Arab women filmmakers are shifting perspectives and revolutionizing the industry in the region, creating Oscar-nominated films and representing the Middle East at international film festivals. It’s clear that they have important stories to tell – and with a global streaming service behind them, women behind the lens could just change the industry forever.
Netflix has brought together Arab women at the forefront of film and TV in its first ever regional panel discussion, Because She Created. “Our ambition with Because She Created was to unite some of the most influential filmmakers in the region to join forces and talk about their perspective as women in the industry,” says Ahmed Sharkawi, Director of Arabic Original Series at Netflix. “Together, their voices provide inspiration for the wider creative community and highlight the importance of equitable storytelling, and why it matters” he explains. “We invest in these important conversations with pioneering women who are part of the Netflix family to talk about what matters to them – because what matters to them should matter to all of us,” says Nuha El Tayeb, Director of Content Acquisitions for Turkey, Middle East, and North Africa at Netflix.
Netflix emphasizes its commitment to invest in stories that may have previously been considered underserved and underrepresented, giving more people a chance to see their lives on screen. “For Netflix, great entertainment is not just about exporting US content internationally. It’s about sharing stories from the world, with the world. We believe in amplifying women’s voices and creating more diverse content to ensure that women are represented both on screen and behind the camera,” Sharkawi adds. And it’s not just about telling stories, but supporting the storytellers, too. Netflix recently announced the expansion of the Netflix-AFAC Hardship fund to a total of $1 Million to support the film and TV community as it emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here, meet Tima Shomali, Hana Al Omair, Hala Khalil, Annemarie Jacir, and Rima Mismar, who are the five voices behind the Because She Created panel, who delve into the reality of womanhood in Arab cinema and the potential solutions for greater representation in the industry. “We will continue to invest in Arab women who have beautiful, complex, and nuanced stories to tell; stories which have the power to resonate with people not just in the Arab world, but across the globe,” says El Tayeb. “Arab women have been telling these stories for decades.”
Award-winning Palestinian filmmaker, writer, and producer Annemarie Jacir describes how starting off in the film industry was her biggest challenge. “This is a tough industry, and it took me a long time to be in a position where I can make the films I want.” However, an identity that may have limited her in the past is exactly what gave her the strength to succeed. “I come from a community that has been made invisible, so I already had the tools to refuse that and to persevere” she explains.
Netflix was one of the first streaming services to showcase Jacir’s work, with her first feature film, Salt of this Sea (2008). Her most recent film, Wajib (2017), has won 36 international awards and is also on the streaming service. Jacir emphasizes that by working with the likes of Netflix, independent Arab filmmakers can reach new audiences. “With Wajib, as with all my films, I hope that people see themselves on screen, that they see people they know and that it leaves them with questions,” she shares.
Jacir, who is also the founder of Philistine Films, regularly collaborates with fellow filmmakers, and is committed to mentoring, training, and hiring locally. She sees a bright future for the film industry as people of color and women all over the world work towards a stronger presence, but she emphasizes that there is more work to be done. “I believe there should be more women, more working-class people, and more people from marginalized communities getting hired in creative positions,” she says. For Jacir, this responsibility largely falls to the “decision makers and gatekeepers of the industry” – but that doesn’t mean aspiring female Arab creatives can’t take it upon themselves. “Insist on your freedom. Leave what is comfortable and safe and put yourself out there,” Jacir advises. “If we continue to claim a space for our own stories, change will come.”
As the current executive director of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Lebanese Rima Mismar actively challenges creative industries’ orientalist representations of Arab society as well as their deep-rooted patriarchy. “Arab women filmmakers face multiple challenges,” she says. “Some of which are sector-related, like the region’s lack of creative funding and infrastructure or Lebanon’s political instability, but also the fact that the creative sectors are very much entrenched in the male gaze.”
Nonetheless, Mismar believes that Arab female filmmakers should not make it their sole duty to address the industry’s injustices. “Women filmmakers should not be categorized as storytellers that are only positioned to tell women stories,” she says. Having worked in cinema since 1999 as a film critic, panel moderator, and contributor to critical writings on the industry, Mismar emphasizes that while there have been significant improvements in Arab cinema, progress should not be confused with justice. “The path is still long and bumpy – films by women directors still tend to be excluded from mainstream cinemas,” she explains. Mismar suggests that we all have a part to play in changing the conversation about women in the creative industries, as well as pushing those in positions of power to change. As a leading streaming service, Netflix is in a position to catalyze change in representation, Mismar says. “Producing more content by women, giving a platform to host more female voices, allowing the space for more diversity in visual language and artistic approaches, and listening to the needs on the ground… all together can help instigate the change we need.”
