer. “I use corsets when necessary, but I experiment to find alternatives. Sometimes I’ll use grosgrain ribbons or dresses with support on side seams. That element of comfort is really important and something that I never take for granted,” she said.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

Elsewhere, it is art that often inspires her. Case in point: Her Fall/Winter 2023 collection that referenced the works of Japanese artist Atsuko Tanaka. The grandiose closing gowns consisted of dresses reminiscent of Tanaka’s “Electric Dress” — a creation made from colorful lights and electrical cords. “I took elements of the electric tubes from her art piece, and transformed them into soft, curvilinear tubes and draped them like curves around the body,” Ilincic noted. Despite their sculptural appeal, she believes they are dresses that women can still wear on the red carpet or on stage while performing.


A post shared by Roksanda (@roksandailincic)

So how does a bonafide dressmaker dressing royalty end up collaborating with athletic wear brands like Lululemon and Fila? “I wanted to challenge myself — what I do is so radically different from what was becoming a norm — leggings worn as trousers or puffer jackets alongside red carpet skirts. I was lucky enough to partner with Lululemon and Fila to create sporty, couture-like pieces, and both collaborations have proved to be very successful,” she explained.

Last December, Michelle Obama wore a Roksanda X Fila jacket on her book tour. Couture-esque pieces or glamorous sportswear – it is clear Ilincic has mastered both — and that explains her ever-expanding celebrity fanbase.

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles
Updated 28 March 2023

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

Winnie Harlow’s Arab street style turns heads in Los Angeles

DUBAI: Canadian model Winnie Harlow was spotted championing Lebanese designer Nicolas Jebran on the streets of Los Angeles. 

She donned a long textured green trench coat from the designer’s Fall/Winter 2023 collection that she wore over a brown turtleneck bodysuit.  

Harlow finished off her look with brown leather boots that extended up to her knees, a khaki structured purse and cat eye sunglasses that she tucked into the coat’s belt at her waist.  

The model wore the outfit for an eventful day. She attended a talk in Los Angeles where she spoke to business founders about her experience creating her beauty brand Cay Skin, she wrote in her Instagram caption as she shared pictures of her look.  

Harlow, who has over 10 million followers on Instagram, then went to celebrate one of her friend’s birthdays. “Long day, Work and Play. Speaking to new business founders about my experience my first year creating @cayskin then straight to the celebrations @mannyuk," she shared with her fans. 

The catwalk star is a regular visitor in the Middle East.  

She recently attended Saudi Arabia’s Formula E Diriyah E-Prix. 

“The experience at Formula E is unmatched and I’ve really enjoyed the vibe, people, atmosphere, and racing. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia a few times and always have a great experience, so I love that Formula E is in Diriyah,” Harlow said in a released statement in January. 

“Living in a more sustainable world and being able to enjoy motorsports at the same time is incredible,” she added.  

In November, she was spotted in Abu Dhabi. She attended the UAE’s Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and posed for pictures in front of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.  

To watch the race, Harlow wore a black sports jersey with green Swarovski crystals and black leggings with larger colorful crystals. She accessorized her look with a green bag and glasses.   

For her shoot, she wore a black form-fitting velvet dress with a matching turban by Omani label Atelier Zuhra, which was founded by designer Mouza Al-Awfi in 2015.   

She completed the look by layering chunky gold jewelry on her neck and wrists.  

Review: Netflix's ‘Soy Georgina’ season two highlights moments in Dubai amid tepid reality footage

Review: Netflix's ‘Soy Georgina’ season two highlights moments in Dubai amid tepid reality footage
Updated 28 March 2023

Review: Netflix's ‘Soy Georgina’ season two highlights moments in Dubai amid tepid reality footage

Review: Netflix's ‘Soy Georgina’ season two highlights moments in Dubai amid tepid reality footage

CHENNAI: The second season of Netflix’s much-hyped “I Am Georgina” debuted on the streaming platform over the weekend; and while it does have its fair share of magical and poignant moments, its biggest drawback may be the fact that it was directed by Georgina Rodriguez herself, with a little help from Spanish director Victor Rins. 

