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Beyond the Silver Screen

Lamya Rahman writes on the Arab Women Film Festival.

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Right now, the University of Sydney is host to the inaugral 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. The selection of films are intended to portray the diverse experiences into the often unseen 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. Sorbera says the films emphasise 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 styles and subject matter, are highly political at their core. Having access to these opinions and views by notable Arab women is a rare opportunity for those of us living in the West.

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

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 that reflections religious tensions set during the civil war in Lebanon. Nadia Kamel’s Salata Baladi (2008) is a multi-award winning documentary that addresses the migration of Egyptian Jews to Israel. 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 Sorbera says these five films were deliberately chosen for their political themes. She says, “in a time where the Arab World has become a central topic in Western media, it is important to understand that what is happening today is part of a long 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.”

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.

The Arab Women Film Festival offers recourse to misguided public perception. It allows stories of Arab women and the Middle East to be communicated in a way that is not simplified for a Western audience. The stories of these filmmakers are refreshingly diverse, unapologetic, and powerful.

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 to the film festival’s 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. “Going into these films, an open mind is the most important tool.”