Photo courtesy of Anne-Marie Scheepers
The experience of women in Arab and German societies may be worlds apart, but that did not stop filmmakers from both cultures from joining together last weekend to share their vision of female empowerment at the Goethe Institute Heritage Film Festival.
The HFF returned to Abu Dhabi last weekend for three nights of screenings and panel discussions with local and international directors on the theme of Strong Women.
Despite torrential rain causing the opening night to be cut short, the festival was attended by a diverse mix of industry professionals, students, filmmakers and members of the public in its new home at Saadiyat Island’s Manarat al Saadiyat complex.
Each night a selection of short films, documentaries and features was followed by a question and answer session with the directors. The screenings and discussions were led by Goethe Institute-trained young professionals with an interest in cinema as part of the Institute’s broader initiative to help construct a wider culture of film directors and spokespersons in the region.
Each year curators from both Germany and the UAE select a program of recent short films, documentaries and feature films that explore issues relevant to their home societies. Previous incarnations have included “Homeland and Identity” and “The Young and the Old.”
This year the role went to Saleh al Karama Al Amri of Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Philipp Braüer of Max-Ophüls Film Festival. The range of films presented across both cultures showed clear aesthetic and thematic differences in the treatment of the theme.
The German selection included gritty, documentary-style explorations of women navigating the challenges of both the professional and sporting worlds. One of the more provocative selections, Stephanie Olthoff’s short film “Point of no Return,” makes an attempt to challenge Germany’s legal process in the treatment of domestic violence victims.
A festival crowd-pleaser was young German director Stephan Altrichter’s “Aleyna — Little Miss Neukölln,” a short documentary that traces the journey of obese, 11-year-old Turkish immigrant Aleyna as she battles issues of race and self-confidence to build a career in professional Bollywood dancing.
Still in the early days of public discussion on women’s issues, the Gulf films turned their attention instead to the experience of females within the home, their heritage and their relationships. “The Pillars,” directed by Emirati Moustafa Zakaria, created a lyrical evocation of gender equality within the framework of the Five Pillars of Islam, while the short film “Ten Hours” explored the fine line between submission and strength faced by an Emirati woman in a doomed relationship.
Unexpected humor was found in the kung-fu movie style of “Black and White” by director from Dubai and television personality Omar Butti, while the opening night’s “The Gamboo3a Revolution” provided a hilarious insight into the origins and implications of the hair clip placed by young women under their sheila or abaya to create a dramatic beehive hairdo, which is said to contradict the headscarf’s purpose of dressing modestly.
NYUAD freshman Maddie Moore, who attended Sunday night’s screenings, was impressed by Emirati cinema’s efforts to stimulate discussion on the role of women.
“I appreciated the Arab attempt to confront gender differences,” Moore said. “I also enjoyed the breadth of themes and interpretations of what a strong woman is.”
However, Moore expressed some disappointment at the regional cinema’s reluctance to approach more challenging aspects of female experience — a consequence of both directorial and curatorial constraints in what is still a new and fairly conservative film culture.
Now in its third edition, the Festival was founded in 2011 as a vehicle for artistic dialogue between the Gulf region and Germany on issues of cross-cultural significance. It joins a string of recent cultural initiatives such as Tropfest Arabia and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival seeking to increase the visibility of cinema arts in the region.
However, it differs dramatically from the standard international festival format in that the selection criteria are not based on a feature’s critical or commercial promise.
“The Festival is rather unique in that it is a purely cultural initiative without any competition among the films,” said Goethe Institute’s cultural programmer Maya Roeder. “It is more about creating a platform for young talent from the Emirates to showcase their work alongside films of young and established German filmmakers.”
Roeder hopes that by stimulating discussion around the similarities and differences of two very different social and cinematic cultures, the Festival will help to build social and cultural bonds between Germany and the Arab world — a matter of particular significance at a time when the Gulf region is increasingly opening itself to the West and Europe’s Islamic population continues to grow.
Omnia Elafifi, the Dubai-based co-director of “Ten Hours” who attended the festival is pleased to see festivals such as these stimulating important discussions in the region.
“People still consider women weak and unable to perform some of the duties that men can,” Elafifi said. “As an Arab female filmmaker trying to find jobs in the UAE, [I’ve found that] most filmmaking jobs only emphasized recruiting men.”
Born in Egypt and educated in film and multimedia design at the American University of Sharjah, Elafifi’s first short film was selected for presentation at the Cannes Film Festival.
“I got the acceptance letter and that kind of gave me a push to do more films,” Elafifi said. “It also showed me that everything is possible if you work hard for it. Now I have my films screening around the globe, and my latest short will be showing at Cannes again this year.”
As a young, talented female working in the UAE, Elafifi feels strongly about the future of women in the local film industry — a gender obstacle that has long fallen out of relevance in Germany, with the success of female filmmakers including Helke Sander and Margarethe Von Trotta.
“People should look at me as a filmmaker and not just as a woman,” Elafifi said. “I hope in the future we don’t just see an improvement in technology but also an improvement in the general way of thinking.”
Her co-director, Mohammed Mamdouh, added that young Emirati directors should consider making the transition from their current focus on short film production to full-length features. Mamdouh, who has used festivals such as these to springboard from shorts to feature films, is currently in the production days of his first feature, “Moments of Fiction”.
While he stresses the difficulties involved in producing a full-length film, the up-and-coming director hopes young filmmakers will realize that the immense creative satisfaction is worth the effort.
“The transition from shorts to features has a lot to do with stamina,” Mamdouh said. “If you wake up every day, year after year, thinking about the same story, then you should certainly make it into a feature. The crucial thing is to make that transition and not wait for the perfect set of circumstances to come around.”
Isabelle Galet-Lalande is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.