The long-time partner of Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo and mother to their several children, Rodriguez is her own celebrity these days – helped by a vast social media following and her influencer status.  

The six-episode, sophomore season – filled with potential – took the monotonous and predictable route, however, following Rodriguez as she travels to movie festivals like Venice and Cannes and other cities, such as Manchester and so on.  

The series, also predictably, shows very little of the legendary sportsman Ronaldo, which could have made the work far more interesting for a certain section of viewers.  

However, episode one does feature Ronaldo and is set almost entirely in Dubai – following an emotional and touching moment as he surprised Rodriguez by lighting up the iconic Burj Khalifa with a special message on her 28th birthday.  

“It was a very emotional day. Well, it was and it still is, because in the end, those moments and those positive experiences stay with you,” she said in the show. “And day after day, it’s like a thrill, like a spark that keeps you happy and active and alive.” 

The show also touches on a more poignant and darker moment in her life – losing one of her twin babies, son Angel. It is heart-breaking to see her pine for the child, but Rodriguez says she pulls herself together thanks to her other children and Ronaldo. And we soon see her jetting off again in her private plane as she spends time with her close friends.  

Even a bit about the fact that she was the daughter of a cocaine kingpin growing up in Argentina is so carefully crafted that it feels whitewashed and drained of any significance.  

What else does the series offer? Rodriguez talks about how she was a ballet dancer, but could not pursue her dream, and this is shown more in the passing. The appearance of Spanish singer-songwriter Rosalia is also interesting, but nothing beats Ronaldo’s romantic birthday gesture at the Burj. More of this in season three, please. 

Ariana Grande shows off Andrea Wazen heels  

Ariana Grande shows off Andrea Wazen heels  
Updated 28 March 2023

Ariana Grande shows off Andrea Wazen heels  

Ariana Grande shows off Andrea Wazen heels  

DUBAI: US singer, songwriter and actress Ariana Grande is the latest star to be added to Lebanese footwear designer Andrea Wazen’s client list.  

Grande, founder of cosmetics label R.E.M Beauty, stepped out this week wearing the designer’s Double Jeu platforms in white while shooting for her upcoming film adaption of “Wicked.” 

The actress shared behind-the-scenes pictures from the set of herself with her cast-mate Cynthia Erivo.  

Grande, who had her platinum blonde hair tied up in a ponytail, wore a pink polka dot dress with white elbow-high gloves.  

“Wicked” is set for release on Nov. 27, 2024, Grande shared on Instagram last week. Palestinian Dutch model Gigi Hadid commented on her post saying: “I am having heart palpitations.”  

Wazen’s Double Jeu platforms were recently worn by US superstar Jennifer Lopez during an appearance on the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” show in January. 

Arab stars shine in Maybelline Ramadan campaign

Arab stars shine in Maybelline Ramadan campaign
Updated 28 March 2023

Arab stars shine in Maybelline Ramadan campaign

Arab stars shine in Maybelline Ramadan campaign

DUBAI: US cosmetics brand Maybelline starred Chilean Palestinian singer Elyanna, Egyptian actress Amira Adeeb and Kuwaiti content creator Khattafya in its latest campaign for Ramadan.  

The three stars promoted the brand’s Lash Sensation Sky High mascara, the Fit Me Vitamin C tint and the Superstay lipstick.  

“Happy to have been a part of @maybelline New York’s global campaign this year,” Adeeb wrote to her 903,000 followers on Instagram, sharing the colorful video on her page. “Jumpstart this Ramadan with an empowered, authentic YOU.”  

Elyanna sang the campaign’s jingle “Yalla Ya Habibi.”  

“Happy to have shared this with you, love,” Adeeb wrote to Elyanna on Instagram.  

The campaign was shot in Thailand, Adeeb revealed in her caption.