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Beyond the Silver Screen

Lamya Rahman writes on the Arab Women Film Festival.

Lamya Rahman writes on the Arab Women Film Festival.

Right now, the University of Sydney is host to the Arab Women Film Festival. Organised by the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures, it is the first festival of its kind in Sydney. The festival will showcase five films over September and October, each directed by notable Arab women filmmakers, and reflecting their key experiences in the Arab world. These diverse experiences reveal an often unseen view into the lives of Arab women in an array of locations, situations and political spheres.

Dr Lucia Sorbera, pioneer of The Arab Women Film Festival and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, says that while not all the films are about women, they all express the intellectual agency held by Arab women. Particularly, there is the emphasis that Arab women have developed their own narrative about history and politics, in which they express a generally critical, and sometimes feminist, viewpoint.

Indeed all the films, while diverse in their styles and subject matter, are highly political in nature. Having access to these opinions and views by notable Arab women is a vitally important opportunity for Sydney University students and beyond.

The opening film, Moufida Tlaty’s The Silences of the Palace (1994), which was screened on Monday 10th September, involves a strong criticism of the post-colonial nationalist elite in Tunisia. An approach that was not only somewhat taboo within contemporary Tunisian historiography, but also quite groundbreaking in cinematic history, making it the first film by an Arab woman that had received great international success.

The other films do not pale in comparison, and hold their own special place in terms of reception and the significance of their political critique.

Maysoon Pachachi’s Our Feelings Took The Pictures, Open Shutter (2009) is a documentary that records the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq through interviews with exiled Iraqi women. Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?(2012), is a feature film set during the civil war in Lebanon and reflects religious tensions that were rife within the country. Nadia Kamel’s Salata Baladi (2008) is a multi-award winning documentary that addresses the migration of Egyptian Jews to Israel, and has been discussed widely in academic spheres. Finally, the closing film, Viola Shafik’s Scent of Revolution 2014) is the most recent of the bunch, offering a documentary-style look into the happenings of post-revolutionary Egypt.

Dr Lucia Sorbera says these five films, while a poor selection in comparison to the vast production of films by Arab women, were chosen deliberately because of their political themes. She says that in a time where the Arab World has become a central topic in Western media understand that what is happening today is part of a longer history of Middle East politics, which goes way back before the highly publicised Arab uprisings in 2011.

“History is going very fast in the past ten— perhaps twenty—years,” says Dr. Lucia Sorbera. “We have two films, one made in 2008 and one in 2014, but they both relate to different ages: pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary Egypt.”

“[These films] reflect the multiplicities of the Arab world. The idea in all my teaching and writing is that we can’t generalise when we talk about the Arab world and more specifically, Arab women. We need to define which country we’re talking about and in which period. Are we referring to an urban or countryside context? Which social classes are we targeting? Which generation is at the centre of our discourse? This is something that I try to discuss through these movies.”

In keeping with this idea of a diverse Arab world, the films, to a certain extent, reflect the diversity of Arab women and their experiences within the political sphere.

Public discourse surrounding Arab women in Australia has been notorious in its reliance on heavy stereotypes of the Middle East. Media focus on the oppressive implications of the hijab and racist anecdotes of subservient Arab women effectively deny the multiplicity of experiences and diversity of characters among these women. By pigeonholing them, it rejects their personal autonomy and further marginalises them.

The Arab Women Film Festival offers recourse to this public perception of Arab women. It allows stories of Arab women and the Middle East to be communicated in a way that is not simplified and exotified for the general public. The stories of these filmmakers are refreshingly diverse, unapologetic, and powerful. These films can therefore be a small form of action that contributes to creating a new discourse surrounding Arab women in Australia—one that is fostered by Arab women themselves. Although Dr Lucia Sorbera acknowledges that more forms of action must be taken, the Arab Women Film Festival is definitely a start.

Within a university sphere, the Arab Women Film Festival also has particular value in its ability to engage with academics and students of other disciplines. This is a goal that corresponds with their participation in a broader project titled ‘A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, economic development, and cultures of freedom’. Funded by the Council for Arab-Australian Relations, this project aims to create a space where discussion and informed knowledge of the Arab world can be shared among a broad community consisting of Arab-Australian intellectuals, Australian intellectuals, public intellectuals, and students.

For Sorbera, the film provides the opportunity to inform those who may not have prior knowledge of the issues explored in these films. For this, she says, an open mind is the most important tool.