“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride – but the journey is definitely worth it,” says Tima Shomali to all female Arabs aspiring to enter the film and TV industry. The Jordanian producer, writer, comedy actor, and founder of Filmizion Productions explains that the challenges she faced starting out as a woman in the creative industries were primarily cultural. “When I first started with my own online comedy show, the number of objections I got made me doubt if it’s even worth it to continue,” she shares. “But I made the decision to go on. It wasn’t an easy start, but when you know you have something to say, it is worth it.” Shomali became the first female comedian in Jordan to have her own YouTube show. Shomali is the creator and the director of Netflix’s majority female cast and crew Arabic young adult drama, AlRawabi School for Girls, set to launch this year. “It has been a lifelong dream for me to be able to tell stories about young women that stems from women storytellers,” she shares about the inspiration behind her newest production, which she co-created with Shirin Kamal and in collaboration with writer Islam Alshomali. It was important for Shomali to collate a team of female storytellers. “There is something special about a set full of women, the synergy is inspiring and feminine,” she says.
Shomali believes that while female participation and representation in film and TV has increased over the years, it is still not adequate under the principles of quality over quantity. “We need to see a real difference in the telling of female stories and the writing of female characters – a change that can only happen if more women are given the chance to write, create, and direct,” she says. Shomali believes that creating a supportive community is at the core of making these changes. “At some point in my life, someone gave me a chance and it paved the way for me, and it’s my time to do the same. AlRawabi School for Girls is just the beginning.”
Hana Al Omair
Writer, filmmaker, and film critic, Hana Al Omair has been a name in the Saudi film industry for a number of years. For this Saudi Arabian changemaker, being taken seriously as an artist was the most difficult challenge. “People around me made me feel that I was wasting my time,” she says. “I needed a lot of faith and self-awareness to survive. What kept me going was my passion for self-expression through film and seeing other young women being inspired by me.”
Al Omair is a member of the Saudi Arabian Society for Culture and Arts, contributing to the creative industry in Saudi as a whole. “The film industry is booming in Saudi Arabia right now,” she says. “I think we will see more films, not only directed by female directors, but also produced.” Al Omair started out in the Saudi film industry at a time when there were hardly any women on set. “Recently, I had many women in the crew as well as many actresses. This healthy environment will encourage more women to join the industry, she says.
Al Omair’s unwavering determination blossomed in 2008, when she won an award for best script at the Saudi Film Competition for the film Hadaf, which was made into a film in 2016. In 2015, she reached new heights when her short film The Complaint won best short fiction film in the same competition. More recently, Al Omair directed Netflix’s first original Saudi thriller series, Whispers, which debuted on the service in June last year. “Whispers was a great experience,” she shares. “I had positive comments all the way from Italy and Brazil! As a filmmaker, you always hope to share your story with audiences from all over the world and Netflix allowed me to do that.”
While Al Omair admits that the creative industries are demanding, they are also rewarding. “My advice is for creative people to believe in what they do, no matter how weird they might look,” she says. “Follow your passion because nothing else will make you satisfied.”
“I was raised in a conservative and traditional family that doesn’t believe in art,” says Hala Khalil, an award-winning Egyptian film director and screenwriter. As valedictorian of her high school graduating class, enrolling in the faculty of engineering at university was expected. It wasn’t until she wrote and directed her first short film, which received acclaim at the Milan film festival. The Best of Times (2004) was her first feature film, followed by Kas wa Lask (2006) and Nawarah (2015), her most recent. However, Khalil mentions the constant struggle to find production companies for her female-forward films. “The heroes of my films are often women, but my films don’t use women as a marketing commodity.” Khalil started an independent production company to tell the stories and characters that she wanted. As for the future of the creative industries, Khalil is optimistic. “The internet, technology, and globalization are all bringing a revolution that is directly reflected into freedom of expression, especially for Arab women, who have so much to tell but may have been suppressed over the years,” she says. Khalil advises young female creatives to take advantage of the age of the internet, not only for communication and creativity, but for education and the global exchange of expertise. “I believe the future of our world is more for women rather than men. Not only in art and creative fields but also at the political and economic level,” she says.
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