In her acceptance speech for the Academy Award for best actress in 2014, Cate Blanchett pointedly stated that films with women at their centre are not niche experiences; audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money: “The world is round, people”, she asserted.
As a feminist historian, I’m a great advocate of telling women’s histories. Having spent my life between Europe, the Middle East and Australia, I would argue that to face the complex challenges of the 21st century, it’s essential to hear the voices and views of women from diverse cultures. To observe this round world through multiple lenses.
The Arab Women Film Festival, which opens today at the University of Sydney, provides a unique opportunity to engage with a variety of present-day political and social issues and their historical roots.
It offers nuanced and informed perspectives on five key experiences: the decolonisation of Tunisia (The Silences of the Palace, by Moufida Tlatli), the civil war in Lebanon (Where do We Go Now?, by Nadine Labaki), the 2003 invasion of Iraq (Our Feelings Took the Picture. Open Shutters Iraq, by Maysoon Pachachi), the historiographical controversies around the migration of Egyptian Jewish to Israel (Salata Baladi, by Nadia Kamel), and the 2011 Egyptian revolution (Scent of Revolution, by Viola Shafik).
In the films I’ve selected for the festival as curator, these crucial trajectories in Middle East and global history are approached from the perspective of three generations of Arab women filmmakers. They are at once narrators and participants in the making of history.
In their films, the flow of her-story (history written from a feminist perspective) is recounted through a wise knit, which weaves together the private and the public, grand narratives and micro-narratives, shedding light on untold or overlooked, if not hidden, stories. This is not a recent development.
It may surprise many to learn of the pivotal role woman have played as filmmakers and producers – and as actors and singers – in the Arab world since the first decades of the 20th century. At the time, filmmakers in the Arab transnational cultural space were only just discovering the power of cinema in telling their stories, and women were part of that cultural move.
The Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers (2005) counts more than 60 women filmmakers, and my experience as an Arab studies scholar, who constantly attends Arab film festivals in Egypt, in Europe and in Australia, tells me that, in the past ten years – notwithstanding a general deterioration of the economy, security, and political situation – numbers have further increased, and new genres and modes of productions have been explored.
Women produced and continue to produce good cinema, they support emerging generations of artists (the Iraqi Maysoon Pachachi produced a number of projects to support young Iraqi filmmakers), and they contribute to re-write and re-interpret forgotten histories.
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"In their films, the flow of her-story (history written from a feminist perspective) is recounted through a wise knit"
This last function has been vital in a context such as the post-colonial Arab world, characterised by harsh restrictions of any form of political dissidence. In this environment, literature, cinema, and the visual arts have been spaces for cultural and political agency for Arab women who, behind the camera, have projected their critical views on the historical developments of their region and the world.
Arab women filmmakers face multiple challenges: the critical situation in their home countries, which is undeniable and which is directly addressed in their movies, and the Orientalist set of representations that still informs Western conceptions of contemporary Arab societies.
The five films that I have selected for the Arab Women Film Festival challenge conventional views of gender, politics and power in the Arab world and its diasporas. They show that Arab women are not passive victims of patriarchal violence, but that violence is the result of a combination of factors (cultural, geopolitical, and economic).
Moreover, they demonstrate that any generalisation which does not take into account the specific historical context and sociological circumstances can only lead to misconceptions.
This festival will contribute to deconstructing misunderstandings and misrepresentations about women in the Arab world and its diasporas, helping to build constructive and informed relationship between Australia and the Arab countries.
The Department of Arabic Language and Cultures at the University of Sydney is committed to highlighting the diversity of Arab societies and to engage in the critical discussion of Arab cultural productions with a wide audience, which includes, besides fellows academics and students, the cultural operators from the Arab communities in Sydney and the wider civil society.
Each film will be introduced and discussed by an academic from the university and a public intellectual from the Arab communities in Sydney. It will provide an opportunity to engage in an informed conversation about the political, social and cultural struggles faced by Arab women who fight on two fronts: against indigenous patriarchy and against Western patriarchal discourses.
The festival celebrates the creativity and cultural activism of Arab women, at a time when most of the Arab countries face a critical historical conjuncture. Now, perhaps more than ever, it is more urgent to understand the historical roots of the current crisis in order to put in place effective policies that face its global consequences.